Pipers have generally been inclined to leave reed-making to the maker of their pipes. However, there are intrepid pipers
out there, perhaps remote from their pipemaker, who have tackled. One such is Craig Hohm in New York State, who
provided us with these observations on his experience of mastering the process.

P1 The tool kit

I have been collecting tools and materials for some years in preparation for embarking on making my own border pipe reeds, but never
actually took it on until last month when my last good reed cracked and died. Since then I have puzzled my way through two sets of five reeds, following
the videos and book by Colin Ross.1
Here's how I got started

1.    First: watch the videos on youtube of Colin making a smallpipe reed.

2 The process is identical except for the shape of the staple and the reed slip. In the videos you can see how Colin does it and the tools he uses. With the exception of the in-cannel gouge, you probably have most of what you need around the house (Ebay is a wonderful source of old tools). I think Colin's book, "Reedmaking for Northumbrian and Scottish Smallpipes", complements the videos and gives more details of the same process. His design for the border pipe chanter reed is printed on page 56.
It is very similar to Ray Sloan's design as featured in More Power to Your Elbow except for the pointed end that is covered by wrapping.
I am hopeful that if you watch the videos the initial process will seem pretty straightforward; a familiarity with hand tools is helpful, as is some knowledge of woodworking; one cannot replace with book learning alone the educational value of cutting something too short
This work can be done at the kitchen table, and you can keep your tools in a small tackle box (P1) So, once you get this kit together, have a go. The home made items, the shaped nail, the gouging block, and the manometer, are all easily made. John Liestman's book "The Northumbrian Smallpipes Tutor" goes into detail on how to make these, as well as providing information regarding supplies and tool maintenance.

3 Why bother? Well…you can count on being prepared before that big gig when your favorite reed develops a limp. It is possible that the process will give you greater control, reeds that work better in your climate, even seasonal reeds to change out. It is possible that you will find a sound that you prefer, a playing pressure and a volume to suit. And besides the admiration of your peers, you can get the whole kit for less than some makers charge for a single reed these days.
I think that the early stages of production are pretty straightforward: (P2-4) The cane is cut and placed in the gouging block. The brass runners limit the depth of cut. Anita Evans’ smallpipe reed pages [footnote 1] have useful images of these processes, and they are well displayed on Colin’s videos.

P2 The slip on the block              P3 Gouging the slip                   P4 The finished slip

The slip is shaped using a cardboard template4 and a small hand plane (p5-6), then the ends and center are thinned as per the videos - some makers advocate leaving the center section full thickness until after the staple is attached; John Burke5 says that leaving it thick at this stage "makes terrific reeds but needs more work in the sanding down". (Lots more work.)

P5 The template

P6 The slip cut to the template

The staple uses a short section of 3/16" brass tubing that is widened into shape by pounding a filed nail down into the end (P7). You can see this process in detail in Colin’s video [part 2]. I had thought that Colin's diagram of the sharp ended ellipse was a sort of platonic ideal until I took one of his reeds apart and saw it actually looked like that. I went back to my nail and got the edges sharper and the width correct; it takes patience and a good file (P8). A wooden handled mandrel inserted into the round end of the staple makes it easier to handle the reed for wrapping, etc.

P7 The mandrel tools

 P8 The mandrel

When the reed-gouging is done, cut it, soak it and wrap it on the staple, and leave it to dry. Again, Colin’s Youtube video will demonstrate this process. Now we enter the arcane labyrinth of adjustment decisions. These adjustments are:

A.    Thinning the blades
B.    Shortening the reed
C.    Closing the tips
D.    Opening the tips
E.    Setting the reed further in the chanter
F.    Setting the reed further out
SO, what I'm going to do is document every step I take with a single reed, choosing among the various processes until I either give up or get a reed that sounds good. This is based on my extensive (three week) experience and I welcome anyone commenting on what I might have done differently.
There are four essential items you will need.

1.    A set of pipes in good condition (that play in tune with this type of reed)
2.    A manometer
3.    An electronic tuner
4.    Some form of magnification

Making it speak.
Sanding. (P9) The first finger position shown in the first image on Anita’s page 3    [footnote 1] serves to focus the sanding pressure on the central portion of the reed body, sanding evenly over the whole length of the exposed reed until the tips reach a combined thickness of 0.020". Watch the ends and edges under magnification to make sure you aren't getting too thin in any one spot. A pencil rubbed tangentially will show you the line of sanding and highlight the ridges (P10); in this photo the left edge is getting more pressure than the right. Fit the bridle and continue sanding, this time moving the focal point of the finger pressure toward the end of the reed. Keep an eye on the tip, especially where the two halves come together.

P9 Sanding equipment

P10 Pencil lines indicate the ridges
Under magnification you can see where the reed is a little thicker and focus the sanding on one side/one edge as needed to get a uniform thickness across the aperture. When the edges are 0.015" together, you should be able to get a squeak out of it. Colin advises the border reed should sound an "E" when sucked (rather than the C# of the Scottish Smallpipe reed.). Mine sounds an F.


