Assorted chanter reeds

Maintenance

Like any serious instrument, pipes need a bit of looking after to keep them playing at their best.  This usually comes down to a bit of reed manipulation and the application of more or less thread to the joints to keep the instrument air tight.

There is also a lot of information about such things on the web, but it’s not always easy to find what you want.  The following notes should help but if in doubt, give me a ring.

Uilleann Chanter Reed

To keep the chanter in tune the reed needs to be moved up and down slightly in the reed socket.  When playing in sessions, the chanter will get sharper during the first few minutes as it warms up.  To compensate, the reed will need to be pulled out a fraction.  This adjustment is usually in the order of no more than 1mm. Alternatively warm up the instrument before joining in.

The loudness and brightness of tone, along with the playing pressure, are set by the gap between the reeds tips. Opening  the tip increases the bag pressure required and makes the chanter louder and brighter.  To allow adjustment the reed has a brass bridle that squeezes on the reeds sides and faces.  Moving it up towards the tip puts more pressure on the reeds side opening the tip.  Moving it down puts pressure on the scraped faces closing the tip.

Uilleann chanter reeds move with the weather.  They are sensitive to humidity and so some adjustment is required to keep the chanter at its best.  The things that are affected most are the playing pressure and the volume and brightness of the sound.  Moving the bridle up and down the reed by ½mm or so is the usual way of making the necessary corrections.  Unfortunately the situation is complicated by the stability and pitch of some notes being influenced by the bridles position.  Back D is the most sensitive and it rises in pitch as the bridle is moved up.  The rest of the notes on the chanter have their pitch lowered by this adjustment so caution is necessary.   The position of the bridle also affects the pitch of C♯ and the stability of hard D.

Be wary of removing the bridle as refitting it can be difficult.  If it is not touching all surfaces equally, back D can be unstable and it may move up or down the reed during playing.

Scraping a reed is a risky business.  The majority of reeds doubtless had the optimum scrape when they were made.  If they are not performing well they need to be adjusted or settled back to their original tip opening, not scraped.  Scraping further should only be undertaken when you have a clear idea about what the problem is and which part of the reed needs to be scraped to resolve it.

Uilleann Chanter

The chanter its self is usually maintenance free, but if you have keys fitted, leeks can cause problems.   These can be anything from squeaks and octave jumps to dead notes.  It’s easy to test for leeks.  Switch the drones off and close all the finger holes with the chanter on the knee.  Squeeze the bag good and hard and listen for a hiss.  If you can hear one, put a bit of tape under the pad of the suspected key and test again.  A leek can be caused by friction in the key action or contamination of the pad, etc.  If it’s not easily resolved, get in touch for advice.

In the bottom of the chanter I often fit an ‘O’ ring or wire loop to close down the bell slightly.  This improves the tuning of the bottom D’s and the stability of hard D.  It’s also common practice to insert a roll of card or a rush to do this.

Lapping Loose Joints

All the joints on the chanter and drones are held in place with lapping thread.  It is important to keep them all tight to keep the instrument playing stably and to avoid bits falling off.   Just wrap some common sewing thread onto a loose tenon and tie it off by looping the end under its self (called a half hitch).  The trick is to keep the thread going in the same direction.  If the loop (hitch) is the wrong way round, the thread turns back on its self and will become loose very quickly.

PTFE plumbers tape isn’t the answer.  It eventually amalgamates with the thread underneath and the joint becomes loose again.  Worse, PTFE is Teflon, so it’s slippery by nature.

Bag

Traditional bags has been ‘dressed’ or ‘seasoned’ with a wax based compound.  This keeps it airtight and makes the inside of the bag slightly slippery.  My more resent bags have a Gortex liner that negates the need for dressing/seasoning.  The stitching is good for the life of the bag but the stock bindings can become loose with time.  They are easily re-tied but to do this tidily you may need to contact me.

Drones

My synthetic reeds are essentially set for life.  The main cause of problems comes from contamination with fluff that has been drawn in through the bellows.  Removing such things needs to be done very carefully so that the position of the rubber bridle is not changed.  Anything under the blade will cause problems especially if it is near the bridle.

The drone reed has a solid body with a plastic blade bound to it.  The blade has a small amount of curvature set into it.  The body is absolutely flat.  A rubber bridle allows the length of the vibrating part of the blade to be adjusted.  Some reeds are the other way round, the body is curved and the blade is flat but the following applies to both.

The length of the vibrating part of the blade sets the pitch of the reed and hence the pitch of the drone.

If the tuning slide of a drone is too far out and thread is showing when in tune, you will need to change the pitch of the reed to compensate.  Making the blade longer by moving the bridle flattens the pitch of the drone so that the tuning slide has to be pushed in.  The opposite applies for a drone that won’t sharpen enough.

Be aware that the position of the bridle also affects a drone’s stability so make adjustments carefully and note where you started from.

Troubleshooting Guide

Problem Cause Solution
The whole drone pulls out when I tune it. The thread lapping has become compressed Lap some thread onto the binding.
The tuning slide is loose. Too little thread. Lap some thread onto the tuning slide binding.
The tuning slide is stiff. Too much thread Remove a little thread.
The drones always need retuning when I take my pipes out their case. The drone-tuning slide may be too loose or leaking. Lap on some thread and check for leaks.
The drone slide is fully closed and the drone is still flat. The reed blade is too long (the reed is flat). Shorten the blade. See drone reed notes.
The drone slide is fully extended and the drone is still sharp. The reed blade is too short (the reed is sharp). Lengthen the blade. See drone reed notes.
The drone keeps stopping. The blade may be too close to the body. Move the bridle to lengthen the blade.
The drone is too loud/rough sounding. The blade may be too far from the body. Move the bride to shorten the blade.
Back D is very sharp (Uilleann pipes). Reed tip is too closed. Move the bridle.
Hard D brakes up (Uillean pipes. Various Check the rush hasn’t fallen out.