Notes on Chanter reed maintenance for the Irish Uilleann Pipes.

Drone Stock Security.

Instruction on all aspects of Drone reed maintenance

x3 Articles about the UIlleann Pipes, their history and tips on buying.


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1) Notes on Chanter reed maintenance for the Irish Uilleann Pipes.

  1. Mouth Aperture
  2. Using the 'Tuning Bridle'
  3. Closing the mouth
  4. Opening the mouth

Keeping your Uilleann reeds in tune is both a challenge and a necessity. Cane is an organic material and as such will be affected by your climate - heat and humidity. I strongly urge every piper to learn how to make reeds. Knowing that you are able to replace a reed if damaged will make you less dependent upon makers and will in the long run help you to feel more relaxed about owning and playing Uilleann pipes, notwithstanding the fact that reeds are very expensive! It will of course take a lot of time, effort and 'pain' as making reeds is difficult but it will definitely be worth the effort.

There are sensible precautions you can take to make reed and tuning problems less severe such as, for example, making sure that you do not leave your pipes too close to sources of central heating or exposed to direct sunlight for long periods of time. What you cannot prevent or control however is the changing heat and humidity of a session in a pub, or elsewhere, where the comings and goings of people affect the atmosphere of a room. This will lead to changes in the performance of your reeds and you might have to initiate some on-the-spot adjustments to keep your pipes in tune with everyone else.

People often ask me how long a reed will last? This is like asking how long is a piece of string as it depends upon so many factors. I have always found that the worst condition for reeds is excessive atmospheric dryness. This can lead to severe problems such as the cane drying out, consequential warping, leaking at the sides, blades closing up and your pipes being rendered unplayable. If you do happen to live in an area with very low humidity you should consider making or investing in a humidifier for the room in which you normally play. What usually happens when heat and humidity rise is that pitch will also rise therefore making you play sharp of other instruments, your reed might also close up a little making you inaudible in a crowded session. You may also notice this change in pitch happening when you have picked your pipes up at home after a few minutes of playing from cold.

When you start a playing session it is very normal for the pitch of your pipes to rise after a few minutes of playing as your reeds adjust to the temperature of the room. If playing by yourself this is not a problem, unless your chanter goes out of tune with itself as a result. The most normal adjustment to make in the case of rising pitch or if your back 'D' becomes sharp against low 'D' is to re-seat the reed higher up in the chanter socket, also known as the reed seat. This is the 'V' shaped area in which the reed is housed at the top end of the chanter. The rule here is very simple, the further towards the top or open end of the V socket the reed is positioned the lower the pitch of the chanter. This action will especially lower the top note(s) against the lower notes of the chanter, so, if your top 'D' is sharp against the low 'D' carefully take out the reed and wrap a little more thread around the base of the staple ( the metal tube of the reed), this will make the reed sit higher up in the socket consequently lowering the pitch of the top notes against the lower notes. Conversely, if the top note(s) are flat against the bottom remove thread so that the reed sits further down in the seat. Very small adjustments here will have marked effects and experience will eventually inform you of what adjustments to make. Always exercise great caution when exposing and handling your chanter reed as they are very fragile.

