A CONCISE GUIDE TO THE MAINTENANCE OF THE GREAT HIGHLAND BAGPIPE
by J. Morrison
I. The Bag
At present there are two main types of bagpipe bag–traditional leather (sheepskin or cowhide) and synthetic (usually Gore-tex). The sheepskin bag was the original type of bag developed in Scotland but is almost never played in North America because of its tendency to dry out to steel-like hardness. Sheepskin is superb at absorbing excess water however, and many North American bands that play in Scotland tie on sheepskin for the trip to deal with the wet climate there. Synthetic bags are designed to require almost no maintenance, and usually come with instructions from the manufacturer, so they need not be discussed here. If you decide to play one, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations scrupulously as they can fail in short order if installed improperly.
We will not go into the intricacies of tying in a bag here, since for the beginning piper it is a job that is at least several years down the road and best learned by hands-on experience with someone who knows how. However, maintaining a bag is something you will have to do from the very beginning of your piping career, so we will offer a few hints of how best to keep your bag from dragging you down.
99% of the leather bags playedin this country are cowhide, no matter what they are called–elkhide, camac (gaelic for cow), or whatever, these are all manufacturer’s hype for plain old skin of the bovine. Cowhide bags must be dressed or seasoned. The seasoning’s job is only partly to make the bag airtight; mostly it serves as a coating to keep air in but allow water out. A solid rubber bag (actually seen on some unplayable, tourist-defrauding, wallhanger pipes) would fill completely up with water in about 30 minutes playing.
If your pipes are ordered set-up and ready to play, your bag will probably come from the supplier already seasoned. Just because it might feel dry does not necessarily mean it needs seasoning. Play it for 15 minutes and then rub the sides of the bag together. If it still feels scratchy, or if it kind of sticks to itself, seasoning might be a good idea. For normal blowers (not too wet, not too dry) a set of pipes in this part of the country will probably need seasoning about every 4 to 6 months. A pipe bag MUST be almost completely airtight in order to make the pipes pleasurable to play. The way to test this is to firmly cork it up at the stocks but leave the blowstick in. Fill it with air as firmly as you are able–get it REALLY hard. Then put your finger over the end of the blowstick to guard against miniscule valve-leaks, and wait 2-3 minutes. If the bag has gotten even the least bit softer, it is leaking and should be fixed. Leaks can be in the tie-ins (especially the chanter), the stocks themselves (cracks), or the bag seam. The leather itself rarely leaks–if it does, a new bag is probably in order. At the tie-in the stocks should be impossible to turn in the bag even with two hands and all your strength. If they do turn, they are quite probably leaking and you should get help to re-tie your bag. Cracked stocks are a major problem and if these are new pipes, get them back to the maker and your money back ASAP. For all other perceived leaks however, the first remedy to try is a thorough seasoning of the bag, as follows.
There are many different proprietory recipes for seasonings, most of which work fairly well. Old-time pipers in Montana were unable to obtain store-bought seasoning from Scotland and resorted to many concoctions, among them plain old honey, honey and glycerine, hide glue and glycerine, etc. I still remember the sight of 20-30 wasps hovering over the ends of the drones as an older piper played a set of tunes in the Pioneer Park in Billings about 1964. Another younger Billings piper, acting on the well-meant advice of his rancher uncle, seasoned his bag with neatsfoot oil which waterproofed it all right, but it started growing, stretching to the point that all the drones fell out. Stick with the bottled brands–they are safe and at least follow that last part of the Hippocratic Oath–“. . .Above all do no harm.” The following seasoning instructions are for Airtight Brand, manufactured by Robert Hardie and Co. It is one of the more traditional recipes, consisting, according to Hardie, of over 13 different types of glue. (A piper in the Fort Ground Tavern in Couer d’Alene once drank an entire beaker of the stuff and proceeded to play a competent hornpipe and jig, so it is probably not all that bad for the bag, or for you).
