Reedmaking for Border Pipes (Page under construction). Unlike in previous reeds the 15 / 16"staple of the Highland pipe is not used and the reeds perform well, being stable, give characteristic tone and are virtually squeak-proof.
The theory of these reeds is that the chanter performs better when the reed is taken back from the conical bore, hence the desirability of the longer staple. Conversely, when the reed blows straight into the conical bore, the sound can have many undesirable characteristics.
I have for some time found extraordinary the current situation in which players of various woodwind instruments from the world of early music are busy converting from plastic to cane reeds, while in the bagpipe world everyone is rushing in the opposite direction. Here, then, are some thoughts about making cane reeds for the Border pipe.
It is advisable first to consult any reedmaking manual or method; here will be found the varieties of cane, the shooting block, the gouges and files, etc. that are used in reedmaking., especially one that deals with historical instruments or bassoon reedmaking.
Shown below are 3 reeds recently made for Border pipe in A. The reed blades are prepared from a 3" slip of Bassoon cane gouged and sanded to .025", and shaped to 12 mm at the broad end and 4.5 mm at the narrow end. The cane slip is shaped with scissor cuts, ideally three per 'side' (there are four 'sides'), starting each time at the narrow end and proceeding gradually to a line scored across the middle of the slip. The scissors need to be straight-bladed and sharp. The shape can be refined by using a sanding block made from a strip of sandpaper glued to a piece of hardboard or similar. On each reed is indicated the distance from reed tip to centre of top 'A' hole. The overall length of the reed is 50 mm (The finished reed will be shorter). The staple is a 26 mm conical staple made from copper sheet. It is prepared by squeezing along its length in a long-nosed plier, preferably with smooth flat jaws, until there are no visible gaps between staple and pliers and the "eye" of the staple measures .075". The staple is placed inside the reed blades to make a 2" reed (or longer). The narrow ends of the blades are dabbed with warm water to prevent splitting during assembly.
The wrapping is PTFE tape. The binding is dental floss to a point just above the staple ending, secured with half hitches at both ends.
The initial stages of reed preparation will be well-known to makers of smallpipe or classical reeds. In many ways they are similar to those of smallpipe reedmaking, which will be familiar from descriptions in various publications and demonstrations on Youtube. Most of the outer bark of the cane is removed, particularly in the area where the reed meets the staple, and in central areas of the reed blades.
Here there are one or two possible variations: the outer bark can be left on (this makes terrific reeds but needs more work in the sanding down), or the outside of the cane can be removed in a central area.
The finishing process is started by placing the reed flat on a piece of coarse abrasive paper. Place finger above wrapping area (there is no bridle fitted at this stage) and thin the reed equally on both sides. Then proceed with centre rub and side scrape using the sanding block and Stanley blade. Scrape in long triangles up the sides of the reed. Aim to produce a gradual taper from top to tip. Avoid sudden reductions in the taper and scrape away any ridges. Once the reed starts to crow, move on to the next stage.
Final adjustments to the reed are made by playing it in the chanter. These adjustments should be made in separate stages:
Stage 1. Further rubbing and scraping of the reed after the bridle is fitted. Use a couple of turns of bassoon wire, obtainable from oboe suppliers. To correct high pressure, scrape at the sides. Adjust also the aperture by means of the bridle, and by applying pressure to the ends of the reed blades with fingers, pliers or a spring loaded clamp. Scrape the centre further if the pitch is too high, otherwise avoid the centre of the reed as much as possible. A blade placed in the small vice with its cutting edge upwards is a useful device for scraping the centre of the reed, but proceed carefully. Further refine the reed tips with fine abrasive until the combined thickness of the ends is .020". Keep trying the reed in the chanter. It is most likely that the reed will at this stage play an approximate scale of G# or thereabouts and the reed should be shortened. Place the Stanley blade in an appropriate position and with a sharp tap using the hammer and cutting block remove about 0.5mm before thinning the blade tips again. Try to avoid missing the blade and hitting the reed or yourself with the hammer. With luck you should get an approximate scale of A. Leave the reeds overnight at this point.
Stage 2. The reeds will have hardened and the scraping / rubbing process should be resumed. Often the reed will play sharp in the chanter and the remedy is not to scrape further but to trim the reed and add wrapping to take it further back from the bore. This usually irons out any peculiarities in tuning. Checks should be made that the reed is not leaking anywhere and is fitting securely into the chanter. Make a note of the distance between the ends of the reed blades and the centre of the top 'A' hole (generally about 102 - 105mm). Check for tuning, chromatics, overblowing etc.
The reeds perform consistently in my chanters, and may be useful for other designs. The typical sound, which is somewhere between GHB and uilleann pipe, can be heard in the sound sample (available via email).
Tuning the Border chanter
There are always slight differences in tuning between reeds, due to differences in the natural materials being used and variations during the handmaking process. However, if the reed frequency (the pitch produced by the reed when blown freely) is the same, reeds will produce closely-related results (if they didn't, we would be in the impossible situation where a chanter would only work with one reed) and indeed they can be used with different chanters of the same design if these are near-identical (to within 0.5 mm is ideal). The differences are corrected by a process called tuning which is essentially a matter of adjusting bore characteristics (the tone holes are understood to be parts of the bore) to the reed.
From an approximate scale of A, the aim is to produce a tempered scale that sounds harmonious - this means adjusting the pitches of notes in accord with the sounding harmonics of the drones. Ideally the divergences are as follows: A0, B+4, C#-14, D-2, E+2, F#-16, A0. There is some disagreement over the two G's in the scale, which I think are different notes that correspond to different harmonics in the drones: low G is flatter than high G. Also there are the chromatic notes to be considered. An acceptably flat C# can result in a less-than perfect Cnat, and sometimes a compromise is necessary, the Cnat being close to concert pitch while the C# becomes sharpened.
