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Repairing a Broken Chanter

I received a phone call last week from a piper who had had an accident with their pipes.  The pipes were safely on a table but somehow a book fell off the shelf above and landed on the chanter, snapping it into several pieces.

Broken Chanter

Northumbrian Smallpipes are very delicate, and if they do break it’s often across a weak spot near the top of the chanter.  The walls of the chanter are only a couple of millimeters thick here and the break often crosses through two tone holes where the chanter is weakest.

The Chanter is Broken in Three Places

In addition to the break across the neck of the chanter, one of the key blocks had broken away.  There were also several chip fragments which the owner had collected up and posted to me too.

After evaluating the damage, I checked to see if I had all of the parts.  It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle working out where all the smaller parts fit.  The breaks were quite jagged.  This is a good thing as it provides a large surface area which gives a better chance of the adhesive taking and should result in a stronger repair.

A question the back of my mind was the longevity of any repair I could do.  As well as being perhaps the weakest point on the chanter, this is perhaps the area where most force is applied when taking the chanter in and out of the chanter stock too.  It would be no good if I completed the repair only to have it fail when the chanter was used.

I considered several options.  The simplest was to use an adhesive and then use a combination of wood dust and glue and gentle sanding to get as near to an invisible repair as possible.  More complicated repairs might involve making and inserting a new piece into the break after cutting back some of the broken area.  The chanter would then be re-bored and finished externally.  This involves much more work but could give a stronger repair in some circumstances.  As a last resort, the keys could be saved and re-used and a new wooden part made.

After much thought I decided to go ahead with an adhesive repair.  The break was quite jagged and ran along the chanter rather than straight across.  This presented a relatively large surface area for the adhesive to bond which would be relatively strong.  When I fitted the pieces together without glue, they actually held together very well and supported their own weight, so I was confident that an adhesive repair would do the job.

I spent some time practicing putting the pieces together without any glue.  It was like putting together a three dimensional jigsaw, and there was a definite order which had to be followed to get all the pieces to fit together properly.  I then decided a CA Glue would be the best to use.  A very thin layer is used on close fitting surfaces.  It does not fill spaces like an epoxy does, but dries quickly and results in a very strong bond.  This is where practicing assembling the repair comes in, as once the glue is applied I would only have one chance to put each piece in place accurately.

Initial Bonding Complete

This part of the repair went well.  All the parts fitted together well and the time spent practicing assembling the chanter had paid off.  After gluing it back together I left the chanter for a couple of hours to give the adhesive a chance to bond fully.

After the Repair had Stabilized

Now that the repair was stable I needed to finish it cosmetically.  Some hair lines were visible where the break had been repaired and there were some imperfections in the surface.

These were addressed through a combination of adding material and sanding material away.  Material can be added by applying a thin layer of CA glue to area which needs building up and adding Blackwood dust while the glue is still wet.  The finer the dust the better, and layers can be built up until enough material has been added.  The area is left to dry and then sanded with very fine sand paper.  I use 600 grit but change to 1200 grit to get a really smooth finish.

With care, this produces an almost invisible repair.  Once this has been done I can complete the cosmetic finish by polishing the area with a small buffing wheel.  The end result was really good and I was very pleased, but my work wasn’t finished yet.

The next step was to check the bore.  I probed it very gently checking for micro-steps in it’s smooth surface, and very gently reamed any out.  The final part of the repair was to refit the keyswhich I had removed from the wooden parts before carrying out the repair.  Finally, it was the moment of truth – I fitted a reed and tested it out.

I was delighted – it played beautifully and had a lovely tone.  The tuning was fine and the repair was complete.  And now for the best part – I could ring the owner and let them know that the repair had been successful.  They were overjoyed!  They had bought the chanter new from the well respected Pipemaker Bill Hedworth in the late 1960’s.  They had then taken it to Colin Ross for tuning and finishing so it had a good pedigree and they had been playing it ever since.

The Repaired Chanter – Front

The Repaired Chanter – Back

For more information on Northumbrian Pipe Repairs contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk.

Composite Drone Reed Adjustment

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 the find the material combination which gives the best drone reed!  The design I use is very stable and here I will describe how to make any adjustments you might need.  Reeds of other designs can be adjusted by following the same principles.

If your drones reeds have been made for  your pipes, 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.

If you have bought new reeds and need to set them up in your own pipes you might need to make some small adjustments to make them play at their best in your set.

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.  The next most common reason to adjust them is because they don’t play at the correct pitch.  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?

The reed design I make allows you to adjust either or both of the playing pressure of the reed and its pitch. All adjustments should be made in very small increments (less than 1mm at a time) as small changes can have big results. You might like to mark the position of the reed tongue and bridle on the body of the reed before making any changes. This allows you to put everything back as close to its original position as possible if necessary. If the reed doesn’t play, it might just need a little encouragement so try gently pulling up on the tongue a few times, and suck through the open end to get it going.

If you need to adjust pressure and pitch, always adjust pressure first.

Adjusting Playing Pressure.

The reed is set to play at a comfortable pressure (approximately 12” Water Pressure). If the reed starts to play but then shuts off before playing pressure is reached, the tongue needs to be opened slightly. If the pressure needed for the reed to play is too great the tongue needs to be closed slightly.

Hold the reed horizontally in front of you, with the reed tongue on top as in the picture. You will see that on the left the reed tongue is loose and there is a small gap between it and the body of the reed. The size of the gap is set by the position of the bridle ring which dictates where the reed tongue meets the body of the reed. To close the tongue slightly, move the bridle to the left. To open it slightly, move the bridle to the right.

Although this adjustment is done to manage playing pressure, you may notice a resulting change in pitch. If this can’t be managed by adjusting the drone sliders, then you may need to move on and adjust the pitch.

Adjusting Pitch

This is controlled by the length of the tongue from its bridle to its loose tip. If you wish to lower the pitch of the reed, make the tongue longer by pushing it to the left from its fixed end so that it moves under the bridle. Make sure the bridle doesn’t move when doing this or the playing pressure may change.

If you wish to raise the pitch, you need to shorten the tongue by sliding it under its bridle to the right. You can do this by holding the bridle in place and pushing the flat surface of the tongue with your thumb. Do not push the loose end of the tongue and it may bend out of shape.

Be patient
You may find you have to repeat or combine these operations over a few days until things stabilise, but with care you’ll soon have the reed set up how you like it.

For more information about the Northumbrian Pipes contact Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk



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 Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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 Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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 Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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