The above method of adjusting the position of the reed in its socket is the simplest and less risky adjustment to make. There is really only one other thing you can do to adjust the reed and that is either open or close the aperture of the mouth. There are other things you can do but they are more risky and involve scraping and or trimming the reed. I would not recommend either unless you know exactly what you are doing. These methods of reed adjustment are beyond the intended scope of these notes and so I will not attempt to describe them. Opening or closing the aperture at the reed mouth controls: 1)The playing pressure of the reed. 2) The volume of the chanter. 3) Tuning of the chanter. 4) Tone of the notes produced. It is the 'Bridle' (the wire wrapped around the lower portion of the reed) which controls mouth aperture. You will understand from the above that with combinations of reed positioning in its socket and control of the mouth aperture you will have a fair degree of control over most tuning, pressure and tonal problems you might encounter. I will offer one further word of caution here, when pipes are despatched I guarantee that they are playing properly and that reeds are in proper adjustment, you should not interfere with the reeds unless you feel that you absolutely have to. If you think there is a serious problem please contact me immediately for advice before attempting any adjustments yourself. Excessive and unnecessary opening and closing of the mouth will eventually affect the tone and condition of your reed, so do not make any adjustments unless you absolutely have to for reasons already explained. If you suspect there is a problem with the reed; perhaps you feel that the tone is not right or that it is taking too much air despite the mouth aperture seeming okay, there is one other thing to check. The reed must be airtight and you can carry out a check by doing the following: Carefully take the reed out of the chanter, hold the mouth closed between your thumb and forefinger, suck through the staple - never put the reed in your mouth and blow over the blades to make it sound. If it is airtight then everything is probably okay and it simply needs adjustment as described in these notes.

If there is a very slight leak you should not worry too much but in the event of any leak at all then simply identify where the leak is - most probably in one or both of the side seams where the two blades meet - and seal it. To seal a leak take a glue stick, which you can buy at most stationers, (this is a sticky waxy like substance used for gluing paper) and rub this into the area of the leak, it will seal it quickly and efficiently. Check also that neither of the blades has a split in the mouth end. If your reed is split it is 'dead'. Reeds are perfectly airtight when I send them out and so if your reed is developing a leak you might suspect too much dryness in your atmosphere. As mentioned at the beginning of these notes an excessively dry climate can cause serious damage. Frequent and or radical fluctuations in ambient heat and humidity, as well as over manipulation of the reed can also cause leaking.

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diagram showing parts of the Uilleann Pipe Chanter reed

Mouth aperture

As previously explained your reed can either close up or open up as a result of changes in ambient heat and humidity. If it has opened up and the mouth is too large your chanter pressure will be too 'heavy' to play comfortably, the tone may be too harsh, the tuning may be poor, the low 'A' especially might be too flat and the hard 'D' difficult to achieve and sustain. Pitch may be too flat overall. Vibrato may be very unpleasant, especially on back 'D'. In the case of any of the above symptoms close the mouth until the reed is performing properly. If the mouth has closed up and is too narrow, the reed will take very little pressure to play and may actually close up completely as you try and play. It will sound very weak and give a puny tone. It will be out of balance with your drones and close up at the pressure needed for your drones to sound. Hard 'D' will be very difficult to achieve. Pitch will probably be too high. In the case of any of the above symptoms open up the mouth until the reed is performing properly. You should be aware that very slight adjustments to mouth aperture will have a marked effect. Experience will eventually inform you of correct adjustments. There are no hard and fast rules about 'correct' mouth aperture and this may vary from maker to maker, the aperture is 'correct' when the chanter is performing well for you. My reeds are normally no more than 0.5mm at the centre of the mouth when they are in correct playing adjustment.

diagram showing parts of the Uilleann Pipe Chanter reed

Using the Bridle to open or close the mouth aperture

Keeping the mouth in correct adjustment is the one thing you will probably need to do more than anything and the copper Bridle is there to control adjustment of the reed mouth. I use two wraps of wire whereas the more common Bridle is made up of a single wide strip, or 'collar', of copper of anything from 3 - 5mm in width. Collar or wire Bridle it really does not matter as long as it performs its intended function, and its sole purpose is to control the mouth aperture. I personally find the wire Bridle easier and less risky to attach and manipulate and so this is my preference. Always exercise extreme caution when making any kind of adjustments to your reed, splitting the reed is easy and very costly.

Closing the mouth

There are two ways of closing the mouth: Gently squeeze the 'flats' of the Bridle between thumb and forefinger once or twice. Looking at the mouth you might not notice that there has been any change but the change may be extremely slight and imperceptible, and a slight change can make all of the difference. The only efficient way to find out if this has helped is to return the chanter with reed to the windway and try playing. You must do this repeatedly until you have achieved the desired result. The second way of closing the mouth is by using your thumb nail on the 'corner' of the Bridle to carefully push the bridle down towards the thread, usually a movement of no more than 1mm or less is necessary. You can actually make a very slight adjustment by simply moving only one side of the bridle down by 0.5 - 1mm. If this is not enough then push the other side down by the same degree.

