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Woods of the Bagpipe

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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.

Grades of ABW

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.

The picture below is of J & R Glen's shop in the early half of the 20th century.  You can see the respect that they had for the wood.  Production would probably have been in the neighborhood of 60 sets per year.

After 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:

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.
Something to consider

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.
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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.
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