Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

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Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby TimGreaves » Thu Oct 02, 2014 1:08 pm


Richard Evans has encouraged me to sign up and post here with novice questions on chanter reed making. Hopefully they will be of use/encouragement to fellow novices and stimulate discussion (and advice from the experienced reed making community!).

I am quite new to Northumbrian pipes and started playing with the Oxford group two years ago. Having seen Mike Nelson and Andy May making reeds and thought ’that looks fun’ and then bought Colin Ross’ book and thought ‘that looks manageable’, it only needed a little encouragement from Richard to get me started. A few things had been putting me off, but shouldn’t have done:

* I've never made anything for a musical instrument before
* I've never worked to sub-millimetre tolerances
* I had none of the required tools
* I'd never dared touch the chanter reed in my (hired) instrument for fear of breaking it
* I'm still very much a novice piper

I’m now two months into the learning process. Here are my novice experiences!

— Tool Kit

The first couple of weeks were spent assembling tool kit based on Colin’s list. This was a leap of faith as a significant investment - I reckon a bit over 200 quid in total, of which nearly half was a really good gouge and digital callipers. The former I got from Germany from and is a beautifully made tool. The latter I bit the bullet and got a good Mitutoyo instrument. I have not regretted either one bit. Almost everything else I got in two bulk orders from Amazon and eBay which made life very simple. I have everything in one tool box and try not to use the tools for anything other than reed making so none get mislaid.

One thing I added to the list was a Felco ceramic sharpening stone (intended for secateurs) which I use to keep the sharp edge on the gouge. It seems to work well, with very minimal but relatively frequent use, just the right size. I try to make sure the edge is keen after every session of gouging before putting the gouge away.

The bit I have fouled up on and probably need to revisit is my gouging block. I have somehow mounted my brass depth gauge plates a touch too high so it needs a couple of sheets of paper to get a good 0.7mm cane slip. I would spend a lot more time getting this right if I was starting again now. I also learned that making the gouging block from hardwood is a mug’s game and softwood works perfectly well and is a lot easier! I will get some decent tin snips for cutting the brass strips next time too - hacksaw is really awkward.

— First attempts

My first reed took about twelve hours to make and at the last assembly steps I cracked one blade in half with a too-open staple and not wetting the cane enough. This was frustrating. The second reed astonished me by actually made a sound when put in a chanter. This was hugely encouraging! However, the sound was very thin (the lower scraped section was way too thin) and the tuning was way off. It had also taken me about nine hours of work to make and by the time I had finished it I had forgotten the tricks to the early stages.

Hence I decided to change my learning process to doing the same task multiple times until I got a decent result, then moving on. I’ve been doing this for the last month and finally starting to generate completed reeds again.

— Gouging foul-ups

I found getting a consistent, even gouge very difficult, having never done any gouging before. My first mistake was not making my cane slips to fit exactly in the gouging block so they moved around a bit and ended up with one thin side and one thick side. I often had the gouge at too high an angle so I took chunks out of the cane rather than smooth slivers. I didn’t put steady pressure and angle on during the gouge so the depth varied. I found I got much better results if I put the gouge in front of rather than to the side of me and looked along it as I gouged, almost using my body weight against my arm for steady pressure. Keeping the cutting edge sharp made things a LOT easier. As mentioned before, taking a lot more care in making a very accurate gouging block would have been worth it; I’ll go back and remake it at some point soon, based on experience of using my first one. Key errors were not making a perfect 11mm cane slip first to use to position the brass strips, and not making sure that the surface the brass was mounting onto was as smooth as possible to get a correct depth.

A week or so of doing nothing but gouge slips was good practise; by the end they were taking a few minutes instead of many tens of minutes per slip and coming out much more consistent.

— Scraping foul-ups

Having generated a couple of dozen gouged slips which I thought were useable I went on holiday and took my calliper box with me into which I packed the gouged slips, a craft knife, some spare blades, a ruler, some wet and dry paper, a 2.5mm drill bit, and a couple of broken reeds Richard had sent me to take apart for reference. My goal was to scrape at least one slip per evening throughout the trip.

