David Daye Uilleann Pipes

Links Fixed 7 Mar. 2009
Copyright 2005, 2007-9 David C. Daye

Feel free to copy this work for desktop use and/or your individual study of piping. You may not republish all or any portions of this work in any form, or distribute it in any form, without permission. Questions, problems, comments or requests for permission to reprint may be e-mailed to me at this address

I. Overview

The Irish Uilleann Pipes

Click here for a photo of a full set of uilleann pipes.

The Chanter

A "chanter" is a melody-playing pipe which is a component of a bagpipe. The chanter of the Irish uilleann pipe is the most advanced bagpipe chanter in history. "Uilleann" is an Irish (Gaelic) word which means "elbow," since both elbows are used to play the instrument; an archaic meaning may also be "elder [tree]" whose bark was once used to make reeds for the instrument.

Unlike other bagpipes which only play in one octave, the uilleann pipe chanter plays 2 octaves, and this musical flexibility makes great demands on acoustic design. It is a close cousin to the original baroque oboe which developed into the modern concert oboe. Older-style uilleann pipes and baroque oboes have some similar dimensions and geometry, and their reeds are made the same way.

Until Penny-Chanter, the only way to make an uilleann pipe chanter was to bore it out of a 15" long stick of expensive, carefully-aged hardwood or plastic or, rarely, silver or other metal. Tiny changes of internal shape of just a few thousandths' inches in sensitive positions can render a good-sounding instrument maddening to operate, or make a well-behaved instrument too badly tuned to be worth playing.

I became a fluent competition Scottish Highland piper in the mid 1960's and, like many of that era, encountered the uilleann pipes in the 1970's in recordings of the Chieftains band. I soon discovered live pipes playing after-hours at Highland gatherings in the Ohio and Michigan area, and bought my first instrument as a half-set in the 1980's.

Alas, like so many living outside the very few uilleann piping centers in the middle-late 20th century, I found the behavior of available chanters exasperating. The better I got the tuning, the more difficult the performance became; the better the performance, the worse the tuning. I then tried the usual remedy of buying several replacement chanters, at first on the basis of recommendation of sound quality, then in increasing desperation focused on sheer operability.


Having devised and published plans for a cheap variant of the new expensive penny-whistles in the early days of the Web, when I happened on a well-behaved uilleann pipe chanter from the revered but then-retired maker David Quinn, I decided to try a similar shortcut model. My whistle had modelled the expensive tapered bore with 3 cheap straight tubes of different sizes, telescoped together to create a stepped taper. The whistle worked, and actually beat several expensive name brands presented in a classroom audience test by a young student who worked from my internet plans.

Despite the skepticism of a surprising number of expert piping figure who felt that uilleann pipes were fairly primitive and not capable of very good performance, I was more optimistic. I measured the chanter in much more detail than many community commentators then believed necessary, because as a Highland piper I expected makers to be devious and secretive about their work. Sure enough, I found much more detail in the Quinn chanter than some thought would be needed or intended, and so I replicated this shape in a stepped tapered brass bore. It took about 10 steps to go from top to bottom, no 3 of which lie exactly in a straight line.

The Australian pipemaker Craig Fischer had befriended me in Internet conversations and had an experimental and contemporary enough outlook to help coach me through my experiments with a historic new method of chanter building. The method worked, and Craig supplied a crucial technique for creating the sensitive upper bore (cutting the bottoms of straight tubes with long tapers rather than straight across) which made it easy for home-builders to build their own uilleann chanters for the first time ever.

Craig soon went on to devise his own piper-buildable chanter, the second ever and first to use wood, 4 narrow planks that are glued together to create a tapered bore square in cross-section. It's called the "Squinnter" chanter linked here, an easy, interesting project for those who want to experiment with chanter acoustics. The instructions include a process of creating several irregular scoops into one surface at sensitive locations to finalize the tuning and the performance of the chanter.

Chanters sell for hundreds of dollars and are usually backordered for 6-12 months. In contrast the Penny-Chanter, being made of metal, does not change shape in response to aging or climate changes, can be built from scratch for around $50 or purchased finished for under $200, and can be made by the piper in a few casual evenings' time. I coined the term "Penny-Chanter" after the well known Irish "penny-whistle," so named because this cousin of the recorder and flageollette could be made by a common person for about a penny. Since a common person today can make one of my uilleann pipe chanters for as little as the cost of a few meals, the term seemed appropriate to borrow.

David Daye uilleann pipes came into being within a few years, with an overriding dedication to easy response, consistent performance and ease of fitting with new reeds. Unlike our other esteemed makers whose frustrations took the traditional tack of learning the old craft, I turned an experimental modelling method into the radical new invention I termed the "Penny-Chanter." It was so named because, like the penny-whistle, it was a chanter that could be built on a laborer's budget, with no musical or handicraft skills whatever, and yet would give a satisfying musical experience.

