High-Tech Help for a Low-Tech Craft


Uilleann pipe maker John Butler has his work cut out for him: At the rate he is going, this sheet of keys — which he cuts with a water jet — will last him a good 5 years.

John Butler obviously appreciates the old-school handcrafting involved in the age-old trade of making Irish uilleann pipes — a style of bagpipes that are substantially more complex than their Scottish cousins — and he’s not shy about turning to high technology when the need arises.

As but one example, in an attempt to streamline the production of the 13 metal keys that go into a full set of uilleann pipes, Butler put his industrial design experience to use and generated a CAD file that would let a metal fabricator cut hundreds of key profiles from a single sheet of brass with a water jet. The result was a beautiful artifact in and of itself, a brass puzzle with hundreds of key shapes. Prior to that, Butler would have to forge each key by hand: starting with a bar of brass, hammering it on an anvil, and annealing it with a blowtorch in multiple iterations until the metal reached the desired shape.

“It’s very enjoyable work to do it, but it’s not very enjoyable to do it 13 times in a row,” Butler notes. Each key will still require a good bit of handwork to finish – bending, filing, shaping, and polishing — but he reckons the water-cut keys will halve the time it would take him to make them by hand, “And that’s the most pernickety work in the instrument.”

Butler takes a similarly pragmatic approach when it comes to the brass tubing that connects the various parts of the pipes. Pipemakers at the highest end of the spectrum, and those who restore antique sets of pipes, fabricate their own tubing from sheet metal. This gives them total control over the bore and wall thickness, specs that are increasingly hard to meet as the international market for tubing continues to evaporate. Butler, who insists that the metal has no discernible effect on the sound set of pipes, opts for commercially available brass tubing, which can be shaped by a fancy tube-bender that he found online. These concessions help him turn out a set of pipes at a relatively moderate cost — $9500, as compared with $16,500 for pipes by other master pipemakers.

Like nearly all pipemakers around the globe these days, Butler outsources most of his leatherwork — in his case, to a Dublin-based supplier of bellows and bags called Kelleher Traditional. Why don’t they do this work themselves? “Because it’s a big pain in the arse,” is the giddy explanation I got from one pipe maker. The bag has to be airtight, and after spending weeks or even months on the project it can be maddening to waste additional hours trying to fix a leaky bag. 

© 2020 Larry Gallagher, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: October 22, 2019