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Education

Introduction

The purpose of the information found here is for the education of pipers everywhere. Over the years in emails and conversations with my clients I find myself repeating and explaining the same topics time and time again. There is a dearth of factual information regarding the materials, skill, and techniques involved in the traditional hand making of the Great Highland Bagpipe. What I've realized over the course of my career is that the things I take for granted and have assumed that even my own clients must surely know, is far from reality. My goal is to create an area on my website that I can point my customers to in order to gain a better understanding of their instrument, because an educated consumer is my best customer. I will be adding content and information to this section as time permits.

The wood, the bad, and the ugly

What causes cracking? Is it magic? Bad luck? No. Excessive differential moisture gradients cause cracking, i.e., a wet bore and a dry exterior. Water absorbed by the wood within the bore causes the inside diameter to expand and creates enormous amounts of pressure. When this pressure exceeds the strength limits of a given piece of wood it will stress-relieve by way of cracking. Myths about this happening because the wood was 'not dry' seem to persist in piping circles, but this is incorrect. Cracks form on the dry exterior, not on the wet interior. Unless the hygroscopic nature of the wood is eliminated (an impossibility) any piece of wood is susceptible to failing. No maker, machine, or device can predict what this strength limit is because every piece of wood is unique. This is why some parts seem to never crack even under the worst possible circumstances while others crack with seemingly less prompting. But all pieces of wood need to be protected and maintained properly in order to increase the odds in your favor. With cracks appearing so frequently on blowpipe stocks and (non-sleeved) wooden blowpipes it should be obvious to all that the introduction of water in the bore is the single greatest factor involved in a part developing a crack. Pipers should focus on regular preventive maintenance routines designed to control water absorption. While cracking is a complex phenomenon involving other factors such as relative humidity, temperature, condition of the wood, etc., we know that water is the main issue.

I reject a very large amount of blackwood based on my own criteria. A lot of the wood I purchase never makes it past the early production stages of roughing and boring and all of this reject wood is stored in a wooden shed in my backyard. The shed has no climate control and very little ventilation. There are literally thousands of pieces of blackwood in various stages of production that have accumulated over the years. In the summertime the temperature inside the shed can reach over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. And in the wintertime it can be well below freezing for months at a time. Visiting pipers are usually curious to see this stored wood and many have spent some time digging through the billets. None of the wood in that shed -- not even one piece -- has ever developed a crack despite being subjected to the very harshest of conditions. Without the introduction of water to the bores, blackwood remains exceptionally stable and intact. A pipe maker could make a set of pipes (leaving it unplayed) and store it under the ideal conditions of relative humidity and temperature and it isn't going to crack. When the added variable of water is introduced into the equation things become unpredictable.

Roughly 17 years ago (when I was making pipes for only a few years) I did a number of tests on blackwood to see how much abuse a piece of wood could take before it would crack. I put parts in a freezer for weeks. I used a MAPP gas torch directly on the wood until it caught fire. I put wood in a convection oven. Freezing the wood had no effect and neither did the torch. I managed to crack a piece in the oven but only when the temperature was very high. My last test involved closing off one end of a stock with a rubber cork, filling the bore with tap water, and then corking the opposite side. Not surprisingly, it cracked quickly. Uncontrolled water exposure is the proverbial kiss of death to any woodwind.

I made bagpipes working for C.E. Kron & Co. in Dobbs Ferry, NY, for 12 years. Most pipers are familiar with the St. Patrick's Day parade that winds through the streets of Manhattan in New York City. The seemingly endless procession of bagpipe bands is really something to see, and while most have only viewed the parade from the comfort of their living room, I've experienced it in person with all five senses. You haven't really lived until you've seen a five foot pile of bagpipes that have been tossed in the corner of a bar that's along the parade route. Early March in NYC is typically cold and dry -- not exactly ideal weather for the piper or the pipe. Charley Kron would tell me that St. Patrick's Day was the one day of the year that his phone wouldn't ring. But a few days after the big parade it would ring off the hook with pipers looking to get their parade tested pipes repaired or have parts replaced. The combination of cold and dry air on the exterior of the drones and warm, wet air saturating the bores for many hours will push the wood to its limits. A cold and wet climate -- like that of Scotland and the UK -- is much less stressful to the wood (and real ivory) as it allows for more equilibrium in the adjacent layers of wood fiber. Two weeks after the parade the Kron shop would be loaded with repair work and the pipes came from every possible maker and vintage. The complaints of the owners, however, were all the same, "The maker must have used cheap wood." The ignorant 'blame the maker first' attitude was quite common. Firstly, no pipe maker would use 'cheap wood' whether knowingly or not because it makes no practical business sense. Trying to save a few dollars in materials only to have to spend days of time making replacement parts is obviously not very intelligent. Secondly, no pipe maker wants an unhappy customer and all of the hassle involved. Lastly, no pipe maker is getting rich. Replacement parts are expensive in both materials and time and a good pipe maker will do his best to avoid these issues by using the best wood he can from the very beginning of the manufacturing process.

