Tag Archives | smallpipes

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

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

Northumbrian Pipes Chanter

Four Key Northumbrian Smallpipes Chanter

Northumbrian Small Pipes Four Key Chanter

One of the earliest tune books for the Northumbrian Smallpipes, the Peacock Manuscript first published in 1800, refers to “A Compleat Drawing of J.PEACOCK’S New Invented Pipe Chanter with the addition of Four Keys”.

Recently, I was asked to make one of these Northumbrian Smallpipes chanters.  Few have been made as they were quickly superseded by the seven key Northumbrian Smallpipes chanter.  However, they are lovely smallpipes chanters and are a joy to play.

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

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