Opening the mouth

There are two ways of opening the mouth: Gently squeeze both 'corners' of the Bridle between thumb and forefinger in a pinching action towards each other once or twice. Looking at the mouth as you do this you will notice the blades flexing apart, you might not notice that there has been any change but the change may be extremely slight and imperceptible, and a slight change can make all of the difference. Having performed this action once or twice return the chanter with reed to the windway and test. You must do this repeatedly until you have achieved the desired result. The second way of opening the mouth is by using your thumb nail on the 'corner' of the Bridle to carefully push the bridle upwards towards the mouth, usually a movement of no more than 1mm or less is necessary. You can actually make a very slight adjustment by simply moving only one side of the bridle up by 0.5 - 1mm. If this is not enough then push the other side up by the same degree Using the guidelines from these notes you should be able to keep your chanter playing in tune with itself, producing a good tone and playing at a comfortable pressure.



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2) Drone Stock Safety

It is essential that the Drone Stock is not in any danger of falling out of the Drone Stock Cup. The 'Drone Stock Cup' is the large silver ferrule at the bag end of the Drone Stock. To rotate the assembly in the cup, you must always grip the cup with one hand whilst turning with the other. If removing the assembly you must grip with one hand whilst turning and pulling with the other.

The drone stock must be secure in the drone stock cup but not so tight that you are unable to remove it if necessary. Nor should it be so loose that it is in danger of working loose while you are playing.

To ensure that the whole drone stock assembly does not shoot out of the drone stock cup:

1) Before playing always make sure that there is no gap appearing between the edge of the drone stock cup (large ferrule) and the main drone stock.

2) Frequently check during playing that the above is not happening.

3) If you see a gap appearing: this means the Drone mainstock is not secure in the cup and you must remove it in order to wrap more thread around the base of the main Drone stock before returning it to the cup - make sure it is not so tight that you cannot remove it.


NB. This year (2014) I designed a Stock lock which prevents any danger of the stock coming loose and allows easy orientation of the whole stock for positioning of the regs for ease of playing. This can be seen in the pictures on my 'Uillean Pipes' Page.


Composite Drone Reeds for Irish Uilleann Pipes

I have been working with 'composite' drone reeds (metal body/cane tongue) in my Uilleann Pipes since around the mid 90's. I find there are a couple of advantages over the more traditional 'guill'. They are easily maintained and re-tongued. They are more stable when the temperature and humidity change e.g. in a session. Being shorter - especially the bass reed - I can make the main-stock shorter so that when you have Regulators they are closer and more accessible to your hand than the more prevalent longer main-stocks used by other makers. The total length of my mainstock is 170mm.

Click on picture for an enlarged view

picture of composite drone reeds for Irish Uilleann Pipes by Ray Sloan


3) Instruction on maintenance of all aspects of Composite Drone Reeds for the Uilleann Pipes

  1. Parts of a drone reed
  2. 'Clapping' reeds
  3. Poor tone
  4. Sealing a drone reed
  5. Squealing reeds
  6. No sound
  7. Tuning problems
  8. Tuning
  9. Instructions on re-tonguing

The following instructions are specifically designed for the maintenance of my composite reeds, (metal body/cane tongue) but the general principles apply to other composite drone reed systems, e.g. metal/plastic body with cane/plastic tongues. The particular system employed in the construction of my drone reeds is designed for ease of repair and the possible need for re-tonguing if the reed 'dies'. Once that you have mastered the technique described you will never have to buy another drone reed, always assuming that you are still in possession of the reed body, and you will always be able to easily keep your drones working and in balance with each other. When I reed up the pipes the drone reeds are adjusted so that the position of the tuning slide on the tuning pin is in its optimum position. If, as the reeds settle in, the relative position of these tuning slides on the pins change, this does not matter, so long as they are playing at the correct pitch and with the required tone.

