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Making smallpipe chanter reeds by hand

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Printable PDF: Making smallpipe chanter reeds by hand

The chanter reeds in all our Scottish Smallpipes are the same size, and made in the same way as those for the Northumbrian Smallpipes.

My notes were originally written to accompany an informal demonstration of reed making, and were never intended to be a definitive workshop guide, though I have since included some extra details and photos. Most of the procedures follow an accepted standard. The drawings are representational and not necessarily to scale. While professional tools and machines are available, this guide is intended to show how reed making can be undertaken using the minimum of specialist equipment.

Note added September 2011: I have recently made changes to some of my techniques, especially with regard to fitting the slips to the staple. Updates in highlighted text.

Look upon this as a virtual tour through the eyes of one reed maker. I hope to give you some insight into the care and effort that goes into the making of a chanter reed. You may even feel inspired to have a go at making your own. At the very least, you will know that a good chanter reed is worth looking after!

Tube Cane (L. Arundo Donax)
This can be obtained direct from the grower, a specialist company, or bought in small quantities from woodwind suppliers. Ask for bassoon cane. A kilo gives you quite a lot of pieces, about 180mm or so long by 25mm diameter. Its best to share between a few people if you don't make many reeds, as I find the quality of the cane can deteriorate in time. I store mine in a sealed plastic bag, though opinions on this (and many other things) differ widely!

If the tubes are long enough, cut into two pieces, each piece being 90 - 95mm in length. With shorter tubes you will have some waste.
With the tube upright, split with a chisel into several pieces, each about 13mm wide.

Please note that my personal preference is NOT to soak the cane at any stage.

Gouging by hand
Thin down each piece (hard side down) using a sharp gouge and a gouging block. Shave off a little of the excess (the pith) at a time and let the gouge follow the natural grain of the cane. Keep turning the piece round and looking at the ends, and hold it up to a strong light at intervals to ensure even gouging. The finished slip should be a minimum of about 0.6mm in thickness, and mine are usually nearer 0.75mm. Smooth off the inside of the gouged cane slip with a piece of fine abrasive paper wrapped around a short piece of dowel (broomshank will do).

even gouge thickness across width

Experiment if necessary with the diameter of the dowel to produce an even finish along the length and width of the slip.

tube cane splitting the cane gouging on a block
checking gouge progress smoothing the inside of the slip smoothing the inside of the slip

This early stage is crucial to the quality of the reed, and needs a lot of practice.
Trim the edges of the cane slips so that they are 11mm wide, and make sure the edges are parallel and straight - use a piece of sand paper on a flat surface. Some sort of width gauge may save time.
Lightly sand the inner edges of the slip on a flat surface - this helps to make an airtight seal when the slip is later folded.
Supporting the slip on the dowel, mark and trim each end to a point, to a depth of 16mm. Use a craft knife with a very sharp blade, and rock the blade forward and back slightly as you press down to cut.
*I now coat each end of the pointed slips on the inner surface with superglue and leave to dry, for reasons which will become apparent later*

sanding edges of trimmed slip end view of gouged and trimmed slip flattening the inner edges
trimming the points the shaped slip glue the ends

Folding. *(This doesn't show in the photo, but I now sand, or scrape off the hard shiny top layer on the middle section of the slip to make folding slightly easier)*
FOR ALTERNATIVE METHOD DESCRIBED LATER, LIGHTLY SCRAPE THE SHINY SURFACE OFF THE WHOLE LENGTH OF THE SLIP Using the dowel for support, mark the centre of the slip and press the knife blade down enough to score but not cut. This must be at right angles to the long edges of the slip. Gently but firmly fold the slip in half. The edges should meet and line up. If they don't, the reed won't work well. Try not to break the slip into two separate pieces, but use the fold as a hinge and keep the edges together with a few turns of thread (I wax it a little as well). Tie off firmly, but not so tight that it can't be moved later on.

scoring for the fold starting to fold completing the fold
  ready for the staple  

Richard & Anita Evans

Makers of Northumbrian and Scottish Smallpipes