Making Scottish small pipes from CPVC and brass tubing

by Eric Reiswig

Over the winter of 1995-1996, i built a set of Scottish small pipes using CPVC plumbing pipe and brass tubing. They work and sound just fine, and many people have been asking for the plans and measurements. Here are some step-by-step "how i did it" guides to my Scottish small pipe plans. These are only a guide to what i did with my one (so far) pipemaking project, so take 'em with a grain of salt (although they have been shown to work, at least to my satisfaction...)

Many tips of the proverbial hat are in order to all the folks, hobbyists and pros alike, who helped get these pipes off the ground: Dennis Havlena, John Wash, Nick Whitmer, David Daye, B.C. Childress, Benedict Koehler, Tim Britton, Casey Burns, Olle Gallmo, Chris Rivet and probably some others.

All the design diagrams included here were done with Corel Draw! 3.0, and exported to .gif format. Touch-ups were done using Paint Shop Pro 3.11.

Click here for a photo of my completed pipes.

Click here for a sound clip of me playing my pipes. The tune is "Fraher's Jig."

Note that for making wind instruments, it's the inside diamteters of the tubes that are important, and these are the measurements i'm using when i talk about the different sizes of brass tubing. Hobby shops sell this tubing (normally from K&S engineering) by outside diameter. The difference is about 1/32". So when you need 3/16" id tubing, buy the next bigger size, ie. the one that slips over the 3/16" od tubing (This will be the one labelled 7/32" od) and so on.


Pipe bag

I learned this method from an article by Dennis Havlena.

Use upholstery vinyl "naugahyde" that has woven backing, that holds the glue better. The kind with the "fluff" backing tends to just pull apart. Cut a piece that, when folded over, will be the correct size & shape for the bag. This can vary according to your preferences and body shape/size.

On the back of the vinyl (the inside of the bag), mark a line about 3/4" from the edge, all the way around, except across the neck. This border area will be where the glue goes. To keep the glue from sticking where you don't want it, rub some paraffin (a candle is fine) into the back, just on the inside of the 3/4" border. Once done, work some silicone rubber sealant (clear, smells like vinegar) into the border, on both halves. Some folks swear by contact cement, but i haven't tried it. Fold the bag over so the borders meet, and press under something heavy for about 24 hours while the silicone (or whatever) cures.

For an extra heavy duty seam, cut a long strip of vinyl, about 2" wide, as long as the glued seam of the bag. Cover the back of the strip with silicone, and fold it over the seam all the way along. (You may have to slit it in places so it lays flat around corners.) Again, press under weight for 24 hours. Once cured, stitch the seam all the way around, about 1/2" from the edge. My sewing machine had no trouble at all going through the 4 layers of vinyl, but you could also take it to a luggage repair shop. (It'll very likely be the first pipe bag they've had to work on! :)

Once everything is done, blow it up through the neck. When it's full of air, squeeze the neck shut in your fist, and give the bag a good squeeze, to open it up and loosen any silicone in the wrong places on the inside. You'll be amazed how strong it is!

Tying in of stocks (except for the chanter) is accomplished by punching a small hole in the right spot, and slitting a 6- or 8-way pie slice no bigger than the stock you're working with. Push the stock into the bag through the hole, and pull it back out again so the triangles of fabric are pointing outwards. The stock should have a groove in it, and this groove should be just below the base of the triangles, ie. just inside the bag. Now carefully, and very tightly, wind into the groove with a good strong string. The winding should be just below the bases of the triangles if the groove is in the right place. Depending on the size of the stock (and the depth of the groove) wind more or fewer turns, until the stock is firmly tied in. Tie off the loose end of the string, and remove the excess. It's intimidating but not too hard, and you're not working against the clock, ie. there's no glue drying too quickly.

Click here to see a diagram of the pipebag...

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Bellows

This is how i made a bellows, patterned more-or-less after my "real" uilleann pipe bellows.

