‘Scraping’ the chanter reed

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By David V. Kennedy

In an early issue of The International Piper, Mr. Roger Gould-King wrote an informative, and useful, article on the chanter reed. He included a drawing of the reed, dimensioned. From the top of the lips, going downwards to the staple- bindings, he drew in a conception of where the notes would lie after the cane had been scraped … starting with top A at the very top and ending with low G, 12mm from the top. The nine note intervals were more or less evenly spaced over the 12mm length.

I cannot prove or disprove whether or not the notes allocated to those spaces are, in fact, there: in all probability, this is the general siting of the notes at the time of the first scrape on the raw cane, but thereafter, the relationship may become tenuous.

Original preparation of the reed
Although I have not seen a pipe chanter reed in its original form (except in diagrams), | have no doubt that it follows the general pattern of other double-reeds, such as the oboe, bassoon and cor anglais. All double-reeds start out as a single piece of cane. The pith is gouged from this cane, and the curvature and taper is established. Next, the cane is shaped with a shaper. After that, the reed is profiled. Usually, these steps are done by a professional reed-maker; and a musician can order shaped and profiled cane so that he can proceed from there to make his reed, the reedmaker having done at that point, about 50% of the job. If pipers could, indeed, get shaped and profiled can as do oboists, bassoonists and so on, some very interesting developments might occur with respect of good sounding reeds. But, ochoin!, in this country (and, I suspect, in most countries) such cane is not to be had.

Roger Gould-King’s drawing.

Finishing the reed
If the reed arrives shaped and profiled, the next general procedure is: 1. Sand inside of reed. 2. Lightly bevel the edges inside, 3. Soak reed in water, 4. If exact centre of reed has not been scored, do this with a reed knife, 5. Fold reed over its appropriate staple and tie with the bindings as stated by Roger G. King, 6. Take reed-knife and start scraping.

With the oboe and the cor anglais, there are two genera of scrapes: a. The so-called French scrape and b. the so- called American scrape. If we can stand the nationalistic terminology, we can use it to describe two common scrapes on chanter reeds (however, not the practice chanter reeds) The French scrape seeks to remove raw cane from the oboe reed, 4mm back from tip of reed each blade until one can practically see through the blades … leaving substantial amounts of raw cane off in a balance of the taper.

With pipe chanter reeds, the equivalent of the French scrape is a reed which has 11 to 12 mm of all cane removed from both blades (measurement made after the tip has been cut off) as seen from the tip, and all raw cane removed from the remaining blades down to the bindings bindings, but that remaining 6mm blade thickness being about 1.5mm. As seen in profile, such a reed would look like this:

I have such a reed, made by James Warnock. It is an interesting scrape; but does not suit all types of chanters.

The more usual American scrape, as with oboes and bassoon reeds, seeks to remove alll raw cane and trim the remaining wood in 2 tapered swath which radiates out from the centre of each blade … a warped transition, possibly … This is the scrape described by Roger G. King. In practice chanter cane reeds some raw cane is left on the sides of each blade, sometimes 12mm up from the bindings.

Whatever scrape the piper desires, he must remember to cut the tip off when most of the raw cane has been removed; because from then on the scrape is determined by the sound of the reed. All the finishing scrapes are done by trial; and I differ from Roger in this trial procedure. Unlike him, I prefer to scrape the reed when dry and test it when wet … i.e. after all the raw, shiny cane has been removed. This does two things for me:

1. It allows me to scrape with the reed-knife so that particles and not filaments come off the wood, and 2. It allows time for the reed to assume its shape when wetted after the scrape. Furthermore a soaking wet reed is not the way the reed is going to be played … at least in this climate. ‘Working’ soaked cane or wood can be difficult and sometimes disastrous, at least when a knife is being used. My main objective in using any scrape is not to ‘break the back’ of the reed, and not to ‘feather’ the lips so that top G and top A sound weak and squeaky.

‘Finished’ reeds from commercial reedmakers
Chanter reeds bought by the average piper are not just shaped and profiled: they are, in fact, commercially finished reeds.

