The Pibgorn chanter is made of Elder-Sambucus nigra
It can be found near ruined buildings and farm hedges.
There is much myth about the elder tree, it is called Ysgawen in Welsh and is known as the Queen of Trees, Hylde-moðer, the Elder Tree Mother, she rules the 13th moon in the Ogham calendar, the ending of the old year and beginning of the new at Samhain.
More can be read here..
I cut the chanter blanks in October when the tree is shutting down for winter and the berries have all gone. Great care must be taken as there is much superstition surrounding the cutting this tree. As a gesture I always tidy around the tree and only cut what is needed. You will find the chanter length is naturally defined by the distance of the knots in the wood growth.
My chanter is 220mm long, with the tenons being 20mm long leaving a central section of 180mm. I cut between knots in the elder branch which I aim to be about 250mm long. The Ideal finished width of the chanter is about 20mm when the bark is removed so the ideal cut raw width should be about 26mm.
I would look for elder that has a slight bend, which they naturally do. This curve can be seen in the old pibgyrn at the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans.
The diameter of the pithy centre varies from piece to piece, but in the branches I cut it’s roughly 6mm. I debark the elder blanks straight away, care should be taken as the bark is a strong purgative, its use dating back to Hippocrates. It can make you feel very sick. I use an old coat hanger and push out the pith centre, then I use a long 5.5mm hss drill bit to clean out the centre.
I leave the chanter to dry in the workshop for a few months, you can use them straight away as I am sure they were, but the tenons will shrink and if you try to put waxed hemp on the tenons they will distort. The holes will vary and tuning will be needed to be redone many times.
When dry I round off the the chanter with a block plane. It normally ends up oval with a finished width about 20mm but this varies.
I finish off with sandpaper and leave it without any varnish or stain, as in time it will take on its own patina. Varnish if you like but I would wait until all the holes are drilled and tuned, and it has dried.
Cutting the tenons is done with a craft knife and then a flat file, available from
The finished size should be 14mm wide and 20mm long, I don’t use cotton thread on the finished tenons, but if you make them a little small you can put some cotton on, but not too tight as this will distort the tenon. I would use a bow-rope lapping technique with waxed thread. Start with a horizontal thread and then wind backwards over the thread and finish off with two timber hitches.
Widen the central bore hole to 7mm along the lenght of the chanter, which should give you an approximate C base note, at the reed end widen the bore to 7.5mm for the whole length of the top tenon 20mm and no more, this is called the reed seat and is need to be widened to accommodate the reed.
I mark the holes from the bottom end of the reed tenon, marking 18mm down and then place the first hole, then working downwards marking equal spaced centres of 26mm . I use a 3mm drill bit to start. The thumb back hole is drilled 12mm down from the top tenon.
I begin by using a reed that I know works well. I know this is a bit chicken and egg but it may take many reeds before you make a good one, or you could buy one from an established maker. First, adjust the chanter to make the octaves in tune, by moving the reed in and out of the reed seat. When the octaves are set (without worrying which note is produced) we should be roughly around C to D. You can lower or raise the bass note later. I then tune each note by ear working from the bottom up, enlarging the holes to raise the pitch of the note. I use tone hole cutters bought from:
You will need the 3 smallest sizes. You can use a tuner if it is easier as it will take many fine tuning runs to get it right.
You will most likely need to raise the pitch of the whole chanter, which should be between C and D. To do this the central bore can be enlarged. By drilling out the central bore hole, you will raise the pitch and a drill bit .5mm wider will raise the note by about 25 cents of a note.
I buy the drill bits from
try and get extra long hss wood bits.
If you need to lower the chanter pitch the reed tongue can be lifted slightly which will drop the scale or you can add mass to the reed by placing a small blob of beeswax on the tongue end.
see also the reed adjustment section.
I have recently made a closed fingered chanter as an experiment in preparation for some work on the st fagans pibgyrn. Using the same spacing but different hole sizes, it works well but a very different playing style and sound…..picture to follow>