assembled drone
Drone Reed Making

(updated 14/05/10)

There are 2 main types of Drone reed used in the Northumbrian Smallpipes.
  • The first and my favourite is the cane reed with an integral split tongue.
  • The Second is the composite reed this has a body made from brass, plastic and even wood and has the tongue tied on as a separate piece.

Making the Cane Drone Reed

These are without doubt the trickiest to get to work well but the rewards for doing so are that the drone sound is very pleasing to the ear as a more balanced range of harmonics is present in the sound. The material used is
Arondo donax, the same as is used for the chanter reed.
It is important that the reed used is of the best quality. This plant does grow in the UK but the best material comes from France and Spain as the growing conditions really need the warmth and dampness that the growing regions of these countries provide. A good way of checking that the reed to be used is likely to provide a good working reed is to grip it between finger and thumb and try to crush it. If it crushes then it is too weak to have made a good reed. The best material should resist all your strength without failure.
Preparing the cane
Having obtained the cane to be used it must be prepared.
First the cane is chosen for diameter. Then is must be cut to length. The table below gives the diameters and lengths for the 4 common pitches of the standard drone set. I have taken these measurement from a number of sources:-
  1. There is a useful reed making pamphlet for the pipers society written by George Wallace.
  2. Measurements from the working set of reeds in my own pipes.
  3. Richard Butlers excellent pipe maintanence book
  4. Plate 18 of the Cocks & Bryan pipe makng book
  • Small g reed: Diameter = 4mm Length = 30mm Tongue Length = 16-18mm Bore = 2.5mm
  • Small d reed: Diameter = 4mm Length = 38mm Tongue Length = 19-22mm Bore = 2.5mm
  • Large G reed: Diameter = 5mm Length = 54 Tongue Length = 35-38mm Bore = 3.2mm
  • Large D reed: Diameter = 5-6mm Length = 69mm Tongue Length = 50-53mm Bore = 3.2mm
The length of the drone reed is measured on the inside of the cane. If the cane has a joint at one end this can be used as the end of the drone. If the cane has a hole right through, one end must be sealed. I use sealing wax for this, melted onto the end using a soldering iron.
The bore of the cane must be clean and free from fuzz. This bore can be cleaned up with a twist drill held in the fingers.
I usually do the taper that fits to the socket in the drone standing part at this stage. A small sharp pencil sharpener is a good tool for this job. If you find that the sharpener cuts too thick a shaving the cutting blade can be packed out from the bore of the sharpener with a couple of thicknesses of paper until the cut is just shaving a very fine shaving from the cane.

Splitting the Tongue
The most important task is the splitting of the reed to create the tongue. The tongue should be about 25% of the diameter of the complete reed. The width plays a big part in the stiffness of the tongue and hence the pitch of the reed. Refer to the chart below to see the actual dimensions of the various parts of the reed. Note that these dimensions are not set in stone but are a reasonable place to start from.
The first stage in splitting the tongue is to establish where the blade will be pressed into the body of the cane. I use a knife edge needle file to file a small curved depression about 1/4 of the way through the wall of the cane. This make it easier to control the cut and ensure that the split happens where you want it to. This groove should look like a smile when the reed is held with the sealed end at the bottom.
Once this groove is done the scalpel blade can be pressed through the wall of the cane until it reaches the correct depth. it is then used to prise the tongue up thus starting a split along the cane towards the open end. Refer to the dimensioned drawing to see how far to allow the split to propagate.
At this stage I like to restore the cut end of the tongue to remove any squashing of the fibres that pushing the blade into the wall has created. I do this by moistening the cut surfaces - give it a lick! and holding them together till dry(ish). I do this because I have found that a good fit between the end of the tongue and the body giving a good seal makes the reed work better.
At this stage it should be possible to make the reed sound by sucking on the open end. Often the reed will remain silent and some adjustments will need to be made. If is is quite hard to suck air through the reed the most likely cause is that the reed is either too closed or too stiff (or both) See adjusting the reed.

