DIY Smallpipes (Membrane Bagpipes)




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Having played the highland bagpipes for a couple years now and having just finished a course on maintenance, I was greatly interested in building my own set of pipes just for fun. A few days later, a duct-tape and CPVC bagpipe emerged!

Assembly (from having taken out the parts to having a playable instrument) takes roughly 4-5 hours.

Here's a video of me with my second iteration of PVC bagpipes! Among the improvements are a freshly crafted duct tape bag, valves and a screw tuner for the drones, and CPVC drone stocks instead of vinyl tubing.

Here's a video of a seasoned piper giving the membrane pipes a spin!
(Just a side note... the drones were HORRENDOUSLY out of tune in this video. They can sound better, really!)

And just for fun, here's an earlier video of me playing the Star Wars theme on them (before we added the bag)

Step 1: Parts and Tools

There are only a couple parts required before you get started. 

For each of the drones and the chanter (i.e. one drone or chanter = one set of these parts. My pipe had a chanter and two drones):
1/2" CPVC pipe, variable length
3/4" CPVC Cap
3/4" CPVC Coupling
3/4-3/4-1/2 CPVC Pipe T (the 1/2" comes out the side)
3/4" CPVC pipe lengths - two 1" cuts and a 1.5" cut. For the drones get an additional 6" cut)
A few squares of plastic bag, roughly 2" by 2".
Waxed hemp or regular masking tape

For the bag:
Duct Tape
4X 2" lengths of OD vinyl tubing

For the blowpipe:
2' OD vinyl tubing
Parts listed in my Check valve instructable

Essential Tools:
A Dremel
Pipe cutters
A sharp knife
Drill (preferably a drill press)

You'll End Up With:
1 Duct Tape Bag
1 Bass Drone
1 Tenor Drone
1 Chanter
1 Blowpipe + Check Valve

Which can then be assembled into a set of smallpipes!

Step 2: The Drones

Drones are the easiest to assemble - they only play one note. The pitch depends on the length of the 1/2" pipe, which is the main part of the drone.

Drones (and the chanter) make sound by vibration of the membrane (the plastic bag). With the bag stretched taut around a 3/4" pipe, the 1/2" body pipe is slid inside and contacts the membrane. When air is blown into the 3/4" pipe, it travels up, past the membrane, and into the 1/2" pipe. This causes the membrane to vibrate!

In case that was a bit too brief, an excellent demonstration and assembly video can be found here - kudos to this guy for inspiring me to make my own pipes! 

To assemble a drone, cut two small sections of 3/4" pipe and put them on either end of the pipe T. Also cut a long 1/2" section for the main drone piece. Be sure to make this extra long, since when we tune it up we'll be cutting it down. 

Try sliding the 1/2" tube into the tee until it's flush with the opposite side, and put some hemp on it where it just begins to enter the tee. This will force the air up into the flush side and make the membrane vibrate. 

Now stretch your membrane over the flush side and cap it lightly with the 3/4" coupling. Be sure the membrane has no wrinkles or holes, as these greatly diminish sound quality. Try blowing into the 1/2" part of the tee and slightly adjusting the 1/2" drone length against the membrane until you get a solid drone. You'll know it when you hear it. 

If this sounds a bit too loud for your tastes, you can add an additional 3/4" section and a 3/4" cap to the coupling that secured the membrane. I usually cap my drones, but leave the chanter open. This gives an even sound overall. 

Now for proper tuning. I made two drones - one tuned to low A, the other an octave above. Grab a guitar tuner (or find a tuner app for your phone) and blow on the pipe to see what frequency we're at. If it's too low, chop off some of the 1/2" drone length to raise the pitch. Small adjustments are needed - as little as 1/4" can change the pitch significantly. 

When you've got the tuning exact, chop off just a little bit more - this'll make it tune slightly high, but also means we can tune it with another pipe section. I found that a 3/4" CPVC length around the end works best to tune the drones - simply slide it out to decrease the pitch or bring it back to increase. You can also do some fancy dremeling on the end of the drone to allow air to escape in case you accidentally cover the end (e.g. poke it into the sofa or your leg).

Step 3: The Chanter

The chanter is a fickle beast - it's basically a drone with holes drilled in it to allow for different notes. Where and how you make the holes is basically voodoo, and would take a LOT of computer simulation to get exact. Sooo....

we fake it! I had a practice chanter lying around (if you don't you can get one from amazon) and I copied the holes onto some 1/2" pipe using a drill press. The membrane assembly is exactly the same as for the drones.

If you get a note too low, scrape away at the hole with a pocketknife or dremel heading towards the membrane section. This will raise the pitch. If it's too high, you're not screwed - just cover the hole over slightly with electrical tape. 

