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Interview in the Northumbrian Pipers Society Journal

Back in 2016 I was interviewed for an article for the Journal of the Northumbrian Pipers Society.  Here’s the interview which gives some history about how I got into piping and pipemaking and who helped me along the way.  I’m very grateful for all the help I’ve received – people have been so generous.
1) You first surfaced as an NPS member whilst living at Leaplish up at
Kielder. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to the pipes, where
you’re from, and so on.
I’d been playing for a year or so before then.  I moved up to the North East when I left university.  We used to live in Whickham and I married my wife Lynda, in 2000.  I’m not keen on wearing jewellery and didn’t want a wedding ring, so I asked for a set of pipes instead!  I’d seen David Burleigh featuring on a local TV programme so we went to visit him and placed an order.

2) Did you play other instruments before, or have other musical interests?
I’d played the usual crop of instruments and even sang in the Church choir as a child.  I learned to play the piano and recorder when I was young and the guitar as a student and wanted to learn something new.  I’d always been aware of the pipes but didn’t know a great deal about them.  I think there are a lot of benefits to starting early in life.  I find I can now find my way around most instruments fairly quickly, and bash out a simple tune or two!

2a) (whoops) – who taught you the pipes? How have you found your
interaction with the piping / competition world in terms helpfulness,
progress  etc
When we picked up my set from David he asked if I had a teacher.  He offered to teach me himself, but thought  perhaps it was too far to travel.  Instead, he gave me Roland Lofthouse’s number.  I rang Roland who kindly agreed to take me under his wing and I went to him every fortnight for a year or so.  I really appreciated his tuition.  Nearly all the tunes were new to me and he gave me a really good technical grounding and established a good traditional repertoire.
We then moved up to Kielder.  I was managing an outdoor centre there and I wasn’t able to visit Roland anymore.  We started a family and with two young girls and a busy job I stopped playing too.  One day, my eldest daughter asked me about my set and why I didn’t play them any more, and she said I should start playing again.  So, after a gap of several years I started to play at home and then saw the Whitley Bay course advertised.  I thought this would offer a good route back into playing and might help me make some connections, so I went along and had a great week.
Andy May and Chris Ormston were tutoring and both offered different but appealing approaches, so I went along to see each of them for lessons occasionally.
As with most pipers, when people find out you can play they ask to hear.  I’d really only been playing at home until this point, but wanted to be a confident enough player to play in public and thought the competitions would be a great way to do this.  With this in mind I entered the intermediate and a couple of open class events in 2015 with some success!

3) Tell us a bit about pipers who kayak, or kayakers who pipe! Are you
the only one? You seem to be playing the fiddle as well now, and fit
that in on Shetland courses!
mmm..  I think I’m the only one who plays the Northumbrian pipes although I know of a couple who play the Scottish pipes.  But there are plenty of musical kayakers.  I’ve been on sea kayak or canoe trips to lots of places and we’ve had memorable campfire sessions in Alaska, Norway and throughout Europe.  The pipes aren’t very portable though, so it’s usually been a whistle which can be easily packed away.  I’ve made a lot of good friends in Shetland and many of the sea kayakers play the fiddle.  I started to play the fiddle a couple of years ago to help my daughter learn.  It’s always had the reputation as a difficult instrument, but I found it relatively easy probably as a result of learning to play the pipes!

4) What made you decide to start making pipes. Obviously kayaking must
be a seasonal thing: do the two mesh together well?
I started maintaining my own pipes almost straight away.  After playing for a month or so, one of the cane drone reeds started playing up.  I diligently followed the written instructions which came with my set and passed the reed through the flame of a candle.  After I’d stamped out the flaming piece of carbonised cane and run my fingers under the cold tap I decided it would be useful to learn how to make my own.  I started by copying what I had and soon got the hang of it.
One day, Andy May asked if I was interested in making pipes and I dismissed the idea but I think a seed was planted.  By the time Julia organised a bag making workshop with Jackie Boyce I had already started to make chanter reeds.  I’d reached the stage where I could make the bags and I could make the reeds, so I only needed to fill in the gap between them and I’d have a full set!  It seemed like a logical step to make.