First, cut the sides out of wood. I used 3/4" pine boards, and they seemed to work fine. Since i didn't have a saw that would cut curves, i ended up using a hexagonal design instead of the more familiar teardrop shape. I doubt if it matters much. Stain/finish however you like. Drill one 7/8" hole through each side: the "top" side gets the inlet valve hole: straight through, about 3" from the hinge end. The "bottom" side gets the air-out hole: drilled at a 15-20 degree angle, about 3/4" from the hinge end.

Now you have to figure out how much vinyl you're going to need for the "skin." The skin will go all the way around the bellows, and will overlap itself over the hinge end. So measure the perimeter of the sides, including the hinge end twice. Cut the skin from a similar piece of vinyl as the bag. It should be long enough to wrap once around the bellows sides, and overlap the hinge end. It should be about 8-9" wide. This will be the maximum distance the "free" ends of the bellows can be open. Wrap the skin around the wooden sides, and mark the skin where it overlaps itself over the hinge area. Glue the overlap (back to front) with silicone, press it for 24 hours, then stitch the overlapping seam all the way across.

Now comes the fun part: gluing and nailing the skin to the sides. Start with one of the bellows sides. Smear the edge with silicone, and the inside edge of the skin. Wrap the skin over the wood, and nail it in place. This is easier said than done, and makes a big mess, but there you go. Start with, say, one or two nails in each end, then go around and fill in the gaps. What you want is a good solid force keeping the skin attached firmly to the wood, so use shortish nails with wide heads. Upholstery tacks work fine; so does a staple gun although the results are less aesthetic. Repeat for the other half. Once it's all glued & nailed together, let it sit and cure for a day or two.

The hinge is just a strap made of a double layer of vinyl (glued back-to-back with silicone), screwed to both sides. The strip is about 2" wide, wide enough to cover the end of the bellows. Squeeze the hinge end together as far as it goes, doubling the skin back inside, and screw the hinge over the ends.

Cut a section of 3/4" CPVC pipe (the white kind) with a 15-20 degree angle on one end, to fit the hole in the "bottom" half; glue it in with 5-minute epoxy. This is the tube that will receive the blowpipe.

Now the inlet valve. Cut a short piece of 3/4" CPVC at a similar angle, making sure the face is sanded smooth (watch out for the dust which apparently can be hazardous). File a small groove into the top of the tube; this will receive the flapper tail. The collar on the valve is made of a ring of the same CPVC pipe, slit open and stretched around the main pipe. The gap is filled with another small section of the pipe. The whole thing is glued together with 5-minute epoxy. The flapper is made of a double layer (back-to-back) of vinyl, but the tail is only one layer so that it's flexible enough. Tie the flapper onto the housing by the tail, (waxed dental floss is fine for this) and continue winding until the whole thing fits tightly into the hole in the bellows top. Insert it so the flapper hangs down when the bellows is in playing position. Make a habit of always storing the bellows resting on the "top" side so that the flapper rests in a closed position. Once the valve is installed, test whether it works by plugging the "air out" tube in the bottom, and pumping the bellows open. It should hold the air when you try to squeeze it shut.

The last thing to do is attach a belt to each side of the bellows. One to strap the bottom half around the waist, and the other to strap the top to the right elbow. You'll need some extra holes in this second one.

Click here to see a diagram of the bellows...
Click here to see a diagram of the bellows sides...

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Blowpipe

This has two ends (plug-in joints) which are made similarly, basically of 1/2" CPVC pipe with various rings and wrapping attached. The copper rings are cut from 1/2" pipe sleeve joints, about 1/4 of the joint is used per ring. There are several kinds of these joints, the ones you want are the ones that will fit inside the 3/4" CPVC pipe. Using these rings gives a great deal of stability to the plug- in joints. The CPVC pipe is inserted into a copper joint, and has a copper ring added to the end. A CPVC stop ring is glued over the middle of the copper joint; everything is attached using 5-minute epoxy. The "bag" end also includes a flapper valve. This one is made of a single layer of vinyl (smooth side towards the pipe) with a washer epoxied on to add weight. I've found it best to glue only the top of the washer to the valve, so that the vinyl stays flexible around the edges. Dennis Havlena also has a "reverse" design which works vey well.

