Re-creating the Jorvik Viking Panpipes

There are several instruments or partial instruments that have been found in a Viking context. At this time, however, there is only one panpipe identified as being a Viking instrument. This was found at York (Jorvik) and is decribed in the book The Viking Dig by Richard Hall. This is the only place I have been able to find a good drawing of the lengths of the bores in this instrument. The book describes the notes sounded by this panpipe as being the the five notes from "top A" to "top E," or the first five notes of the A-major scale.

Unlike the cane pipes most of us are used to when we think of the word "panpipes," the York panpipe is one block of wood with holes in it. Four holes are still complete, the fifth is broken. It is not known if there were ever any more holes, but I think it unlikely. Here is a picture of what most folks think of as panpipes.

I have tried for a while to find out what these Viking pipes sounded like. I have not been able to find recordings, though one has supposedly been made available to the public. If you have a copy, please contact me.

There are a couple of potential problems in making a replica instrument from a drawing. The most obvious is the possibility that the bores were not drawn accurately in the book. This would lead to an erroneous reconstruction. Also, even minor differences in such an instrument may affect the sound. However, since the archaeological drawings of almost any find tend to be as accurate at the archaeologists can make them, I elected to trust the drawing.

Although the original was made of boxwood, I used Alaskan birch, due to the fact that boxwood is very difficult to obtain in Alaska. I like using birch for a project like this because it is a common wood in Europe, as well as in Alaska, so is plausible in a re-creation. Birch also has a nice, straight grain and is hard enough to be very durable. I don't think the wood choice will make a significant difference in the final sound of an instrument like this.

The first step was to make a pattern by scaling up the picture in the book. That was easy. Then, the pattern was transferred to the wood. In this case, it is just a rectangle.

I cut out the wood block with a bandsaw.

Then, the spots for the holes are marked on the top of the block. I drew a center line first so they would all be in line with each-other. (The line looks off-center at this point: that will be taken care of in the next step.)

I cut off a slice along one side, since the original is only 1.1 cm thick and my wood is a bit thicker than that.

I next used the tip of a knife to start the drill bit. Even a tiny dimple can make a big difference in making sure the bit stays where it should when starting. The end grain of almost any wood will let the bit wander a little before it starts cutting in.

I used a 5/32" (4 mm) bit to drill pilot holes. None of the holes is as deep as even the shallowest of the final holes will be. These are just meant to get the spade bit that I will use later to start in the right spot and the right direction.

The original instrument was drilled with a spoon bit (so called because it looks like a spoon at the end). This is pretty close in function to a modern spade bit. I have several spade bits in my shop, so I chose the one that seemed closest to matching the average diameter of the holes in the original panpipe. In this case, my 5/16" (8 mm) bit looked closest to matching the average bore in the archaeological drawing I was working from. This is a potential source of error, since the original holes taper slightly and my spade bit drills non-tapering holes. In a panpipe, the important thing is the volume of the cavity, so aiming for the average size of the hole will be the best way I have of approximating the original with modern tools.

I had to have some way to determine when I had drilled far enough. I wrapped a piece of masking tape around the bit and marked it with a fine point marker. I also used the extra little slab I had cut off of the main block to make a pattern for making future copies of this panpipe.

So, the next step was to drill the holes. This is pretty simple and if you can use a drill press, you know how to do this. A hand drill would be feasible, if the wood block was first clamped in a vise or onto the surface of the workbench. I will note that I backed out the bit a couple of times for each hole and shook out the accumulated wood chips.

Well, after only an hour or so from starting, here's a block of wood with five holes in it! Notice the hairy bores. That looks like it would play havoc with the acoustic properties of any wind instrument.

I wrapped sandpaper around a dowel and worked the inside of the holes for a while to smooth out the gnarly spots inside the holes and remove the fibers hanging out into the bores.

While I have no practical need for the thonghole of the original, a replica should be as accurate as I am able to make it. I first drilled the hole with a 3/16" (4.75 mm) bit.

Next, I used the spade bit to taper the hole, to imitate the tapered hole shown in the drawing of the original.

To round over the edges and shape the top like the original, I went to my trusty belt sander. It would not have been hard to use a rasp for this step, but since I have the sander, I used it.

Here's the instrument after sanding it to shape. The power tool leaves a faceted appearance and the corners will need to be rounded over with sandpaper.