No one can examine a piece of wood and know for sure whether it will crack in the future; however, there are some common features I've noticed over the past twenty years. Generally, the lighter colored and less dense pieces of blackwood are much less prone to cracking due to having more 'elasticity'. The darker, more dense and oily pieces -- the ones so desired for their aesthetic appearance -- tend to crack more readily due to having much less elasticity when going through wet/dry cycles. The irony is that the dense pieces make for a steadier set of drones and a much brighter chanter than the less dense billets.

Darker pieces of wood will generally have higher oil content, but not always. Some pieces of blackwood are dark in color but are neither oily nor dense. Some lighter pieces are very oily and very dense; some are the opposite. Chanters are not prone to cracking through moisture exposure because the thin walls are built-in protection from excessive moisture gradients. There just isn't enough thickness to generate a pressure high enough to crack the wood. The exception to this is the bulb of the chanter which has the highest ratio of wall thickness to bore size of any part on a set of pipes. Similar to the pipe chanter, wooden flutes also have thin walls (approximately 3 millimeters) and have very few problems with cracking. Clarinets have much thicker walls of approx. 8 millimeters and are prone to cracking for this reason.

Another general tendency I've noticed is that pipers with less experience will have the most problems with their pipes. Pipers who often play parades subject their pipes to all manner of temperature and humidity causing both short and long term damage. Cold and dry being the worst condition, followed with hot and dry as a close second. Professional players have the least (if any) amount of issues. This disparity between grade levels is due to how well the upper grades and professionals are able to achieve and maintain a stable instrument. Their bags, water traps, and overall instrument maintenance have been optimized through years of trial and error. It's interesting to note that 'replacement parts' don't crack. Is the wood any different? No. When a lower grade player has a part crack and receives a replacement they will reevaluate their maintenance habits and correct the issues. In part, this helps to explain why the higher grades have fewer issues.

The shape and profiles that are used today for the bagpipes evolved organically in the late 18th century and early 19th century. The profiles are not an accident of design and have less to do with aesthetics and more to do with function. The exterior profiles closely resemble the interior bores. This helps to create less 'stress concentrators' along the length of the drone sections. Cracks tend to form where the ratio of OD/ID is the greatest. This would include the shoulders of the top sections and the body of the bottom sections. It is very rare to see a part crack along the tuning pin or along the bell profile of a top section because the ID/OD ratio is closer to that of a pipe chanter, i.e., the walls are thinner.

I don't know any pipe maker or pipe making firm that doesn't aspire to produce the best instrument they can. Smaller firms tend to have the ability to season their wood for much longer periods of time which results in a more dimensionally stable instrument, but dimensional stability per se does not prevent cracking. Dimensional stability would include features such as tuning chambers that don't go oval or conical, bores that don't warp, and wood that doesn't shrink tangentially and allow for projecting mounts and ferrules to work their way loose. Yes, even seasoned/dry wood will move a very small amount (thousandths of an inch) through the yearly humidity cycles of our four seasons -- but wood shrinking to the point of large gaps forming are indicative of wood that wasn't properly dried prior to the manufacturing process. If you've experienced a cracked drone section that exhibits no signs of dimensional instability, then the culprit is more than likely to be from excessive moisture gradients. Two sections cracking simultaneously is absolutely a moisture issue as drone sections are all different ages. Stocks, bottom sections, etc. are chosen for a set of pipes from literally hundreds of pieces of all different ages. Two parts cracking simultaneously because the 'wood was bad' is an ignorant proposition. This would be tantamount to three tires on your car going flat at the same time because the 'rubber was bad'. No one could possibly engineer two or more parts of a pipe to fail at the same when one of them is two years old and the other one is five years old, both parts came from different regions in Africa and from multiple suppliers. The only way this can happen is through the commonality of water exposure. I've heard the 'bad batch of wood' nonsense repeated so many times that I now just chuckle -- at both the concept and the people who repeat it. The idea that someone who works with wood for a living doesn't know when they're working with a compromised piece of material is the type of gibberish that deserves ridicule.