Very quickly my gouging inconsistencies became apparent. Even when I thought I had an even 0.7mm thick slip I normally had some little dips taking it down to 0.5mm which after even a small bit of scraping went down to 0.3mm - thinner than I wanted. This was a frustrating but useful lesson to learn. Almost all my slips had some little inconsistency in gouging in a critical place so it was obvious early on that this was going to be a learning process but probably not generating many useable slips.

I found it easier to mark the ends of my scraping area with very light scores in the shiny surface of the cane which made obvious ‘stops’ whilst scraping. An early mistake I made was to scrape the ends of the area first, then work on the middle, and have a bit of overlap between the two which got far too thin. I found it very useful to have a 100mm section of tube cane with me to use as a block for scraping on - easy to hold and the right diameter for the slip to sit on. I found this much more manageable than using the end of the long stick I’d made from Colin’s book instructions.

I found it useful to be scraping over a surface which I could see the dust falling onto as a gauge for how much I was taking off at a time. This way I could scrape quite lightly but be sure I was getting somewhere. I also found I got the most consistent results scraping the full length of the area and slowly turning it back and forth under the blade. This way I got a very smooth, even result and was very aware of the edges so as not to over-thin them. I found it was critical to have a really sharp blade on the craft knife (luckily I had brought lots of spare blades) and found I was blunting about one blade per half dozen slips scraped. When I scraped with faster, lighter, full length scrapes along the slip *and* managed to do this consistently through the scraping process I got good even results — if the gouging had been good beforehand!

i discovered that the head-torch I had with me, quite a bright LED one, worked very well for illuminating through the slip to spot any inconsistencies. This was handy as I was camping, working after nightfall, and didn't have a good bench light.

Interestingly, the more slips I scraped the more I found I could instinctively feel where the thickness was ‘about right’ and on later measuring found I was starting to feel/see when it was within about 0.1mm of the right thickness. Running fingertips over the surface was a very useful diagnostic to pick up areas which needed a little bit more local scraping, a useful addition to the light test. Notably, the evenly scraped reeds ‘felt’ better than the bad ones.

At the end of this process I had a grand total of one good slip from my two dozen or so which I had both gouged consistently and done a good even scrape on!

— Putting it all together

I got back from holiday at the beginning of the week and having recovered a bit put my one good slip on a staple last night. In the process I managed somehow to cut both the nibs unevenly - annoying. Pushing ahead, it went on the staple well, sealed nicely, and had a good aperture with the bridle on. Even better - it has a lovely full mellow sound when played - very, very satisfying.

But …

… it’s noticeably flat compared to Richard’s reed in the same chanter and the keyless octave is about a tone ’short’, so with bottom g nominally in tune top g sounds f# and the keyed top a sounds g. I spent a while tinkering around this problem last night and having exchanged emails with Richard this morning my guesses are that the reed is about a millimetre too long. I’ll try trimming it tonight.

— What next

Make more reeds. Mess up. Learn. Have fun! Go up to Whitley Bay later this month and hopefully get some tips and feedback from the professionals.

Coming back to my initial concerns:

* The skills needed to make this bit of a musical instrument are not beyond a novice to learn
* After a month or so, 0.1mm seems quite thick
* Tools are all easy to acquire
* Once you have made a few dozen cane slips and a good few completed reeds you become much less worried about handling them
* Novice reeds are so variable in quality even novice pipers can tell which ones are half decent and which aren’t!

In conclusion, I’m finding the reed crafting process hugely enjoyable and a good relaxing way to spend evening time, challenging enough to keep my interest but not so hard as to be frustrating.

It can’t be long before I get a nice-sounding, well tuned, playable reed …. can it?!