If the can of seasoning is jelly-like, warm it in a pan of warm water until it is liquid, but do not make it hot, warm to the touch is fine. On a hot summer day it will probably be liquid already, so skip this step. Pull out the drones, blowpipe, and chanter, taking care to protect the reeds. Strip off any cloth covering from your bag and push corks firmly into all the stocks save the chanter. (If you do not have rubber seasoning corks, wine bottle corks are almost exactly the right size, they are just harder to clean up after.) Pour about 1/2 the contents of the can into the bag, puff a breath or two in after to partially inflate the bag, and push in the final cork. Now you can sit and listen to the latest Simon Fraser CD while you rub the seasoning into all the corners, the seam, anywhere you want to. This can be a very sensual experience, so take your time. The area immediately beneath the blowstick will need an extra quota as it absorbs much of the moisture coming in. The seam is the most leak-prone area and needs a lot rubbed in. It doesn’t hurt to turn the bag inside-out with your hand in the end and rub the wet end point of the bag up between the stocks and into the seam and chanter stock area. (I told you it was sensual). After 20-30 minutes anyone will get bored with this however so it is time to quit. Get the lid back off the can, set it in the sink and carefully pull the chanter stock cork out (if you’re smart you’ll do this while holding it UP otherwise you will get a flood of sticky seasoning all over the floor). Drain as much of the excess back into the can as you have the patience for and then hang the bag up to drip for awhile. Most cowhide bags have neat little loops at the end of the stitching just for this purpose. When the drips are down to one or two a minute, take the bag down, pull out all the corks, and using rolled up paper towels or the equivalent, swab out all the stocks, possibly using a bit of water to help the clean-up. Seasoning left on the wood won’t hurt it, but if left in the stocks it will stick to the hemp, gum up at the base of the stocks cutting down air flow to the drone reeds, causing all sorts of grief. When all this is done, set the bag aside, propped up so air can circulate, and LET IT DRY OVERNIGHT.
This is actually the most important step but many people leave it out in the hurry to get back to piping. As the seasoning dries it forms an airtight, water-absorbent, osmotic membrane on the inside of the bag which holds just enough moisture to condition the reeds, but not too much to interfere with their operation. The next day (you can kill two birds by swabbing the bores of your pipes with bore oil and letting that sit overnight as well) put everything back together, making sure you have securely seated the drone reeds and that they are straight in the stocks, not angled so they might touch the wood. After a few minutes playing, the bag will feel wet and slippery inside when rubbed. If left alone for a week, it will again feel dry, but in fact the seasoning will be in there ready to work when the breath is applied.
Over-seasoning can cause large buildups of congealed gook in the bag which will eventually interfere with the reeds. If you feel lumps in the bag of older pipes, it is probably just 10-20 cans of congealed Airtight. The best way to remove them is the hot water flush method–just keep pouring hot (not boiling) water in and flushing it out, just like a long series of enemas. After such indignities, your bag will need a thorough drying out before any further action is taken on the seasoning, but at least the new seasoning will be able to get to the leather and do some good.
II. The Drone Reeds
There are three main species of drone reed–natural cane, plastic with cane tongue, and all plastic. Traditional cane reeds are made from arundo dorax , a type of reed that grows in marshes in Spain. As the raw material has become harder to get over the past 40 years, the quality of cane drone reeds has declined significantly. At present I would never buy a cane drone reed without being able to inspect it first–there is just too much junk out there. Modern cane tends to be soft, white and spongy, whereas it used to be a dark orange color and very tough and springy. At any rate, as a beginner you are probably better off with some type of synthetic reed, keeping always in mind that the tone of cane reeds has yet to be equalled by any artificial material.
Reeds are surprisingly complex, but all a piper has to keep in mind is that the sound produced is a function of the resiliency of the vibrating part of the reed and air pressure. If you blow hard enough you can make any reed stop. If you are not blowing hard enough, any reed will squeal, roar, or double tone. Setting up drone reeds is simply a matter of matching your blowing pressure to the springiness of the reed tongues (and of course to the chanter reed–more on that later).