As the reeds are played-in from new they will move in pitch as they settle. This means that the tuning slide may have to be moved in or out along the tuning pin to obtain the correct pitch. It is important also to bear in mind that reeds are organic entities that will react to many factors. These include variations in playing pressure, either too great, too low, or an uneven pressure. The latter is a particular problem for beginners. There are also many environmental factors which will affect the performance of reeds such as changes in temperature, humidity and altitude. When you strap in to your pipes at the beginning of a playing session you will find that you need to re-adjust the tuning of your drones during the first ten minutes or so, as all of the reeds adjust to the ambient temperature/ humidity. This is normal.

All reeds are delicate entities and are not tolerant of clumsy handling. This is particularly true of smaller reeds - such as tenor drone reeds. It is therefore important that reeds playing well should be left alone. It should now be obvious, but it is emphasised, that reeds are very sensitive creatures that need to be treated with kindness and delicacy at all times, indeed with more tender loving care than you have ever mustered before! However, drone reed repair/maintenance in particular is not so difficult that one should avoid it. Rather, it is a useful and important skill to acquire and not only saves on 'down-time' in your playing but on unnecessary expense.

Learning how to adjust and maintain the instrument's reeds has always been a part of the Pipers' art. Having the ability to repair and maintain your own reeds means that your pipes are never found wanting when it's time to play and one acquires a much deeper appreciation of tone and pitch etc. Having your reeds well adjusted, and knowing that you can do this if necessary, adds so much to a musical performance and contributes to the enjoyment of 'practice'. The way to approach the acquisition of the techniques and skills required is to purchase a set of replacement metal bodies, and other material needed, so that the well-set reeds in your pipes keep playing for you as you learn. Eventually you will have a set of playing spares ready for when any problems arise - and no long interruptions in the enjoyment of playing!

Whatever else you do to the reeds - never ever allow your reeds to get wet, and... Do Not Mouth-Blow Your Reeds!

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The Parts of a composite drone reed:

diagram showing parts of an Uilleann drone reed by Ray Sloan

There are generally only five problems that commonly arise. 1. 'Clapping', i.e. the reed closes shut with the result that there is no sound 2. Poor tone, funny noises or double toning. 3. Squealing as pressure is brought to bear on the reed. 4. No sound but a lot of air. 5. Tuning problems i.e. reed too sharp or flat.

1.) Clapping: If the gap between the reed tongue and body is too little, then as you bring pressure to bear upon the reeds the air pressure will hold the tongue closed against the reed body with the result that there is no sound. In order to function the tongue needs to spring back open against the air pressure, i.e. it needs to vibrate. To remedy 'clapping' you must adjust this pressure gap until the reed is responding to your playing pressure with the production of a nice clear note. If the playing pressure required to work the reed is too great for your comfort then reducing this pressure gap will produce a lighter reed that will respond to a lower pressure - but one that might also clap shut. The art is to make all reeds play at the same pressure, and one that you are comfortable with. This is what we mean when we say that the drone and Chanter reeds should be 'well balanced'. As well as being balanced in terms of the playing pressure well balanced reeds should also complement each other in terms of tone and volume.

To remedy a 'clapping' reed, employ one of the following methods to either increase or decrease the pressure gap.

a) Gently flick the tongue away from the reed body a couple of times and then re-try the reed in the drone. You must exercise extreme caution when doing this as you could break the tongue at the root if you flick too hard. You will help prevent this if you support the tongue by placing a finger on top of the tongue at the point where the hemp/thread wrapping finishes. If after you have done this the reed still claps, then try a couple of more flicks. This will work if you do it properly. Try this first without removing the reed from the drone socket (see diagram).

diagram showing how to cure a clapping Uilleann drone reed by Ray Sloan

b) Remove the reed from its socket in the drone and then remove three or four turns of thread from the 'root' end of the reed, re-wrap very tightly. The tightness of the wrapping affects the gap i.e. the tongue should rise away from the body relative to the tightness of the wrapping. If tighter wrapping does not raise the tongue then flicking should be pursued. Simply pushing the thread down with your fingernail the distance of one or two thicknesses of thread may also do the trick. You will be surprised at how much the movement of the thread by one or two thicknesses can alter pitch and pressure, especially with the Tenor reeds.