5) What skills did you have beforehand – and what have you had to do a
crash course in?
The main asset I have is a believe that we can all more or less learn how to do whatever we want to if we get on with it.  I’d already learnt how to use lathes and other workshop machinery at school, and my Father had taught me a lot of practical skills too.  I visited Julia, Barry and Andy for start up advice and a shopping list and set up a workshop in my garage.  Luckily, I enjoy problem solving.  For my first set I used the information on Mike Nelsons website and spent 95% of my time head scratching and 5% actually making.

6)  Pipe design and style – what are you hoping to go for? How do you
view the functionality v. aesthetic debate?
My first set was definitely functionality – could I make something that works?  When I knew could I started to think about the aesthetics.  My own taste is for something fairly traditional looking but without being too ornate.  I like a more delicate look too.  The look of my sets is still evolving as I think through new ideas or am inspired by something I’ve seen.  Now, the functionality is paramount, but much of my motivation comes from the pleasure of making something which looks good.

7) Have other pipemakers been helpful – who did you talk to / get
lessons from?
Yes, very helpful.  I was able to see David Burleigh and Colin Ross at work before I started making, and Julia and Barry Say and Andy May have all been really helpful.  Richard Evans and Francis Wood have offered remote advice too which is very much appreciated.  I think most have gone through the same problem solving process as I have, and we’ve often come up with out own pragmatic solutions and preferences.

8) How easy was it to assemble the necessary equipment and materials?
It was very easy.  The main purchase was a lathe.  Once I knew what to look for I went to look at several second hand ones.  Most were deathtraps and best avoided.  I decided not to buy a cheap one offered to me when I counted the number of fingers the owner had and noticed that I had more.  But Andy pointed me to a dealer in South Shields.  They had a few in stock and I was able to buy one there and then.  I bought some materials from the NSP pipe making stock for two sets but now source all materials directly.  Most of the materials  are readily available and many of the tools are standard.  There are some specialist tools needed, but these are often adapted from existing ones or made from scratch, and not too complicated.

9) What are your plans for the future?
I’ve just moved to Byrness and have set my workshop there.  Kayaking is seasonal, and often means working weekends so I do have plenty of time for pipe making.  I have orders for sets ready to go and people are coming to me for fettling too, so I’m just going to carry on doing what I’m doing, but aim to do it better.
Things have moved on a lot since this interview, so for more information about the Northumbrian Smallpipes contact

How to Season a Leather Smallpipe Bag

The bags I make are made with a leather which is made airtight during the tanning process.  This means that it doesn’t need any additional seasoning.  However, when I’m asked to fettle pipes I’m quite often faced with a porous bag which leaks air.  There are two solutions.  The first is to replace the bag with a new one.  The second is to season the bag to make it airtight.  If the bag is in otherwise good condition then seasoning can often prevent the need to replace the bag.  In this article we’ll look at how I make the seasoning and apply it to the bag.

Northumbrian small pipes are bellows blown rather than mouth blown.  This means the air flowing through the bag is relatively dry and the pipe bag seasoning is different from that used in mouth blown bagpipes.  The dressing used in Smallpipe bags doesn’t have to absorb moisture nor protect the bag from rotting over time. It’s therefore realitively easy to make a suitable dressing as its only role is to block any pores in the leather and keep it airtight.

Seasoning Ingredients

Northumbrian Pipes Bag Seasoning

I make my bag seasoning from the following ingredients-

  • 25g of Beeswax
  • 25g Violin Rosin
  • 25g Vaseline
  • 250ml of Liquid Paraffin Mineral Oil
  • Melt The Ingredients Together in a Tin

    • All of the ingredients are heated in a tin or old saucepan until they have all melted and mixed together.  Be careful – the mixture is highly inflammable and very hot, so leather gloves are a good idea to prevent burns to your hands.