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Joined: Thu Oct 02, 2014 9:50 am
Full Name: Tim Greaves

Re: Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby Richard Evans » Sun Oct 05, 2014 1:50 pm

Thanks for posting all that , Tim!
I hope others will contribute so that we can build up a good thread.
Richard Evans
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Joined: Fri May 27, 2011 8:00 pm

Re: Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby TimGreaves » Sun Oct 05, 2014 9:54 pm

Thanks Richard!

My next two reeds have been of variable quality. I have learned two more lessons:

When sanding down the tip, it needs to be even or a corner of your reed vanishes mysteriously since the last time you looked at it and some very-off notes appear in the middle of your chanter. I assume the two are linked...

Adjusting the cane position up and down a few times on the staple with a fair bit of adhesive can end up scraping the adhesive into the top of the staple, leading in turn to the initially mystifying experience of a reed that, no matter how open the tip is, is impossible to get any air though. Whoops. (This is my best guess as to how I managed to fill the top of the staple with adhesive, at least)

I await the next blooper with interest!

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Re: Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby dsomerville » Thu Oct 09, 2014 12:35 pm

Hi Tim
I enjoyed reading this - having watched Andy May make a reed I also thought it would be worth trying, and I've also got Colin's book (and the YouTube clips are really helpful). But I haven't got nearly as far as you (though I love your comment about 0.1mm seeming quite thick - I recognise that!) - I've got side tracked into making drones, my first steps towards making my own pipes (from a zero skills base, but I have Mike Nelson nearby to point me in the right directions). I think I need to learn how to make drone reeds to put in them
- I'll keep you posted.
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Re: Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby TimGreaves » Mon Oct 20, 2014 9:38 am

Hi David,

Making pipes sounds fun - something I hope to progress to, though I am determined to get the hang of chanter reeds first.

I've made a fair bit more progress over the last week, with a lot learned at Whitley Bay. It was interesting to get input from a number of reed makers over the last week - Richard, Andy, Colin, Francis, Julia, and Iain Allen, as well as comparing notes with Bill Wakefield who's in the process of learning to make chanter reeds with some success. In no particular order, useful information included:

Gouge specifications are confusing! I bought a 26mm in-cannel gouge which looked to be as near as possible to the diameter of my cane, but on closer examination I think the 26mm measurement is the inside diameter, not the outside diameter, so that the cutting edge describes a curve a bit more than 30mm - a fair bit wider than the cane. This makes it almost impossible to selectively gouge the cane slip and very easy to over-thin the edges. I had a series of interesting discussions with Colin this week on the subject, during which he didn't think the profile of the cutting edge of the gouge was much good and re-ground it for me to give a much more tapered edge for cutting - which has improved it significantly. He was also curious to know how well the slips worked out from the larger diameter gouge, wondering whether you might in fact get quite good reeds from a slip which was initially some 5-10 thou thinner at the edges than in the middle. All that said, I would like to get hold of a smaller diameter gouge now.

There was interesting mixed discussion about the lower part of the reed, close to the bridle, and mixed reactions to leaving 'shiny' near the edge - some observing that it seemed to help develop richer notes lower down the chanter, others feeling that removing it had no discernible effect on the reed. I did notice that on my reeds when I take away too much material in the lower part of the reed I lose note quality lower down in the chanter, and Andy suggested an interesting diagnostic here of sucking the reed whilst running your fingers lightly along the length of it and feeling where the vibrations were. My novice fingers seemed to feel that on my reeds there's vibration almost evenly down to the bridle, whereas the same test on Richard and Andy's reeds has far less movement low down the reed. Interestingly, comparing Richard and Andy's reeds, both of which sound great when played, Richard's seemed to have more reed vibration mid-reed, which remained reasonably constant to the tip, whereas Andy's seemed to increase in movement going along the blade. It would be interesting to run a slow-mo camera on a few different reeds and see what was happening.

There was some discussion of the edge-sanding step to get a flat surface to seal the constructed reed above the bridle - notably, Andy pointed out that this was a very minimal bit of sanding and shouldn't be taken too far. I was definitely over-sanding and losing space inside the reed as a result.