Don't forget; the tighter the wrapping, the bigger the gap and thus the stronger the reed will be, the stronger the reed the greater the playing pressure required to make it play, this will also the lower the note. (See instructions for re-tonguing and tuning.)

To reduce a pressure gap simply pull the hemp back off the tongue by three or four turns and then wrap it back on lightly whilst observing the gap - it should decrease. This will also have the effect of raising the pitch of the reed. If the gap does not reduce sufficiently then you will have to take more wrapping off than before and try again until you have reduced the gap adequately. (See instructions for re-tonguing and tuning.)

Note. When wrapping thread onto a reed tongue you must be very careful not to misalign the tongue on the body. (See instructions for re-tonguing and tuning. Also see "re-aligning a reed tongue")

If none of these methods remedies the problem the easiest thing to do is to replace the tongue with a new one. (See instructions for re-tonguing and tuning.

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2) Poor tone and/or funny noises. The first thing is to suspect an air leak somewhere in the drone system. Areas to check are: -

a) Check that the reed is seated in the drone socket securely (see diagram below). To check this; remove the reed from the drone, and then hold down the tongue against the reed body and suck through the tubular end of the reed. There should be no significant amount of air drawn into the mouth when the tongue is correctly seated. When sucking you should be able to remove your finger from the end of the reed whilst the tongue continues to form an airtight seal. If the tongue does not hold its seal, or if you can hear air, then the tongue may have to be re-aligned, or replaced.

See re-aligning a reed tongue/re-tonguing and tuning. Also check for any foreign particles lodged between the tongue and the reed body.

b) Check that the tongue forms an airtight seal with the reed body. Draw the tuning slide off the tuning pin and then carefully remove the drone 'standing part' from the drone stock. Place your mouth over the open end of the tuning pin. Leaving the reed in the drone socket, hold down the tongue as above, and again try to draw air. No appreciable amount of air should pass through the reed/drone and none at all should be coming through the drone via the reed socket. If there is, remove the reed and wrap a few turns of hemp around the base of the reed to create an airtight seal, re-seat and test again. If necessary apply a sealer such as wax or similar to the end of the reed socket covering the area where the reed enters the drone. Please be sure not to suck any foreign bodies into your lungs !

diagram showing how to seal an uilleann pipe drone reed by Ray Sloan in its socket

c) When replacing drones into the drone stock always check that the reed is not skewed in its socket so that it cannot hit the wall of the drone socket, which can cause problems. This ensures that the tongues can vibrate freely without obstruction. If the reed is skewed, the tongues may well hit against the wall of the socket and thus produce either a poor tone/noise, or may even not beat at all.

d) Check that the tuning slide is not too loose over the tuning pin, as this can also create air leakage and problems. In this case wrap a few turns of thread over the threaded end of the tuning pin to tighten up the sliding 'action'. This 'action' should make the slider easy enough to move with one hand whilst not being so loose that it might move of its own accord whilst playing. Nor should it be so tight that when you attempt to move the slider up and down the tuning pin the standing part moves or pulls out of the drone stock. If the standing part moves in the drone stock whilst you are attempting to tune the drone, but the action of the slider is comfortable, you will have to tighten up the standing part in the stock by the same method of employing thread as above.

If all of these areas are satisfactory and you still have 'poor tone and or funny noises' try pulling the thread back off the tongue by three or four turns and re-wrapping, as in instructions for 'clapping'. If all else fails, re-tongue.