Making the Bridle
The bridle is used to fine tune the pitch of the reed/drone combination by controlling the working length of the tongue. The traditional bridle is made by wrapping about 8 turns of lightly waxed button thread round the reed body just at the end of the tongue split. The wrapping should be tight enough to keep the bridle firmly in place but not so tight that it cannot be slid along the reed. The bridle is only moved a very small distance <1mm> to effect a significant change the to the drone pitch.

Adjusting the Reed
You should now have a set of reeds made and it is probably that none of them actually sound. Getting the reed to work requires a few simple tasks:-
  • Scraping the hinge end of the tongue
  • Seating the tongue on the body
  • Weighting the end of the tongue
  • Adjusting the opening of the tongue
Scraping the Tongue
If the tongue is too thick/stiff in the area where it hinges (at the end of the split by the bridle) it will need to be thinned. This is done by scraping the surface of the tongue to thin it. Once you have the reed sounding you should proceed with care as, if scraped too thin, the reed will be weak and prone to stopping at the slightest perturbation in the playing pressure. Scraping the tongue will flatten the pitch of the reed and hence the drone. Seating the Tongue
To seat the tongue on the body the process is aiming to improve the quality of the fit between the 2 split surfaces. It is a really important process and can often make the difference between a good and a bad sound from the reed. The method seems a bit brutal but proceed as follows:-
  • Hold the palms of the hands together as though praying with the fingers pointing upwards.
  • Place the reed horizontally between the palms
  • Press the hands firmly together
  • Rub the hands together moving each one about 1"(25mm) in opposite directions.
  • Repeat the movement about 10 times at about 2 to 3 times per second.
Weighting the Tongue
The reed will usually sound better if it is set slightly sharp and then flattened by adding a small weight to the moving end of the tongue. I do this by melting a blob of sealing wax onto the tip of the tongue using a soldering iron. Care must be taken not to let the wax run down into the opening between the tongue and the body as this will wreck the reed. Adjusting the opening of the tongue
There are several ways of opening the tongue of the reed.
  • Rub the outside of the tongue with a smooth tool. I use either the handle of the scalpel or a piece of steel about 4mm. Rub this gently about 4 or 5 times and inspect the result. Repeat until the tongue has visibly opened and try the reed again.
  • Flick the tongue open by pulling the end of it with a fingernail open by about the diameter of the cane and releasing it. Doing this a few times should persuade the tongue to take a small set open. repeat this a few times and inspect as before.
  • Use a lighter flame to make the tongue take a set. This is a tricky thing to explain. With the reed held in one hand (the left hand if you are right handed)and the tongue on the bottom hold the tongue open by a few millimetres with a finger. with the lighter in the right hand pass the flame quickly under the reed about 3 times (2 if it is your first time) the flame should lick the hinge end of the reed. don't move too slowly! The intention is to heat the tongue gently not incinerate it!
    You should find that the tongue is now a bit more open.
    This technique can also be used to close a reed that is too open by holding the tongue shut and repeating the trick with the flame.
  • Another trick, often banded about is to put a hair in the base of the hinge of a reed that is too closed. I have never managed to make this work and suspect that it is an "Old Wives Tail" put about by Highland Pipers to confuse us.

  • Some Important Notes on Setting the Reed
    Having spent some time trying to explain how the pitch of the reed affects the distance that the drone sliding part needs to be pulled out, it is clear that there is some confusion about this in the minds of some players. So, here is my explanation:-
    1. I aim to get the drone in tune when the sliding part is pulled out until the wrapping is just not showing. I have found that this gives the best drone performance. I initially did this as a very good Highland piper told me that when he was competing he would make sure that his pipes were in tune when just 1 turn of wrapping was showing at the end of the sliding part.
    2. If the drone sliding part needs to be pulled too far out to get the drone in tune, or falls off before the drone is in tune, then the drone reed is too sharp. Add weight to the end, lengthen the tongue by sliding the Bridle towards the drone or scrape the root of the tongue.
    3. If the drone sliding part needs to be pushed in too far get the drone in tune, or runs out of length before the drone is in tune, then the drone reed is too flat. shorten the tongue by sliding the bridle away from the reed socket or remove some weight from the tip
    Making the Composite Drone Reed


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