Something I've found tiresome has been cutting brass tube for staples. Hence, it was interesting to see Andy using aluminium tube which needed no more than a light score with a knife blade before it snapped cleanly - MUCH easier! Both he and Colin recommended shorter staples - Colin down to I think around 7/8" and Andy even shorter. In Andy's case, with his 'pen nib' tips on the cane slip, the shorter staple (with much wider aperture at the 'squashed' end) fitted into the cane to give a smooth transition from the reed into the staple - hard to describe, I guess I need to get better at making them and take a photo. The pen-nib tips work very neatly with the shorter staple, something I've not got quite right yet but have been working on replicating over the last couple of days.

Another tip from Andy was using superglue rather than impact adhesive for sticking cane to staples. He was positioning everything just right then putting a drop of superglue on each side which was drawn in to bond the metal and cane together - very neat.

There was useful discussion regarding bridle wire, Colin noting that with thinner / more flexible bridle wire he thought the bridle was moving slightly during playing so the reed altered shape. He thus recommended somewhat thicker / stronger wire, suggesting earth wire and drawing it out a bit before using it. Andy was also using notably stronger wire than me. I don't have numbers to hand for this.

That's all that comes to mind at the moment - doubtless more advice will resurface as I attempt more reeds this week following all last week's advice!

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Full Name: Tim Greaves

Re: Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby KimBull » Mon Oct 20, 2014 8:21 pm

Thanks Tim. Interesting stuff. I'm making cane drone reeds at the moment but I'm following this with interest as I'd like to do this soon too.

Looking forward to more updates!
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Full Name: Kim Bull

Re: Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby edric » Tue Oct 21, 2014 8:13 am

I've been using the aluminium tubing as used by Andy - I got some from here: ... und-tubing

I think I got the 3/16" one.
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Location: Cambridgeshire
Full Name: Edric Ellis

Re: Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby TimGreaves » Tue Oct 21, 2014 9:48 am

Thanks Edric - that looks like the one; duly ordered and looking forward to escaping the brass hacksawing.

Last night's lesson: 0.2mm makes a lot of difference in terms of thread thickness on a reed. I called in to a sewing shop in Morpeth at the weekend and doing visual comparisons on threads found what looked like a promising waxed cotton thread. However, whilst it works very well for a neat wrap round my reed - the resulting reed is a smidge too wide lower down to fit into the chanter! Comparing to the thread Andy was using, his is 0.3mm and the one I've got is closer to 0.5mm. Oh well! Lesson learned; I will be more discerning when buying thread in future.

I also discovered that when using a craft knife to chamfer the sides of the cane nibs it's a good idea to run the knife towards the tip rather than towards the body of the reed, having managed to neatly cut my cane slip in two parts lengthways.

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Full Name: Tim Greaves

Re: Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby edric » Tue Oct 21, 2014 10:41 am

For thread I use pre-waxed black hemp - probably this sort of thing ... cts_id=335

that I had in my GHB pipe case. Pre-waxed means it sticks to itself well making things easier, especially when it comes to tieing off when you've finished wrapping. You only need a pretty rudimentary knot to get the job done - especially if you then apply a thin layer of superglue to all of the wrapping.

I use the pre-waxed hemp for most things (if all you've got is a hammer etc.) - it's quite good because it's actually three twisted strands which you can separate out if you need a fine adjustment to an only-slightly-wobbly joint.
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Re: Trials and tribulations of a novice reed maker

Postby pipemakermike » Tue Oct 21, 2014 2:15 pm

Regarding the staple tube: I get mine from the local model shop Most have a K&S metal selector of many different sizes of tubing both brass and aluminimum (I get the brass tubes for the drones from this source)
How are you shaping the end of the staple. I use a 6" oval nail with the end reshaped. This was made 30 years ago to fit a sample staple that Colin gave me and I have been using it ever since.
Wrapping: I use a soft embroidery thread I can't tell you much about it except that It was recommended by Colin over 30 years ago and I have been using it eversince. My wife loved embroidery so I have a lifetimes supply<G>
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