Step 4: Duct Tape Bag

I followed a tutorial from HERE, ignoring the part about the reeds. This will yield a 100% duct tape bagpipe bag. 

As a side note - I used 1/2" OD vinyl tubing for my bag stocks on my first iteration, but I highly advise using 1/2" CPVC instead. The vinyl compresses when you try to put the drones and chanter on, and are kind of slippery compared to a snug CPVC fitting.

I started off by making a big flat sheet of duct tape - lay one strip down sticky side up, then place one halfway up sticky side down. Flip and repeat until you get something roughly 23" square.

Then fold the sheet over halfway, draw your bag outline, and cut it. Try to get the seams to match up as seamlessly (heh) as possible. For mine, I drew a straight line for the bottom of the bag about 12" long and a chanter neck about 4" long and 2" high, then eyeballed the rest and joined them with a curve.

Cut your stock pieces (roughly 2-2.5" apiece) and line them up with where you want them to go. On my new bag, I have three on top spaced roughly 1.5" apart. The blowpipe goes in front, then the tenor drone, then the bass drone, but really you can place them anywhere that's comfortable for you.

Next, insert your stock pieces. DO THIS BEFORE YOU SEAL THE BAG. It may seem obvious, but it's easy to forget, trust me. The stock pieces can be secured with duct tape again, but make sure you have a tight seam especially inside the bag because it's quite the pain to re-seal them if there's a leak. 

Finally, close up your bag by taping lightly around the seam. I guarantee you there will be air leaks, so blow into the bag, find a leak, duct tape, and repeat. You do this without the drones on by putting some tape over each stock hole while you test it.

During play the bag will also start to leak initially. Just stop playing, grab your duct tape, and get fixin'.

Step 5: The Blowpipe

You need to get air into the bag somehow, but you really DON'T want to get blasted in the face with duct-tape flavored recycled breath when you stop blowing. Enter the check valve! 

I have another instructable specifically for this since it's probably the most fiddly bit on the instrument. Check it out here

Step 6: Assembly

Hopefully you can figure this part out - just stick the drones, chanter, and blowpipe on the bag! It sometimes helps to apply some duct tape around the seals so the pipes don't slip off the bag while it's under pressure. 

Step 7: Maintenance

Maintenance is important - even though it's a few bucks of duct tape and plumbing, it still needs a little bit of TLC sometimes to not sound like... well... a few bucks of duct tape and plumbing. The most common problems that occur can sound like horrific medical diseases, but they can be solved quickly and cheaply regardless. Here we go!

The Leaky Bag:  Sometimes, particularly when your pipes are freshly made, the bag is going to spring a leak. This will most likely occur around the seam, but it can pretty much happen anywhere. The solution? Add more duct tape. No, seriously - you'd be hard pressed to add enough duct tape to a bag to the point where it's unusable. I usually tape the hole with at least 2" of cover on any side, and I try to wrap around the bottom to the other side so there's some tension on the tape. 

Slippery Drones: If your drones start having pieces fall off, it's time to add some more masking tape or hemp. This can be particularly annoying at the 3/4" drone ends and the cuff holding the 1/2" pipe into the T, since those both determine the pitch of the pipe, but adding tape regardless will make the fit more snug and prevent bits from a-hobbling off. 

Raspy/Gargling Membrane: If your membrane starts sounding a bit rough or if you hear some gargling sounds, try re-stretching the plastic bag membrane over the 3/4" section. This is usually because the bag is either not tight enough or is worn out. 

If re-tightening the membrane doesn't do it the first time, do yourself a favor and don't keep trying to tighten it. Plastic bags are cheap, so go ahead an slaughter one in the name of the bagpipe gods so that they might bless your instrument of destruction.

Step 8: Upgrades!

Having a bit of free time and a strong desire to make things sound less awful, I spent some time trying to improve the tuning process and the amount of air required to play. As a result of this, I found two improvements to make your pipes more air-efficient and easier to tune.

Improving airflow
This amounts to basically installing a choke valve inside your pipes. I tried using a ball valve between the bag and the pipe to limit airflow, but this significantly decreased loudness and didn't prevent that much air from escaping. What I found worked best was actually a whittled-down rubber roller from an old printer I disassembled, but I'm sure any rubber washer you can find at Lowe's would do the trick.

Simply take your rubber washer and cut it down on the edges until it fits the inner 1/2" pipe with a bit of friction. Slide it just a little bit down the top of the pipe so the membrane doesn't it hit. This works for both the drones and the chanter by keeping the membrane area under high pressure, while having a smaller hole for the air to escape through.