All Drone Reeds: As with any musical object, shorter equals higher and longer equals lower. If the bridle on a reed is moved toward the end of the tongue to make the vibrating part shorter, the pitch will go up. If it is moved the other way the pitch will go down. With most drone reeds there is only a limited amount of pitch adjustment available in the length of the tongue since shortening it too much will cause the reed to stop under normal blowing pressure and lengthening it will cause it to roar or double-tone.
Cane Reeds: Be careful to select reeds that are matched in size–the two tenor reeds should be of the same diameter and length. They should be straight with no noticable warp. The tongue should be cut so it takes between a third and a quarter of the diameter of the reed and should not vary in depth from the end of the tongue to where the cut stops. The three reeds should look like a set of three when you line them up. Check the seal of the tongue by holding it down and blowing backwards through the reed. If there is any air leak, reject the reed as it will be impossible to shut off. Check the sealing wax at the end of the reed. It is there not so much to seal air out as to keep the end-grain of the cane from absorbing too much water. If it is cracked or missing, buy some red sealing wax, heat it, and goop it on the end. The bridle should be tied tight, almost too tight to move. If a bridle can be slid up and down the reed easily, it is too loose. Once you have three reeds in your pipes that will produce sound and are fairly well matched in volume, you can spend the next few years doing in-depth independant study on the physics of vibrating cane. Every cane reed has its own peculiarities as to strike-in pressure, double-tone, etc. Getting to know yours requires a lot of work and patience but you will be rewarded by superior sound. A set of cane reeds lasts a long time–5 years is not uncommon–so once you get it right all it takes is regular playing to keep them up.
Some tricks to try for cane reeds:
- a stubborn reed can be made to play by inserting one or two hairs under the tongue. Lift the tongue and jam them up to the end of the cut under the bridle. It’s easier to get the reed going without hairs or you will eventually go bald.
- A reed that double-tones improperly can be remedied by playing with the weight of the tongue–scrape it to decrease the weight, stick red sealing wax on it to increase the weight.
- New reeds can be loosened up a bit by rolling them briskly between the hands (be careful though–too brisk and they will shred at the tongue-cut).
- A short piece of surgical tubing (1/4″) cut like a rubber band makes a good temporary bridle which is easy to move to experiment with proper bridle placement. Tie in a proper bridle though when you have the placement right. (As for how to tie a bridle, there is no magic method. Use hemp rubbed with black cobbler’s wax and tie away. The tightness will influence how high the tongue lifts and tightness is another variable you will want to control. (There is such a thing as too tight–I have seen reeds with cute little corset-waists bound into them with too-tight bridles.)
- You will have heard the lectures and suffered the guilt if you have let your cane-reeded pipes lie for weeks without playing, but do not assuage your guilt by fiddling with the reeds if they all stop up instantly when you finally blow them up for that long-awaited practice session. They will take a while to absorb moisture to the same level they were when you had them working, so wait–play them for an hour, maybe another hour the next day, and THEN start fiddling with them if you have to. Most likely you won’t because if they were working when you laid them down, they will probably work again once they have regained their humidity.
A word about “double-toning”. A well set-up cane reed should produce two distinct sounds or harmonics as you blow increasing amounts of air through it. The sound you want is the second one produced at the higher pressure. The problem with double-toning occurs when the switch-over between the harmonics occurs at a pressure close to playing pressure for your chanter reed in which case the slightest variation in your blowing will cause the pipes to go out of tune. Most, but not all, reeds can be cured of this by playing with the bridle position, tongue height, and tongue weight. If it persists despite everything, try a different reed.
