Swedish bagpipes

Reed making

The most difficult thing to learn about swedish bagpipes is not how play them - it is how to make an adjust its reeds. Every bagpipe maker and most pipers have their own idea on how to do this. This page explains how I make reeds, with some comparisons to other styles. This is not to say that my way to make reeds is the best way, only that it works best for me.

Is it really necessary to make your own reeds? No, you can probably buy reeds from your bagpipe maker. But, no piper can avoid having to adjust reeds, i.e. to tune them. And to really understand how that works (see the section on tuning, you should at least know how to make them in theory. Besides, it feels a lot better experimenting with your reed if you know that you can make a new one, should you have to.

The reed is the thing that makes the noise. Traditionally, it is in one piece - a cylinder of cane where a tongue has been cut or sliced out. This tongue vibrates as air flows through the reed, making the sound.

Bagpipe reeds are made from ... reed! It is, of course, not a coincidence that the source material and the end product carry the same name. When talking about reed making, it is confusing, however, so I will use the word "cane" when I mean the material - the growing reed.

The only suitable form of cane growing in Sweden is Pragmites australis (common reed, "bladvass" in Swedish). However, Phragmites is fragile and sensitive to humidity, so many pipers (myself included) prefer the kind of cane most other instrument reeds are made from - Arundo donax (giant reed, Spanish cane). This does not grow in Sweden, but cane segments, cultivated on farms for the very purpose of making reeds, can be imported (from France or Spain, for example). I recommend Alliaud Roseaux in particular, who by now should have become used to Swedish pipers and their strange (to him) reed dimensions.

When I got started as a Swedish bagpiper, I made reeds in the traditional way (from Phragmites australis), as taught by Leif Eriksson - the nestor among Swedish bagpipe makers. "Traditional" here means downcut, with bridle and hair (the reed to the left in the adjoining picture - the technical terms will be explained later).

Then, in 1995, I met Alban Faust, who makes upcut reeds from Arundo donax, without bridle nor hair (the reed to the right). That made a drastic change to my success rate when making reeds.

My current reed making style is an inbetween, though it is much closer to Faust's than to Eriksson's. I make upcut reeds from Arundo donax, with bridle and hair. The bridle and hair are complements, though, not necessities (as opposed to downcut reeds, where they usually are).


Two different kind of reeds (both for chanters in E/A). The downcut reed to the left, with hair and bridle, is made from Phragmites australis. Phragmites is usually not air tight in the node end, so this end has been sealed with some sealing wax (the red "hat" at the top). The upcut reed to the right is made from Arundo donax. This type of reed does not require hair or bridle. Phragmites reeds are usually (as here) shorter than Arundo reeds.


Some useful tools. Two cane segments (not cut down to length yet, a sharp knife, a single edge razor blade and a handle for that.

Getting started

I will now describe how I make reeds for a Swedish bagpipe chanter in E/A. As I said before, I use Arundo donax. The methods I will describe are the same if you make reeds in other materials, for chanters in other keys, or for drones, but measures and details may differ.

Cane is hollow and grows in segments separated (also on the inside) by nodes. On Arundo donax, the wall on the inside at the node is usually airtight, on Phragmites australis it usually is not.

If you buy cane from a supplier, the cane has probably already been cut so that one end is closed (by a node) and the other is open, which is what we want. The segment should be slightly thicker than the inner diameter of your chanter. For most Swedish E/A-chanters, this means just over 6 mm.

Chanter and cane segments
Chanter and cane segments

The cylinder should be 50-55 mm in length (measured between the node and the open end). To shorten the cane segment to this length, I cut around it with a sharp knife (actually, I hold the knife still and roll the cylinder while pressing it to the knife's edge) until I'm almost through. Then I can break it off.

I clean the inside of the cylinder with a 4mm drill and, if the node end is not already airtight, I seal it with melted sealing wax. Arundo donax nodes usually are airtight.


I use mediterranean cane (Arundo donax) for my reeds, but if you want to make reeds the traditional way, you should harvest common reed (Phragmites australis) in late winter or early spring, when the ice breaks up, and use segments that have been embedded in the ice, i.e. segments from the water line. (This being a tradition from a country where the lakes always freeze over in winter)

Preferably, the cane you pick has had a tough life, and therefore grown slowly and become hard. Cane from lakes or ditches by farmed fields have most likely been over fertilized and grown too fast, making the cane thick walled, or even solid, and porous.

The cane should be left to dry for a long time, at least a year. It should be gold-brown when you make your reeds, not green (Arundo donax becomes more yellow when it dries).

Before starting to make a Phragmites reed, take the segment and try to crush it between your thumb and the middle joint of your index finger. Really try! Of course, if you succeed you destroy the segment, but then it was probably not a good segment anyway.

Roll the cane segment against the knife
Roll the cane segment against the knife ...
and then break it off
... and then break it off.

Cutting the tongue

The tongue can be cut out from the reed in two ways. If you hold the reed vertically in front of you, with the node end up and the open end down, the tongue can be cut downwards from the node end or upwards from the open end.

