A major problem in piping is keeping the instrument in good tune. The greatest number of requests we get is for information on choice of reeds, setting of reeds and how to produce best tone.

Understandably, reed-makers are not all that desperate to reduce their incomes by teaching everybody to make his own reeds. However, before trying to answer the main problem, we feel all pipers should at least know how reeds are made. If anyone wants to go ahead and do the actual job, that is another matter.

Having understood the basics, the next stage — of manipulating reeds — should be a lot easier. David Kennedy, who makes reeds mainly for his own pleasure, has agreed to set the ball rolling.

By David V. Kennedy

The chanter reed for our pipe is not unlike reeds for the oboe, cor anglais and bassoon, or even the more ancient and bucolic instruments that use the double reed. In a discussion of our double-reed reed, it is sometimes difficult to know where to start. But since I’ve stated the word ‘basics’ I had better try to start at the very beginning.

Practically all single bladed reeds (clarinet, saxophone etc) and double bladed reeds are made from a species of reed or grass called Arundo Donax. Generally, this is referred to as ‘cane’ but generically it is not really cane. However, in this article I shall call it cane. Other materials can be and have been used to make reeds, including elder, boxwood, and even bamboo, and plastics. But to date, the most satisfactory material has been Arundo.

Reedmaking tools.
Reedmaking tools.

Commercial sources for this cane are specific areas in France and Spain, although climate and soil are quite satisfactory for its growth in parts of Mexico, California and, I assume South America and Asia. The cane should be harvested and cut at just the right time of the year and then matured for a while before being marketed.

When a piper is also his own reedmaker, he orders cane of a certain internal diameter from the supplier, and the cane comes as ‘tube cane’, hollow inside but with a wall thickness.

Tube cane as from retailer.

  The cane I get varies from 2.0cm I.D. (internal diameter) to 2.5cm I.D.

Sometimes the supplier will cut the tubes into fairly short lengths, but never so short that we cannot cut the tubes for the ‘blanks’ or ‘slips’. A blank or slip is a piece of cane cut to length and width, ready for final shaping.

The way shown to me to get these blanks is as follows:

(1) With a fine hacksaw, cut the tube into lengths of three inches or 31/8   inches.

(2) With a chisel split the tube longitudinally into four slips of three inches length.

Now we have four slips in an unprepared state which will eventually give us four chanter reeds, provided that we don’t make mistakes and also that the cane is not too brittle.

Now before going on with the discussion, I want to emphasise that the way that I make chanter reeds requires special tools and jigs. The chisels and gouges are razor sharp, and kept that way; so this is not job for a person who is not familiar with the handling of woodworking tools.

Sawing tube to required length.

Back to the slips! At this stage they now have the internal pith and {ie outside bark. So the first step I take is to remove most of the bark trom the curved slip. This is done by hand with one or two strokes of the chisel.

The slip is now turned over, and the pitch is gouged out until the slip is quite thin. Some reedmakers take it down to thickness 0.030 inches, but I take mine down to about 0.053 inches. Actually, I find that I gouge to the thickness of the ‘shapers’ I am going to use. But more about shapers later!

We now have a prepared slip of 3 (or 3%) inches length and about ¾ inches width.

Incidentally, some makers gouge the cane dry, but because of our extremely dry weather in Sacramento, California I wet up my slips before gouging them, but I don’t saturate the cane. The whole object in chiseling and gouging, apart from getting the correct dimensions is not to split the cane or the slip.

From this stage onward, there are two ways to go. But either way requires a bit more fret-sawing.

Quarter-rounding tube cane.

The classical way
This is the method used by reedmakers and instrumentalists for reeds in oboes, cor anglais, bassoons, contra-bassoons etc. The slip is scored at its halfway point: in our case this will be 1.5 inches. If, at that point, the cane is thin enough, the slip can be folded over so that we now have a double slip measuring 1.5 inches in length. This slip is now ready to be inserted into the shaper.

The other way
The slip is sawed in half. This gives us two half slips of 1.5 inches in length, which eventually will become the two blades of one chanter reed. Each slip is inserted separately into the shaper. In other words, we are going to shape one blade first, then the partner blade.

The shaper
The shaper for the piob mhor is generally as shown below:

I should stress that these are internal dimensions: and that the shaper is a specially designed tool. It is made up of two pieces of steel, which when closed together will give the 1.5 inch slip the shape and dimensions as above. Sometimes the two steel pieces are welded onto a small sized vice-grip pliers; other times the shaper is designed to be used unwelded but the shaper-blades are held and depressed by vice grips.

Ungouged quarter-rounds.

Because I have always made piob mhor reeds the single way instead of the fold-over way, I shall not go into detail about the double-bladed way of making reeds.

We are now at the stage where we are shaping each 1.5 inch slip. The slip is placed between the jaws of the shaper, or, if you use the non welded shaper, placed into the shaper in such a way as to ensure that it will not slide around in the shaper. The chisel then is used to cut off the cane which projects out of the shaper by cutting down towards the thin end. After the slip is released from the shaper. It has been transformed into a blade of a chanter reed. The same procedure is used to get the matching blade of the partner slip.

Chiselling slip for approximate width of cane before shaping.

At this stage we have the two blades of our proposed chanter reed but they still have to be ‘profiled’ i.e. scraped down to a certain o that the finished reed will vibrate and ‘speak’.

Some reedmakers use a sanding wheel to do this, but the more classical method is to use a reedknife to do the scraping. However, if we used a reedknife to do all the profiling we’d be at it for a long time, so a special jig called a ‘profile block’ is used to do most of the profiling; then the final touches can be done with the reedknife.

* From the March 1987 Piping Times.