Half plastic/half cane reeds (Ross reeds): These reeds were the first plastic reeds to become available in the mid-80’s. The black ones are made in Australia by Ross and Co. While not as trouble-free as the new all-plastic ones these are a good compromise. Since the tongue is cane, they have better tone than the all-plastic, but since the reed body is plastic, they are always a matched set, and unlike all-cane reeds, suffer no changes with humidity, and can be counted on to sound even after long periods of inactivity. The cane on the tongue is sealed with a heavy coat of what appears to be polyurethane varnish. But if you look carefully, one side has been sanded flat and is slightly non-shiny while the other often has bumps of congealed varnish on it. The flat side is the bottom that goes against the plastic reed body and it is also identified with a little line of ink down close to the end you shove under the piece of shrink-tubing that holds it down. It pays to remove the tongues of new Ross reeds and using 600 grit sandpaper, sand the top side to the same flatness as the bottom. Don’t sand all the way through the varnish as this will cause the tongue to absorb water and you will be right back to the problems of cane reeds. The tongues and bridles are sold separately and the bridles need replacing about every year, the tongues every 2-3 years as eventually the micro-cracks in the varnish allow enough moisture in to deteriorate the cane. You can tell this is happenening when the tongues start turning black with mildew. Tongues on these reeds can take a surprising amount of spring and if they just don’t seem to want to sound, hold the reed firmly at the bridle and lift the tongue as much as 3/4 of an inch away from the body. This would break a cane reed, but these tongues are made from a different part of the cane and are stronger so it will not hurt them. If you end up with a reed that roars and will not shut off, do the reverse, holding something like a knife blade under the reed at the bridle and lift it up while pushing down at the end. With a little practise you can adjust the height of the tongue very precisely. And that is what the secret to making these reeds work seems to be–the height of the tongue. Keep playing with it until you get it right. Note: Some people swear by tying a traditional bridle on these reeds as the one supplied does seem a little wishy-washy. This may work for you, give it a try if you like. The rubber bridles that come with the reeds work most of the time, but they stretch and need replacing regularly. The neoprene gaskets that are supposed to seal the reed to the seat in the drone are best replaced with good old waxed hemp. Also, before replacing the drone in the pipe, make sure the tongue is absolutely straight on the reed body as just a little skew will cause air to leak by and the reed will act weirdly.
All-plastic Reeds (Shepherd, Wygent, Etc.) For several years now all-plastic reeds have ben available that only the trained ear can tell from a cane reed. They are marvels of engineering and come with good documentation so adjusting them is much more scientific than with more organic reeds. The same factors are at work as with all drone reeds however. Keep in mind the relation of the length and height of tongue to pitch and coarseness of sound. The tongues on these reeds are much smaller than traditional reeds and therefore adjusting them is much more critical. The tiniest difference in tongue height can make a big difference in playability. Do be careful about lifting the tongue as the plastic can get bent fairly easily making it useless. Bridles are likewise very touchy, but this is made up for by the fact that you only have to do it once. An adjustment of 1/32″ on the bridle can make a perceptable difference in tone and pitch. Since there is nothing organic on the reed, moisture and temperature have no effect on it and once it is working, it will work forever, supposedly. (Just don’t leave the pipes in a hot car in August or the reed tongues will all curl up into pretty little curly-ques.)
III. The Chanter Reed
Once you have a working set of drone reeds in your pipes you can pretty much forget them and concentrate on your piping. Unfortunately your chanter reed is not so easily put out of sight, out of mind. Even the best chanter reed will only last a few months with daily playing and your piping career is going to be a perpetual quest for the Perfect Reed.
So far there is no acceptable substitute for natural cane chanter reeds. Although there are some promising synthetic reeds available, the tone just isn’t there yet–they sound like electronic bagpipes or like a 5-year old reed that is so easy you could blow it with your nose. A good chanter reed has a little rasp to it, a bit of the wildness of the Highlands, etc. If you take a good reed out of the chanter and blow it sharply in your mouth it will produce a rough sound called a “crow”. An old reed or one that is too easy will not do this–it will be sweet sounding instead and will not behave well in the chanter.