When confronted with a majority of these reeds, the piper has to use his ingenuity, for many of them are sadly and irrevocably already hacked to pieces; and the piper will encounter another phenomenon: a ‘cut’ peculiar to pipe reeds. This is a swath made on one half of one blade, say the right side as you look at the reed, and the same swath made ‘on the other blade as you turn the reed and see it from that view. This is essentially an unbalanced ‘cut’; but al! is not lost because some of these reeds actually do sound reasonable. My objection to this cut is: 1. In my experience the reed does not last long, 2. It does not allow for any further scraping and 3. It does not compare, really, in tone and ability with a well balanced scraped reed. Too much wood has been taken out where it should have been left in

I apply two general rules to my reed buying from commercial sources:

1. Don’t order more than six at a time unless you know your reedmaker, and 2. Never buy a chanter reed which starts off life chipped, mis-shapen, split, tip cut  off crooked, leaks when blown in the mouth at the staple end with blades closed, has overlapping blades which after slight wetting does not assume with its lips the shape of Cupid’s bow, has dark pitch stains on the blades, has a ‘shaggy’ finish to the blades; has not been made of either Malacca, French or Spanish cane … preference being Spanish.

Reeds that come ‘by the gross’ in neatly packaged boxes have been a waste of money in my experience … of 100 reeds maybe 10 can be worked on to be playable.

I like to have a reed with plenty of wood left on the lay, and preferably tapered and balanced on each blade. This will be, most likely, a ‘stout’ or strong reed … but with adequate scraping this is the reed that has the most likely possibility of being turned into a playable if not a good reed.

Equally important to what you see on a reed is what you don’t see under the bindings. Certain types of chanters will not accept reeds which have been heavily scraped; because of the cane under the bindings. What frequently happens is that the F double tones and the C moves out of pitch and the low G raises in pitch. The same reed put in another type of chanter may not behave this way. When these little things happen with your chanter, then you know you’ve gone too far with the scrape. Other reeds will stand substantial scraping without distortion; and it’s my hypothesis that the staple and the cane tied in under the bindings have much to do with firming up the normal playing shape of the reed. Unfortunatley, you will know this only when you are familiar with the make of reed and the consistency of your reed maker.

A problem I have seldom solved with a good reed by scraping is a gurgling high A. Some will say that if you scrape up where the high A is supposed to be on the reed blades, you’ll solve it, But this won’t work on all kinds of reeds. What complicates the problem is that if I take that particular reed and put it in another kind of chanter, the gurgle disappears … or if I take the pliers and squeeze the blades together gently at the top of the bindings, it also disappears but at the expense of weakening the reed. Aha! You say; your first chanter is no good. So sorry! Can’t accept that! For if I take another brand of reed and put it in the first chanter, it goes like a song. And the maker of the first chanter would not like it at all since he was a first class maker whose chanters were played by champions and by regimental pipers in great abundance, some years back. No; I believe the answer is simply that certain reeds go well in certain chanters, and as a corollary, reeds can be scraped up to a certain point only, to perform in certain chanters. Some chanters are more ubiquitous than others i.e. they will take a wide spectrum of reeds. I have my opinions about this; but I don’t want to be sued by pipe makers!

The one thing that has to be hammered home before any scraping or reed making is done by a piper, is that he can guarantee himself that he has a good, reliable chanter as a pre-requisite to anything further. And that is a whole subject in itself which needs names to be named. You cannot test a good reed in a bad chanter; but you can certainly test a bad reed in a good chanter! My opinion about chanters is that ‘fine silver soles do not necessarily a good chanter make’; nor do well known makers always turn out a good chanter every time. Chanters and drones, the entire instrument in fact, are somewhat like valuable, playable violins and cellos … each pipe is an entity to itself, and should not be considered an assembly line instrument (which unfortunately it is becoming with most makers these days).

My attitude to this is that in the days when the maker considered himself a craftsman and wanted to put his name on the pipe and the chanter, and took the work to an extreme of finishing off the throat and bore with ostrich feathers, then you got a musical instrument. . . but today? Oh, well let’s not talk about that!

But to give credit where it is due. My best chanter is a plastic soled regimental Hardie, date 1965; my next best is a 1962 Sinclair to which I affixed a silver sole, replacing a plastic sole … both compatible chanters taking equally scraped reeds. After them, comes a 1969 silver sole Hardie, picked out for me by Bob Hardie in his shop at Bishopbriggs in 1969. A polypenco no soled chanter (obscene!) by Andrew Warnock is the next in line … but no comparison with the older chanters (Warnock’s being 1978). So you pays your money and you takes your choice, I guess.

Rots of Ruck, ferrows … as we said in Japan.

• From the June 1979 issue of The International Piper.