Dimensional stability, i.e., the moisture content of the wood prior to manufacturing is the single most important factor for making a stable set of pipes. Sound energy is absorbed by moisture gradients in the wood. When you first pick up a pipe and begin to move air (sound waves) through the bores, if there are large gradients of moisture (contained within the cellular structure) throughout the pipe sections it will take much longer for the instrument to stabilize because the sound energy is being used to move water from high content areas to low content areas within the wood. The water has a dampening effect on sound absorption and this is perceived as unsteadiness. While 'seasoned' wood will prevent warping, shrinkage, etc., it will not prevent a piece of wood from cracking. The idea that wood will not crack when 'seasoned' or 'the wood cracked because it wasn't seasoned long enough' is pure nonsense. Logically, if wood only cracks because it wasn't seasoned long enough then ultimately the seasoning process (drying) itself would render every piece of wood cracked and useless. Studies using 40 year old blackwood by The Institute for Musical Instrument Making in Zwota/Vogtland, Germany have shown that any further aging of blackwood beyond the time necessary to properly season the wood makes no difference at all in terms of preventing cracks. 'Twenty year old blackwood' may make for good marketing but it won't make a better instrument.

Another persistent myth about why wood cracks is the 'flaws in the wood' theory. Wood is shipped to a manufacturer in random billet form and with initial high water content. Blackwood has a natural oil within the dense fibers that helps to prevent it from drying rapidly, and because of this, it's actually very rare for a solid billet to develop any checking, cracking, or any other visible flaw. Any flaw that develops is easily seen. There is no such thing as an inchoate crack or flaw, as any flaw will rapidly develop into a crack that can be seen from outer space. Blackwood does not crack slowly -- it cracks quickly and without warning.

The first stage of production is to rough down a billet into a cylinder which exposes a higher moisture gradient to the air. Again, it is very rare that a billet will develop any surface checking at this point. Next, the billet is faced, pilot drilled, and then bored. The boring process removes the highest moisture gradient from the wood and the beginning stages of 'seasoning' will start to happen. The final stage to the interior would be reaming the bore which is typically done several times after seasoning. Reaming will put a large amount of concentric stress on the wood and will expose any inherent weakness within each piece of wood. If there is a 'weak spot' within a tuning chamber or bore a reamer will expose it immediately. It's very rare, but I've had sections split whilst reaming. The very numerous stages of production involved in manufacturing preclude parts from leaving a shop with any 'flaws' in the wood. Obviously, an experienced pair of hands is needed to handle every piece of wood at the various stages in order for this to be effective. Additionally, every set of pipes that leaves my shop is oiled on the interior and exterior numerous times prior to shipping. Oiling not only helps to protect the wood during the forthcoming break-in period but will also expose any flaw in the wood. The oil will penetrate the wood and expand any flaw making it visible -- though I've never had a flaw become exposed through oiling because of the many checks and controls in place prior to the final stages of completion.

Clarinet and oboe forums often have in-depth and technical discussions on the complex variables that lead to cracks in their instruments. In contrast, most online piping forums tend to be much less sophisticated (and often ignorant) in the dissemination of accurate information. Years ago I had a lengthy phone call with one of the oboe makers at Loree, in France. Loree oboes are the choice of professional oboists in North America and are known for their immaculate workmanship and tone. Their workshop in Paris, France, produces 800 - 1000 oboes per year mostly for the American market. A lower end oboe will cost around five thousand dollars while a high-end professional model will cost around ten thousand dollars. All models will crack at a rate of roughly 60%. Of the 60% that crack, nearly all of the cracking occurs in America due to our excessive use of climate control throughout the year. According to Loree, most cracking occurs in upstate NY, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the southwestern states. Very few cracks occur in South America because of the lack of climate control. 

Condensation

Warm air holds many times more molecules of moisture than cold air. This means that the exhaled breath warms the interior component (bores) of the drone system and the piper may not be aware that when he stops playing his instrument the subsequent drop in temperature causes the water vapor to condense on the surface of the bores. What this means is that the pipers exhaled breath that has 100% relative humidity, ultimately saturates the bores with water whether you can see it immediately or not. Pipers tend to return their pipes to the case with the false impression that because they cannot see water on the reeds or in the bores that their pipes are not saturated with water. Condensation is simply visible evidence of the bore of the drones existing at a lower temperature than the dew point of the pipers exhaled breath. Water vapor will permeate the wood of a drone faster than condensed water. The molecules of water vapor are so small they will be absorbed by the wood much easier than condensed droplets of water. A good analogy is that immersing a drone section in water, removing it, and then shaking off the water will actually result in less water being absorbed than breathing/blowing through a drone section. What you can't see can still cause moisture related issues.

Bottom line ---Just because you cannot see the condensation forming does not indicate a lack of absorption of water by the wood or other drone components, reeds, etc. The moment you blow air into your pipes the wood is absorbing water. This is why water traps are so important.