Downcut reeds

Downcut reeds are cut (sliced) from close to the node towards the open end. In other words, the tip of the tongue comes close to the node, and the root of the tongue comes close to the open end and the chanter. Downcut reeds are usually, but not necessarily, made from Phragmites australis cane.

Upcut reeds

I prefer upcut reeds, which means that I cut in the other direction - from the open end towards the closed end. So, the resulting tongue's tip comes close to the chanter and the root comes close to the node. Upcut reeds are usually, but not necessarily, made from Arundo donax cane.
Theoretically, the direction should make no difference to functionality or sound. However, in my opinion, there is a reliability difference, both when making the reed and when it is working in the chanter.

  • Downcut reeds have the root of the tongue close to the open end which means that the crack may creep up (due to the tongue's vibrations), separating the tongue from the body. Downcut reeds require a bridle - a tight wrapping of string at the tongue's root - to prevent this. Upcut reeds do not have this problem, since the node prevents the crack from creeping up. It also prevents me from cutting to far, accidentally separating the tongue from the body. Upcut reeds may have a bridle anyway, for other reasons, but it is not required.

  • Eventually, the reed will be inserted into a chanter, and it should be a tight fit. When the reed becomes wet it swells, which induces unwanted stuctural tensions in the reed. These tensions are more likely to affect the tongue if it is downcut, since the root (the tongue's "hinge") is so close to the source of the problem (another reason for needing that bridle). On upcut reeds, the root of the tongue is far from the source of the tensions, and the tongue is therefore less likely to be affected.

  • Tuning a bagpipe is done by tweaking various parameters on the reed - moving the bridle, for example, if there is one. All such adjustements to the reed have unwanted side effects. In my experience these side effects are stronger on downcut reeds than on upcut reeds. Many of the side effects are negligable on upcut reeds, but must be compensated for (by adjusting something else) on downcut reeds. However, since most upcut reeds are made from Arundo donax and most downcut reeds are made from Phragmites australis, it is hard to say if the difference is due to the direction of the cut, or the material.
Anyway, upcut reeds it is. I start by searching for the cylinder's "eye". This is a small bump, or indentation on one side of the cylinder, close to the node - the remnant of a sprout having grown there, I guess. It may not be there, but if it is, I cut out the tongue on the other side of the cylinder. This is to ensure that the bump or indentation does not affect the tongue (become part of it).

I then mark the tip of the tongue with a thin and sharp knife, 37mm from the node. This is the measure recommended by Alban Faust, for chanter reeds (of his own making). He recommends 35mm for drone reeds, but I use the same measure for both kinds of reeds. To me, it is not crucial that the length is exact, as long as it is not too short. If required I shorten the tongue later, using a bridle.

I then cut down (saw down) with the knife at the mark, until I'm almost through the inner wall of the cylinder. Then I replace the knife with a razor blade, and push with that until I can only just see the edge of the blade if I look inside the cylinder. Arundo donax can be very hard, so it may prove difficult (even dangerous) to get through with a normal, double edge, razor blade. I use a single edge razor blade instead, of the type painters use to scrape left-over paint from windows. There are handles for such razor blades (see the picture above with the tools).

The next step is to crack the tongue open (to lift the tip), by bending the blade towards the open end of the cylinder. (This is a critical moment and it does not always succeed.) I then carefully insert the blade under the tongue and use it as a lever, to lift the tongue some more.

It is important to be careful here, so as not to cut away material from the edges under the tongue (causing air leaks). Finally, I remove the blade and bend up the tongue by hand. The crack should go up all they way to the node (or as close to it as possible).

That I'm lifting, not cutting, allows the crack to follow fibres in the material. Some makers prefer to cut, ignoring the direction of the fibres. I don't. I believe (only by intuition) that the reed becomes more reliable if it is allowed to do "what it wants"

Lifting the tongue and looking inside the cylinder, I sometimes find a small seed (looks like a small piece of cotton) close to the node. If so, I remove it.

By now, I have imposed quite an amount of strain and stress in the tongue, by cutting and bending. If I'm not in a hurry (one should not be) - I leave the reed to rest for a few hours. When I come back, the tongue has relaxed a bit (lowered itself towards the body).

I now try blowing through the reed, by inserting it in my mouth, node end first, almost all the way (so that the tongue can vibrate freely inside). Eventually, when the reed is finished, this should produce a crisp and steady tone, slightly above E (upper E on your chanter, i.e. the highest note on most E/A-chanters) (Sound example).

Most likely, though, the reed does not sound right yet, if it sounds at all. There are two probable reasons for this - the tongue may not be elevated enough (from the body) and may also be too stiff (thick).

Mark the tongue's length and saw with the knife
Mark the tongue's length and saw with the knife (the white piece of plastic is a template, 55 mm long and with marks at 35 and 37 mm)

Push down with a razor blade
Push down with a razor blade

Crack the tongue open
Crack the tongue open

Lift the tongue
Lift the tongue, using the razor blade as a lever

Thinning out the tongue
Thinning out the tongue


Workshop in Gagnef
Photo: Anne-Marie Eriksson

Tongue scraping

It is very difficult to explain in words how stiff the tongue should be. When lifting the tongue, after only a few millimeter the tongue starts resisting, as if it doesn't want to be lifted more than that. The tongue should feel stiffer than the tongue of a jews harp, softer than picking a guitar string (but close).

