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Historical Pipe Making



A couple of years ago out of interest I built pole-lathe and started researching early turning methods especially those relevant to instrument making. I play with a theatre group Melford Hys Companie who perform the music and plays of essentially the Tudor period. Our musical instruments are all replicas of the period examples found in the big European museums (excepting the bagpipes, of which no examples survive). My interest is in how the artisans of the time made such high quality items with no power tools and few abrasives. I have subsequently built several woodwind instruments such as flutes and recorders using only 16th century technology.

In 2002 some friends and I spent a whole week having a go at making bagpipes the Tudor way at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk England. Kentwell is the home of a very large recreation of Tudor life that runs for 3 weeks every June/July. It is the perfect place to experiment with period methods and materials, in the past we have cast bronze cauldrons, melted and blown glass, and coopered barrels (and many other things). The plan was to make three sets of pipes. Marriot making the reeds, Gif making the bags and me turning the wooden parts.

2002 Kentwell  Hall at the bagpipe makers shop ( with Mariot the reed and Gif the bag)

The pipes we chose to make were the incredibly loud Breton biniou. This was essentially because they have only one drone and no piece of timber is longer then 200mm. We used maple wood, for the turned parts and French cane for the reeds. The only place we cheated was in the use of sand paper for some of the finishing. Dogfish skin and reedrush work well but are quite fine abrasives, equal to about 320 and 600 grit respectively. It would have taken too long the finish all three sets authentically without coarser grit abrasive. If there was such a course abrasive available at the time I would very much like to know what it was.

Boring or what! Mariot lapping, Bone watching me boring out a chanter on the lathe.

All the boring and turning was done on the pole lathe. The drills I made up from old carpenters spoon auger bits originally made to be use with a brace (hand drill). I simply cut the square drive end off and brazed on a long shaft. The reaming was done by hand.

A nearly finished set.

The pipes sound great and are real loud though the reeds, being cane, need constant maintenance.

The team, Gif, Mariot, Bone and me. They really were loud!