Ray Sloan picked Barry Shears (from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia) and I up the morning after Donegal won the Gaelic Football League Championship. The sun barely penetrated the tea colored stream, the tide was out discovering the black mud of Donegal Bay, and the streets were weirdly vacant. The good people of Donegal were nursing their hangovers as tenderly as new mothers, no doubt. You would have thought the zombie apocalypse had happened. It was definitely the morning after the day before. The wind blew, the rain fell, and we began turning a stick into a chanter.
If I could distill a whiskey it would smell like the shop where Ray Sloan makes his pipes: freshly turned wood, machine grease, hints of hot electrical motor and glue, leather, salt wind, stone wall, with a wet dog finish. I have met pipe makers who love to chit chat and gossip. Ray is not one of these. We got right down to it. Handing us each a block of African black wood Ray said, "Right. Here's your chanter."
Until that moment I had never worked on a lathe. The difference between a wood lathe and a machine lathe was still a little foggy to me. In the back blanks of black wood, their ends waxed, were stacked on shelves along with logs of more mysterious wood, as well as chunks of boxwood, rods of Delrin and art ivory. Other bins held polished nickel silver ferrules of various sizes wrapped in tissue, brass and steel rods and tubes. There was a nearly finished stand of uilleann pipe drones in C made of black wood, art ivory and chromed metal on the workshop table. It rose above the rest like the Spire on O'Connell Street towering over the crowd. Chanter reeds finished with red thread stood in formation on their pegs while bits of cane, thread, tape and pliers, mandrels, knives in various sizes and shapes, and more red thread, calipers and clean, red pencils with hand carved points like a carpenter's pencil lay scattered about. On the wall a dozen pliers with a dozen different noses, in a dozen different sizes, were arranged neatly on a peg board. Other shelves held boxes covered in dust out from which peaked drone tops, chanter ends, and other temptations. There were three metal lathes, a machine that doubled as a drill press and milling machine, and a band saw. Large halogen lights, such as you see at construction sites or night time car wrecks, lit the place up and kept us warm. A large shop vacuum cleaner covered in wood dust hid behind one of the lathes. Cushy rubber mats covered the cement floor in places. Through the small window we could see white caps forming on Donegal Bay. Ray showed us how to mount our blanks of wood in the lathes and turn them true.
The process of making a chanter took most of the five days we worked with Ray. The block was turned round, and trued again after the first bore is drilled. The conical bore of the chanter is first bored in stages using different sizes of drills that progress in order of largest to smallest, each one going in a bit further than the last. A gun drill makes the all important throat of the chanter. Compressed air travels through a hose attached to the base of the drill, through the drill itself and out the cutting edge, blowing the drilled out material away from the blade. This method insures that the bore is even and straight. Then an expensive steel reamer, made in Germany to Ray's specifications, is used to clear the bore of ledges left by the stepped drilling process. The interior bore is extremely important. It is the holy of holies in chanter design.
The chanter is then given more of its shape on the lathe, including beads for the key blocks. After finger holes are drilled the key blocks are trimmed on the band saw and a bastard file is used to smooth off the rough edges. Then the chanter is sanded and sanded, cut to the right length, and Ray inserts the throat. This is the magical point when the chanter makes its first sound.
After that Ray taught us how to add mounts and ferrules, finish the wood, make the cap and wind way, and make an adapter so we can plug the chanter into our Scottish smallpipe bags. This involved soldering the metal pieces together, more careful turning on the lathe, and sanding, sanding, sanding, polishing, polishing, polishing.
We also learned how to make a chanter reed. "Learned" might be too grand a word to use in this context. After I make another hundred as nice as the one I made under Ray's careful supervision I might say I've "learned" the art of making a reed. Still, my other attempts at making a reed, even under the careful supervision of other reed makers, were, at best, miserable. On my return I ordered more cane from Ray's source and have been putting together the tools Ray uses, which are surprisingly few and simple. Ray doesn't use a chisel, for example. Ray uses a sharp knife, a rod of the appropriate diameter, sand paper and nippers. For the staple Ray forms metal tubing on a mandrel. Once formed, the blades of the reed are attached to the staple with double stick tape, Teflon tape (such as plumbers use), and thread. A bridle of copper wire, pulled straight in a vise, is the last bit added. Then the blades are sanded until the reed makes the desired sound and the chanter plays in tune.
African black wood is an amazing material. Ray does not use any polishing agents except sand paper and a buffing wheel. The biggest moment after hearing my chanter "speak" for the first time was seeing the translucent, shimmering wood right after I buffed it. You can look into it like a jewel. The translucence darkens over time with the wood taking on the rich, black color it is famous for.
Holding the finished instrument in my hand, getting the first few notes out of it, is an experience you must have to understand it. Once you have experienced that you will never complain about the cost of a bagpipe again. Your appreciation for the artist, the pipe maker who consistently makes instruments of the highest quality, will reach oceanic proportions. You will never hear the masters of piping again in the same way. Framing appreciation and embedded in the instrument itself are the experiences you had while making it: the delicious lunches made my Ray's wife, Belinda; the jokes, the comradery; mugs of hot tea in the afternoon; the sessions in Ardara and Dunkineely with Donna Harkin; Ray fishing off the pier in Teelin; Glencolmkille; the pubs in Donegal.
The reason I did this was to gain an understanding of what goes into my bagpipes. When I'm in top form, the chanter is vibrating and drones are like water you float in, then I have the illusion that the instrument and I are one. It is the "can you tell the dancer from the dance?" sort of thing Yeats talked about. To take part in the making of the instrument is the only way to get at the crux of that sensation. There is a moment when the stick transforms into a musical instrument. It is not pure magic like transubstantiation or the birth of a child, but it is something like that.