Buying a Bagpipe – Domestic or Import?
Here’s a hot topic! Do I buy a domestically made bagpipe or an import? These comments are intended for those who are purchasing a wood bagpipe only. Delrin is off the table for the sake of this installment.
So why is this even a consideration?
1. Impact on the wood (shrinkage and morphing)
2. After-purchase customer service
3. Support local businesses
Every so often the issue of fittings (ferrules, mounts, etc.) falling off a new set of bagpipes gets some attention on various forums. The wood has shrunk and the fittings, being metal or otherwise, haven’t. The result is a ring lost on parade or a ferrule lying in the bottom of your case. The general remedy for this is to wrap the wood with hemp and reinstall the piece. Sometimes just a spot of glue will work. Either may fix the issue temporarily or permanently depending on a multitude of factors.
As I’ve so often said, two factors play a huge role in what takes place with your bagpipe; those being temperature and humidity. Both will cause your instrument to swell or shrink or to morph into something otherwise unintended. This is especially evident with wood that hasn’t completely stabilized following manufacture.
So I wandered into a maker’s shop one day and I get “Hey Ringo!” Get over here and check this out!” What I find is a bagpipe that is under a year old where the owner has sent it into the shop to have new engraved metal fittings installed. The issue is that every piece of the bagpipe has changed shape and is no longer round. The circumferences (and I assume the bores inside) are now oval. Of course, installing a perfectly round metal fitting to wood that is now oval is a bad thing.
I know this maker and he is a person of good reputation. Oddly, this is the second such set from him that I’ve seen in this condition. I’ve seen other bagpipes from other makers where this has occurred and I wonder why. I have also encountered bagpipes where the internal bore has changed and there are tight and loose spots as one part moves up and down through a tuning chamber.
I remember importing a new bagpipe with metal tuning slides. In very short order various tuning chambers shrunk down and would no longer accommodate the circumference of the tuning slides! You wonder just how this could happen. I can only imagine the reaction of a new piper, this being his or her first instrument.
During workshops I always get around to telling the story of a new bagpipe I encountered in New England. The piper was having a hell of a time keeping the bag inflated. I exhausted all other possibilities before discovering that the bores of the stocks were all out-of-round. There was no way to get an airtight seal between the stocks and the tenons that fit into them. Now I know damn well that the maker didn’t do this intentionally. So what happened?
I believe that some of this may have to do with the maker not allowing the parts to rest between the various manufacturing steps. When you bore or profile a piece, time needs to pass so that the piece adjusts to its new shape. Certain structural stresses are relieved and the overall piece winds up where remaining stresses take it. Once it adjusts to its new shape, finishing can take place with greater confidence.
I believe that another factor has to do with where the bagpipe is made. If it’s made in a climate that is far different than where it winds up, chances are it’s going to experience additional changes when it reaches its new destination. I look at the climate in the UK and its far different than the climate in New England, the mid-west, Texas, Arizona, etc. etc. In the US, we don’t have to travel far to encounter a completely different climate.
Without a doubt, if the instrument is made in the UK and stays in the UK is will probably change very little over the years. Makers discovered this back in the very early 20th century when they stopped the export of ebony bagpipes to other parts of the world. Ebony is a fantastic wood in the UK however it does not hold up well in less stable climates. This is an extreme example however it helps to demonstrate the essence of the topic today.
I have long been a fan of bagpipes by Roddy MacLellan for various reasons. Roddy moved his business from New Jersey to South Carolina a few years ago and had to scrap his entire supply of wood! The stresses that the wood experienced moving from New Jersey to the heat and humidity of South Carolina were simply too great. Although anecdotal and fraught with many other factors, it none-the-less demonstrates the impact the general climate has on wood.
So, where does all this land?
I believe that if you’re diligent and responsive to the needs of a new bagpipe you can prevent some of the radical changes and other issues that may otherwise occur. This involves maintaining the instrument in a friendly environment, away from excessive heat and lack of humidity. Air conditioning is a killer of new bagpipes, as is the trunk of your car on a hot August day. If you stay close to your new instrument and allow it to “settle” into its new home, you’ll reduce the chances of disappointment down the road. Having said that, depending on so many other factors, even the best efforts may fall short in keeping your new bagpipe to its original specifications.
There are many matters to consider when making the decision between a bagpipe made closer to home and one imported from a climate dramatically different from where you live. After-sales customer-service and product guarantee are also important considerations. Also, there is a need to support businesses that you value and admire, especially those close to home. If you don’t there may come a time when you wish you had.
This entire series of blogs is all about empowerment. The more good information that you have, the better able you are to make the decision that’s right for you. When you do encounter something that isn’t right, you’ll know why it isn’t right and how to avoid it in the future. The bottom line is to do your homework, know the important considerations, and manage your purchase accordingly. And remember, especially during those first few months, keep your instrument in a stable environment and oil is your best friend. We’ll cover off this topic in one of the coming articles.