Improving Tuning
This upgrade is a bit more complex - for each of the drones, I bought a 3/4" threaded male and matching female coupling as well as a 1/2" to 3/4" adapter. Bore out the inside of the adapter so the 1/2" pipe can slide though it with some effort, then slide the female coupling onto it. Then add the male coupling to the outer area so that the long 1/2" CPVC section can be threaded into place.

This was most useful in maintaining the right tuning and in making precise changes - the threading and snug fit to the 1/2" pipe prevents accidental bumping from affecting the tuning of the drones, and if you need to increase or decrease the pitch all it takes is a simple tightening/loosening of the two couplings. 



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    60 Discussions

    Count Volta

    1 year ago

    Good sound, not so different from real smallpipes

    I must try this!


    1 year ago

    Wonder if a box wine bag would be a good bag for this project...


    5 years ago

    On the topic of the 1/2" not being able to slip freely with a gap into the 3/4", I decided to ditch the membrane idea and put reeds in. I was having way too much trouble adjusting the plastic without changing the tuning, because it would play a different note depending on how taut the plastic was. It was impossible to get it back to the original note, even with the screw couplings. I'll let you know how the reeds turn out.

    2 replies

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Hey David, awesome you're trying reeds - definitely let me know what works for you, as I've been considering trying out a reeded version instead of the finicky membranes.

    If it's not too late, here are the dimensions of my chanter:
    Total length: 16-1/4"

    Measured from bottom of chanter to center of the hole you uncover to play the note:
    High A (on back): 10-9/16"
    High G: 9-11/16"
    F: 8-15/16"
    E: 8-1/16"
    D: 6-14/16"
    C: 6-3/16"
    B: 5-1/16"
    Low A: 3-7/16"
    Low G (two holes, on sides): 1-11/16"

    My smallest hole size was about 1/4", so I'd suggest starting at that size and widening it downwards/upwards if the pitch is too high/low, respectively. I also used electrical tape to further tune each note by partially taping over them, as it's impossible to get them to align perfectly with just drill holes. 

    I tune my drones with one to bass A and two to tenor A, like a traditional bagpipe (although tenor E sounds cool too). The lowest note with all fingers covered is actually G (scale degree 7 since it's in the key of A), so to play the root note you'll want your pinky off the last hole. 

    Hope this helps!


    Reply 2 years ago

    Is 16-1/4 the length of the pipe, or the pipe with the screw tuners and T and all the other hardware?


    3 years ago

    I can't fit the 1/2 pipe into the 3/4 pipe, how did you even do that?

    2 replies

    Reply 3 years ago

    The 3/4" has to be Schedule 200. It is really thin walled. The 1/2" can be regular schedule 40


    Reply 3 years ago

    This is a critical call out...thank you. Schedule 200 isn't as readily available as schedule 40. You may need to call around to a few big-box stores, or go to a plumbing specialty store.


    3 years ago

    So should the chanter be 1/4" or 3/4"?


    3 years ago

    can you please go into more detail on the dimensions of the chanter, specifically the holes in it?


    3 years ago

    Could you use a icycle inner tube instead of a plastic bag? Or would it be too stretchy?


    4 years ago

    can i change the chanters with recorder's stick?

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago

    We haven't tried it, but it should be possible - you might need to adjust the lengths of the drone pipes to match the pitch of the recorder, though.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Did you ever make the video on how to make the drones?

    Would be really helpful, it looks like the membrane is on the small end with a cap?

    2 replies

    Yep, the membrane is on the small end (closest to the air inlet) and uses the same method as the chanter. We're actually planning to revisit this project sometime this winter, so that video might happen in the next few weeks :)


    5 years ago on Introduction

    can you please upload the videos again? amazing job, i will build my own!


    5 years ago on Introduction

    I have taken this design and have made organ pipes from the drone design, and it has produced an absolutely beautiful sound. The only dilemma that has been occurring is that the inner pipe does not always stay level with with the outer pipe which does not cause the reed to vibrate. I have decided to use wax paper instead of the plastic bag and it has given a much smoother tone. The only problem is that the pipes don't always stay level. After sanding and sanding in an effort to keep them level it doesn't not always stay. With the pipes facing up was weight pushed down on the wax paper, with it facing down the inner pipe slides down, either way some of the pipes don't let the wax paper vibrate. I am out of ideas, is there any way in which I can keep these pipes level to have the wax paper stay constantly level?

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    If you're having trouble with the pipes sliding around, I'd suggest making them fit more tightly together by adding additional tape or other material. Once you find a point where it sounds good, you could use an additional spot or two of hot glue to hold it the pipes in place. The glue should be relatively easy to remove later on if you need to adjust things. Finally, I don't know what your setup is, but if you stacked the pipes horizontally you'd remove the gravity issue from your tuning problem. Hope this helps, and I'd love to see pictures/video!