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Dave Shaw, who turned from tree felling to pipe-making some 20 years ago specialises in Shuttle pipes - he also makes Northumbrian

smallpipes, Border (Half-long) pipes and whistles.                                               

Here he gives some history and describes his approach                                                                        to making the all-important shuttle drones.

Shuttle pipes are an often misunderstood and sometimes maligned part of the spectrum of bagpiping. The distinctive feature which gives them their name is the shuttle-drone, a stubby projecting cylinder, usually containing three or four drones of differing lengths. Cut in the surface of this unit are longitudinal slots, each carrying one or more sliders for tuning.

To the uninitiated eye it seems a confusion of bits, so let’s take a dive beneath the surface and have a look at the structure.

If you take a block of wood and bore, say, five holes through it (fig.1) then you could have the basis of two drones a fifth apart, with a three to two ratio.

At the cap end of the drone, two pairs of adjacent bores are joined with a tenon, cut into the wood. Down at the stock end the remaining bore is similarly joined to one of the pairs making a threesome (fig.2).

On the surface, above the last bore of each set, a dovetail section slot is cut to take the airtight slider and from the bottom of this the tuning slot is cut through to the last part of the bore (fig.3).

The tenons are then filled with cork, leaving a bore diameter clear, and you have a simple two drone shuttle (fig.4).

Adding a further six bores makes a drone an octave below the unit of three, to create the standard simple unit of a BASS and TENOR + fifth above tenor.

One of the beauties of this instrument is that the Bass is a true Bass drone, two octaves below the chanter’s key-note and the tenor, at one octave below, is the same length in relation to the chanter as the longest on a normal set of small-pipes. This entire unit is then reeded up with appropriate double reeds, and off it goes. More of these later, anyway.

Historically, the earliest instrument that I am aware of, is pictured in Praetorius, Syntagma musicum, of 1618-19. This has a chanter of about one foot in length, possibly conical, and the drone, which seems to have three sliders, is about nine inches by three.

Compared to the instruments I make, which are mostly derived from the much finer French Musette, this is massive, and would leave room for some. fairly large drone bores. They might even have been conical, like the later Racket types, so that, if the chanter was loud, it would have been a very poky

little beast! Like almost all its relatives, this is                       depicted as being blown with a bellows. 

The French Musette drone unit, at its most complex, would typically have had four drones, with nine slots in the surface carrying thirteen sliders. Roughly translated, this was called the “chromatic drone.” It was capable of being tuned to a wide number of keys, but from my owm experience of complex types, this can be a mind boggling task. Not everyone is up to doing this, or even playing the thing in so many keys, and that                being so, as the tutor of 1738 puts it, “These days we only need four drones with five slides.” On a chanter with a little finger note of C say, these would be; Bass, C and F above, Tenor C, Tenor f.g and c at unison with the little finger hole. This set-up, minus the unison drone, has been the underlying idea of pretty well all the work I’ve done in this line.

The first attempt I made on a shuttle was in 1978, when I needed a robust set of pipes to practice on, whilst out and about in my tree-felling van. I used the pattern in “Cocks and Bryan” described as a Northumbrian shuttle-pipe, although it’s always looked French to me. It’s at this point that you realise just how much easier it is to make a normal slider drone than a shuttle. Back in the olden days, even more so, and Diderot et Dalembert’s Encyclopaedia is full of pictures of the specialised saws, files and broaches needed to form the slides and to fit them to the sliders.

I was perhaps fortunate in the equipment available to me, as the old Coronet Major lathe with the routing table was perfect for machining the slides in the turned blank. In fact, all the production decisions I made at this point are still in use.

The blank (generally rosewood), with the ends faced off and a central bore, is glued onto a similarly prepared short length of a beech, with a thickness of paper between the two. This is rounded up, the hole positions marked on both ends, then the a beech end drilled 1/8" dia. on the hole positions and the rosewood end centre drilled. Using a four point drive centre, with a 1/8" centre pin in the headstock, and a ring centre on the lathe saddle, the whole thing can be conveniently bored out between

centres, the beechwood providing a colour and  texture indicator of breakthrough of the    boring tool. 

You need to be careful to line up the correct pairs of centres, but once the boring is                       complete, a quick bite with a chisel on the paper line takes off the waste block, leaving the bored blank. Using brass for the sliders, rather than the traditional ivory, was for convenience, as was the use of turned brass tuning knobs, soldered onto them. The idea has stood the test of time well, but can make for a heavy drone, when there are a lot of sliders. In the future I may just try bending them up out of sheet to save weight. Anyway, having made my first one, I then had to get it working.

Tenor level drones and above, reed up relatively easily, provided the work is clean, and the bores not too small. A selection of G. F or D length reeds will normally fire them up with no trouble.

The Bass is a completely different matter. A normal reed sounds thin and runs very sharp, but initially I got by on one by using small blobs of sealing wax on the middle of each blade, by the mouth. It worked, but had a hollow sound and cracked the reed rather easily.