Water Traps

Using a water trap or some form of moisture control is highly recommended to slow down the rate of water absorption in the bores of your pipes. If you don't use a water trap for moisture control, the wood of the instrument will become the primary place for the absorption of water – in effect becoming a wooden water trap – this is just begging for problems. An effective trap will help to prevent rapid shifts in the moisture gradients of the wood that can lead to differential drying and cracking. Additionally, keeping water out of the bores will help to prevent raising the grain within the bores which can result in dull tone.

After Playing Your Pipes

After playing your pipes the bores should be allowed to dry. This means swabbing out any excess moisture from the bores as well as removing the drones from the stocks to allow air to circulate inside the bores and keep them dry, thus preventing the interiors from swelling and causing any unnecessary cracking or other moisture related problems. The blowpipe in particular should be totally removed from the stock, to allow the blowpipe stock to dry. Moisture intensive parts such as the blowpipe stock and chanter stock should be given special attention. Both of these stocks are under a lot of stress due to excessive moisture collecting in the bore, and they should both be allowed to dry in between playing sessions. Cracked blowpipe stocks are rather common but can be avoided if proper care is taken. Pay attention to any excess moisture collecting on the underside of the bottom projecting mounts; they should be kept dry to avoid discoloration and/or cracking.

Temperature and Humidity

Large swings in temperature and humidity should be avoided. Your pipes should optimally be stored in a temperature/humidity controlled environment. Pipes should be stored and transferred in a quality instrument case to allow the pipes and ivory to slowly acclimate from one extreme to the next. Do not store them next to or near a heat source, or air conditioner. When transporting your instrument from the car to a venue, etc., make sure to let the pipes acclimate to the environment before playing the pipes or removing them from the case. Playing in extreme weather conditions is simply asking for problems. African blackwood is a durable wood but it has its limits. I'm amazed that some people are still subjecting their expensive handmade and customized instruments into conditions that they would not allow a two hundred dollar coffee table to sit in for more than one minute. If you're uncomfortable, your instrument is also uncomfortable. Playing in cold weather or hot weather is to be avoided. Warm air through a cold exterior is terrible for the wood. Likewise, heat combined with low humidity and direct sunlight on the pipes is also risky. If you must play in these conditions, I recommend a plastic pipe or a disposable wooden set.

Oiling

New pipes should be oiled regularly for the first six months and oiled less( 6-8 times per year) for the life of the instrument: six to eight times per year with an emphasis on the change of seasons, and more often in the fall and winter. The dry fall and winter months are when cracking is likely to occur. Pay attention to the relative humidity levels of your playing and storage environment. The ideal RH for a woodwind is 45-55% -- lower than this is considered a stress on the wood. Oiling the bores prevents rapid absorption of the water from your breath into the wood. The oil slows down the rate of absorption, acting as a 'rain coat' as it comes in contact with water. I recommend using Bore Doctor bore oil on the inside and outside of the pipes and both surfaces done at the same time. Cracking will never start on the interior of the drone; it will happen on the exterior as this is where the wood is the driest. Therefore, the emphasis should be on oiling not only the bores, but also the exterior of the pipes. Oiling is nutrition for the wood and should be done regularly.New instruments should be oiled every two-three weeks for the first 3-6 months depending on your climate or when your pipes are delivered. If you receive your pipes in the fall and winter months they should be oiled frequently and right away. If you live in a dry climate the same applies. If you receive your new pipes in the fall and winter months, oiling is even more important. The first fall and winter for a new woodwind are the most critical. Limit your playing time during the instrument's first fall and winter (low humidity cycle).

Cracking on the exterior is indicative of the wood being too dry on the outside and too wet on the inside. This is the only reason wood will crack – excessive moisture gradients. A new bagpipe that is never played is not going to crack. As water is introduced to the pipes through playing, the grain is going to expand/swell and put pressure on the dry exterior. If the bore expands rapidly and exceeds the strength limit of the wood, cracking can occur and it will do so rapidly and without warning. This is not my opinion, this is scientific fact. Oiling the interior and exterior slows down the rate at which the wood will absorb water. Oiling your pipes will go a long way in preventing cracking. After oiling the bores, they should appear shiny when viewed through the bore with indirect light. If the bores are dry the next day, repeat oiling one more time. The best thing you can do to protect your investment is to oil your pipes and avoid extremes in temperature and moisture levels. Unless otherwise requested, your pipes will have a waxed finish and the oil applied to the exterior wood will easily penetrate. Wax such as Johnson's or Butcher's can be reapplied after oiling. Wipe on and wipe off with a new microfiber cloth.

More Information on African Blackwood.

What is 'wet' or 'green' wood?

