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  • Writer's pictureMacLellan Bagpipes

Bagpipe care and break-In procedures.

A well-made and maintained bagpipe can last for a hundred years or more! Maintaining a stable environment is extremely important.

All of our wood is air dried and seasoned in a controlled atmosphere. We maintain 50 % humidity at all times. It is imperative that new pipes be allowed to adjust gradually to the new conditions. This is especially important if you receive your instrument during Winter months. If the heat is on for long periods, the chances are the atmosphere is drier that you realize. Please ensure you maintain 50% humidity in the room the pipes are stored in as well as the case you keep the pipes in. A small room humidifier is a good investment.

The wood comes in sets of 13 billets, those pieces have been cut in Africa, moved from forest to supplier and then to shipping ports. Next it's shipped to England and stored, then selected, packed and sent to me. Once it gets here, unpacked and laid on drying shelves. When we pick for sets I try to match color and texture, so it's picked over again. All this means that the pieces on each set have all come from different trees, possibly grown hundreds of miles apart. So, it's basically impossible for a number of "defective" pieces of wood to be in the same set. One crack in a set can be just bad luck, but a number of cracks in the same set really points to another issue. Rapid changes in humidity levels will cause end cracking splitting.

The most critical time for any woodwind instrument is in the first few months. No matter how well seasoned the wood is, after drilling and turning it will continue to move and adjust to the relative atmosphere where the bagpipe is now being played and stored. This is why it's important to play the pipe in small increments of time, allowing the wood to absorb or release moisture slowly. The moisture control system or water trap helps keep excess moisture away form the wood, assuming it's working well and you don't see beads of water on the reeds. The case humidifier stops the wood drying out too rapidly, you want to maintain at least 50% humidity at all times. Playing outside in cold weather pulls all the moisture out of the air and the wood, so get the bagpipe back in the case with the humidifier, even keeping a humidifier in the room the pipes are stored if necessary. The small case humidifiers can't keep enough moisture in the case if the room the pipes are in is bone dry. Forced air heat sucks all the moisture out of the atmosphere really quickly, keep the pipes away form those events.

Excess moisture, temperature and humidity swings are the biggest problem. Everyone will benefit from some form of moisture control system. There are many great water trap systems available, from simple tube traps, to complex silica gel type absorption systems. Empty tube traps often, dry canisters frequently.

Zipper bags allow easy access for cleaning and drying. Check tightness of stocks, re-tie or use clamps if necessary. When stopped up, the bag should stay tight for at least 20 seconds. Clean inside of bag and water trap with hot water and or mouthwash.

Take pipes apart and look for moisture on reeds or tenon of chanter, pull through drones and brush out stocks regularly. Reeds should be dry, and hemped to correct position, straight in reed seats. You can use a wind of hemp inside stock to trap reed and hold in place. Check for tightness after driving; don’t let them fall into the bag during a competition! Hemp joints should be smooth, airtight and firm into stocks. Check and adjust as necessary, this will change depending on weather. There should be space at end of hemp under projecting mount, make sure this is parallel and not bunching up forming a wedge. This will start cracks at the top of the stock. Hemp at drone tops should be yellow and waxed for a smooth sliding fit, add soft wax or cork grease to get movement. Check and adjust as necessary, this will change depending on weather. Do not use Teflon tape, it’s too slippery! This forces you to make the joints too tight.

I think it's very common for beginning pipers to feel the joints in the stocks have to be really tight so they won't leak or turn. However if the top joint is just tight enough to slide and adjust with only 2 fingers, with some good wax, the drone top will stay where you set it. If that joint moves easily the bottom joint can be looser and still not turn in the stock. The hemp must be well waxed, smooth and even for the best fit. If it's bunched up under the projecting mount, it ends up shaped like a wedge, by far the quickest way to split wood! Lumps or bunches of uneven hemp will leak and make it hard to move the section smoothly and easily. This is why I'm so against Teflon tape, it allows the pieces to slide and move too easily, we want some friction so the pieces stay put, but not trying to do that by making the joint so tight you need two hands to move it.!

