The old man unlocked the door of the shop. His mind was already occupied with thoughts of the bagpipe he would make today. The order had come in many months ago however had to wait its turn and only now had made its way to the top of the list. The list. The old man paused to consider the list. Many times over the years he had worried about the list. In these days of computerized lathes and high-volume production houses he had sometimes worried that his list would shrink. Indeed, sometimes it had however invariably it had always grown back to a six to eight month wait for his product. He smiled.
He walked into the drying room and studied the cache of wood billets in their respective bins. Each piece was marked with chalk to indicate when it was placed into storage. Each billet had a small bore drilled through the center to aid the drying process. Those with red chalk were brought into inventory over a year ago. With huge, confident hands, he reached for these first. He studied each piece before selecting billets with the same look and feel.
Almost instinctively he knew which were suited for this set. He rejected anything that fell below his high standards. Lifting each piece to his nose he breathed its qualities in and surmised how it would yield under his tools. Again he smiled. He knew that this simple act was not often repeated around the world these days. In fact, he thought, when I’m gone I don’t know of anyone who knows a damn thing about this wood! He grunted his dissatisfaction at makers and consumers alike for not honouring the instrument by “knowing” it better.
He walked to a huge old lathe with cast iron legs and locked the billet between the chuck and live center. The lathe hummed to life, thankful to be alive and of use. Without thinking his right hand found the chisel. Metal met wood and familiar sounds and smells soon engulfed the man. He was lost inside his work.
At the end of the day he admired what his hands had done. Pieces were bored, turned, beaded and combed. He had rejected those pieces with even the smallest flaws. He didn’t like the way one piece responded and it quickly found itself in a bin destined for odd jobs or the fireplace. He thought about how he had built his reputation and business. Quality came first and although he could ill-afford to throw money away, he wasn’t about to use wood that wasn’t up to his standard. “It will only come back to bite my backside later,” he had told one customer. “I’d go broke sending out ball caps and T-shirts,” he laughed. Indeed, only the best was good enough for his bagpipe.
1) Uneven tuning chambers - When you insert the tuning pin into the tuning chamber it encounters tight and loose spots.
2) Oval exterior or interior - The piece is noticably out-of-round when held in your hand and rotated. The condition is even more pronounced when the piece is turned on a lathe. This is also obvious when turning the top section on the tuning pin. It will be tight in one spot and loose in another.
3) Warps - Pieces are no longer straight. You can sometimes see this by rolling a piece across a flat surface, like a table. Look for wobbles. Again, the condition is more pronounced when the piece is turned on a lathe.
4) Fixtures are loose - this is often due to the wood shrinking after construction. A certain amount of this can be prevented through periodic oiling however if the piece has not been dried and aged sufficiently prior to manufacture, oiling will not prevent shrinkage.
Cracks are sometimes due to the nature of wood however often is a result of abuse, such as exposure to extreme temperatures or rapid changes in temperature or climate changes (dry/wet). Some are preventable while others seem not to be. The best insurance one has is to oil the instrument regularly, play it regularly, and store it properly.
So, onto the bottom line. Finding out how a particular makers selects and manages his supply of wood is not easily done. As in many industries, answers to difficult questions are not always truthful. It's almost better to not ask the question.
The best indication I have is by carefully inspecting bagpipes of various makers and keeping close tabs on their products and changes within the industry. I have witnessed changes over the years in end products ranging from dramatic improvement to utter and absolute decline. Although I am a reseller of some excellent makes of bagpipes I do not represent all the better makers out there. There are some who only do business on a direct basis or through other dealers who produce an excellent product.
I am happy to provide you with my impressions based on my first-hand experience with most of the makers' products. I have an extensive library of pictures and emails from consumers that express their experiences with products, makers, and retailers from around the world.
There are other good sources of information. Sometimes those who do repairs or restoration are in an excellent position to "know" products. Some will privately share their views of a particular instrument in confidence. Be careful of those who only "push" or promote products that they sell or are otherwise tied to. Try to ensure that your source of information is well-versed on a wide range of instruments over an extended period of time. Compare the information they provide with what is found here. If you don't like what you hear, ask more questions or simply walk away. You'll be happy you did in the long run.
