Making a Set Of Northumbrian Pipes

Making the Drones

There is no single ‘right way’ to make a set of pipes.  When I started making Pipes, I gained valuable advice, tips and guidance from many of our leading pipe makers. Problems were encountered and solutions worked out and it can take some time to reach the stage where you have practiced methods and processes for making sets. Processes continue to develop, and the methods and designs I work from change and evolve with almost every set, but it seems appropriate to share these to help anyone interested in pipe making either now or in the future.

Once the specification of a set has been agreed, the first step for me is to prepare all the wood. This is bought in various sizes so I cut pieces to slightly larger than I will need and label each piece so I know where it will fit in the set. I like to make sets from the bottom up, so I then start on the stocks.

For the stocks, I start with the sections of wood and the brass tubing to make the ferrules. The drone stock is the most complicated, but the steps to make it are straightforward.

Using the lathe, I roughly shape the stock and drill the sockets for the drones. The brass ferrule is tested for fit.

The outside of the stock is shaped.

The inside of the stock is hollowed to shape

Sanding and polishing completes the stock













Once the Stocks are completed, I start work on the drones themselves. This is where personal taste in design really starts to come through and drone design can be very helpful when trying to identify the maker of a particular set. My own taste is fairly simple and delicate, and I make two specifications of drone and the difference is purely in the amount of decoration. The drone in the next picture is a simple shaped piece of Blackwood, whereas my fully mounted sets have the addition of metal ferrules and imitation ivory mounts.

The standing part is bored and then shaped on the lathe

The sliding part of the drone can then be made. Again, a fully mounted set will have more decoration and I make these with wood lined ferrules, whereas the standard sets have a simple brass tube ferrule and less decoration.

Brass for the drone ferrules is shaped on the lathe

The drone sliding pieces have been bored and shaped. The cork lining for the tuning beads has been attached and wrapped with thread to hold them in place while the glue dries.











Drone End Caps

The next task is to make the drone end caps and piston rods. These have some of the very smallest parts of the sets – the washers to hold the waxed cotton in place which seals the drone off when the piston in closed. These are made from brass rod, drilled with a 2mm hole and shaped to fit the bore of the drone.

Once all the parts for the drones are made, I loosely assemble them to check everything fits, but leave the thread wrapping and final attachments and fittings until the whole set is finished and fitted to the bag.

A completed Fully Mounted drone set








Making The Chanter

Making the chanter for a set is very rewarding. One of the things I really enjoy about making pipes is the broad range of work to be completed. Wood needs to be bored and turned, key blocks formed, keys forged and fitted and the whole process requires high levels of concentration to ensure accuracy and a good end result.  Here, I’ll go through some methods you might employ to make a chanter.

Blanks for a 17 key set, two seven key sets, a four key set and two keyless sets

Previously, we looked at making the drones and the first stage of making the chanter is the same – I drill the bore through a wood blank and turn it to a cylinder on the lathe. For a keyed set, the next thing to do is narrow the blank down to the final diameter of the chanter, but leave the blocks on and in the right place for any keys to be added. Careful measurements are needed to ensure the key blocks are in the correct place, and this process can be started on the lathe.


Milling the excess block away, cutting key slots and tone holes.

I then refine the blocks, as they are not needed around the full circumference of the chanter, so I remove the excess using a router mounted on the lathe. This is also a good time to cut the key slots and drill the tone holes. Again, the utmost concentration is needed to make sure the right part of the block is cut away and the holes are accurately positioned.







The slot inserts glued in and drying.

I like to line the key slots with a metal insert. I’m sure in the long term this prevents wear and keeps the key true within its track (although there are many very old and well used sets which are just fine without this), but I do like the look of the linings so there’s an aesthetic element too. Very thin sheet metal is shaped to fit and is then glued in place. A wooden former is used to ensure a tight fit while the glue dries.


Phew ! All being well the holes and key blocks are all in the right places around and along the chanter. Now’s the time to relax, have a slice of cake and do something else as concentration levels have been high!
Once the glue is dry, I remove the wood former from the slots and file and sand the chanter to bring it to its final shape and finish.

Filing and Sanding to shape

Polished and ready for keys









Making Chanter Keys

Key making is next. I really enjoy making keys as each one is individually shaped and sculptured, not only to fit and work well but to look good too. It’s time consuming and can’t be rushed, but is a major part of how a finished chanter will look so is worth taking the time over.

Brass bar is cut to length. The end is hammered and filed to form the outline shape

Each key is filed to shape and tested for fit and the key pad is soldered on. The keys should look good as a set, not just individually

Springs are made and riveted to the key body









And that’s it! There’s still work to do – the pads need to be added, the reed fitted and the chanter voiced, but I like to do this when the set is assembled. For now, it’s time to put the chanter to one side and start work of the bellows and bag which will be covered in a future article.

7 Key Chanter




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