How are Northumbrian Smallpipes Made?

All of my set are handcrafted in my workshop.  This takes time and demands a range of skills including wood turning, metal working and leather craft.  The tasks are too complex to be documented here in full, but below you can find an overview of how I make my sets of Northumbrian pipes.

The methods and designs I work from change and evolve with almost every set as I constantly look for ways to improve their quality.

Once the specification of a set has been agreed, the first step for me is to prepare all the wood. This is bought in various sizes so I cut pieces to slightly larger than I will need and label each piece so I know where it will fit in the set. I like to make sets from the bottom up, so I start on the stocks.

Figure 1 Drilling holes for the Drones

Making the Stocks

For the stocks, I start with the sections of wood and the brass tubing to make the ferrules. The drone stock is the most complicated. These photos show the process of drilling the holes to take the drones, hollowing out the stock, shaping the outside, and finally the finished

stocks after sanding and polishing.

The outside of the stock is shaped

The inside is hollowed

The finished stock The ferule is made and fitted and the stock polished

Turning a drone part

Making the Drones

Once the Stocks are completed, I start work on the drones. This is where personal taste in design really starts to come through and drone design can be very helpful when trying to identify the maker of a particular set. My own taste is fairly traditional and delicate and is a shown in the photo.

Brass for the drone ferrules is shaped

The metal work for the drones is carefully bored out.  Then the outside is deorated and poilished.  If desired, these are then silver plated ready for assembly.

The next task is to make the drone end caps and piston rods. These have some of the very smallest parts of the sets – the washers to hold the waxed cotton in place which seals the drone off when the piston in closed. These are made from brass rod, drilled with a 2mm hole and shaped to fit the bore of the drone.

Once all the parts for the drones are made, I loosely assemble them to check everything fits, but leave the thread wrapping and final attachments and fittings until the whole set is finished and fitted to the bag

A completed Fully Mounted drone set
Turned Chanter Blanks Chanters are shaped diferently depending on the number of keys to be fitted

Making a Northumbrian Pipe Chanter

Making the chanter for a set is very rewarding. One of the things I really enjoy about making pipes is the broad range of work to be completed. Wood needs to be bored and turned, key blocks formed, keys forged and fitted and the whole process requires high levels of concentration to ensure accuracy and a good end result.
We have already looked at making the drones and the first stage of making the chanter is the same – I drill the bore through a wood blank and turn it to a cylinder on the lathe. 

For a keyed set, the next thing to do is narrow the blank down to the final diameter of the chanter, but leave the blocks on and in the right place for any keys to be added. Careful measurements are needed to ensure the key blocks are in the correct place, and this process can be started on the lathe.

Shaping the Chanter

I then refine the blocks, as they are not needed around the full circumference of the chanter, so I remove the excess. This is also a good time to cut the key slots and drill the tone holes. Again, the utmost concentration is needed to make sure the right part of the block is cut away and the holes are accurately positioned.

Lining the Key Slots

I line the key slots with a metal insert. In the long term this prevents wear and keeps the key true within its track. I do like the look of the linings so there’s an aesthetic element too. Very thin sheet metal is shaped to fit and is then glued in place.

A range of chanters

Brass ferules are made and polished, and an end cap made to match those on the drones. The chanter is now ready for the keys to be made and fitted.

Key Making
Key making is next. I really enjoy making keys as each one is individually shaped and sculptured, not only to fit and work well but to look good too. It’s time consuming and can’t be rushed, but is a major part of how a finished chanter will look so is worth taking the time over.

Brass bar is cut to length. The end is hammered and filed to form the outline shape

Each key is filed to shape and tested for fit. The keys should look good as a set, not just individually. The round key pads are cut from brass bar and soldered to the key shank.

Finally, springs are made and riveted to the key body. Once the full set of keys are made the spring tension is carefully balanced.

Fitting and testing keys

Completing the Set

Making the Bellows

There is still much to do. The wooden bellow cheeks are cut and steam curved.  The leather is then stitched on by hand.

Bag Making

The bag is cut out and stitched and checked to ensure it is completely airtight.


Then the completed set is assembled and the joints made airtight using thread and beeswax.

Finishing the Set

This last phase is one of the most important.  Once I've made the reeds for the set I'll play it every day over the next few weeks.  As I do so I make minor but crucial adjustments to the tone and tuning.  I'll check the ergonomics of the keys to ensure they are in exactly the right place.  I'll adjust the springs to ensure the keys are set up for ease and speed of play.  This process is very time consuming and takes a great deal of skill and concentration.

Once completed, the pipes are ready to go!  I hope this gives you an insight into some of the skills required to make a set of pipes, although I've only been able to scratch the surface of how I make my sets of Northumbrian Pipes.