Dalbergia Melanoxylon (African Blackwood)
To be sure, many different woods were used in the manufacture of bagpipes. In the days before demand became so great, woods indigenous to Scotland served the bagpipe maker well. Favored woods were laburnum and holly. Although these woods were good, supply did not keep pace with demand. Makers were forced to venture further and further in search for substitute woods. Ebony was perhaps the first foreign wood of choice. Ebony from Ceylon was preferred. It was, however, susceptible to cracking in certain climates around the world. Ebony from the forests of West Africa became the primary supply for bagpipe makers. This West African Ebony was divided into three classes, Gaboon, Duala, and Cameroon. Gaboon was considered the best due to color and texture. Cameroon is river-bank growth and its properties did not lend itself well to bagpipe making.
When Gaboon Ebony was first used in the bagpipe trade, it grew abundantly in the coastal lowlands. As time went on, these forests became depleted and users of this wood harvested Ebony that grew within the mahogany forests six hundred miles inland. Due to the density of Ebony, waterways were useless for transporting the harvest to the coast. Instead, logs were split and cut into short billets, perhaps four or five feet in length and weighing about eighty pounds.
These billets were carried on the heads of the transporters, one billet at a time. They were transported, in this manner, only to the border of their own territory. There they would be stockpiled until others could be found to transport the billets across their district. In this manner, billets would find their way to the coast in one or two years. Again, the Ebony was stockpiled until suitable transport could be arranged. Ebony was not a preferred cargo and often long delays occurred before the billets finally left Africa. By the time the cargo arrived in Scotland, it had been picked over by other users at various other points along the journey. At this point, bagpipe makers had to move quickly. Quantities were bought up and stockpiled. In some cases, the time elapsed between the felling of the tree and the turning of the wood would exceed five years. Waste due to warps, splits, and worm infestation was approximately thirty to forty percent.
Cocus wood was also a preferred wood. Although the name “Granadillo” or “Grenadillo” is used for several exotic hardwoods including African Blackwood, proper use of the name applies to the best cocus wood from Jamaica and Cuba, which is very expensive and in short supply these days. This cocus wood is very dense, close grained, hard, and finishes beautifully. Bagpipes made of cocus wood produce a relatively softer, warmer sound. The cocus wood used today in making bagpipes is harvested in regions outside of the Caribbean and very inferior to the cocus wood of old.
The page below, from a J & R Glen Catalog ca 1920, provides several tidbits of information. Elsewhere within the catalog I found other statements concerning the woods and a caution with respect to the use of lesser woods. It was a common practice by some makers to disguise whatever wood they used with a common blackening agent.
African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) gained popularity in the early 1900’s although it was used from time to time prior to the turn of the century. It gained favor with pipers for the strong resonant sounds that it produced. Likewise, it gained favor with makers as it was less prone to splitting when exported to markets outside of the United Kingdom.
African Blackwood is known in Tanzania as the Mpingo tree. It is known as the "Tree of Music" for its qualities as a material for woodwind instruments. It once grew abundantly in vast areas of the African savannah, from Ethiopia to South Africa. It is now found only in Tanzania and northern Mozambique. It takes approximately 60 years for the slow-growing Mpingo to reach maturity, in that it is large enough to be a commercially viable product. There is an estimated 3 million African Blackwood trees in existence today, with about 20% or 600,000 which are suitable for harvesting. This population is diminishing at the rate of about 5% per year or 20 - 30 thousand trees.
It was first used from the East side of Africa. Blackwood experienced a perilous journey to Scotland, and even in the early days, supply was not good. This required pipe makers to stockpile wood for years, awaiting the next shipment. Waste is even higher than ebony. Its musical and aesthetic qualities, however, have made blackwood the preferred wood for bagpipes. Blackwood is denser than most woods (about 75 pounds per cubic foot) and oily to the touch. It contains a thick resin or tar deep within its fibers. This tar perhaps contributes to its resonant qualities as well as to its relative durability. If one exposes even the driest piece of Blackwood to stove-top heat, he will witness this tar oozing from the wood.
Understanding the historical process and long duration in bringing ebony and blackwood to the bagpipe maker, one can speculate that the modern methods of harvesting trees and seasoning the logs must have an impact on the stability of the wood and the musical qualities of modern blackwood pipes. Not at all unrelated, the Stradivarius violin has come under much intense scrutiny and scientific study. It was concluded that the equally long and arduous natural curing process was a significant positive factor in its own particular musical superiority.
Other woods have been used with varying degrees of success. Bagpipes made of Cocobolo are currently offered by a few makers. Cocobolo grows in the forests of Central and South America and has many of the best characteristics and properties of the woods mentioned above. Unfortunately, the dust from Cocobolo contains irritants that can cause serious allergic reactions. This is a problem for those working with the wood and special precautions may be necessary to protect some workers. Cocobolo is highly regarded in the manufacture of some other woodwind instruments and is gaining respect among pipers.
There are a great many sources of information on these woods on the Internet, and a search for “exotic hardwoods” will provide the reader with scientific information and data on the hardest woods from around the planet.