3) Squealing Reeds

Reeds can at times develop a squeal as air begins to pass over the reed when you begin playing. If this happens then usually a quick stroke of the fingertip over the end of the offending drone will cause it to pull itself together. If the problem continues then suspect and check the following:

a) That the system is airtight.

b) Tongue alignment.

c) That the pressure gap is not too great.

Possible remedies are:-

a) Try pulling two or three turns of wrapping off the tongue and re-try.

b) Flicking the tongue as per instructions under 'Clapping'.

c) With a scalpel, razor blade or sharp knife gently scrape some 'dust' off the root of the tongue, this will usually work - it will also reduce pitch and playing pressure. You only need scrape a tiny amount of dust off here to have an effect! (See following diagram)

d) Re-tongue.

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diagram showing how to scrape the tongue of an uilleann pipe drone reed by Ray Sloan

4) No sounds, lots of air.

a) The reed has fallen into the bag! Seek and thee shall find.

b) The pressure gap is too big and the reed will therefore only respond with a great heave on the bag, which will probably cause your other reeds to 'Clap'. See Reducing Pressure Gap under 'clapping', or 're-tonguing a reed and tuning' below.

c) The reed tongue has become misaligned. See 're-aligning a reed tongue'.

d) There is some kind of foreign matter e.g. dust lodged between the tongue and reed body.

5) Tuning Problems; reeds too sharp or flat.

The position of the tuning slide on the pin only becomes a problem if: -

a) the pitch of the reed is so sharp that the sliding part of the drone cannot sit securely at the end of the tuning pin whilst obtaining the correct pitch, or

b) the pitch of the drone remains too flat when the tuning slide is pushed fully up the length of the tuning pin, or

c) The position of the tuning slide affects the tonal qualities of the reed and produces odd sound effects.

If the drone reed has gone too sharp you will find that you have to pull the tuning slide to a position where it may be uncomfortably close to the end of the tuning pin (the threaded section ) and in danger of falling off. The other possible consequence is that the performance of the reed may be affected. My drones are usually set at a point just above the threaded area of the tuning pin.

If the drone reed has gone too flat you will find that you are having to push the tuning slide so far up the tuning pin that it is still tuning flat when it has no more room to travel, i.e. there is no more tuning pin visible. You should always have room for tuning adjustments on your drones.

If you cannot remedy a tuning problem and the reed becomes fatigued by an excess of adjustment and it will not behave normally, then always re-tongue.


The following guidelines apply generally to tuning all kinds of drone reeds.

a) The shorter the tongue the higher the pitch.

b) The thinner the tongue the higher the pitch.

c) The longer the tongue the lower the pitch.

d) The thicker the tongue the lower the pitch.

The pitch can be lowered by placing a very small weighting device, such as wax, on the end of the cane tongue. The kind of wax which is found covering some cheeses is very handy and should be kept for this sort of job. Any kind of 'weighting' device on the end of the tongue will have the desired effect. A very small amount will suffice. You can also scrape some dust off the root of the tongue (see 'Squealing Reeds 'c') .Strip a few turns of hemp off the reed thereby effectively lengthening the tongue. 'Weighting' the end of the tongue can also have the effect of steadying a temperamental reed, which is for example wavering too much with slight pressure variations, or double toning.

The pitch can be raised by trimming the thickness of the tongue at the thick end. This will also make a 'lighter' and 'brighter' reed. You can raise the pitch by tying on one or two more turns of hemp/thread thereby shortening the length of the vibrating tongue.

To make a stronger reed raise the pressure gap by any of the methods described previously e.g. under 'Clapping'. You can also try wrapping the thread on tighter.

To make a lighter reed carry out one of the following:-

Decrease the pressure gap. This can be done by lightly wrapping the hemp onto the tongue. You will have to strip a few turns off first of all and then re-wrap lightly. Take one or two turns of hemp off the root of the reed, this will also lower the pitch of the reed. Scrape some 'dust' off the root of the tongue. This will also lower the pitch. See 'SquealingReeds' c) 'Tuning Problems' and 'Clapping' - above.

i) If you have to mess around too much with a particular tongue, it may be best to simply try a new one, as they do get fatigued with too much adjustment. The Saxophone/Clarinet reeds I use for tongues are cheap enough so it does not matter.