Let's start at the beginning. When wood (any wood) is freshly cut, it contains a large percentage of water. How much water the wood will hold depends on the species and is highly individualized. Freshly cut wood can hold anywhere from 30% to over 100%. That may sound odd but consider that the weight of the water can exceed the dry weight of the wood in which it's contained. For our purposes we will only be concerned about African Blackwood. Typically, a manufacturer will receive blackwood in billet form -- cut to rough length and size. In any given shipment all the billets will have varying moisture contents. In my experience, billets can range anywhere from 12%- 25% MC (moisture content). That is a lot of water that needs to be removed from the wood in order to make an instrument that will stand the test of time. Instrument grade MC is typically 6-8%. If you're making an instrument destined for a very dry climate like Arizona or Utah, you may want to dry the wood down a bit further to 5-6%. The year-round sub 30% relative humidity of the southwestern states can be absolutely brutal on woodwinds. When I receive a shipment of new blackwood, one of the first things I do is measure the differently sized billets for MC.

How does green wood dry?

All wood above our goal of 6-8% moisture content is considered 'green'. All new wood will need to be dried down to this MC before we use it for an instrument. Freshly cut wood begins to lose water rapidly. There are two kinds of water within our wood: unbound water (or free water) and bound water. The unbound water is the water that is held between the wood's cells -- it leaves the wood without our help and will do so just sitting on the shelf. The bound water is the water contained in the wood's cells and this water is going to need added energy in order to leave the wood.

Fiber Saturation Point

When all the 'free water' has left the wood, the wood is said to now be at its Fiber Saturation Point (FSP). The FSP for most species is approximately 25-30% MC. The FSP for African Blackwood is around 20%, a long way off from our goal of 6-8%. Wood that has a MC above the FSP, such as 20% and up, will not yet begin to change shape. The wood will need to drop below the FSP before it starts the process of actually drying. If you've seen a warped or oval bore in blackwood, or wood that has shrunken down and moved significantly, this means that instrument was made long before the wood had reached the FSP. Instruments that are undergoing shrinkage and warping were made with the wood at a MC above the FSP; this wood is soaking wet. Remember, wood that has not reached the FSP has not yet gotten close to losing the bound water -- the point at which further moisture loss causes the wood to actually begin to dry down and become stable.

What does 'seasoned' mean?

For our purposes, wood is considered seasoned when it is at our goal of 6-8% MC. However, it is impossible to season wood for every possible worldwide climate. Drier climates will prefer a wood at slightly lower MC. Coastal or more wet climates will prefer a MC perhaps just above 6-8%. All things considered, a drier wood is preferred. Blackwood, even when 'over-dried' down to 5% is incredibly stable, even in wet climates where other woods will tend to swell.

What are the advantages of seasoning wood?

Dry wood is harder, stronger, and denser. As the water leaves the wood, the cavities that held the water begin to shrink and the wood is becoming denser. Dry wood is dimensionally stable, doesn't go oval, and bores, reams, and finishes in a superior manner. The benefits of dry wood should be self-evident. The instruments produced with dry wood, as opposed to wetter wood, will have a completely different and superior tone.

How and why does wood crack?

Wood cracks when the FSP in the wood's adjacent layers cause stress on those layers. When the stress on those layers exceeds the strength limits of that particular piece of wood, the wood will crack to relieve that stress. What causes the stress? Water.

African Blackwood

This is an amazing material -- hard, dense, and with a very fine grain that on the very best pieces can be nearly imperceptible. I'm often asked why the wood on my instruments looks so much better than other makers, if I have a special supplier. I buy wood in small quantities from a few private suppliers and also in large quantity from the same suppliers that all makers have access to. The single reason why I am the de facto industry leader in wood quality isn't because of my supplier, it's because of a very strict and rigid set of standards, mine.

By nature, Blackwood is one of the most inherently flawed woods in use. Raw billets all look perfect until you start the process of roughing, turning, and boring. Flaws, or rather imperfection, start to show as each piece of wood begins to go through the various stages of making. Some of the wood can be culled during the first stages but most flaws do not present until you've put time into them, until they've been bored, they've been sitting and you then go to choose them for a set of pipes. Some of the imperfections, even a knot 1/16" in size may not show up until the very final process, in which case, despite the long hours already invested, a craftsman of reputation has no choice but to scrap the offending piece and start from scratch. This means that half of my time goes into working with pieces that will never leave my workshop.

This is nothing out of the ordinary for any high-end instrument maker. Years ago I had a long phone call with an employee from Steinway pianos whose job was to buy all their wood. He would hand pick the wood for their soundboards by visiting their wood vendors, going through their stock thoroughly and using his experience to select each piece. Still, with the enormous advantage of choosing the wood upon close inspection -- Steinway would reject 40% of these pieces. The rejects were not recycled for other parts of the piano.

