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BAGPIPE MANUFACTURE

 

We've had many requests for more information on bagpipe making. This little section should provide some helpful information.

The wood used today in bagpipe making, as well as making other woodwinds, is Dalbergia Melanoxylon, commonly known as African Blackwood. In the past, many different woods have been used in bagpipe making, including laburnum, holly, pear, ebony, cocus and cocobolo (the last two from Central America). Of all the woods used to make pipes, blackwood is considered to be the best available today for tone and stability. Many top players, howver, are playing antique cocus or ebony sets, both preferred for their tonal qualities. Unfortunately neither cocus nor ebony are viable economically today.

African Blackwood, or Mpingo, is a shrublike tree which grows in the uplands of Tanzania, Kenya, and the island of Moçambique. Originally plentiful from Ethiopia to South Africa, over-harvesting in the past has reduced the 'population' to the current areas. Fortunately an active reforestation program is underway in Tanzania to ensure the survival of this vital tree species. Current stocks of blackwood are plentiful, and the bagpipe industry is assured to have sufficent wood stock for years to come. There are many people who believe that overharvesting of blackwood will lead to its extinction; we certainly hope not! As the bagpipe industry is not the only user of this vital musical resource we can only encourage the reforestation programs in Africa. For more information, go to The African Blackwood Conservation Project.

(photo courtesy of The African Blackwood Conservation Project)

The trunk sections of these trees, which normally grow to a height of 30 feet, are seldom bigger than eight inches in diameter; the trees take approximately sixty years to mature. Billets cut from the trunks are quarter-sawn for best grain and strength. Blackwood is a very dense, oily, medium brown wood which has turning properties similar to ebony and laburnum. The high oil content can be visible on cut blackwood on hot days - a tarlike oil will seep to the cut surface. Like other hardwoods, it darkens when finished, and continues to darken as the wood oxidises over several years. By the time a set of blackwood pipes are five to six years old, the wood has become truly 'black,' with very little visible grain. Most of the wood used in pipe making is shipped to the UK from Tanzania.

The wood is typically seasoned two to three years before working - usually one or more years at the source, several months in transit on shipboard, then to lumber yards in the UK where it is graded and sorted. By the time it reaches its destination the moisture in the content has stabilised at two to four percent - dry enough to turn. Green, or unseasoned, wood cannot be successfully turned into bagpipes or anything else. The higher moisture content in green wood creates dangerous working conditions (industrial accident, tool breakage, and injury) and makes finished pieces highly prone to warpage. The high natural oil content in blackwood helps prevent checking (cracking along the grain).

Much of the blackwood used by pipe makers arrives in billets about 2x2 inches and 16-18 inches long, which makes for ease of transport and storage. Uncut log sections are sometimes used by pipe makers, but the overall loss of wood makes this practice uneconomical. These billets are trucked to bagpipe makers all over Scotland - a large proportion of it ends up in Glasgow at Sharp & Co., where it is stored for several more months until it is needed for pipes.

The first operation involves turning the squared billets into cylinders after boring a 1/8" pilot hole through the long axis, as shown below left. The rough cylinders are then given an initial shaping, as Drew Sharp is doing in the picture.

Above right, Drew turns a set stocks into final shape for a chalice set. Note the relatively light colour of the unfinished wood. After initial rough shaping the most important part of pipe making takes place - creating the perfect bore. Each section is given its primary boring after determining what piece of the bagpipe it will become. Sections which do not measure up to drone standards are used for blowsticks or stocks. The best pieces are reserved for pipe chanters. These are rough turned and pilot bored, then stored for additional months to ensure that they stay straight. One of every three blackwood chanters is destroyed in the manufacturing process - unavoidable due to the thinness of the chanter walls (about 1/16" through the chanter body) - the main reason why blackwood pipe chanters are twice as expensive as plastic ones.

Below, Stephen Sharp works on a J&R Glen bass drone. Left, turning the final profile; centre, putting the final comb and beading into the profile; and right, sanding smooth a Kintail bass midjoint.

Each section is bored to rigid specifications to ensure optimum tone. Each piece is carefully finished, either using hard synthetic finishes or fine sanded and waxed. Exacting standards and quality control ensures that only the finest bagpipes are shipped to us from Sharp & Co.

Below, owner Greig Sharp, who has been active in the business for over forty years, turns a polypenco pipe chanter. The fine ribbon of plastic stays wrapped around the work until each pass is completed. When the exterior profile is polished, the finger and sound holes are drilled.

When all the sections are finished, they are hemped, assembled, and shipped to us, where we tie them in, reed them, and test them for tone to ensure that you receive only the best bagpipe made.

Below, the production stages of the first full silver mounted set of J&R Glens, start to finish:

left - rough shaping a tenor top section; centre- gauging the size with calipers; right - Drew cuts the combs and beading into the bass top section. Note the imitation ivory bush in the drone top.

left - another shot of the bass top section, with the plain turned pieces on the spindles behind; centre - all but two of the pieces, ready for comb and beading, with the silver attached; right - Drew puts the finishing touches on the blowstick.

CALL 510-569-1689 OR EMAIL pipey@netwiz.net FOR MORE INFORMATION ON BAGPIPES

 

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All images on this site used with permission from Tamarsha B.V. / Twice Blown Music and Sharp and Co Bagpipe Makers LTD