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The editor had himself been experimenting, with some positive results, in cutting drone reeds from elder for his Border pipes, when his enquiries led him (via Brisbane and the NPU) to Ken McLeod, who only last July had written an article on the subject for the NPU magazine.

Many thanks to both Ken and Na Piobairi Uilleann for permitting his article to be reprinted here..

Over the years I tried making elder drone reeds with little success. I sought help where I thought I might find it but found little expertise in the art. I did however find some lore and a few old wives tales. I was inspired to keep on trying because I have seen quite a few good elder reeds, I love the tone and I believe the old-timers seldom used anything else.

(To digress just a moment, I have actually made an elder chanter reed. It worked quite well, took some time to whittle, and was mellow in tone - as expected - but was perhaps in reality a bit ‘dull’. Chanter reeds can be made from any material with an acceptable level of longi- tudinal rigidity, but cane does a fine job of it and is much easier worked than most potential alternatives.)

Antique drone reeds, which turn up now and then, are invariably made from elder. The earliest pipes had, what might seem today to be wide bore drones, but when elder reeds are used the balance becomes much nicer. It may just have been my technique, but I could not get my 18th century Pastoral drones to work with cane at all. The first elder reeds I fitted worked perfectly well and without much trouble. (I only wish the chanter was as easy to fit!).

The present story begins July 1999, during Willie week, when Pat Mitchell and I were discussing elder drone reeds. Pat said that he could remember somebody saying that the answer was to make them ‘green.’ That sounded inspirational to me - like it might just be the answer. I went home with this thought and eventually cut my elder in February - paying attention to the ‘lore’ that you cut in late winter, before the full moon - when the sap starts rising. I also, of course apologised to the tree before cutting because as you no doubt know, every elder is an old witch in disguise and unless you apologise in advance all sorts of misfortunes can befall you.

Immediately after cutting I removed the bark and the pith of around 30 sticks and cut the tongues. It felt like instant success. The tongues were so easy to cut I could hardly believe what immediately seemed to be the obvious, having spent considerable time previously try- ing to figure out how to get a neat, leak-proof cut with a scalpel on hard, seasoned elder. I brought them indoors and left them in a cool corner of the living room. After about two weeks I finished them and tried them out, finding that about 50% of them were quite good. They must have taken about two to three minutes each to make.


Here are the details of my experiences plus any useful additions gleaned from others which may be of help or interest.

Where to cut.

Wilbert Garvin tells me that Frank McFadden used to go up Black mountain, above Belfast to cut his elder. I always imagined that this could have been to get slower growing wild and un-trimmed stuff, but maybe it was because Black mountain was just the handiest place for him to go and he liked the view of the city from up there.

When to cut.

I will not risk the wrath of the witches, and advise one to cut only in very late winter, before budding begins. Be quick about it, elder is one of the first plants in my county Down garden to bud in the new year.

What to cut.

Quite simply do not bother to cut any elder which has been trimmed in recent years. The dimensions and type of twigs that are required will only come from plants which have been left alone for a long long time. Elder, when cut, will grow at a very rapid pace in that and the following seasons, producing very thin and distorted walls. This is useless.

If you are not sure try squeezing the twig to find out if it collapses easily. It shouldn’t. An- other tell-tale sign is the colour. Quick grown elder - at least around here - is purplish rather than brownish/grey. The final test is to cut a sample and ascertain the wall thickness by looking at it. The walls should be nearly one millimetre thick for the smallest tenor reed and about 2mm or so for a bass.

Cut straight pieces of about two to three and a half inches long, which are clear of any nodules or deformities. Elder reeds, particularly the baritone and bass are generally much shorter than cane reeds would be. It is worth noting that the smaller tenor reeds can be made more easily from elder than from cane and, as most of us know, good small cane is hard to come by.

First steps.

Make all sorts of lengths but generally stick to around one and a half inches to two inches overall for tenors and two and a half to three and a half inches for baritone and bass.

Lengths are not so critical because the bores vary so much. You could find you have a two- inch bass and a three-inch baritone although the bass will have a much wider bore.

Remove the bark and then the pith. The bark comes off very easily. The pith needs a stiff iron wire flattened at the end, or small drill to get it out. Geoff Wooff suggested a ceramic tile saw blade, which is excellent for cleaning out. Work from either end and the middle piece will then usually push out with little difficulty. Try to remove all the pith and finally blow out the remaining loose particles.

The tongue should be cut on the most concave part of the stick. Elder is not usually per- fectly straight and if you cut on any other face the tongue will distort outwards during the drying process and will never make a good reed. I discovered by experiment that, cut the way I suggest, there is no need to tie the tongue closed for the drying out process.


Using a single sided razor blade, or an old style blade broken in two (watch your fingers), cut the top of the tongue about one third to under a half way through the tube. Keep the cut at roughly the angle shown in the drawing and make sure it is equal on both sides. When it is in as far as necessary bend the blade so that a little split occurs. The nice thing is that unlike cane it will not split very far. Turn the blade into the split and cut the tongue down carefully, without trying to split the wood (as you would with cane). You need to stay in control of the tongue shape. Working gradually outwards, bring the tongue to the inside wall and remove the blade. The tongue must remain reasonably airtight so care is needed during this operation not to run off the required line of cut. The length of tongue depends on the type of reed wanted of course, but it is not hypercritical. If all looks good at this point, take some heavily waxed (cobbler’s wax) hemp thread and wrap about six turns around the reed below the cut.

Finish the reed by tapering the end to suit the reed seat and cover it over by wrapping with waxed hemp as usual.

Geoff Wooff told me that many old ones he had seen were wrapped at both ends. Perhaps this was to stop splitting in later life - or when drying out so I take no chances and wrap both ends, just in case. It certainly does no harm.

Leave it somewhere so that air can pass around it but not in direct sunlight or heat.

After drying.

At least two weeks later try to finish one and you will soon discover if it has dried well enough to use. If it seems OK block the top with a drop of sealing or cobbler’s wax. Now suck it and see. Just air? Not to worry, it has a good chance. Elder will not work unless it is quite heavily weighted on the tongue, even resorting to lead or iron shot embedded in the wax at times is acceptable to connoisseurs. This also flattens the pitch of course, and these reeds can be flattened a remarkable amount. The tongue may be found to be too stiff and if so scrape it at the fulcrum as you would cane to ease it up. If it is too weak - or too flat, you can try tying a waxed hemp bridle just above the fulcrum. Even if it stops when blown hard with the mouth, try it in your drone. Many elder reeds sound as if they will never work when blown or sucked by the mouth (and vice versa).