Click here for a black-and-white photograph (large 207 kb) of three Penny-Chanters in various experimental configurations, alongside a traditionally made wooden chanter (3rd from the left, dark colored with white decorative mountings at each end).
Click here for a closeup color photograph (100 kb) of a Penny-Chanter and its brass windcap. A scrap of white paper is included to demonstrate the color of the ivory colored CPVC exterior of the chanter.
Click Here to receive a .WAV sound file of a few seconds of Penny-Chanter playing unaccompanied.Requires sound card and speakers in your computer.

II. Construction

Click here for a small diagram of how the first Penny-Chanter was constructed.

The construction is very simple. Short lengths of very thin brass tubing, commonly sold in hobby or modelmaking stores, are superglued together to create a stepwise version of the tapered or cone-shaped central bore of the pipe.

Now, you will see in the photograph that Penny-Chanters are covered by some sort of covering over much of their length. In order to get the correct musical tone and to respond correctly to traditional finger positions for the Irish scale, the walls of this cone must be fairly thick.

In my experimental prototypes, I created an appropriate thickness by wrapping the brass body with several layers of a rubbery material, "heat shrink" insulation used for electric wiring.

CLICK HERE for a photo of one of the 2 prototype Penny-Chanters that toured USA, Ireland and Europe.

In the critical narrow upper bore of my first attempt, it was necessary to abandon the stepped straight tube construction of the lower 2/3 of the body. I used a smooth cone rolled from annealed .010" thick brass sheet to create the throat and upper bore so that the full range of the 2nd octave would play steady and in tune. CLICK HERE to see the original Penny-Chanter upper bore assembly held together by plumbers' Teflon or PTFE tape.

The Australian pipemaker Craig Fischer showed me via e-mail that regular straight tubes would behave like tapered cones, if their bottom ends were cut not straight across but at a steep tapered angle. This was a construction that any novice builder would be able to build, unlike the tapered sheet metal cone. With its adoption the Penny-Chanter left the realm of desktop science project to become a viable product and performance grade musical instrument.

The production version now uses an attractive firm plastic outer body over the top 3/4 of its length, as seen at right in the photograph.

III. Debut Tours

On 31 January 1996 I jested on the internet uilleann pipe forum that the coming year might see several advances in pipe making, perhaps including a chanter that ordinary people could build for themselves. There were many jovial responses, since nobody knew that my first stepped-brass-tube prototype had already played a partial scale including the Hard D ornament. Very early in 1997 the first prototype was announced along with web-published instructions and a sound sample.

I took the first working Penny-Chanter to the West Coast Tionol ["tchunnel" or pipers-gathering] in San Francisco in February 1997. A particularly distressing scene occurred in the novice session room at the pre-tionol party. Penny-Chanter was passed among over a dozen learners, most of whom said they could not play it, having trained themselves to blow their crude learners' pipes with the necessary irregular pressures, one note hard and the next note easier. Penny-Chanter was seemingly too well behaved.

A 2nd prototype was sent with Wally Charm of Seattle, editor of the respected "Pipers' Review," to several Irish and German tionols March and April. The chanter sent was one of the brass-and-rubber prototypes, hideously ugly in the eyes of many. This was my deliberate choice because there were many difficulties and frustrations with modern pipes and reeds at that time, as the experience with the San Francisco learners illustrated. Readers familiar with Irish musicians can attest to the many legends of serious difficulty obtaining, learning and operating uilleann pipes and reeds. I felt it was necessary to put something into the hands of expert pipers that performed better than many finely crafted instruments, which at the same time was utterly unexpected in appearance and even repulsive. I believe this decision was an important factor in the raising of expectation for the best traditionally made pipes, giving pipers and makers hope that the performance and dependability of the pipes can be controlled and improved.

Penny-Chanter attracted much interest, was often shunned at first sight yet often complimented in the hands of some young player or seasoned teacher, especially when it wasn't clearly visible. Wally reported that it was played at Na Piobairi Uilleann by the teacher throughout an evening's group lesson.

Later in July 1997 the first 2 production model Penny-Chanters were played by myself and fellow student Janis Crewe at Irish Week in West Virginia, USA, in lessons taught by Kevin Rowsome--grandson of the famous pipemaker. The Penny-Chanters proved more stable in outdoor session playing than the top name wood chanters played by the teachers and visiting pipers. Many of the other instrumentalists found Penny-Chanter to be musical and enjoyable to play with, having the distinct uilleann pipe voice but reported by several to be less harsh and overbearing in sessions than some of the wood instruments.

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