Seasoning the Pipes Bag

With the bag cover removed and all of the removable parts taken out, the bag will just have its stocks in place.  I seal the drone stock holes and blowpipe stock hole with blue tac, and have another piece of blue tac ready to seal the chanter stock hole.

When the seasoning is ready pour about 250ml or the mixture into the bag through the chanter stock.  With a good pouring container this is easy if done with care (remember to wear your protective gloves).  If you need to, you might find a small funnel helps.  Now seal the chanter stock with the blue tac and manipulate the bag to spread the seasoning throughout the bag.  I start by holding it seam edge down and tipping the bag back and fore to spread the seasoning along the inside of the seam.  Then I’ll hold the bag flat and spread the seasoning over the internal faces of the bag.  You can often tell if you’ve reached all areas by feeling the temperature of the leather – it will be warmer where the seasoning has reached.  If needed I add additional seasoning.

Inflate the Bag and Leave to Cool

Next, lay the bag flat and rub/massage the leather so the top side of the bag moves against the bottom side.  This will help ensure the seasoning is fully distributed.  Pay special attention to the seam area.  Next, inflate the bag.  You can do this by refitting the blowpipe and using the bellows.  I inflate it to a high pressure and keep it at that pressure to help force the seasoning into the pores of the leather from the inside. This should be easy to do now as the bag should be fully airtight.  I’ll leave the bag like this as it cools.

Once cool and I’m happy that it’s airtight, I’ll remove the blue tac and carefully clean any seasoning from the holes in the stocks.  This is important as the seasoning will have congealed like soft butter now and needs to be kept away from the reeds when the set is re-assembled.  When clean, the set is re-assembled and is ready to play.

For more information about Northumbrian Pipes contact

How to Adjust Northumbrian Smallpipes Cane Drone Reeds

Cane Drone Reed

Northumbrian Pipes usually have cane chanter reeds, but the materials used to make the drone reeds are quite diverse.  Composite reeds often have brass or wooden bodies and either plastic or cane tongues.   Wood and metal tongues have also been  used and recently, people have experimented with carbon fibre.  The quest is on to find the material combination which gives the most stable drone with the nicest tone.

Although composite drone reeds can be very stable, many people find them rather loud and have described their tone as being perhaps harsher than reeds made from natural materials.  For this reason, many people still prefer the tone and volume only achieved when using cane drone reeds.

Cane drone reeds do take some practice to make and set up properly.  However, when set up they should stay in tune and play at an appropriate pressure indefinitely. However, environmental factors or knocks may lead to the need to make small adjustments from time to time.

The main reason you might wish to adjust your drone reeds is that they aren’t playing at a comfortable playing pressure.  You will know this because they either shut off and fall silent after you start them up but before you reach normal playing pressure, or that they don’t sound or start up at all.  It is possible that the problem you’re having with them might be temporary so do give them a chance to settle to your playing environment for a couple of days before making any adjustments.  Before you make any changes it’s wise to check a few things-

  • Is the drone airtight – make sure there are no leaks where the drone meets the stock, where the slide meets the standing part or around the tuning beads or piston.
  • Is there any damage to the drone – check for cracks and breaks.
  • Is the reed seated firmly in the drone?

Sucking Through a Cane Drone Reed

Rolling a Cane Drone Reed

Once you have made these checks it’s worth checking to see if you can coax the reed to play before you make any adjustments.  To do this, remove the sliding part from the drone and suck.  You can adjust your sucking pressure and try to get the drone started.

If this doesn’t work, try rolling the reed vigorously for a few seconds between the palms of your hands.  After this, repeat the sucking process.  It’s worth repeating these two steps several times before moving on.

Adjusting Playing Pressure.

As cane is a natural material, it is affected by temperature and humidity and the aperture between the tongue and the body of the reed may open or close. If this happens, the pressure needed to make the reed sound will change and the reed will be out of balance with the pressure needed for the rest of the set.

