Care of the Wood - Oiling
I recently spent considerable time to research this topic. Although I very much support the concept
and practice of oiling bagpipes, I had never heard or seen scientific data to confirm my beliefs. It
is interesting to learn how others throughout the greater "woodwind instrument" community address the
I think that it's important to understand and appreciate that bagpipers are a small minority
within a much larger family of woodwind musicians. We have kept pretty much to ourselves over the years.
Very little information has been exchanged on the instruments themselves or on their care and maintenance.
Throughout the greater woodwind community, as throughout our own bagpipe community, African Blackwood
is king. This is not to say that other woods aren't recognized and favoured by some however suffice to
say that African Blackwood is used extensively and valued most highly.
So, at least for the purposes of this topic, we have two common links (a) woodwind (b) African Blackwood.|
We know that all woodwind instruments are subject to moisture appearing on bores. This is mainly
caused by moisture within our breath condensing on the cooler surfaces of the bores. Weather conditions
and our own personal blowing characteristics also contribute.
When condensation occurs or liquid
is otherwise brought into contact with the bores, a certain amount may be absorbed by the wood, causing
it swell. As this liquid evaporates, it abandons cavities within the wood, causing shrinkage. Over time,
this constant expansion and contraction can impose subtle and greater stresses throughout the instrument.
At their very worst, these stresses manifest as warps or cracks. This paper will address why this is
so and what you can do to combat these assailants.
As mentioned above, much of the water that
we see collected on the inside of the bores of bagpipes has been deposited there by moisture contained
in our breath. That moisture contains many of the same properties contained with our saliva. These properties
help us to break down organic material for digestion purposes. Simply stated, African Blackwood and its
internal properties are organic. Any moisture containing digestive properties that is deposited on African
Blackwood is destructive. Over time these enzymes will have a negative affect on the wood and on the
natural oils contained within.
African Blackwood is incredibly dense. Within it is a thick tar-like
pitch. If you were to take a piece of Blackwood and place it in a frying pan over moderate heat, you
will witness this pitch bubbling to the surface. Exposed to those conditions mentioned above, this pitch
can break down over time and leave the wood unprotected and vulnerable.
Of course, also within
Blackwood is water. Over time, water evaporates causing shrinkage. As water (or any liquid) is returned
to the wood, it will absorb a certain amount, swelling the wood. When this occurs on the inside bore
of a musical instrument, the expansion is often rapid causing stress to build up on the opposing outside
surface. When the resultant expansion that must occur on the outside surface cannot keep pace with the
expansion on the inside surface, cracks develop to relieve the stress. Sometimes these cracks are confined
to the surface. Sometimes they extend to the inner bore.
The best defence is to maintain the
oil/water within the blackwood at a constant level. This means keeping the natural oils and water in
and keeping moisture containing digestive properties out. Considering that the wood will always be expanding
and contracting slightly due to changes in temperature, the application of proper bore oil is critical
to protecting the internal properties and vitality of the wood.
The first line of defence is
to swab out the bores after every playing!
Whew! That was exhausting!
Now we can begin the debate on the next controversial subject; "What kind of oil is best?" |
an oil to be effective it must be absorbed into the wood. Let me step back slightly. For an oil to be
effective it must be absorbed into the wood at the "right" rate of absorption. If the oil is absorbed
too quickly the wood will expand quickly creating stresses on the opposing surface. Unless you're applying
oil to the "naked" outside surface, you might be risking a split or crack.
When I'm doing restoration
work, I remove any finish on the bagpipe and apply oil to the outside surface first. I allow the oil
to penetrate from the outside surface for a few days. By approaching the most vulnerable part (outside
surfaces) first you will minimize stress created later when the inside bore starts to respond to oiling.
I then fully submerge the piece into an oil bath without risking stress-related splits.
is hardly practical to strip off the finish every time you want to oil your pipes. This is why it's better
to oil your pipes regularly once of twice each year. You will be addressing minimal loss of oil and water
with minimal absorption of bore oil resulting in minimal stress. Makes sense!
bore oils are mineral based. These contain solvents and distillates that aid in the absorption properties
of the finished product. These oils do not oxidize or go rancid. The product is very consistent and the
viscosity can be adjusted for a wide range of applications. Mineral oils are also relatively inexpensive.
Scientific research has shown that many of these processed mineral oils contain contaminants that
clog the pores of the wood.
Researchers agree that natural plant oils are best. Among this
group you will find teak oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, almond oil and a host of other common and exotic
oils. In order for a natural plant oil to be effective, it must be blended with antioxidants and stabilizers
to preserve and enhance their best qualities.
So how often should I oil?
Haven't had enough, eh? Here's what I say. You may find those who agree and disagree.|
own an older bagpipe and have never oiled it, be very cautious. I would be inclined to strip the outside
finish off the bagpipe and submerge the pieces in a complete bath for about a week. After a thorough
clean up and a proper protective finish on the outside I would oil the pipes according to the climate
I play in.
With a new set of pipes, I would oil them upon receipt and thereafter according to
If you live in a hot, dry climate, oil more frequently. If you live in a cooler,
more temperate climate, oil once or twice each year.
However frequently you choose to oil,
be sure to remove any excess oil remaining on the wood. What is not absorbed into the wood should be
removed. Do not allow oil to stay on the surface of the wood to thicken and create other problems.
My research has led me to Omar Henderson, a.k.a. The Bore Doctor. The Doctor holds a Phd in chemistry
and has researched this topic for many years. The result is a bore oil product that nurtures and protects
the wood without clogging the pores or otherwise leaving negative footprints. The Bore Doctor Wood Preservative
is carefully blended and balanced to provide the utmost care and protection for all exotic hardwoods.
He has prepared a detailed manuscript on oiling African Blackwood with photomicrographs and other compelling
supportive documentation. I will be referencing that manuscript on The Bagpipe Place once it has been
Good luck and good maintenance!