Among cane reeds there are many variations of construction, shape, and size, but they all are basically the same thing: two identically matched pieces of cane (they are cut from the same blank) tied onto a folded piece of copper (called the staple) with strong thread which is then sealed with varnish or lacquer. All reeds are not created equal however and you must choose them carefully. It is usually impossible to test-blow prospective reeds (and you wouldn’t want to buy reeds that everybody in town had had in their mouth) so all one can do is pick them by their looks. There are numerous makers of reeds out in the big wide world, not all of them created equal. The ones to avoid, in my opinion, are what I call “one-shot” reeds. These are made from thinner slices of cane in which the curvature is produced mostly by tying them onto the staple. If you were to take apart one of these reeds you would find the two pieces of cane to be rather thin and if you flatten them out, to be almost the same thickness throughout. Often it is quite easy to compress the blades together even right above the staple because the cane is so thin (trying this when the reed is dry however will probably crack it) A reed like this is easy to play, needs almost no break-in period, but rarely lasts more than a performance or two–sometimes not even for a whole tune. In contrast, the better reeds are made with thicker pieces of cane that are then gouged out on the inside to produce the required curvature (you would have to take a reed apart to appreciate this). Many of these, but not all, are what are called “French-cut”–they can be recognized by the distinct ridge of thicker cane that starts about halfway from the blade tips to the wrappings. This type of reed will be fairly stiff to blow at first, require a certain amount of break-in time, but will reward you with superior tone over a much longer period.
Chanter reeds are a lifelong preoccupation and the more reeds you ruin the better you will understand them. I will content myself with a few basic rules here and let you learn by doing:
- As always in music, shorter equals higher pitch so a reed with shorter blades will be pitched higher. Wider blades are not so easy to explain, but 50 years ago all chanter reeds were a lot wider than they are now and chanters were flatter. Some of those old reeds have a wonderful depth of tone in a modern chanter if you can get them sharp enough.
- The curvature of the blades when viewed from the tip is a good indication of how hard the reed is going to be to blow. If the blade tips are almost parallel, the reed will be squeaky, have a narrow blowing range, and little volume. If the blades are very arched the reed will be very hard to blow, or, if the cane is soft, sound like a goose call. The curvature can be changed, if you are careful, by putting the reed on a mandrel (usually made from a small screwdriver ground down to closely match the inside of the copper reed staple) and then squeezing gently with pliers. Closing the reed is easier than opening it and if you go too far you will ruin the reed by bending the staple. Usually the pliers are a last ditch effort used on a more or less hopeless reed. Pushing the mandrel in and twisting it a little will often open up a closed reed enough to make it have better volume. A good strong squeeze with the fingers right above the wrapping can close down a too-open reed somewhat.
- Once the curve of the blade tips is right, try the reed in the chanter. A good reed will be a bit stiff when it is new. If it seems just right and is easy to blow, it is going to be too weak in short order. Even worse is if you can make it chirp by blowing hard on a low note. If this is the case, reject it or try again to open up the blades. If it makes your ears pop to blow it, then get out your scraping knife and go on to the next step.
- Scraping a reed is good practice–all woodwind double reed players tune their reeds by scraping them, but they also know how to make them and so are light-years ahead of most pipers in understanding what cane does when wet and vibrating. A chanter reed is much thicker than an oboe reed and consequently much less critical, but it is still easy to damage a reed if you go too far. All you are trying to do at this point is to thin the cane a little all over to make the reed easier to blow yet not destroy the tone. Use a very sharp knife or a razor blade and hold it perpendicular to the reed. Sandpaper can be used but it is much more difficult to see how much you have taken off. Count your scrapes on one side and then turn the reed over and do exactly the same number on the other side. On a French-cut reed, stay away from the thick ridge of cane and focus your efforts on the cut-away part, but not at the tips. On the other type, concentrate on a U-shaped area with its base a little above the wrappings and the top of the U a little below the corners. Test blow often and be conservative–the difference between not enough and way too much is often a matter of just a few scrapes. You should be prepared to ruin a few reeds by overscraping so you know when you have gone too far.
