Making a Stabilized Traditional Reed
for Uilleann Pipe Chanters and
Regulators and Penny-Chanters

Partial Notes for Experienced Reed Makers

Copyright 2001-2 David C. Daye
Latest edition 04/02
Previous edition 08 Feb 2002
First edition 10 November 2001 
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Traditional and Other Reed Methods

I have labelled this rather radical method "traditional" because it creates the complex interior shape mostly by bending the cane, which is true of all the historic methods I have found. The shape created is, or should be, completely identical to the shape created by historic methods. The vibration of the finished reed should also be identical.

An example of a classic historic type method is given on the web site of the pipemaker Seth Gallagher, and there are also some useful closeup photos of certain steps shown on my own educational web site. Both are linked below. A number of printed references are also entirely useful for the Penny-Chanter or other Concert D chanters when the dimensions tested for the particular chanter are substituted. Excellent compatible books include those by David Quinn and Dave Hegarty. These methods however do not include substantial stabilizing operations such as this method gives.

The method of Timothy Britton is not compatible with this method or with Penny-Chanter. I have not been able to get its smaller size reed to tune in the Penny-Chanter.

The "chamber carving" methods of Andreas Rogge and Evertjan t'Hart are also not compatible with the method given here, although if there are problems they may respond to the "resurfacing" section below. Links to this alternate type of construction can be found at the bottom of this document.

Stabilizing Traditional Reeds

An interview some years ago on Canadian radio featured a Scots fiddle maker, whose name I do not recall, who discovered principles that cause a fiddle to improve with a few years' playing. He discovered that it was settling of the structure, caused not by the actual playing but by exposure to damp and dry air over the course of time.

This caught my attention immediately because pipers have always known that both wet- and dry-blown reeds improve in tone and stability with use. Like fiddlers, pipers have believed that the action of playing has been the driving force of playing-in. But like fiddles, good pipe reeds can play dependably for a very long time after breaking-in, with little if any futher change. In fact the Australian pipe-maker Craig Fischer owns an original 140-year-old Coyne chanter reed which he has carried to Ireland and found to play very well in quite a few antique pipes, in different musical keys. This makes it very unlikely that vibration is what "plays in" a reed. The reed vibrates throughout its career, so it would seem that vibration would change the reed constantly and destroy it very soon.

A few tests quickly showed me that it was the exposure to variation in air moisture that was the most likely force causing playing-in. I began subjecting my partly-finished reeds to severe humidity cycles in the mid 1990's and quickly found that it reduced the instabilities of new reeds, and nearly guaranteed that new reeds would not fail permanently in most changes of weather.

I would have published a formal method immediately except that the quality of my cane supply deteriorated radically. It took me almost 4 years of experimenting and testing to discover what my former excellent cane had been doing for me automatically, so that I could learn to control and finally to describe to others how to apply these principles. Along the way some formal scientific and engineering studies of cane and reeds were conducted by Craig Fischer, so we hope that the double-reed community will ultimately benefit from my painfully long detour.

By the turn of the 21st century I became the first maker to advertise formally reeds for delivery into "any climate on earth."

About This Method

The steps given here are radical because they expose the reed to very harsh conditions several times during the construction. This verifiably settles the shape permanently before the final voice is created. The new reed can be finished to a more complete degree than with other methods since there is little further settling remaining that would alter it.

An extremely important addition to this method is the "refinishing" step in which the reed is taken apart after it is nearly completed, and the topmost interior is resurfaced.

The reason for resurfacing is that it has been known for many years that a double reed is actually not so much a vibrator as it is a pressure-feedback-driven valve. The sound is created by the lips closing together, sending a pressure wave down the chanter at the speed of sound. Much of this wave radiates out the first open hole for us to hear as musical tone--but some of it reflects back up the chanter at the speed of sound, popping the lips open so that the cycle can repeat. This happens hundreds of times per second for low notes, and thousands of times per second for the highest notes.

It is well known that certain irregularities in the top few mm of the inner lips can compromise tone and performance. The aggressive heat and humidity exposures used in this method, and milder variation experienced by all dry-blown double reeds during their service life, often create such irregularities in this surface. They can be optimized directly by re-smoothing the active surface itself, improving or curing a surprising array of reed problems. Experience with this manipulation suggests that much of the wizardry needed to learn traditional reed tuning can be avoided completely!

This is the main advance that came out of my 4-year struggle. I had originally been very lucky to have cane that rarely developed irregularities under my process. I needed to do seemingly interminable testing of suppliers of different cane and treatments of raw or semi-processed cane before I recognized that steps can taken during the reed construction to make the character of the raw material much less important than it is for historic methods.

In the end, this method becomes almost purely a mechanical construction process until the last steps when musical considerations finally arise. By verifiably finishing all settling during construction, almost all reeds that survive construction will play usefully, with more predictable tuning and tone, and long stable service lives.

