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John Liestman is a “serious amateur ” pipe- maker based in Houston, who has won an award with his work at the annual NPS competitions in Morpeth.

He is fascinated with the art of making pipes work well in the myriad of North American environments. He has published a smallpipe tutor with an emphasis on maintenance and learning without a live teacher.


One of the most common “repairs” that I do is to fix people’s unstable drone reeds. Often the reed itself is fine and simply needs a gentle tweak. Too many drone reeds out there are stuck in such horrible places as the Slopes Of Nasty or the dreaded Land of the Shut. These reeds must be saved by moving them onto the ultimate Plateau of Stability, where all happy drone reeds live. In this article, all secrets will be revealed.

Take any drone reed and play it alone (in it’s drone) at a steadily increasing pressure, from hardly squeezing to really bearing down on the bag.

Here is a graph of the pressure experiment we are about to do.

Well, it is if you have a good drone reed. Imagine that the ideal pressure that you play your pipes at is right in the middle of this chart.


Most or all drone reeds will start on the Slopes of Nasty - they will sound at some low pressure but that sound will be variable in pitch and probably nasty in tone quality.

As the pressure continues to increase, the pitch will become more certain, will probably smoothly increase in pitch, and the tone quality will improve to a point where it “sounds like a drone reed should”. This general area of pressure will often be accompanied by a state where the reed instantly jumps from a harsher tone and variable pitch to a totally different pitch with a properly softer tone than before (called “double toning” by some). This pres- sure zone where the reed behaves fairly well is known as the Plateau of Stability.


As the pressure increases further and further, our unwary drone reed traveler finally reaches the upper pressure limit of the Plateau and plunges into the Land of the Shut.

Here the reed again behaves wildly (either getting quieter or louder and of unstable pitch) or perhaps claps shut, not to sound again until all pressure is released and the reed magically reappears on the Slopes of Nasty.

Pretty much all reeds will go through the same 3 stages. On some, these three stages may be all bunched up at the low end of the pressure scale, on others they may be all bunched up at the high end, but all three stages will exist.

Here are two graphs of our increasing pressure experiment showing bunching of the behavior pattern either at the low or high end. Remember, the ideal pressure for your pipes is in the middle, so clearly neither of these shows a reed that is on the Plateau at your ideal pressure:


Fixing the Reed - Part 1 - Moving the Plateau

If our reed is working more like these two graphs than the first one, we must first fix the reed so that it takes up residence on the Plateau of Stability. To do that, determine where the Plateau is in relation to your normal playing pressure by playing the reed with increasing pressure as we discussed in the second paragraph of this article and comparing your results to these three graphs.

Weakening the reed, by closing it or thinning the tongue will slide the whole graph toward lower pressure, making the Bunched Up at the High End reed behave more like it should.

Strengthening the reed, by opening it or by thickening the tongue will slide the whole graph toward higher pressure, making the Bunched Up at the Low End reed behave better. (To thicken the tongue, you need to replace it if it is a “built” reed or, if it is a natural cane reed you will need to get another one.)


I like to assume that whoever made the reed knew what they were doing, so the thickness is probably fine. Therefore, I focus on opening or closing the reed.

To open a reed, gently grab the free end with a finger nail. Rest your thumb on top of the tongue near the bridle. Then in one graceful, stroking, caressing motion, lift the tongue slightly while running your thumb down toward your fingernail at the free end of the reed.

You are trying to both bend the tongue up so that the reed is more open AND impart a curve to the tongue so that this bend occurs along the whole length of the tongue and not just down at the bridle. Whenever you open a reed, the tongue will usually go back most of the way to where it was before. In other words, the effect will be very temporary but there will be some residual change, so you may need to open the reed several times to get to the point you want over several minutes / hours / days.

To close the reed, if it is a “built” or “composite” reed, you can simply unbind the tongue and turn it over or replace it. For any kind of reed, you can gently heat the tongue while holding it closed. Passing the tongue above a candle a few times is a safe way. Running it through a flame is less safe.

You can also hold the reed with food tongs (holding the tongue closed) and aim a hair blow dryer at it. Whatever the method, once cooled, the tongue will be (much) more closed and you will probably need to begin to open it again. Each time you open or close the reed, redo the experiment we did at the first of this article and figure out if what you are doing is mov- ing the graph toward having the Plateau of Stability in the vicinity of your playing pressure and continue to make adjustments accordingly.

Fixing the Reed - Part 2 - Flattening the Plateau

Now that we have the Plateau where we want it, is it The Perfect Flat Plateau suitable for croquet and summer dances or is it simply a Sloping Plateau? In other words, in that pres- sure range where the reed behaves well enough, does it maintain constant pitch while the pressure increases (which is good) or does it increase or decrease in pitch while the pressure increases?


If the reed is increasing in pitch with pressure, thin the end of the tongue (maybe the last 10% of the length, at the free end). Use some sandpaper to do this and be careful not to sand through the cane or plastic. As you thin, you should see that the reed increases less and less with increasing pressure, to the point where it does not increase at all. What you are doing is removing mass from the end. If it is a built reed, there may also be some extra material where the end of the tongue overlaps the reed body too much. You can carefully cut this away and this will help by also reducing mass at the end. If you over-thin, it will get to where it the pitch decreases with increasing pressure, so you want to stop where the Plateau is level, where the reed stays at the same pitch with increasing pressure. Mind you, while you are sanding the end of the tongue, the work will probably close the reed a bit, so you may have to reopen it after thinning.

If the reed decreases in pitch with increasing pressure, there are two courses of action. First, make sure that the reed is not just slipping off into the Land of the Shut. Open the reed some more. More often than not, this will solve the problem. Only on rare occasions do you have to go to the other course of action, which is to add weight to the free end of the tongue OR thin the tongue down by the bridle. Either of these is simply an attempt to rebalance the mass along the tongue. Adding weight to the free end will also significantly drop the pitch of the reed.

So there you have a brief discussion of the Plateau of Stability.

(Thanks to Northumbrian Smallpipes Association of North America for reprint permission)