 Opening the Tongue Aperture

Opening a Cane Drone Reed

If the reed starts to play at low pressure but then shuts off before full playing pressure is reached, the tongue has closed and needs to be opened slightly.  This can be done by gently lifting the tongue until slight resistance is felt. Repeating this a few times will open the tongue and increase the air pressure needed for the reed to play.



Closing the Tongue Aperture

Closing a Cane Drone Reed

If the reed doesn’t sound properly at playing pressure, the reed may have opened, the pressure needed is too great and the tongue needs to be closed slightly.  Hold the reed horizontally in front of you, with the reed tongue on the bottom as in the picture on the left. Hold the tongue closed with your thumb and gently warm the hinge area of the tongue. This can be done by holding it about 15cm above a candle for a few seconds. When the reed feels warm (but still comfortable to touch) move away from the heat and keep the tongue held closed for 30 seconds while the reed cools. This should reset the tongue in a more closed position and reduce the air pressure needed for it to sound.

Be patient

You may find you have to repeat or combine these operations over a few days until things stabilise, and you may also find that the pitch of the drone changes with the pressure.  That’s fine, because you usually need to set the playing pressure before setting the pitch.  However, if you are using a reed that previously was fine you will probably find that the pitch is still within the acceptable range for the drone and you can retune it by adjusting the drone sliding part.  With patience, hopefully you will have coaxed your cane drone reed back to its rich, soft tone.

If you need any more information please contact me on

How to Look After Northumbrian Smallpipes

‘Rules’ for looking after Northumbrian Smallpipes

A well maintained set of Northumbrian Pipes will last a lifetime. If they are played, handled and stored correctly you will protect them from damage and they should only ever need minor maintenance to keep them in top condition.  However, it’s important to inspect them regularly and carry out a few checks to head off any problems.  There are also a few ‘rules’ it’s wise to follow to help avoid accidents.  Do remember that your pipes are very fragile so look after them well.


Northumbrian Smallpipes are safest when stored in a case. The delicate drones and chanter can be protected wrapped in clean cloths and inserted into plastic tubes. I recommend you use these whenever your pipes are not being played. Protect your pipes from excessive cold and heat, avoid storing them in direct sunlight or extremes of humidity.  Never put them down where they might be damaged.  People have put them on chairs where they have been sat on, or on beer tables in pubs where they have been spilt on.

If you are moving from one environment to another, the change might affect the reeds and they might need a short amount of time to settle down and play in tune.


Support the Pipes and the Stocks

Always handle with care. Handle your pipes by the two main stocks (the Chanter and Drone Stock) near the bag, and always support the chanter.  Do not let it dangle freely as it may fall from its stock and break. Do not lift the set just by the bag, the drones or the chanter.

Regular Checks

The joints holding the drones and chanter into their stocks should be tight enough so nothing moves but not so tight that they jam. Check them often.  The drone slides should slide easily to tune them, but should be tight enough to be air tight. The end caps are all held on with bindings and are not usually glued (unless you have a Burleigh set). With any set, some compression of the bindings is may occur and they may work loose. As the joints are made from wood and wood changes size with humidity, over time the bindings might loosen too. If they do you can wind a length of cotton thread (usually waxed lightly with bees wax) to make them hold again.


Following these simple ‘rules’ will prolong the life of your pipes and hopefully avoid any damage.  For more information about Northumbrian Smallpipes contact

How to Adjust Northumbrian Smallpipes Chanter Reeds

Northumbrian Pipes Chanter Reed

Once set up in the chanter, a Northumbrian Pipes reed will hopefully be trouble free. However, they are affected by knocks, temperature and humidity and they made need some settling in time in a new environment.

The Chanter reed is made from Arundo Donax. This is a natural material. There are two vibrating blades and the opening between them is carefully set. This opening may open up or close down, or the pitch may change slightly depending on the environment you play in. This is normal and one of the challenges all Northumbrian Pipers live with!

If either your chanter reed goes out of playing condition for any length of time they may need some minor adjustment.