The tuning process is usually a combination of undercutting and filling in, to sharpen and flatten notes respectively. Undercutting means removing an area underneath the tone hole in an upwards direction (sometimes at the sides as well) with small dental drills or files. Infilling can be beeswax, wood filler, powdered rosewood / superglue or anything else which will adhere to the wood satisfactorily. Fine tuning can be done with a small amount of superglue or white glue. Beeswax is probably best for tuning, as it can be easily applied using a hot screwdriver or a heated piece of wire. The pieces of tape traditionally used on the Highland chanter are best avoided unless you happen to have a chanter that has unusually thin walls.
Note when tuning ordinary notes of the scale that some are noticeably interdependent - for example if the low A is sharp, the E is likely to be sharp as well, and tuning the low A will probably bring the E into tune.
Infilling can be used to adjust balance and tuning of the chromatic notes. A note which is louder than the others can be quietened by adding some material to the lower part of the hole. Indistinct grace notes can be corrected by making this part of the hole larger. Infilling the lower part of the C hole will tune the chromatic note, and leave the C# unaffected.
When tuning the low A and low G, the behaviour of the vent holes must be taken into account, as making the vent holes larger will sharpen their pitch but flatten the pitch of the low A (and vice-versa). Also, adding a few centimetres to the overall length of the chanter by means of an end piece will invariably sharpen the tonic note, flatten the subtonic and have other effects on tuning as well!
In all this it is presumed that the reed position is correct, relative to the bore. Altering the reed position even slightly has drastic effects on tuning, and I have repeatedly had the experience of beginning to apply beeswax to r.h. holes (in order to correct sharpness of around 20 cents), only to find that moving back the reed by 0.5 mm and opening up the l.h. holes will restore correct tuning. Another habit of mine is to close up the aperture in order to reduce volume when playing indoors, which of course raises pitch and can cause squeaks and unwanted overblowing, but opening up the aperture by squeezing the sides of the reed just above the bridle usually cures this.
To summarise, the Border chanter is at present poorly understood and its performance is largely dependent on the reed, so more attention should be given to the technology of reedmaking to produce reeds that give consistent results (rather than continually adjusting individual reeds to meet the requirements of the bore). The small differences that inevitably result can be easily corrected by following the procedures outlined above.
Sometimes despite endless amounts of adjustment to chanter and reed (which can go on for days and even weeks) the BP can still sound awful, it has to be said. The main reason seems to be the belief that the two cones of chanter and reed socket should somehow intersect- they shouldn't. Rather, there should in the chanter design be a short cylindrical section of whatever the smallest throat diameter happens to be, 3.8 mm, 4 mm, for example. This gives the effect of a very long staple, and is an important feature of the oboe, other woodwind instruments, and for that matter the Highland pipe.
To make the staple, first acquire some copper strip as used by Highland reed makers to construct the Highland staple. This is malleable material of .015" thickness. I do not know of a supplier, but your friendly (or not so friendly) local Highland reedmaker will. In any case such individuals will have quantities of the stuff purchased in the 1960s so may let you have some. Make a brass template 9 mm at the top, 13 mm at the bottom and with whatever length you decide the staple should be (currently I am making 26 mm staples). Place this on the copper sheet and cut round it to produce trapezoid shapes. From this you can easily make a conical staple providing you have 1) a hammer 2) a suitable mandrel and 3) a forming block.
The mandrel is a tapered section of steel with a flat filed at the narrow end. The one I use is a modified Highland reedmaking tool and fits neatly into the French staple. The forming block is again of Highland provenance (at one time I had all the gadgets necessary to produce Highland reeds including a gouging machine) and it has grooves machined into it somehow that reproduce curves found in staples.
The method is almost foolproof and is as follows: place your trapezoid blank on the block with the groove in a central position and the mandrel on top and tap the mandrel with the hammer to make a U shape. Then place the U shape on a flat surface of the block and bend the copper round the mandrel with light taps, starting at the narrow end and finishing at the round end. Withraw the mandrel during this process. Finally, bring the sides together with pliers and squeeze the "eye" of the staple on the filed flat end of the mandrel. Trapezoid figures always produce cones in this way and other measurements, 14.5 mm / 10 mm or 14 mm / 9.5 mm could be tried. This really is a simple process and has many advantages over chopping up oboe staples, not least in the possibility of easily varying staple dimensions, and if only a few reeds are needed they can be made fairly quickly and cheaply without resorting to a bulk purchase of one sort or another.
Tidy up the staple with a file, apply shellac along the seam and to the other side, and proceed as above with making the reed. Good luck and enjoy your reedmaking!
Pictures below show forming block, copper strip and trapezoids, mandrel, making the U shape, and forming the staple.
An ALTERNATIVE to buying in staples or making them by hand might be to use goose quills for the staple. Has anyone tried this?
It has been found effective to apply a coating of beeswax to the insides of smallpipe reeds at the cane slip stage (the beeswax is applied by rubbing the inside of the shaped cane slip with the corner of a small block, then polishing and smoothing with kitchen paper). This results in fewer discarded reeds, an improvement in the sound and may help in those areas where humidity is a problem. The same should apply to the Border reeds, but I have not yet experimented. The improvement in the sound seems to be the result of a smooth, polished and sealed interior surface.
The staple length now 26 mm.
I have experimented with staples made from brass tubing, 4 mm and 3/16". The 4 mm staple gives good tuning but is hard to blow, while the 3/16" staple is easy to blow but produces objectionable noises. especially on low A and low G..l
2017 update: More reedmaking. The longer staple gives the preferred sound, but some chanters respond better to the Highland staple.