This method works for all uilleann pipe double reeds for regulators and different pitches, brands and musical keys of chanters. All that is required is to substitute the pipe maker's intended staple and blade dimensions for whatever specific dimensions are quoted here for Penny-Chanters.

Parts of the Reed

Tools and Supplies

A modest collection of tools and supplies is required for making reeds.

Generic or Widely-Available Tools

  1. Sharp knife and/or single-edged razor blade for cutting shapes in cane.
  2. Sandpaper - medium, fine and extra fine grades.
  3. Pliers - small needle-nose and also small cutters for various tasks with staples and bridles..
  4. Saw - a fine model-making saw or hacksaw for cutting cane and possibly tubing to length.
  5. Files - 2 small metal files, if you are making hand-rolled staples, or 1 for general use otherwise.
  6. Gouge - 1 or 2 wood gouges (curved chisels) for rough-carving the initial interior curved surface of the blades.
  7. Hammer - small fine hammer, with fairly straight claws, if you need to make staples.
  8. Dial caliper for measuring thickness
  9. Optional Tools

  10. Pliers - small flat-bladed needle-nose pliers for forming the ends of staples (either rolled or tubing types).
  11. Tapered Hand Reamer - small hand tool for cutting metal away from the inside opening of tubing.

Tools That Must be Made or Changed

  1. Shooting Block - a device for holding strips of cane as they are gouged to make blades. It consists of a piece of wood with a shallow trough to hold the curved strip of cane, with a stop at one end against which the cane rests when being gouged. This one is carved into a common kitchen cutting board and also includes other features.
  2. Cane Sizer - hole(s) of various known diameters used for measuring the outer diameter of tubes or strips of cane.
  3. Sanding Cylinder - any cylinders at least 4" long with straight, smooth outer surfaces ranging from 1-1/2" to 3" or 3-1/2" outer diameter, for fine finishing of the interior surfaces of the blades. Sandpaper is wrapped and held onto the outside, and the gouged cane slip is rubbed back and for in order to finish the inside surface. Probably only 2-3 will be needed with diameters clustered near that which is appropriate for your particular recipe.
  4. Optional Tools

  5. Eye Mandrel - if making any type of staple, a short thin metal rod with a somewhat smaller diameter and a carefully tapered end, for use in creating the top end of either tube-type or rolled-type staples.
  6. Staple Forming Block - piece of wood with a narrow groove(s), into which the sheet metal blank for the staple and the forming mandrel are tapped in order to begin forming the staple.
  7. Rolling Mandrel - if making rolled staples, a short thin tapered metal rod around which the sheet metal for a rolled-type staple is hammered and then shaped. Illustrated mandrel was made in a hand-drill by filing while being spun against a support.
  8. Gap measuring wedge - a very narrow, long wedge of cane or other material glued to some sort of holder or identifying material, shown above centimeter stick in photo, to measure elevation or gap between reed blade lips from .010" to .07" thick.

Generic Supplies

  1. Plumber's teflon tape (very thin non-sticky wrap) for making bindings, reed seat wraps airtight
  2. Waxed twine, or waxed "artificial sinew" flat nylon fiber for wrapping reeds
  3. Sheet metal .015" thick brass or .021" thick copper if rolling staples and for cutting bridles
  4. Soldering torch or fireplace or kitchen stove element if rolling staples, for heating sheet metal to anneal.

Special Reedmaking Supplies

  1. Cane -- tubes of Spanish, French or other cane sold for bassoon or bagpipe reed making 4" or longer, 7/8" to 1" outside diameter.
  2. Bees' wax -- lumps of wax for coating and re-coating bindings, sealing leaks

Caution About Treating or Altering Existing Reeds

Reeds built by most other methods, except for the chamber-carved method, do not usually tolerate rough handling gracefully. The humidification, drying and heating steps used in this method are very rough indeed. Many reeds do not fare well from simple taking apart and re-assembly.

I strongly recommend not applying any of the heating and humidity-cycling steps of this method to reeds built by other methods or to finished, playing reeds made by any method.

Making and Finishing the Reed Head

Note-- For most pipers it is best simply to purchase staples already shaped and ready to use, from the maker of the chanter. 3-5 are needed at minimum to allow 1-2 working reeds with 3-4 under construction. 1-2 dozen might be needed for a touring/performing piper to have 4-6 working reeds set for different weather, having very specific tone and performance requirements, remainder for reeds under construction and breaking-in.