The reed needs to be positioned correctly within the chanter so that the chanter plays in tune. This can be confirmed by checking the octave between the top and bottom G notes.

  • If the top G is too sharp compared to the bottom G the reed needs to be positioned further out of the chanter.  You may need to add a couple of wraps of waxed thread around the Staple (the metal tube) at the base of the reed then re-insert it in the chanter.
  • If the top G is too flat compared to the bottom G the reed needs to be positioned further in to the chanter.  You may need to take away some of the thread wrapped around the staple.

There are two vibrating blades and the opening between them at the tip is carefully set. However, this aperture may open up or close down, or the pitch may change slightly depending on the environment you play in. This is normal and one of the challenges all Northumbrian Pipers live with!

If the Chanter will only sound at high pressure the aperture has opened and needs to be closed slightly.

Before you make any changes it’s wise to check a few things-

  • Is the Chanter airtight – make sure there are no leaks where the Chanter meets the stock, the end cap, from your fingers or the key pads.
  • Is there any damage to the Chanter or Chanter Stock – check for cracks and breaks.
  • Is the reed seated firmly in the Chanter?

Closing The Aperture of a Smallpipe Chanter Reed

Northumbrian Pipes Reed Adjustment

Hold the metal wire bridle around the base of the reed and gently squeeze your fingers and thumbs together. This will close the aperture slightly.








If the Chanter reed cuts out before full playing pressure is reached the reed has closed and needs to be opened slightly.

Opening the Aperture of a Smallpipe Chanter Reed

Northumbrian Pipes Reed Adjustment

Hold the sides of the metal wire bridle gently (you might need some pliers). Gently squeeze and the aperture will open slightly.



Both of these operations are very delicate and it’s easy to damage a reed is they are done too roughly.  Ideally, the first time you do this you will be guided by someone who already knows how to do it.  However, if you are careful you can learn to do this safely and if done properly either or both can be carried out, testing the reed as you go, until you have the reed adjusted to your liking.

For further information about Northumbrian Smallpipes contact

Fettling Reid Northumbrian Smallpipes

Reid Northumbrian Pipes

Northumbrian Pipes by Robert Reid

Robert Reid (1784–1837) is widely acknowledged as the creator of the modern form of the Northumbrian Smallpipes. He lived and worked at first in Newcastle upon Tyne, but moved later to the nearby town of North Shields at the mouth of the Tyne, probably in 1802.  The Reids were a family with a long-standing connection to piping; Robert’s father Robert Reed, a cabinet maker, had been a player of the Northumbrian big-pipes, and an associate of James Allan, his son Robert was described later by James Fenwick as a beautiful player as well as maker of smallpipes, while Robert’s son James (1814–1874) joined his father in the business. Robert died in North Shields on the 13th or 14th of January 1837, and his death notice in the Newcastle Journal referred to him as a “piper, and as a maker of such instruments is known from the peer to the peasant, for the quality of their tone, and elegance of finish”. He is buried in the graveyard of Christ Church, North Shields.




Reid Northumbrian Smallpipes

Its estimated that perhaps seventy sets of his pipes exist, and occasionally I’m asked to fettle a set.  The set I’m working on at the moment is a lovely three drone set, and the chanter has seven keys.  One of the first jobs is to clean it up.  Over the years dirt accumulates in the bore and around the keys.  Eventually, this builds up and effects the sound and mechanics of the set.






Dirt removed from the keys

Thankfully, it’s quite easy to remove it with tissue paper and cotton buds.  The amount shown in the photograph is just from a few of the keys.







Northumbrian Pipes Chanter End Plug

In the Base of the Chanter was a short dowel plug.  A plug is often inserted in the chanter to help eradicate random harmonics which can affect the tuning.  Now, most of these are plugs made from cotton wool so it was interesting to see one made from wood.

I still have a lot of work to do on these pipes so will update with progress as the work continues.

For more information on Northumbrian Pipes contact

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