While the production output of my one-man workshop is very small, the amount of wood I discard is quite large. I have a zero tolerance policy for any flaws or imperfections or any piece of wood that I consider substandard, that to the casual observer may seem fine. My concept of sub-par includes any obvious flaw, any knot no matter how large or small, twisted grain, excessive open grain, light in color or density, striped or variegated grain and color, etc.-- an extensive criteria of quality must be met, and let me be clear -- no machine or technology can or will find a knot or twisted grain. There are 13 pieces of wood that comprise a massive amount of surface area both inside and outside the drones. Using wood that meets my standards means I reject large amounts of wood and spend a lot of time and expense doing it.

This may sound obsessive to some but you have to understand my thought process -- I do not want to put my very limited time into any material that isn't going to reflect the very best I can offer, to do so is in my opinion tantamount to deception. I do not throw this wood away -- I have it stored in my basement and shed. Some of it I've sold to other pipe makers who were happily surprised at the quality. It's fine for other bagpipes just not for my own. I've been fortunate to have a small and elite group of discerning and educated customers who can appreciate what goes into the making of a premium instrument.

Grain, Grain, Go Away

TYPES OF GRAIN
Because of the manner in which wood grows, every board has a definite grain direction, parallel to the length of the longitudinal cells. The grain appears differently depending on how the board is sawed. Grain is defined as the direction, size, arrangement, appearance, or quality of the fibers in sawn wood. Straight grain is used to describe lumber where the fibers and other longitudinal elements run parallel to the axis of the piece.

Density:
Weight per unit volume. Density of wood is influenced by rate of growth, percentage of late wood and in individual pieces, the proportion of the heartwood.

Figure:
The pattern produced in a wood surface by annual growth rings, rays, knots, deviations from regular grain, such as interlocked and wavy, and irregular coloration.

Heartwood:
The inner layers of wood in growing trees that have ceased to contain living cells. Heartwood is generally darker than sapwood, but the two are not always clearly differentiated.

Quarter-sawn:
Quarter-sawing means cutting a log radially (90-degree angle) to the growth rings to produce a "vertical" and uniform pattern grain. This method yields fewer and narrower boards per log than plain sawing, boosting their cost significantly. Quarter-sawn boards are popular for decorative applications such as cabinet faces or wainscoting. They will expand and contract less than boards sawn by other methods.

Checks:
Longitudinal separation of the fibers in wood that do not go through the whole cross section. Checks result from tension stresses during the drying process.

Split:
Separation of the fibers in a piece of wood from face to face (other term: end-split).

If you're looking for fact-based information on woods I'd advise doing your own research and avoid listening to the 'experts' on the various piping forums. Misinformation is very common and often passed from peer to peer. There's a tendency to assume that because someone has been playing the instrument for many years they'll know every detail of manufacturing and materials. If your pipe maker is a reputable, trained craftsman you'd be wise to seek their advice on such matters and ignore the self-appointed authorities.

Pipers tend to believe that blackwood is a homogeneous, consistent material. In reality, there can be profound differences from one piece to another and within each piece individually. Blackwood is quarter sawn when purchased for use. This means that there can be a 20-40 year difference in the growth between the bore and the OD. The larger the finished OD, the greater the difference in age. There can be 40+ years difference between the bell on a top and the bore. A bore can be mirror smooth and at the same time have a different texture on the exterior because of the age discrepancy and the growth conditions between those years. Conversely, a bore may finish with a more coarse texture than the exterior for the same reason. Most pieces will be slightly denser on one side than the other with more prominent grain on one side or the other. The degree to which this is obvious depends on how closely you examine the piece.

The larger the billet (tops, middle joints) the more the potential for variation. To compound the discrepancies, the more fine grained pieces are not always the most dense --density and texture are determined by separate and distinct factors. Some pieces will have a less fine texture than others. This is often mistaken for 'checks' or 'proto flaws' in the wood or seen as somehow inferior. Checking (cracks) form in the cells of the wood; it is impossible for a crack to form where there is an absence of cells. It is wrong to assume that a piece of wood with more obvious texture is going to be more susceptible to cracking. If that were true, every porous species of timber would be useless.

How well a set is finished (sanding, abrasives, polishing) will help to make any piece of wood appear as fine textured as the piece will allow but will not eliminate the pores. Because a combing tool cuts perpendicular to the grain it will expose any open pores in the wood. How obvious this will be is determined by the type of finish used on top of the wood, i.e., wax, shellac, lacquer. How much light is reflected by the finish will determine how obvious the grain will appear.