Another option is to get a standard-issue "Little Mac" valve, used by highland pipers, and install it in the end of the blowpipe.

A piece of flexible hose (used for washing machines?) is cut to the proper length (determined by your body size and bag position; Better too long than too short! Mine is about 6 1/2" between the stop rings) is cut and inserted into the copper end of each plug- in joint. It should be pretty tight, and voila! Dental floss wrapping goes in between the copper rings, enough so that the plug-ins are airtight. The bag end should fit tight enough that you have to want to get it out. This is to avoid disturbing the valve, which again should hang downwards when playing.

The "bag" end plugs into a stock made of a short piece of 3/4" CPVC pipe. Sand the edges smooth, and glue on two rings cut from a 3/4" copper pipe joint. Leave a small (1/4" or so) gap between the rings; this becomes your groove for tying the stock into the bag.

Click here to see a diagram of the blowpipe...

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Chanter

My small pipe chanter is made of three layers: an outer casing of 1/2" CPVC plumbing pipe; the bore which is just a long piece of 3/16" id brass or aluminum tubing (available at a good hobby shop) and epoxy filling in the space between the two. The epoxy i used is sold for boat repair under the name "Bondo." It's a two-part epoxy which cures in 24 hours. It's very runny, so it's necessary to seal the bottom end of the chanter before you pour the stuff in. What i did was to glue a copper pipe cap to the bottom of the chanter pipe. I had bored a hole in the cap which would accept the brass bore tubing, and i glued all three pieces together with 5-minute epoxy. (This isn't nearly as runny.) After half an hour or so, i poured the 24-hour epoxy into the space between the bore tubing and the outer pipe. The bore tubing was held straight up the center of the pipe by means of another bored-out copper cap placed on the top end of the chanter, allowing the brass bore tube to run all the way through.

After at least 24 hours, cut the top off so the chanter is 14 1/4" long. Assemble a plug-in joint on the top of the chanter, using copper rings and a CPVC stop ring, similar to the plug-ins on the blowpipe. You can make a simple reedcap out of pieces of plumbing pipe and connectors. This is the least stable part of my design, acoustically speaking--it would probably benefit from some more experience. (Any suggestions out there? I'd sure appreciate 'em!) Anyway, it works ok if you tinker around a bit. Specifically, that extra copper cap and piece of 3/16" id tubing sticking out the back of the reedcap. This was a real lifesaver in terms of helping the chanter play properly. Please don't ask me why. :)

Now is the time to get a chanter reed going. Cane or plastic? It's up to you. (I personally like the durability and all-weather stability of plastic.) It'll also make a difference how you blow the chanter to tune it. You can blow a plastic reed from your mouth (preferably by blowing through the reedcap) but you shouldn't blow on a cane reed. Rather, tie the reedcap into the bag (just stick the hose into the neck of the bag, and wind on some strong rubber bands!) and use the bellows.

Tuning the chanter holes to the reed, or tuning the reed to the chanter? If you're only planning to make one chanter, it's a bit of both. I had my chanter playing ok, and then had to retune some of the holes when i made a second reed for it. The ideal thing would be to make a chanter, make a reed, fool around with the holes, then make a second chanter with the holes properly placed. Fortunately, tuning holes is physically pretty easy. Always start with small holes, and open them up until they're in tune. Work on the lower holes first. You sharpen the note by opening the hole up, especially the top edge, and flatten by making the hole smaller, usually with scotch tape or beeswax. You really can't tune a bagpipe chanter properly unless the drones are playing, so you can tell if the notes all blend well with the drones. Tuning to a chromatic tuner (or a piano, &c) is ok, but you'll have to plan on some fine-tuning once the drones are playing.