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Instructions for Re-Tonguing and Tuning my Drone Reeds.

Materials that you will need

First of all remove all of the old hemp and tongue from the reed body. Ensure that the reed body beating surface is clean and free of grease or dirt by polishing it on the abrasive paper. To do this the abrasive paper should be laid face up on the work surface and the reed body rubbed over it firmly, beating surface down. Then clean out all the dust and dirt produced, using something like a toothbrush, or a hard blow by mouth will do.

Tenor & Baritone Reeds.

1. First of all, mark the top of the sax/clarinet reed with a pencil so that you will know which is the upper surface of the reed. Once the reed has been cut it is very difficult to differentiate top from bottom. (See below)

2. Using a Stanley knife blade and hammer Chop off a length of cane from the bottom tapered portion of the Sax' reed which is as long as the reed body, as indicated in the diagram. Keep the discarded thick end section for making the Bass tongues.

3. Using the Stanley blade cut off a strip for the tongue the width of the reed body. You will only need to apply finger pressure to make the cut, or employ a light blow with the hammer. MIND YOUR FINGERS!

diagram showing how to cut and replace the tongue of an uilleann pipe drone reed by Ray Sloan

4. If you have cut the strip of cane too wide then carefully turn it on its edge and rub it gently on the abrasive paper until it is the correct width. Don't forget which is the 'top' side and underside of the tongue!

5) Carefully trim off the thickness of the wedge so that the tongue is really quite thin along its length, almost uniform in thickness from the thinnest end, at the most a thin wedge shape in profile. If the cane is too thick not only will it give a dull tone but it will probably also be too low in pitch. Trimming it nice and thin gives it a lovely bright tone and will produce the correct pitch. Practice and experience will inform you of the best thickness but try starting with a wedge no more than 1.5 - 2mm thickness at the thickest end. Always remember that you are working on the 'top' side of the cane.

6) Putting a curl in the bottom of the tongue (the thinnest part) will help raise the correct 'pressure gap'. The more pronounced the curl the larger the gap will be and the stronger the reed will be. Practice will soon inform you of the appropriate curl to put in the reed. It only takes enough to raise the end of the tongue about 1 mm. To put a curl in the bottom of your reed tongue, simply take a hard rod which is approximately 3-4mm in diameter (diagram below). I use a woodworkers' Bradawl but something like a thin knitting needle will do. At a point 3-4mm in from the end of the thinnest part of the tongue (the bottom) press the curved surface of your chosen tool firmly into the reed. Whilst maintaining a firm pressure move the tool from left to right and right to left until you can see the end beginning to curl. You will only be rubbing an area of cane no more than about 3-4mm in length. Usually one firm movement will do the job.

diagram showing how to raise the pressure gap on an uilleann pipe drone reed by Ray Sloan

7) Offer up the tongue to the reed body in the correct position for tying it on i.e. the curled portion being placed over the tubular end of the reed body. Position the tongue so that the bottom edge is half way up the closed/tubular section of the reed body. This is the optimum point for a good performing reed. You should now have the tongue in its correct position ready for tying-in, with a few millimetres projecting over the top open end of the body. This will be trimmed off after you have tied on the tongue.

Binding the tongue.

Take a length of thread sufficient for the job.

a) Hold the tongue in position on the reed body with your thumb and forefinger, gripping the reed by the sides. Make sure that the 'top' surface of the reed tongue is uppermost. If you tie the tongue on upside down you will not get a good seal and the reed will not work.

b) Check that the tongue is neither projecting too far forward of the end of the reed body, nor that it is too far back, thereby causing air leaks (see diagram below). If the bottom of the tongue is in its correct position for tying on then any excess projecting over the top end can be trimmed off.

diagram showing how to bind the tongue of an uilleann pipe drone reed by Ray Sloan

c) Start winding the thread on from the very end of the reed body until it contacts the cane tongue. You can now move your fingers further towards the front of the reed whilst you bind on the rest of the thread.