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001 - Bass tuning chamber after being sanded through 220, 320, 400, 600, 800, 1000.

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002 - The same tuning chamber after combing. Each bead has been sanded with 320, 400, 600, 800, 1000.

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003 - The same part has been polished with an off-white colored polish to highlight the grain.

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004 - Bass stock with flawless combing and beading.

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005 - The same stock with an off-white colored polish to highlight the grain.

 

Wood Storage

I stock a large supply of African blackwood, knowing that it needs time to stabilize and dry.

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Rejects

A portion of my blackwood rejects. I've pulled some parts out of the scrap bins to show as examples. I purposely cut deep into some of the flaws to illustrate a point. While the flaws may appear superficial, they typically extend through to the center of the billet. Ugly, goes all the way to the bore. What may appear to be a cosmetic flaw is rarely so. While knots may be seen on modern and vintage brands, that doesn't mean that they are desirable or should be accepted. Knots are unpredictable; they may or may not open-up over time or cause warping. They may or may not extend to the bore. The mere fact that they may be more than a cosmetic problem is reason enough to summarily discard these pieces.

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003 - A quasi knot

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004 - Flaw on tuning pin

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005 - Twisted figure. While this grain pattern has a striking appearance, it also has a high amount of internal stress making it more likely to warp or crack.

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006 - Flaw

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007 - Flaw, superficial and internal

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008 - Quasi knot

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009 - Worm hole

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010 - Twisted figure

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011 - Soft blemish

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012 - Flaw

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013 - Twisted figure, light in color

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014 - Very twisted figure, light in color

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015 - Twisted figure

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016 - Flaw in foreground

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017 - Too stripey, light in color

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018 - Some holly rejects; I have loads of these

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019 - Too light in color, ugly

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020 - Twisted grain in the foreground

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021 - Very twisted grain

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022 - Twisted grain

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023 - Bird's-eye knot patterning

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Hand Thread Chasing

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001 - Chasing internal diameter threads on a holly hemp stop

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002 - A 30 tpi inside chaser

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003 - An assortment of internal and external hand chasers

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Chasing threads by hand has been used by bagpipe makers for nearly two hundred years or longer. It involves the use of small hand-held chasing tools made from steel, one type for cutting internal diameter threads and another type for cutting outside diameter threads. Hand chasing is one of the most skilled techniques that a woodturner must learn to master. In traditional bagpipe making a turner is cutting threads this way all the time.

Though this workmanship cannot be seen on a finished set of pipes, it is one of the most important aspects of a superior hand made instrument. Depending on the level of ornamentation, one of my instruments will have anywhere from 40 to 70 individual threads, all cut precisely by hand. I would estimate that I've cut approximately 100,000 threads during the course of my career.

The advantages of hand chasing over using automatic machinery to cut these type threads are many. I've used high-tech machinery to cut threads and I became immediately aware of the drawbacks in that process; there are too many compromises to quality and consistency that have to be made. Blackwood, ebony, elephant ivory, mammoth ivory, horn, and other natural materials all require a level of feel and touch that other 'high tech' processes completely overlook. Blackwood in particular, because every piece has a slight variation in density and grain structure, will feel unique when threading each piece. One side of the blackwood may be slighty softer than the other side, or one side may have more open grain. To achieve a consistently uniform result a large amount of 'feel' is used. Less dense pieces will require a lighter touch and perhaps a slightly less sharp tool, or an adjustment of the height of the tool rest that the chaser is resting on. More dense pieces may require a marginal increase in pressure to the tool to get the same result. Portions of the threads may need to be imperceptibly tapered to accomplish a perfect fit. Chasing with these tools is so sensitive a procedure that an amount of what literally appears to be dust can removed from the material at any given spot as the maker sees fit. Further, all types of materials will have different frictional coefficients. The tolerances used for uniting two materials will not work for the next two. Minute, delicate adjustments must be made.

Chasing threads can make dissimilar materials unite perfectly. So accurate is this method that when the parts are faced-off a translucent edge appears where the materials interface. If you want to know how much time, care, and precision a maker puts into his threading, look at the faced edges. Look for any gaps, sharp edges, poor finishing and tool marks. The entire length of the wood needs to be threaded otherwise the threads are simply cosmetic, and not doing the job of securing the corresponding fitment and adding pressure where needed.

Ferrules

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001 - Getting ready to turn down the blackwood on a stock to prepare for threading.

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002 - Showing the 24 tpi threads.

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003 - Showing the 2" diameter of the raw stock before it is turned into a ferrule. The reason for this is so the ferrule can be threaded on very tightly, binding the wood underneath and helping to prevent cracking from the corresponding hemp tenon. The larger size helps with achieving this goal. It means more waste, but a far better product and result. Details matter.