Click here to see a diagram of the chanter...
Click here to see a fingering chart for the chanter...

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Drones

The top section is the easiest. Assemble the bore tube, copper cap (bored out to receive the tubing) and CPVC outer pipe with 5-minute epoxy, then pour in 1 - 2" of 24 hour epoxy, just to hold the bore in place. (Since there are no fingerholes to drill, it doesn't matter that the drone isn't solid. The outer jacket of CPVC is really only there for aesthetics and ease of handling.) The bore tubing sticks way out the other end, and will fit over the tubing in the bottom section of the drone-- this is your tuning slide.

The bottom section is made more or less the same way, except that the bore (5/32" id) is too small to receive a drone reed, so superglue on the next bigger size tubing, so that it extends out about 1". This is the end you seal into a copper cap and CPVC pipe, and pour in about two inches of epoxy. Once cured, cut off the epoxied-on copper cap so that the end may be plugged into the drone stock. The butt end should have about 3/8" of the 3/16" id tubing left, ready to receive a drone reed, and the epoxy filling should allow the tuning slide of the top section all the way in. You may have to squeeze the end of the tuning slide a bit in order to achieve a snug but movable fit. Once again, assemble a plug-in joint on the butt end of the drone, using the same design as before.

Click here to see a diagram of the drones and mainstock...

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Mainstock

This is what all the drones plug into. It basically consists of three individual stocks (of 3/4" CPVC) stuck into an outer shell, and the whole thing filled with epoxy.

For the outer shell, i found that the 2" ABS (the black shiny plumbing pipe) pipe joints were just the right diameter to hold 3 drone stocks. I bought three of them, ground out the stop ring from the insides, and epoxied them end-to-end over the 3 individual stocks (just pieces of 3/4" CPVC) making sure the ends of the CPVC stocks were flush. Next, i 5-minute epoxied a piece of cardboard over one end of the mainstock, gluing it to the end surfaces of all three CPVC stocks as well as the ABS jacket, making sure to leave no gaps. The 24-hour epoxy was poured in from the other end, in between the individual stocks, filling in the gaps between them. Once the epoxy cures, you can punch through and/or peel off the cardboard so the final product is a cylinder with three holes going all the way through.

Finally, cut a groove all the way around the mainstock for tying it into the bag.

Click here to see a diagram of the drones and mainstock...

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Reeds

Welcome to hell!

No, seriously, whole books have been written on the subject of reedmaking for various bagpipes, with titles ranging from Reedmaking Made Easy to The Piper's Despair. :) For (cane) smallpipe reeds, i highly recommend The Driving Wheel: Making Scottish Smallpipe Reeds by Nick Whitmer.

On the other hand, since we're talking about plastic pipes here, why not use plastic reeds as well?

Chanter Reeds

There are four main ingredients for a plastic chanter reed:

First, the staple is made. Cut a 1" piece of the brass tubing, and remove any burrs. Slightly squash one end to a broad oval shape. This can take a while to get right; a pair of small round-nose pliers is a handy tool for manipulating the opening.

Next, cut the plastic slips that will form the blades of the reed. Cut two pieces of plastic lengthwise down the cup, 12mm wide by about 45 mm long. Use a straightedge and exacto knife to make the edges as straight as possible. Cut both pieces from the same region of the cup, so they both have the same curvature. Mark the slips if need be, so you can make sure both slips have the same orientation when you tie them together, ie. the "top" ends should stay together.

Make sure both slips have exactly the same width, and their sides are straight and parallel. Sand the edges on a flat surface to true up the sides.

Choose which end of the slips you'll use for the tails of the reed. (I doubt if it matters which end of the cup you choose; i've made working reeds from either end.) Mark a line 17mm from the tail end, and draw diagonal lines from this "shoulder" line to the center of the tail end of the slips. Cut off the corners so the tail becomes a triangle shape. The slips should now look like the picture at the top of the diagram, except the heads will be a bit extra long. (You'll trim them off later.)