Reeds made from Phragmites australis seldom requires tongue scraping, but Arundo donax reeds usually do. The sound of a reed with too thick tongue, if it makes a note at all, is hard and raw and much sharper (higher) than the top E of the chanter.

To make the tongue thinner I slice with a sharp knife along the full length of the tongue, from the root to the tip. Slicing is risky, though, in that it is easy to cut away too much. Scraping with the knife instead is slower, but safer.

About the only irreversible mistake one can make to a reed, is to make it too thin. Most other mistakes can be counteracted, but if the tongue becomes too sloppy, we're in trouble. A layer of nail polish applied to the tongue might help, but it is probably better to start all over.

Lifting the tongue

If the reed won't let any air through at all, or if it shuts close almost immediately when trying (listen to this), the tongue should be lifted from the body. This can be done in two ways.

  1. The traditional way is to insert a hair under the tongue, close to the root. This should prevent the tongue from closing and will also lift it some (depending on the thickness of the hair). At this stage, however, I would do it another way.

  2. The other way is to heat set the tongue. This is done by lifting it (more than actually wanted) and heating it with an open flame. One or two quick passes (along the whole length of the tongue) should be enough. When the tongue is released, it will go back towards the body again, but not all the way. In a similar fashion the tongue can be lowered again, if necessary, by pressing it against the body while heating.

If the tongue is lifted too much the reed may become strong and stable, but the pitch will be flat (too low). The reed requires too much air pressure, and you can hear that it does not start directly when you start to blow - there is a hiss as air goes through it, just before it actually starts to sound.

Sound example.

Leif Eriksson does not heat set at all, I think. As far as I know, he only uses the hair method - perhaps (probably) heat setting is more risky when working in Phragmites australis. Alban Faust on the other hand, never uses hair (nor Phragmites). I do use a hair, but not at this stage.

Heat setting
Heat setting of the tongue

My chanter reed
This is an E/A-chanter reed. It is fully functional and well in tune (and has been for almost a decade when I write this). As you can see, the tongue does not have to be lifted much - the elevation is actually almost unnoticeable. Note also that this reed has both a bridle (a short piece of plastic hose) and a hair.

My reason for having a bridle and a hair

Upcut reeds do not require bridle or hair. However, I have found it convenient to use them anyway.

When having made a reed, it works properly, and the chanter is in tune, I insert a hair which is so thin that it makes almost no difference to the tuning of the chanter (I pick the hair from my arm). Indeed, the hair is not there for tuning, only to prevent the reed from stopping when wet - a wet tongue is less rigid than a dry one and will tend to go back towards the body.

I do use a bridle for quick fine tuning, though. But instead of a tight wrapping of string, I use a plastic ring cut from a 5mm (inner diameter) plastic hose. The inclusion of a bridle makes the measured length of the tongue, when cut out, less critical. Also, I sometimes impregnate my reeds by dipping them in almond oil. This makes the tongue heavier (it sucks up some of the oil - that's the point) and the bridle may be needed to shorten the tongue, to compensate. By the way, if you also want to impregnate your reeds, use almond oil or olive oil, not linseed oil! Linseed oil leaves a residue which clogs the reed.


A man (Hans Rönnegård) and his reed making toolkit
Photo: Anne-Marie Eriksson

Summary

This is how I make reeds, in short:
  1. I take a cylinder of cane, about 6mm thick and with one end sealed by a node. I cut it to length, 50-55 mm, measured from the node.
  2. I mark the tongue's tip 37 mm from the node. If the cylinder has an "eye", I do so on the other side.
  3. I saw down at the mark with a sharp knife, until I'm almost through the wall. I then replace the knife with a razor blade and press down until the edge of it is only just visible from the inside.
  4. I crack the tongue open, bending with the blade, and then use the blade as a lever to lift the tongue further. The last bit, I lift by hand.
  5. I let the reed lie for a few hours.
  6. I thin out the tongue until its stiffness feels right.
  7. I lift the tongue slightly from the body, by heat setting.
Step 4 and 6 are the critical ones - where fatal mistakes are most likely.
Finished, but not yet adjusted, reed
Finished, but not yet adjusted, reed

Trouble shooting

Problem Solution
The reed won't let any air through at all Lift the tongue or move the bridle(*) towards the tip.
The reed starts to sound, but shuts close immediately

or

The reed sounds, but the pitch varies a lot with air pressure

Lift the tongue or move the bridle(*) towards the tip.

In the worst case, the tongue is too thin. If so, not much can be done.

The reed lets air through, but makes no sound (except the hiss of air passing through)

or

The reed requires very high air pressure to sound.

First, lower the tongue or move the hair(*) towards the root.

If that does not work, thin out the tongue.

The reed sounds and is steady, but the produced note is much sharper than the top E of the chanter Thin out the tongue.
(*) if you have one ...

The next step is to try the reed in the chanter. See the section on tuning.

Olle Gällmo http://olle.gallmo.se olle@gallmo.se