The School Pipes Project

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Chantry Talk by Mike Nelson 17 August 2013


As some may know this has been a project long in evolution, and has had its share of issues, however the clear aim was that the survival of the Northumbrian smallpipes is very much dependant on the next generation, the children and grandchildren of today's adults. The problem was how to get the pipes seen and known by this audience? The school pipe project was to create compatible pipes for schools in the North East of England, having them "on the menu" for children to learn at school. Mike, a professional manufacturing design engineer, and also a very well respected pipemaker, has been a major contributor to the design and recovery of the project with others.


The School Pipe design considerations were:


  • Normal pipes are fragile; they would not survive the schoolbag and general school yard treatment. It was seen to be crucial that the pipes are robust and have standard fittings.

  • It was felt that the tuning of the pipes should be standard and dependable.

  • Pipe pitch - schools instruments play together, so being in a compatible key (Concert G) to other instruments is important.

  • Health and safety - materials need to be non toxic, with parts large enough to avoid accidental ingestion and with openings small enough to preclude inappropriate pencil insertions!

  • Initial plans for around 200 sets were mooted. For such a large number, it was not feasible to rely on the usual highly labour intensive methods used traditionally.

  • For practicality in the teaching situation, the pipes needed to be easy to put together and have standard easily-interchangeable parts that a non-expert adult could replace easily.

  • Cost – An initial target price was decided of £500 later reduced to £200.


As shown below these are the pipes in the current stage of development.



Key features are


  • 3 drones, keyless chanter - a large number of tunes that can be played without keys. The original Northumbrian smallpipes were keyless, so these look back to the roots of the music in some ways, and most learners don’t need keys until they are past the beginning stage.

  • They are in the pitch of G so that they can be played with other instruments. Mike highlighted that children have smaller hands as well so the closer hole spacing necessary on a G pitch chanter is very appropriate for children.





  • The bags are from a respected highland pipe bag supplier of an airtight, waterproof material, glued and apparently very robust.

  • Plastic drone and chanter parts are made of an acetal-type machineable material, which is non-toxic even if ingested.

  • The chanter and drone reeds – an innovative part of the design. A significant amount of development has gone into the design of the drone reeds and they are currently  a very stable carbon fibre and brass body, with a good sound almost identical to a good all cane reed and very tolerant to small pressure changes. Initial experiments show that the plastic tongues used by Richard Evans work just as well as the carbon and cost less than 1p each.  Richard Evans will be supplying  the chanter reeds for future sets in a ready to fit form.

  • Conventional bellows are presently from David Burleigh, although a future phase will work on developing a robust and simpler bellows suitable for these basic pipes.


Not a piece of thread and beeswax in sight! (chanter reed staple excepted).


Mike assembled a demo set in a matter of minutes using a tie wrap and bolts and demonstrated these features:

  • Most parts screw in so definitely not beyond anyone who's ever been to Ikea.

  • Interchangable pieces, parts of one can repair another set if needed.

  • The drone reeds and chanter lock into the stock so cannot fall into the bag or fall out in use.


Initial problems with the outsourced supplied part tolerances have been overcome by Mike using his engineering skills in particular re-boring out-of-tolerance drone sliders with brass sleeves and sorting some of the 'O' ring design flaws. As a result of this they may be able to make up about 80 sets which will be reliable for use in schools, a very positive outcome.



School pipes being played by Susan, Hilary, Dorothy and Gill at the Chantry

They sounded, perhaps as you would expect, like a set of pipes should – and with no tuning problems. The pipes were playing together and sounding good immediately. Acetal is a hard smooth material so will be much like an ivory set in sound.


Possible future plans include


  • A 5 keyed chanter using coil springs rather than leaf ones (to enable simple repair on site).

  • A 4 droned set using revised drone stopper- the current one doesn't allow room for 4 drones.

  • New simpler bellows using a more modern valve design.


These will be dependent on future funding, but the cost of sets in volume have proven to beat the design critera by a long way (excluding labour).


The road has been a long and difficult one with NPS folk like Mike putting in effort for free to get there but it looks as if the rescue is complete.


The deployment and adoption by schools or visiting teams of pipers will depend on other people in the society, but hopefully if you're in the North East they may be coming to a school near you soon. Further news on this project will be on the website or in future magazines and journals.


The NPS would like to thank Mike for his well attended and very interesting talk.


More details can be found on Mike's own website here


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