Lay the slips, concave down on a flat surface, and lightly sand on fine paper. Don't push down on the slip, you just want to ever-so-slightly flatten the edges so the two slips will lay together and make a good seal at the edge.

Now take both slips, and put them together so their insides (concave) are facing each other. Tie the slips together so that the sides and shoulders are perfectly aligned. Tie them firmly enough that they don't move around, but not so tightly as to collapse the plastic. The triangular tails should also be aligned. If not, sand the sides of the tails (keep the head tied together) until they're the same shape.

Insert the staple in between the tails of the reed. The oval end goes into the reed, and should go up to the shoulder line. The staple should be aligned straight with the sides of the head. It helps to rub some beeswax on the staple to keep the plastic blades from sliding around too much. Leave the slips tied together at the head.

Bind the slips onto the staple with waxed dental floss. Start just below the points of the tails, and wind tightly & evenly all the way up to, and a few turns past the shoulders. Then wind back down the reed to your starting point, and tie off the string. Keep the windings as close to each other as you can. Wind tightly, especially around the ends of the tails, but watch the pressure as you move upwards, you don't want to collapse the plastic blades. Once the winding is done, i like to give it a coat of nail enamel, but it's probably not necessary, as the waxed floss should seal itself.

Untie the head. The sides of the reed will open up, but that's not a worry. The next step is to tie a few turns of waxed string (floss is probably ok here, but i like to use piper's "yellow hemp," with a good thick beeswax coating) about 2-3mm above the top of the windings. This serves to close up the sides of the reed.

Optionally, you can also add 3-4 turns of wire in between the windings and the waxed hemp bridle. This allows for some more control of the opening at the lips of the reed. You can (carefully) squeeze the wire bridle at the sides in order to make the reed more open, which will mean a harder, louder, flatter reed. Squeezing the bridle at the faces will close the reed a little, making it easier but also quieter and a bit sharper.

Trim the excess length off the head, so there's about 19mm of plastic showing above the floss binding. Chop straight through both slips with a razor blade in one motion. The lips should be straight across and even. The opening between them should be slightly less than 1mm at its widest point. Click here to see an end-on view of a chanter reed showing the gap between the lips. Click here to see a photo of some completed reeds.

Finally, sand the top 1/3 to 1/2 of the blades (each side) on medium paper for a dozen or so strokes, just to thin the blades a little.

Inhale through the staple of the reed, and you should be able to produce a chirp or "crow" sound. If you place your finger across the opening at the lips of the reed and do the same, you should get no air through the reed. If you're getting a bit of a leak through the sides, it might not be a big deal. Try rubbing some beeswax along the edges of the reed to stop any gaps.

Ok, now, put it in the pipes and play. Rubbing a little beeswax on the end of the staple helps keep the reed seated snugly in the top of the chanter. If the reed plays flat, try pushing it farther into the chanter, or maybe trimming a little off the end of the blades. If the reed plays too sharp, pull it out of the chanter a little.

Drone Reeds

For plastic drone reeds, have a look at David Daye's "Never-Stop" drone reed. My drone reeds are based entirely on what he presents there.

I use 0.030" thick sheet styrene plastic (from the hobby shop) for the reed tongues. Once the reed is assembled and playing, it is sometimes found to be unsteady with varying playing pressure. Most often, the problem is that the pitch of the drone rises if more pressure is applied. This is easily fixed by sanding material from the free end of the tongue. If the reed is tending to go flatter with more pressure (though i've never had this happen, so this is just what i've read :) either sand at the base of the tongue or weight the free end with sealing wax.

Click here to see a diagram of the reeds...

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That's all

Whew! I hope this makes some sense. Together with the diagrams, it should give you a fair idea of what i went through making my small pipes. If you've got any questions, something's not clear, you've got innovations or criticisms to share, or you're making your own pipes, please do drop me an email.

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This page was last revised on 2nd November 2003 by Eric Reiswig.
ereiswig@telus.net