While on the subject of chanter reeds, a lecture about removing the chanter is in order since you will be doing it a lot in this process. Years ago many knuckles were rapped for twisting a chanter out by holding it at the sole because all chanters were wood and if your chanter stock is properly snug you have about a 50:50 chance of causing a series of amazingly unrepairable spiral cracks in your $250 chanter. These days people have gotten lazy about this hard and fast rule because plastic chanters are more forgiving. It is still possible to ruin even a plastic chanter this way though, and if you have any brains at all you will ALWAYS grab it by the end close to the stock and twist from there.
So– using a combination of the above methods and some luck you now have a working reed that doesn’t bug your eyes out and stop your drones yet can be heard over the chanter practice next door. The last step is tuning, or balancing the reeds.
Tuning requires practice and concentration, but there is no magic to it. Learning to listen to just the sounds you are tuning and to ignore the rest is the hard part, but it will come with practice.
Any two sounds of approximately equal volume but slightly unequal pitch will produce a third sound, a wavering or “beating” sound called the beat frequency. This is the “wa-wa-wa-wa” sound you can hear if you listen carefully to two tenor drones that are a little out of tune. The catch is that they have to be only a little out of tune to hear it because if they are too far apart the beat frequency will be so fast it will not be discernable except as more noise and dissonance. A good way to learn to hear this sound is to stop the bass drone, and not sounding the chanter, listen to the two tenors. Move one up and down and listen carefully. Unless the drones are wildly unbalanced, there will be a place where you become aware of a wawawawa slowing down to a waaah-waaah-waaah and then disappearing altogether. The place where the beat disappears is where the drones are in tune. Move the same drone up past the tuning point again and then down and listen to how the beat gets faster again as you pass the in-tune point in either direction. Learning to tune pipes is just a matter of doing the proper things to get the reeds close enough to produce a discernable beat frequency and then moving the slides until the beats disappear.
It makes no sense to try to tune your drones if your chanter reed is not playing a true scale, so do that first. Blow up and stop all but one tenor drone. Being very careful to blow steady, play a low A and tune the tenor drone to it, listening carefully to the beats. Since the drone is an octave lower than the chanter, it will be harder to hear the beating, but never mind, just move the drone up and down, up and down, narrowing in on the place where you think it sounds best. When you think you have it do not take a breath but play high A. Listen to see if the high A is in tune (or sounds good) If necessary go back and forth, playing the octave several times, making sure you don’t alter your breathing in between notes. If the chanter tunes well to both A’s, it is “balanced” or in tune with itself. If you have to move the drone down (making it shorter) to tune to the high A, then obviously the chanter is sharper than the drone. If you have to lengthen the drone, then the chanter is flatter than the drone. The only way to change the pitch of the chanter reed of course is to remove the chanter and either push the reed into the seat or move it out by putting more hemp on it. Luckily it is a physical chacteristic of the chanter that moving the reed either direction changes the top notes more than the bottom ones. In other words, if you determine that the high A on the chanter is sharper than it should be vis-a-vis the drone, all you have to do is move it out of the seat a little. The low A will change only slightly if at all, but the high A will flatten. Likewise if the high A is flatter than the drone because you had to lengthen the drone to get it to tune, then you have to push the reed into the seat slightly. The distances involved are small and many beginners get confused because they are going too far one way and then too far back. Often one wrap of hemp will make all the difference. When the reed seems to be balanced to the high and low A’s, check it also on the C, the E, and then all the other notes. It is peculiarity of the pipes’ modal scale and unique harmonics that every note on the chanter’s scale will form a chord with the drones, even intervals that would be discordant on the piano such as A and B. When the chanter’s scale seems all in order it is time to tune drones.