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005 - Ready for threading.

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006 - 24 tpi threads cut and ready to check the fit. It takes many incremental adjustments to make the ferrule fit perfectly. You need considerable hand strength to do this properly.
Most people could not remove a ferrule after I fit it and this is before gluing.

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007 - After several adjustments it is now fitted and ready to be glued. The glue will dry for a few days before the holly is turned down and the end faced-off.

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011 - Note the very large diameter that this holly starts out with.

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012 - Facing the end for a perfectly flush fit.

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013 - Turning down and ready to turn the bead into the wood.

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015 - All turned, finished, and ready for polishing.

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016 - So accurate is this fit that you can see translucent wood fibers of the holly at the very top (12 o'clock) of the ferrule.

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More than any other part of the bagpipe, ferrules are under stress. They are not mere decoration, they have serve the function of binding the wood and preventing it from cracking. All ferrules on Atherton bagpipes are threaded. Silver, nickel, ivory, artificial ivory, horn, wood, etc.

When using threaded metals (silver, nickel, etc.) the metal part is fitted to the threaded wood and glued. Because the metal is so strong, it can be threaded on fairly tightly, thus binding the wood and providing a very strong support with uniform concentric pressure. This small bit of pressure is needed to protect the wood from cracking when a hemped tenon is inserted into a ferruled part. Threading the metal makes for a great way to keep the ferrules in place, doing their job of protecting the wood. As mentioned earlier, metals were infrequently threaded 100 years ago(though some sets with threaded metals have survived) by pipemakers because they didn't incorporate the machinery necessary to do a proper job of it. Given the fact that they threaded everything else possible(ivory ferrules, for example) I'm sure they would have enjoyed the ability to thread metal ferrules and caps.

When making ferrules from horn, ivory, artificial ivory etc., more wood needs to be removed prior to threading so as to exert more pressure on the joint for protection. For the stocks I make the wood underneath the ferrule a bit more thin so the ferrule will exert more pressure on these joints. Because these tenons don't articulate they are generally hemped a bit tighter and so they require this feature.

Threaded ferrules provide uniform concentric pressure on the wood underneath them. This is also known as 'hoop stress'. This hoop stress provides enough inward pressure to help stop the wood under the ferrule from cracking. I should mention that when I fit a threaded ferrule, it only takes a few hours for the once concentric bore to 'crine in' by just a few thousandths of an inch. This means that the ferrule is doing its job. A simple reaming of the part back to spec. brings the part into concentricity once again.

The threads on the wood also mean that the force on the wood(from a hemped tenon) is spread over a larger surface area. This means that the actual pressure on the wood is reduced, even though the force remains constant. (consult any physics text for verification) Ferrules that are merely glued do not provide this advantage.

In order for this process to work the wood must be seasoned and stable. There is no point (other than marketing to the ignorant) in threading wood that isn't dry. Properly dried wood will move minimally even when changing climates. If wet 'green' wood is threaded it will eventually go oval, shrink, and the ornamentation will eventually work loose.

Silver

The pictures below are of sterling silver tubing. This silver will be threaded, faced, and cut to length. It is then sent to the Atherton bagpipes commissioned silversmith who will solder beads and caps onto the threaded tubing. This allows Atherton bagpipes to have complete control over the quality of the final product. The tubing for ferrules and ring caps is .050 thick (roughly the thickness of a one cent coin). The heavy wall thickness allows for the deep threads which will insure a lifetime fit. It will also prevent dings and dents which are so common in cheaper thin-walled silver. The tuning slides are .020 thick. This minimizes the amount of wood that needs to be removed from the wooden tuning pins, which can weaken the pin.

When choosing silver for your bagpipe, whether plain or hand-engraved, the first consideration should be the quality of the silver itself.

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Pictured here is Malcolm Dowie, former member of the Scots Guards and erstwhile engraver and silversmith for Spink & Son of St. James' -- Medallists to the Royal Family. He has more than 40 years experience as a Master Silversmith. Malcolm is an integral part of the long process in producing the finest silver ever made for a bagpipe. I commission Malcolm's work because of his precision craftsmanship and also because we share a common business ethos; no compromise. His work is consistent, accurate, and very expensive due to the level of quality and time involved. It's also worth every penny.

Malcolm fabricates and solders the bead wires and caps (with thru-holes) onto my threaded parts. All the bead wires and caps must be concentrically soldered because of the threads. I pay more to have just the beads and caps fabricated than most makers are paying for an entire set of their low quality silver. I do not approach the idea of silver ornamentation as a way to drive up the price point of an instrument but rather as an extension of my overall approach to fine craftsmanship in every detail.

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