P11 The set-up

Reed adjusting Set the reed in the chanter after wrapping some waxed thread onto the exposed staple end. See how it plays, and at what pressure. Measure how far it protrudes from the chanter. Here's the set up: (P11) manometer in the background hooked up to the fifth drone, bass drone removed and plugged, tenor drone stopped, and all the tools at hand. 1.    Initial readings are: Length (L) 1.04" from chanter stock to reed tip; Pressure ℗ is 16. Low A is 5c sharp and high A is 20    c flat. Reed is playing too hard and the pitch of low A is too high; needs thinning. The reed’s tips measure 0.015" combined so I am going to SCRAPE but stay away from the tips.


P12 The aperture

Photo 12 shows the condition of the reed with light shining down the aper- ture; I find this easier to see than looking into the aperture. I have penciled in the areas that look thicker to me. The goal is a uniform gradation of thickness. 2.    After scraping away the thicker areas the readings are: ℗ 15, both low A and high A are flatter but high A more so. John Liestman's book has a very useful chart on p. 102 that delineates the ac- tions and their effects. In this case thin- ning the blades makes the pitch drop but affects the upper octave more. 3.    Next, TRIM tips; this is similar to setting the reed in further (once the staple has bottomed out in the stock of the chanter). (P 13) I don't have a nifty anvil cutter but a single edge razor works well, using a little hammer to make the cut. I tried nail clippers but cracked the tips with these. Rechecking thickness of tips: still 0.015.


P13 Trimming the tip

This has improved the octave tuning but the reed is still overall sharp at ℗ 15.    Pressure is still a little hard; Burke suggests that scraping the center will decrease the pitch, while scraping what the oboe people call the "rails", the edges of the reed] will decrease the playing pressure. So I am going to SCRAPE both the center and the rails. Under magnification I see that one rail is slight- ly thicker than the other near the bridle, so scraping is concentrated on this edge. (P 14) . Note the slight asymmetry of the V; will scrape to make this look uniform as well.


P14 Asymmetry needs to be scraped

4.    Low A is 10c sharp, high A 20c flat. P 15. To equalize octaves, TRIM a bit. L now 1.02 and the tip thickness is 0.020. Tips need thinning.

Under magnification I can see one side is slightly thicker so concentrate the SANDING on this edge only.

5.    P 12, octaves in tune but 20c sharp overall : OPEN

6.    High A now flat relative to low A: SCRAPE. (P 15) The pencil marks again show the asymmetry with shining light down the aperture. These marks are scraped away. It doesn't take much using the x-acto knife to remove the pencil marks and check with the light again. Go slow (* rereading this I think it might have made more sense to set reed in further, but I got to it later)


P15 High A now flat

7.    Low A is 25c sharp, high A is 50 c sharp. Looks like a bit of a paradox here, since thinning the blades in this case affected the upper octave more. Now the reed is reset (by re wrapping the thread) to protrude farther from the chanter stock:

8.    L is 1.10. Low A good, high A flat 20    c. Push the reed in to L 1.06 Sounding well over all. High A fluctu- ates occasionally, requiring a pulse of pressure to bring it up and then it stabi- lizes.. Overall tuning is G-20 A 0 B 0 C# +5 D 0 E 0 F# -5 G 0 A(high) +5 Bear in mind that the electronic tuner will show you absolute pitch. There are a variety of intonations used in tuning chanters. See the Burke reference above for his "just intonation" : a0 b +4 c# -14 e +2 F# -16 The reed is playing pretty well and I am going to leave it alone for the night. In fact, it is probably a good idea to not make all these adjustments in a single sitting. If you have a bunch of reeds made up, spend 15-20min on each one and then leave it for the day. An addi- tional note: this reed uses a shorter sta-ple (3/4") than Colin's original design, which leaves it with a slightly longer exposed reed surface. Relative to the 7/8" staple, I think this reed has more treble overtones; the shorter reed (lon- ger staple) is "honkier", with more mid- tones, "rounder". Both are nice. Here is a couple of observations that I think are true.

1.    If the low A stutters at playing pres- sure, what the uilleann people call the "auto cran", it needs to be opened up.

2.    If the pitch of a note drops with increased pressure, suspect a crack in the tip. Days later… I have spent some time readjusting this reed since the above was written. The reed will go through a stabilization process as it ages (oxidizing fresh exposed reed and hardening?) and will need reapplication of the above steps.

Notes 1    Colin Ross’s book is currently being re-printed. Meanwhile, other valuable resources are Anita Evans’ smallpipe reed pages: http://www.evansbagpipes.co.uk/ pipes/reedmake/chant.htm [particularly helpful for the early stages] and at Iain Allen’s site http://www.bagpipereeds.co.uk/ down-
loads/ [for reed adjustments]. More Power To Your Elbow  has much valuable information including
Ray Sloan’s slip templates. See also notes below.
2    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gYQ82P6GZE; Northumbrian chanter reed parts 1-4
3    John Liestman’s book is now online at http://www.liestman.com/The%20Northumbrian%20Smallpipes%20Tutor%20-%20Liestman.pdf
4    See p. 56 for dimensions.
5    http://www.borderpipe.com/Reedmaking%20notes.htm
Readers who have their own experiences of reed-making are invited to contribute to an ongoing project on this topic in the pipe-maintenance section on the website.