  1. Diagram of cane dimensions specifically for Penny-Chanters
  2. Gouge the slip
  3. Sand the slip
  4. Cut slip ends to make tails and outline shown above
  5. Pre-humidify the slip
  6. 1st temporary assembly to create main internal chamber shape
  7. Air dry 24 hours or longer
  8. Heat-dry 1-3 hours in mild dry heat such as on top of TV or computer monitor
  9. Inspect the interior
  10. 2nd Temporary Assemble
  11. Flame Stabilize
  12. First Scrape
  13. Re-humidify in damp air all day or overnight
  14. Air dry at least one full 24-hour day
  15. Heat dry 1-3 hours as in # 12 above, guarding against excess closing or collapse caused by drying
  16. Take apart to refinish interior
  17. Final Permanent Assembly
  18. Fit final permanent bridle
  19. Finish scraping
  20. Optional final scrape method using sandpaper and tight bridle
  21. Sound Samples
  22. Seal the cane
  23. Troubleshooting / Adjusting Dimensions
  24. Chanter Reed Fine-Tuning / Problem Chart



It is not especially difficult to make staples, and most pipers will only need 1 or 2 dozen for the lifetime of their chanter. Pipers rarely keep more than 2-3 reeds playing at any moment because uilleann chanter reeds can have lifetimes of decades and possibly much longer.

  1. Diagram of dimensions for making staple specifically for Penny-Chanters
  2. Obtain thin sheet metal brass (typically .015") or copper (.021" to .021") from metal supply, roofing contractor etc. Hobby shop brass is usually too thick (.025") and stiff, more difficult to form, makes smaller internal diameter.
  3. Cut into modest size pieces 2-1/4" or wider (equals length of staple) and several inches long (to obtain several staples side-by-side). Larger pieces of metal may be difficult to raise to high enough temperature for annealing.
  4. Anneal (make metal soft enough to bend easily) by heating to red glow using small plumber's torch or other suitable flame. It is not necessary to plunge red-hot brass or copper into water to preserve the softness (as is necessary with steel) but of course it makes the metal easy to handle immediately.
  5. Cut into individual staple shapes according to recipe. Leave slightly oversize. Many rolled conical designs used evenly-tapered blanks, which can be laid out in alternating directions on the sheet metal as shown in this photo. Some are tapered only in top half, leaving bottom half cylindrical.
  6. File into exact final shape. Notice metal appearnce (copper, but brass would look similar at this time). It is black from the annealing process. Finally, lightly file all the edges to remove burrs and roughness especially from the surface which will become the critical inside of the staple.
  7. Prepare for bending. Lay the metal blank over the forming-groove, then lay the forming-mandrel over the metal blank. Be sure everything is carefully centered.
  8. Tap mandrel and blank into the forming-groove. The claws of an ordinary claw-hammer are convenient for tapping the slender mandrel into the narrow groove.
  9. Tap edges of blank fully around the mandrel. First remove from groove, then tap edges with modest force using hammer. Some makers use a wooden block for smoother initial roll. Next view shows edges sufficiently close at right, still partly open at left.
  10. Finish forming by rolling the staple, with mandrel inside for support, firmly between 2 metal files. The files will impart a bit of roughness to the outside of the staple, seen at right in clean area of copper. Section at left has not yet been rolled and remains blackened from the annealing process. Notice the seam between the edges. It virtually disappears after a few seconds' rolling between the files. This seam is nearly airtight at right.
  11. Notice shape of ends of staple, perfectly round, and seam is no longer visible. The process of rolling between the 2 files makes this very easy to accomplish.
  12. If desired, seam can be soldered together to be perfectly airtight, and to make it easier to form the eye.
  13. Taper the bottom by filing, to allow staple to fit farther into chanter. Clean area at right end has been tapered. Not necessary for Penny-Chanter which has a straight sliding reed seat; also not usually necessary for brass staples because metal is so thin.
  14. Insert eye-forming mandrel which is a steel rod whose end is tapered to match the taper of the top end of the staple. Most modern tapered staples will leave the larger end round, and have the eye formed at the narrower end. View shows the taper visible from the side, and the oval-shaped end which is the correct thickness for the finished eye. The oval must necessarily be much narrower than the width of the eye since otherwise it would be impossible to insert and remove the mandrel.
  15. Tap (and/or squeeze with pliers) the eye end of the staple onto the forming mandrel to begin forming the taper and the eye.
  16. Notice shape of partly finished eye. It is generally oval in shape but uneven, often too open at the sides. Often the the seam re-opens under the stress of forming.
  17. Finish shaping the taper and the eye by tapping and/or squeezing. If the seam is open, tap with a glancing blow in order to push the edges of the seam close together again. Be sure to tap or squeeze towards the edges of the eye to form the eye into a narrower, evenly shaped oval.
  18. Notice the shape of the finished eye.
  19. Finish the staple by filing the tapered surface smooth of any small bumps. Large bumps must be first tapped away since they will also be present inside the staple, making the tuning and tone difficult to predict.

Make chamber-carved style of reed

Questions, special order questions email David Daye at: 

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