Tools of the Trade


When I was at A Level college we had a talk from a production engineer. He talked about finding ways to solve interesting problems like drilling curved holes in turbine fins and joining dissimilar materials. I remember being fascinated but didn’t think to consider it as a degree option. I actually wound up as a post graduate genetic engineer which, though fascinating just wasn’t me. For one thing the maths was way too hard. I eventually ran off to industry and worked in research and development for ten or so years. That was better, but I guess I still wasn’t getting to make things. Maybe that’s why I started making pipes. The production engineer in me was always there but now it really had a purpose.

The last thing I want to do is turn the making of pipes in to a production line but there is a lot of satisfaction to be had from making tools and jigs that solve production problems. Sometimes to speed up the process but more often the object is to increase the accuracy and repeatability of a particular job. The case in point here is the drilling of finger holes.

Anyone who has bought a DIY instrument making kit knows the difficulty of trying to pin an instrument to the dining table with one hand whilst lining up a power drill in the other. It’s never going to end well. For some reason misaligned finger holes seem very obvious even when just a fraction out. Holes in the dining table are also hard to miss. All makers have a box of chanters that didn’t quite make the grade and finger hole mess-ups count for quite a high proportion of their contents.

One trick, apart from obviously using a drill press, is to drop a drill bit in to the first hole you drilled and use that to “eyeball” the rest. It works really well, if a little slow, until you start making smallpipes where the chanter is sometimes barely twice the diameter of the drill bit. I clearly needed a drill that was permanently in line with the centre of the chanter. The obvious thing was to have a drill that travelled up and down the lathe bed so the finger holes can be drilled whilst the chanter is on the lathe. Large engineering lathes can sometimes do this with an expensive gadget called a tool post grinder but I like to work on a wood lathe and I didn’t have much cash. As a result I went for, what is really quite the obvious solution. A power drill on a hobby size pillar drill stand that slides along the lathe bed. It has a tenon beneath to keep it in registration with the lathe bed and a sliding V block that is brought up from below to steady the instrument.

I’ve used the thing on every instrument I’ve made since I set it up, as well as various other projects. It was a real pain to line up and I’m still not convinced its right in the middle but it’s simple, accurate and repeatable.

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