The wax keeps it waterproof so it won't swell, and allows everything to move well. You can use cork grease from any music store on the top joints to keep them sliding, beeswax on the bottom joints to stop them turning.. All three drone tops and bass mid section should come off after playing, be swabbed out and stored in the pipe case, so if they do shrink down they won't crack against the now too tight joint. The bottom sections pulled halfway out of the stocks. If you go to put the pipe back together and they're too tight, take some hemp off until they go on easily. If they are too loose, play for a while and see if it tightens up again. Only add one or two winds of waxed hemp if necessary. Don't be surprised if this happens a lot in the beginning as the wood is still moving. Remove chanter by grasping at the bulb, not twisting from the bottom.

What does the Expression "Break in a Bagpipe " Mean? There are two phenomena that the term "break in" is used to describe when speaking of a bagpipe. The first is the process by which the actual wood of the instrument is acclimated to fluctuating exposure to water, heat, and vibration. Should too much moisture be allowed to soak into the bore and/or tone holes of the bagpipe while the outside of the bagpipe remains dry, or should the inside of the bagpipe be allowed to be much warmer than the outside, the wood is stressed and may release tension by cracking. Therefore, one would "break in" a bagpipe carefully at first, allowing moisture to soak into the bagpipe, or be dried out of the instrument, a little at a time, while protecting the bagpipe diligently from temperature extremes. The instructions below refer to this meaning of the expression "break in". Break-in Procedures The overall objective of the break-in procedure is to introduce moisture, temperature variances, and vibration to the wood of the bagpipe slowly enough to avoid cracking. Too much moisture inside the bore with too little moisture on the outside of the bagpipe, or too warm a bore in too cold an bagpipe will either one put the instrument at risk. We also believe that intense, unaccustomed vibration may be a contributing factor in cracking. For new wooden instruments, or for instruments that have not been played regularly in some time, we recommend that you adhere to the following standard break-in procedures to help prevent cracking:

  1. Warm up the instrument before playing. Allow it to reach the temperature of the room.

  2. Try not to play in hot, dry drafts either, as this will dry the wood.

  3. Play the instrument for short periods of time at first; fifteen minutes a day, no more than twice a day for the first week or so, increasing to 20 minutes, then 25 minutes, etc. Regular, steady introduction of moisture and vibrations is the goal, so it is important to play it almost every day during this time, though the argument could well be made that skipping one day every 5-6 days to let it "rest" can't hurt!

  4. Thoroughly swab out and dry the instrument after every use.

  5. Consider an instrument "barely broken in" in 2-3 months, and "well broken-in" only after about a year. As you can imagine, this timetable is very subjective and depends a lot on how much you as a piper play.

  6. Even after a bagpipe is well broken in, continue being careful of extreme temperature and moisture conditions. Keep a humidifier in the case in very dry weather.

Table 1 —RULE OF THUMB Diagnosis and Treatment

Oiling the bagpipe bore

We recommend pharmaceutical grade almond oil mixed with a drop of Vitamin E oil.

We oil a bagpipe this way: after playing for the day, dry the instrument's bore. Dip a small amount of oil onto the tip of a swab. Look into the bore of the instrument to see how shiny it is and then rotate the slightly oily swab into the bore. With the correct amount of oil on the swab, after the first swipe, the bore should look only streaky with oil. The second swipe should make the bore all shiny. If it soaks in very quickly, do it again. Especially important on Cocobolo bagpipes.

Temperature Warnings:

Please, never leave your bagpipe where it can get either very cold or very hot; either can be severely damaging. Examples? Leaving your bagpipe in the car in the winter, leaving your bagpipe in the trunk of your car while driving somewhere in the winter, leaving your bagpipe in a closed car in the summer, leaving your bagpipe where the sun shines on it (or on the case) and can heat it up, leaving your bagpipe out near a heater vent where dry heated air can blow on it... all of these are bad for the bagpipe. Severe cold can encourage cracks. Severe heat can crack a bagpipe, or make the hemp joints leaky. If ferrules or mounts are coming loose, it’s a good indicator of the wood changing size. Either of these can require expensive repair. A good rule of thumb is that your bagpipe should be as comfortable as you are. If you'd be comfortable where it is, chances are it's OK. If you would be uncomfortable sitting where it is, reconsider!

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