Uilleann Pipe Chanter Stop Key

One of the many harrowing aspects of playing most bagpipe-family instruments is that the sound is constantly coming.  On a flute, you can take a breath or stop blowing a column of air to stop the sound or articulate.  On a violin, you can stop moving the bow to bail out.  On a guitar, you can stop the strings vibrating with your hand, or put space between notes by plucking.  On a bagpipe, the air is constantly being pushed through the reeds by means of the inflated bag, and they are constantly vibrating the open ended drones or chanter.

Some bagpipes, such as the Irish Uilleann pipes, are played in a "closed" style, where the chanter can be completely sealed off by covering all the finger holes, and resting the bell of the chanter against the player's thigh.  This allows for staccato playing and a whole realm of interesting articulation possibilities not commonly associated with bagpipes (save a few other varities such as the Northumbrian smallpipes that operate on a similar principle with the bell of the chanter being perminantly sealed).  However, there is still the issue that if the closed seal of fingers and thigh is broken, the chanter will sound whether the piper wants it to or not.  This can be a special nuisance when the piper needs to tune his drones or regulators, and will need at least one free hand.  Unplugging the chanter and stopping up the bag stock with a finger is a tiresome process.

As a solution, pipemakers have made special chanter headpieces with a mechanism termed a "chanter stop key" or just "stop key".  The stop key is a long lever which is actuated usually by a finger on the piper's hand close to the top of the chanter, and closes some sort of valve (there are many designs) that cuts off airflow to the chanter reed, rendering it silent, and allowing the piper a free hand.  When the key is released, the valve opens again, airflow is restored, and the instrument can play.

My chanter did not come with a stop key, as the price was more than I could afford.  However, after some research and discussion with many pipemakers, I felt confident I could make one myself if I could get a hold of the correct ID and OD brass tubing.  I was able to source the brass tube from New York pipemaker Nick Whitmer, who was also kind enough to bend the "swan" inlet tube for the top of the headpiece which connects it to the pipe bag.  My valve design is based upon historical instruments, and inspired by those implimented by the Taylor brothers around the turn of the 20th century. 

  1. The long, curved stop key, after being fitted in the milled out guide and hinge
  2. The completed chanter stop key headpiece, on my Dixon CP chanter
  3. The stop key is returned closed naturally by a small coil spring, salvaged from a pen mechanism
  4. The rest of the stop key components, including the swan air inlet tube, plunger mechanism to open or close air flow, and the pin to actuate it
  5. The rubber valve, in the closed position, stopping airflow to the chanter reed
  6. The rubber valve, in the open position, allowing airflow to reach the chanter reed
  7. I designed the top cap so the headpiece could be swiveled 360 degrees, so the key can be actuated by the top hand index finger on the front, or the top hand thumb on the back (this position)
  8. Title 10
    Title 10

Click picture for more detail