This little story is meant to capture a moment in time when the quality of the product took priority over all else. It’s meant to remind us of a time when people took great pride in what they did with their hands. Sadly, this is a rarity during these times of computerized mass production. In efforts to increase production and remove cost, the instrument has come under siege. This is enabled by consumers who don't have the knowlege or desire to differentiate one product from another. They seem to believe that all bagpipes are created equal. This is tragically wrong.
For the time being let’s just focus on the wood and how it makes its way through to becoming a Great Highland Bagpipe.
African Blackwood is the most widely accepted "superior" wood for bagpipes. There are other woods that may surpass ABW by one measurement or another however ABW is still considered "King" among most makers and consumers.
Details of where and how the wood is harvested can be found elsewhere within this site. (click here) What you need to know is that the quality of ABW varies greatly. This affects not only how your instrument will sound but also how it will behave today, tomorrow, and years from now.
ABW must be properly and sufficiently dried in order to stabilize. Without this the finished product will likely experience excessive movement (shrinkage, warps, morphing into oblong shapes
How ABW is brought to market
All ABW pretty much comes from the same part of the world. There are only a few wholesalers who mostly sell to retailers of exotic woods around the world. If the order is large enough, these wholesalers will sell direct to end users.
After harvesting, the ABW is cut into specific sizes that will be sold into various markets. For the bagpipe industry billets are cut into 14 individual pieces. Dimensions are about 2 inches square with lengths ranging from 8 to 20 inches long. These pieces are wax-sealed at each end and distributed worldwide. Wood is sold without consideration for drying or aging.
Wholesalers may or may not age the wood. Some wholesalers store their ABW for years and charge a premium price. Others simply turn the wood over as fast as orders can be filled. The responsibility for drying and aging the wood falls to the end users.
Not all ABW is created equally. The best ABW is black, close-grained, very dense with a close, straight grain to the wood. It has a look and feel that sets it apart from other grades of ABW. Only the best is suitable for making the GHB although makers will sometimes use whatever is available. The example above shows considerable sap wood. Although the wood closest to the sapwood is the oldest and hardest, much of this wood would not be suitable for making a GHB.
The wood below is what you might typically find in a good makers storeroom. Many refer to the best wood as being "music grade". These pieces appear to be very good however small flaws (such as cracks or worm holes) can exist within the wood that will render it unsuitable for musical instruments.
Sometimes makers will use lesser wood for a wide variety of reasons. They sometimes fill worm holes or disguise the wood in such a way that flaws are hidden. Ask those "in the know" and they will steer you toward more responsible makers.
Drying and aging ABW
Depending on many factors ABW requires an extended period of drying to reach optimal moisture content. Properties within the wood are both strengthened and stabilized when the wood is properly dried. More can be learned of this through this document. Click HERE to view or download.
There are some who disregard or hasten the drying process. They may use kilns or heated rooms with dehumidifiers to extract moisture.
Most experts would agree that air-drying ABW over an extended period of time is the best method of drying and aging the timber. Air drying allows the wood to reach the desired moisture level without inflicting undue stress on the wood. These stresses will someday result in warps, cracks, and other unwanted movement of the wood.
Most responsible makers will drill a pilot hole in each billet, which are stacked and stored in excess of one year. They inspect and test the wood from time to time to determine whether or not it's ready to be bored and turned.
You can see from these pictures the respect that they had for the wood.
When the maker has determined that the wood is ready for use, pieces are bored and profiled for further storage. As the wood is still drying improper storage could easily encourage the wood to move in one direction or another. Smart builders know exactly how to store the pieces when production is at this point.
When the maker is satisfied that the wood has completely stabilized, pieces are ready to be finished. This involves further profiling, application of beads and combs, fitting with bushings, rings, and ferrules, polishing of bores, and finally the exterior is applied. If all goes well, with the proper care by the eventual owner, the bagpipe will retain it's dimensions and tonal qualities almost indefinitely.
How to check your bagpipe
The following are indications that the wood was not properly dried or aged prior to manufacture: