Tag Archives | Northumbrian small pipes

How to Make Northumbrian Smallpipe Chanter Reeds

Northumbrian Pipes chanter reeds have been in demand a lot recently.  Quite a few people have ordered them and I’m also making them for sets I’m fettling and the sets I’m making too.  I usually make them up by doing each step in batches as it’s quicker than making them individually.

Gouging the Cane

Thinning the centre and Shaping the Ends

With the cane split the first step is to gouge the cane to the required thickness.  Then I need to thin the centre part as this will be form the lips of the finished reed.  Once this is done the reed slip is folders in half.  At the same time I’ll shape the ends as this is where the cane will be fixed to the staple.

The staple is a piece of metal tube which plugs the reed into the chanter.  The staple is inserted in between the shaped reed ends and then whipped on with thread.  Once this is done I’ll leave the reed to rest for 24 hours.

The next step is the thin the lips of the blades through a combination of sanding and scraping.  This takes some time and every reed is different so there is no set thickness or measurement to work to.  Instead, I test the reed by sucking through it until it sounds right.

Finally, the reed is finished off by testing it in a good chanter and any final sanding is done until it plays well.

If you’d like more information about how this is done, then you can watch some videos showing these steps here.

Contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Folded Cane Slip and Staple

Northumbrian Pipes Chanter Reed

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 Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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 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

Northumbrian Pipes

‘Because He Was A Bonny Lad’ played on Northumbrian Smallpipes

Here’s a quick tune on a set I finished last year.

For more information on Northumbrian Smallpipes contact me on Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Northumbrian Pipes Refurbishment

Replacing Artificial Ivory on Northumbrian Smallpipes

Northumbrian Smallpipes Ivory Replacement

It’s now illegal in the UK to buy or sell most items containing ivory.  Many historical set of Northumbrian Smallpipes were made with ivory end caps and fittings, and increasingly I’m being asked to replace these with artificial ivory.  Here’s a set of Northumbrian Smallpipes I’ve just finished work on.  The replacement parts can be seen fitted and in place with the original ivory parts on the table.

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

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