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Another Set of Northumbrian Smallpipes Leaves the Workshop

I’ve just finished another keyless set .  It’s a lovely set with three drones in blackwood, imitation ivory and silver plated metal work.  Composite reeds were requested which are nice and punchy and the chanter sounds great with them.  Here’s a video-

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

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




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

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 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 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

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

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