After maybe 15 minutes with sandpaper, torn into little pieces for easier handling, I have essentially finished the panpipe!

I have no idea whether the original was oiled or otherwise treated to preserve the wood. I elected to protect and preserve it because I like the feel of a well-finished piece of wood. I used Watco Danish Oil and Watco finishing wax, following the instructions on the cans.

The color of the wood darkens a little with the oil, as you can see in this comparative picture. The lighter instrument was made from the same birch board as the darker one. It just wasn't treated in any way after sanding.

Panpipe plans
All measurements are given in centimeters. This plan is for the replica version and may differ somewhat from the original pipes found at York. Although reasonable effort was made to be as close to the original as possible, the thonghole is positioned somewhat lower than that of the York pipes.

Here is a copy of my pattern so that anyone who wishes can make a panpipe like this one. Please note that this pattern is my own version and may be slightly different in measurement from the original. I have tried to remain faithful to history, but I'm putting in this disclaimer, just the same. All measurements are in centimeters because the only size reference in Hall's book was the height of the instrument, which was 9.5 cm.

Please note that I put my thonghole a little lower than the original. I just didn't feel brave enough to drill so close to the bores of the two holes that are furthest to the left.

Rather than draw the bores out on the pattern, I marked where the centers should be and noted the depth of each. If this doesn't make sense, please e-mail to let me know.

I find it fairly easy to sound all five holes in this tiny panpipe. The five notes are limiting, but do allow for a certain amount of musical expression. The actual tuning of the notes as I drilled them is as follows:
A, 30 cents sharp
B, spot on
C#, 15 cents flat
D, 40 cents sharp
E, 50 cents sharp

Since the notes sounded by my replica are close to the notes of the original, but not exactly in tune with what Hall reports, I think that it is possible that my tunings are off, due to minor measuring errors on the parts of both myself and maybe the researcher who drew the picture in Hall's book. It is also possible that the tunings given in the book are merely aproximations and not actually representative of the exact pitch of the instrument. Without a recording of the actual artifact, I can't truly be sure whether mine is right or not.

It would be easy to tune this instrument to be exactly on-key by drilling out the sharp holes just a little and filling the very bottoms of the flat hole with a bit of beeswax until they all sound right. As of the time I am writing this, I have not done any further tuning. I think I will save that for a future copy of the panpipe and preserve my first just as it is.

There is a fair amount of amateur speculation about the place of this instrument in Viking society, but nobody seems to have anything other than speculation.

One article I have read online about Viking music claims that this instrument was probably a toy, since it had such a "thin" sound to it. Frankly, I doubt this. The sound of my copy is actually quite clear and bold. Further, boxwood is a lot of work to make anything out of. Drilling five holes into the end grain of a boxwood block with a hand-turned spoon bit, carefully making sure not to drill off center and go out the side of the instrument, indicates to me more time than most folks would put into a simple toy. There were several bone whistles found in a Viking context and these are much easier to make sounds with than a panpipe. They would also take a lot less time to construct in a culture without power tools. So, I personally think that the speculation that this was a child's plaything is not correct.

Some folks claim this instrument must have originally had more than five holes, in order to give the player a greater range. Again, I don't think so. The broken edge destroyed the upper half of one bore, but below the break, the wood is smooth and rounded, or at least appears so in the drawing. So, there is no indication that the instrument was ever wider than it is now. The evidence points to it still being the size it was when made.

My personal view is also purely speculation, but I think it is plausible. I believe that this little panpipe was the Viking equivalent of the pocket harmonica. Vikings were travelers. This instrument is compact, light weight, easy to play, fun to mess around with, and can go with a man anywhere. This is the role my copy is already filling for me, only a few days after I made it. I keep it in my jacket pocket and I improvise in it while walking the dog or waiting for my toddler to finish playing in the snow outside the public library. If experimental archaeology tells us anything about this instrument, it tells us that the York panpipe is a very handy and accessible musical instrument.

There is something in all of us that yearns for music. Every culture on earth has some sort of music. Modern folks spend a lot of money on recorded music. In an age where all music was performed live and often had to be made by the very people who wanted to hear it, simple instruments like this panpipe must have been a welcome way to pass the time. I am firmly convinced that this was the real purpose of the York panpipe.

If you would like to comment on my panpipe replica, or if you have a copy of the recording of the original, please e-mail me. (Remove the capital letters to get rid of the spamblocker before sending.)

-Patrick Woolery