The old pictures of the Musette always show one great big reed amongst the others in the drone, and over the years the making of this must have taxed me more than any other problem I’ve met in pipemaking. Now, after some twenty years, I have a version of it that I like.


This is a big reed, similar in many                  respects to a contrabassoon reed.                  Usually I mount it on a 3/16 by 1" staple, and the head is tapered to a mouth of some 18mm, over a length of 42-48mm. above the top of the staple. It’s wet made, with a number of wet/dry cycles in a       making time of about a week, minimum, in the summer, and longer in the winter. Even now, fewer than half of the cane slips cut for this make it to the finished stage, but when they do you get a reed which is surprisingly economical of wind, and provides a fat Bass sound, rich in harmonies It’s one of those bits that I’m quite proud of really.

So, my first instrument was off the ground. Approximately in F, it went well enough and put in good service as a practice set. As I moved into full time making, I re-scaled the shuttle into D, and paired it up with a Scottish smallpipe chanter in D.

At the time this was used by a number of people for playing French type music, spawning up to five keys on the chanter and increasing the complexity of the drone. At this stage this involved fitting a second slide to the Bass drone, on the fourth bore to make G above the D, and a short second slide in the Tenor slot to give D or E. The high drone was in any event capable of giving two notes, so could be reeded to give G/A or A/B. The three drones could be combined fairly flexibly in support of the chanter’s main keys.

This format, made in pitches between D and F has worked well over the years, but as the interest in Scottish smallpipes in the lower pitches has grown, then I’ve had to grow the shuttle along with it.

The obvious thing to do to make the pitch deeper is to make the same thing, but longer. Up to now, however, the longest slide that I could machine has been about sixteen cms. The shuttle also becomes very cumbersome in long lengths. The wood is most easily available in about two inches square, so making it fatter to squeeze in extra bores wasn’t to be a great choice.

So far, all the shuttles I had produced were made on a 6/3/2 bore ratio, making eleven in all. If you add two bores to the Bass drone, it can be pushed down to A for the same length (6/8 ratio), and similarly for the Tenor, adding one extra bore, which coupled to the existing two bore high A drone gave me by basic A shuttlepipe set up of Bass A, Tenor A, and unison A, as 8/4/2/, fourteen bores in all, down a piece of wood that, including a whipping has to fit down a 1 1/2" hole.

This is very easy to shorten, for B flat, C etc., and should have been the end point of development as far as I was concerned, but demands to run it with Northumbrian smallpipes D chanters, and also as a common drone for an A or D Scottish smallpipe chanter have meant I have had to push it further again.

To do this, the Bass was fitted with two slides, on the sixth and last bores to make an A or D possible. However, it was very difficult to reed effectively, as the A slide would always be almost closed and the D slide almost fully open, to tune them in on one reed setting. The only way I have got round this is to fit a small “trombone” tuning slide at the in-stock end of bores six and seven, so that the slack in the system can be taken up. So far, there have been no problems with this in the few years that I’ve been making it.

The main tenor was also fitted with an extra slide, to make A and D possible and an extra bore added to the unison drone to make it the high tenor. This has a pair of slides for D and E on its third bore, and a slide on its second bore for high A. This makes it a fifteen bore drone, with six slots and seven sliders.

One of these has seen service with Pipe-major Iain McDonald of the Neilston Pipe Band as a drone for his Scots smallpipes in A and D; A Border bagpipe chanter and Irish pipes chanter to save weight when travelling.

You would hope, wouldn’t you, that that would be the last word on the subject, but it’s too good to be true, and I’ve recently been asked for a shuttle that can give F and G accompaniments to an F Northumbrian smallpipe chanter (thank you Kathryn).

Shortening the complex A/D shuttle to give an effective C/F drone hasn’t been particularly easy, as I’m that bit more picky these days, but a few sessions with a calculator and a pencil have produced a useful prototype.

There are now three slides on the Bass, to give C/D/F, three on the Tenor, C/D/F, and the high tenor has three slides for F/G/C/G, thus catering for the F chanters main drone needs. The shuttle has the same fifteen bores, slightly re-disposed, with seven slots carrying nine sliders to control the three drones.

It’s quite a beast, and the format should be workable on shuttles between A/D and D/G.

There’s even room now for two more bores, but I’m not that sure that I want to work out what they might be used for.

The design has never stood still, and in some ways I feel that I’ve
been too conservative with some of the parameters, in particular
using only half or quarter length slides in the tuners. Now I’m giving
myself a little more freedom in that respect, much more in line
with what the old Musette makers did, and sticking them in at the
length they need to be. The bores have evolved as well, from the
tightness of the first one, they now run out to some fairly large
holes. The really interesting thing is that as I've learned more about
the narrow-bore Irish pipes, it’s become increasingly apparent that
my shuttle-drone bores are almost identical in their lengths and
progression of diameters as the old Irish drones, Just showing the
innate conservatism of natural (?) structures. I’m sure there is a
little more in the shuttle for only have to ask