The only way to get all three drones in perfect tune is to play them all at once. This is difficult or impossible for beginners beause it is too hard for the ears to separate out all the sounds and just listen to the two being tuned. So to start with, stop the bass and one tenor and just move the remaining drone up and down, narrowing in on the place it sounds the best. If you can hear the beat frequencies, they will disappear at this point. Once you get the first drone tuned, pop the top of the other tenor and tune it to the first one the way you did in step one. This is the easiest part of the tuning. Then start the bass and bring it in as close as you can. The bass is harder to hear, but if you are patient and keep going up and down you will eventually decide where the best place is. If you have trouble, stop one of the tenors so you can hear the bass better. Now, because each time you started a drone you changed the relative air pressure on the drone reeds, you will have to go back and start all over with all three going, but you will be a lot closer than you were before. Just keep going from one to the other, moving them only a little and trying to blow as steady as you can and you will get it. When tuning your own pipes, finger high A, not E, on the chanter with your left hand when you take the right hand off to move the drone slides. Now is the time to fix up your drone slides so they are easily moved by twisting with one hand but not so loose they can wobble down on their own. Obviously trying to tune an unsteadily blown set of pipes is impossible and a good beginning excercise is to stand like a zombie for 15 minutes at a time blowing just the drones or just the chanter on one note and listening for the slightest change of pitch. When you can blow a note as steady as a rock, you are ready to tune pipes and enter the ceol mor competition. Helping another piper tune is a good way to practice because you can concentrate on listening without the extra strain of blowing. Just try to note whether the other person is blowing steadily because if he/she isn’t, accurate tuning will be impossible. With some inexperienced pipers who can’t blow well yet you will just have to split the difference between inhale and exhale and call it good.
Electronic tuning meters are not much use in tuning your own pipes unless you have three arms. They are actually not as accurate as a well-trained human ear and are mainly used for quickly tuning up an entire pipe band. The good-old-fashioned way is better.
IV. All the Other Stuff–Wood, Hemp, Bag Cover, Cords, Etc.
The wood in a good Scottish-made set of pipes is African Blackwood, also known as Grenadilla. It is becoming very rare and pieces of it large enough to turn bagpipes are very expensive. For that reason, you should inspect any new set of pipes very carefully since, despite the manufacturer’s best intentions, some inferior wood may have been used which has cracked since it left the factory. Also for this reason, older sets of pipes are at a premium. The wood quality began to go down about 1960 and if you can get a set of pipes older than that you will usually have a better instrument. Other woods such as coccus, holly, and ebony are beginning to be used in pipes, but as a traditionalist I think the best tone still comes from Blackwood. (The acoustic engineers maintain that it isn’t the wood that gives pipes their tone, it is the shape of the bores. If that is true, try making a set out of solid aluminum and see what they sound like.)
Wood needs to be oiled regularly to protect it against moisture. The outside of the pipes is sealed with a varnish and anyway, there is not supposed to be any moisture on the outside (unless you play regularly in the rain or live in Scotland) so confine your oiling to the bores. A lot of people these days play plastic blowsticks and chanters so the drones are the only thing left to oil. Use a good quality bore oil purchased from a music store. Do not use linseed oil or any oil which dries and forms a film. Swab the bores richly with oil on a rag–a pull through is best, but a narrow dowel will also work. Leave it overnight to soak in and then wipe off the excess the next day. You should do this every 6 months to a year depending on how wet you blow.
There are a lot of things a person can use to wrap the joints on a set of pipes but good old yellow hemp really does have a lot of advantages. In the 30’s and 40’s some misinformed people took pipes to music repair shops and had the ends turned down and cork installed a la clarinet or oboe. This is a great way to partially ruin a set of pipes because the cork does not grip well enough, the drones fall out, and once the wood is turned down, it is very difficult to get enough hemp on to make the joint tight. If anyone wants to sell you a set of pipes like this offer them 1/2 of what they are asking.
Yellow hemp is no good unless it is waxed. Pipes often come from the distributor neatly wrapped with unwaxed hemp. This looks pretty but if you play them long this way the yellow will turn to brown and then to green slime as it moistens and molds away. Pull it all off, rub the first foot of the hemp with sticky black cobbler’s wax, and then rub every inch of the rest of the wrapping liberally with beeswax. I have heard of people too lazy to do this melting a pot of beeswax and immersing the roll of hemp in it for an hour then cooling it down before wrapping– this might work, I haven’t tried it.