assembled drone
Materials used for making the parts

(updated 09/05/10)

The usual wood for the Smallpipes is
African Blackwood (Grenadilla) and without doubt it is the best wood for woodwind instruments in general. It is however difficult to obtain, especially in the small quantities that we need to make a set of Smallpipes. It is also rather expensive.
A good alternative is Lignum Vitae. This is a gray/green wood that was often used for the bearings of rudders in ships and also for lock gates. It has a close grain and is very hard. It is a bit easier to work compared to Blackwood as it has a natural wax in the wood that acts as a lubricant.
I have made good chanters in Ebony. These seem to have a crisper and more penetrating tone than chanters made in Blackwood. Ebony is a bit easier to obtain, it is more abrasive to cutting tools. The ebony available these days can be rather streaky and somewhat gray compared to the best Ebony available in earlier times but it usually darkens with use and oiling.
There are a number of Rosewoods that can be used. The best (and hardest to find) is Honduras Rosewood, mainly used for Xylophone and the best recorder manufacture. Brazilian Rosewood is also a good wood although care must be taken to avoid the billets with the wildest grain. Indian Rosewood can be used and is much easier to find but try to find close grained billets. English Boxwood has long been a favourite of woodwind instrument makers. It machines well, is close grained and seems to give a good tone. Make sure the billets used have been well seasoned as otherwise the chanter may take on a bent that can cause problems. The wood can also be darkened by fuming with nitric acid - a very dangerous process best left to the experts.
Another favourite English wood is Laburnum. I have seen and repaired a number of old sets made in this wood and it can look very like the best Honduras Rosewood. There are a number of other woods that can be used such as Tulip wood or Cocobolo.
I have listed a good source of most of these woods in the suppliers section


All of the metalwork can be Brass and I have made some sets where this is the case. I like the keys made in Nickel Silver as it seems to be a bit stronger and keeps its polish longer.
For the key pads you will need some 8.0mm (5/16") and some 9.5mm (3/8") Brass or Nickel Silver rod. The main part of the key is forged from 3/16" x 3/32" rectangular Brass or Nickel Silver. I also use 1.0mm brass wire for the spring rivets, the tuning bead rotation control pin and the key pivot. The key spring is beaten from 3.0mm or 1/8" malleable brass rod (not the hard brass used for turning). The Brass tubing for the ferrules used on the drones and chanter can be obtained from most good model aeroplane shops where they have a selection box with a range of sizes. The larger sizes used for the stocks will need to be obtained from engineering suppliers The soldering is done with silver solder. I use thin wire with 2 different melting temperatures. This is to simplify the soldering of the more complex keys used for 11 and 17 keyed chanters. If thin wire silver solder is not available then the thicker rod can be used by beating it out to a thin flat shape on the end.


The older makers, almost without exception, used Elephant Ivory for the mounts. This material is no longer available nor is it culturally acceptable to use it. There have been a number of alternative materials used in more enlightened times.
Catlins imitation ivory was the material of choice in the 1960s and 1970s but, although it looked OK if a little bland when first machined it soon oxidised to an unsightly yellow then a tobacco brown with age.
The imitation of choice currently is Vigopas P71 This appears to be a polyester resin with a filler that is a good imitation of the colour and texture of real ivory. It can be a bit brittle to machine and is nothing like a forgiving as real ivory but it doesn't discolour with age and is available in rod form.


The best leather for the bag is This is getting harder to find but it is well worth searching for. The leather for the bag should be reasonably stout but supple. I have made good bags from common cowhide - normally called panel hide. I look for hides that are about 1.25mm to 1.5mm thick. For the bellows I use a slightly stouter and thicker hide, something between 1.5mm and 2mm thick. I find that the neck end of the hide is more porous than the tail end. Check the area of the hide for any faults and thin places before cutting it out.
I have tried chrome tanned leather and haven't liked the result but that may be just due to the actual example I used.

Leather Seasoning

The leather of the bag and bellows must be seasoned with something that will improve the airtight quality and will keep the leather supple. I still use the seasoning formula that I got from Colin Ross back in 1980.
The beeswax, vaseline, and rosin are melted together in a saucepan until fully combined. Take care not to over heat as all of these ingredients are inflammable. Remove from the heat source and add the neatsfoot oil and stir well.
I use the mixture straight away but it can be cooled and stored. A new bag will use most of this volume of sealer.
Don't be tempted to use one of the Highland Pipe bag seasonings as these attract moisture and will quickly ruin you reeds.
Oil for Pads and Slides

This has become a bit controversial in the past few years but I still use virgin olive oil and have had no problem with it in the last 30 years. It dries without residue, has a nice smell, doesn't become rancid and is readily available in my wife's kitchen.

Bag and Bellows Sewing Thread

I started of using a double strand of carpet thread but this is not really satisfactory. I now use a home made thread made from 5 or 7 strands of linen single strand thread rolled together and well waxed with beeswax. I obtain this from a local saddler. I would recommend a visit to your local saddlery to see what they can offer.

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