diagram showing how to attach the tongue of an uilleann pipe drone reed by Ray Sloan

d) Once you have contacted the tongue you must wrap the rest of the hemp on very tightly up to about five turns above point 'A' (see diagram below). The tightness of the wrapping combined with the 'curl' should raise a gap of about 1 - 1.5 mm at the end of the reed.

e) Place the end of the reed in your mouth and suck. If you have both an airtight seal and you can obtain a constant note without clapping while sucking through the reed, try it in the drone.

diagram showing to position the tongue of an uilleann pipe drone reed by Ray Sloan

f) If when you try the reed in the drone it simply claps shut, you must raise a wider pressure gap at the end by either flicking the tongue as indicated earlier, tying on one or two more turns of hemp very tightly, or stripping the hemp off and putting a more pronounced curl in the end of the tongue. If you tie the hemp too high up the reed it will more than likely just produce a squeal. If this should happen, withdraw some of the hemp. You will find out through experience the optimum position for the hemp on the tongue.


Be careful not to misalign the tongue whilst pushing the reed into its socket, as the tendency is to twist the reed while doiong this and you can unwittingly twist the tongue out of alignment thereby causing problems.

Once you have produced a nice steady note, and the tuning slide is in a reasonable position, i.e. neither hanging off the end of the drone, nor pushed too tightly towards the top, you may consider yourself as having produced a good reed. Congratulations! From now on you need not fear when a reed goes wrong, just re-tongue it.

Re-aligning a reed tongue.

a) Carefully withdraw the suspect drone from the drone stock. b) With the reed still in place in the drone look at it end on.

diagram showing how to identify an air leak in an uilleann pipe drone reed by Ray Sloan

The cane tongue should be in the position indicated in diagram above (1). If not, and the reed end looks like (2) in the diagram above air may leak between the tongue and the reed body causing poor tone and other problems.

To re-align a tongue:

With the reed seated in the drone socket hold the end of the offending reed (tongue and body) between thumb and forefinger where the hemp finishes (the 'root') Now, gently, twist the reed in its socket in the direction in which the tongue has to move(see diagram below). Be careful not to go too far in the other direction. Too much messing around could wreck the reed.

diagram showing how to re-align the tongue of an uilleann pipe drone reed by Ray Sloan

Bass Drone Reeds.

Exactly the same procedures apply for making a bass drone reed as those described above for tenor and baritone reed tongues. However, because of the longer length of tongue required you will have to cut this from the longer and thicker section of your bass sax/clarinet reed which was left after you cut off the section to make your tenor tongues. Use a sharp Stanley knife blade and hammer to cut off your tongue section. One Bass Clarinet /Sax' reed will make three Bass drone reeds and four tenor or baritone reeds. A Contra Bass Clarinet reed is good for Bass reeds as they are longer.

If using the remnants of a Sax' reed: The section of cane that you cut off for the bass tongue will be almost uniformly thick along its' entire length. You will therefore have more work to do in trimming this down than you had to do for the smaller and thinner tenor/baritone reeds.

Having cut the remaining piece of cane longitudinally into three pieces, you should first of all slice the chosen piece right through the middle of its thickness, across its entire length (diagram below). The thickness should now be 2-3mm and no more. Your next task is to carefully trim off the cane from your tongue so that you produce a wedge shaped profile. (See diagram.) The thickness of the tongue at the thinnest end should be paper thin. The thickest end should be about 2mm thick. In other words you are producing a wedge from about 2mm at its thickest end tapering down to approximately 0.25mm at its thinnest.

diagram showing how to cut a replacement tongue for a Bass drone reed by Ray Sloan

At this point you can either put in a curl at the thinnest end, as with the other reeds, or you can try simply tying the tongue on very tightly. Bass reed tongues respond more readily to the tightness of the wrapping than do the smaller reeds and so you may find this sufficient to raise the appropriate pressure gap.

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