Videos for how to maintain the pipes.
A Note on the Maintenance of My Pipes
(and good advice for most)
Most maintenance is similar to that of Highland pipes. You should keep all the joints well "hemped". If they become loose, please add thread. Vice versa if they become tight. My personal preference is to use silk thread for all sliding joints, but cotton cotton/ploy blend from sewing supply store works well too. I like size “D” which you can get from many places online including Amazon. I add cork grease, available from Bore Doctor or any music store, to sliding joints. You can add beeswax to joints that don’t move, or use pre-waxed thread like the .020" polycord from here. I would recommend against the use of plumber’s tape (Teflon). It’s fun and easy to add to the rest of the joints, but proper pipe maintenance involves adding AND removing hemp from the joints as need be. While it’s easy to add Teflon, it’s really hard to remove it. Also, because of it’s remarkable coefficient of friction, Teflon tape can allow a drone to slide smoothly even if there is TOO MUCH hemp underneath it. Too much hemp, plus an upswing in humidity, can make pipes crack.
I now make all my own bags, either out of leather that is naturally airtight, or using a double layer of leather and material/glue combination that is airtight. Since there are no moisture problems from blowing into the bag, the bag should remain airtight for a very long time. A friend of mine, and well known Smallpiper, has been playing a smallpipe bag on a set of Smallpipes for almost twenty years, with no problems, never having seasoned it. The bellows leather should also be maintenance free for many years.
If the pipes are made of a fruitwood, such as Apple or Plum, or they’re made from Mesquite or poisonwood, I think it’s a good idea to oil the pipes once a year (at most). I recommend the natural oil that is available from the Bore Doctor; one bottle will last for years. Apply the oil to the outside of all the wooden parts of the pipes with a soft cloth. Let the oil sit on the outside of the pipes for 30 minutes or more to allow it to soak in, then wipe it off. Do the same with the inside bores. If you have a contrabass, I'd say that totally dismantling the contrabass lower section is not necessary. The possibility of gumming up the inner metal bores is not worth it.
Removing the excess oil from bores is very important. Dust will get inside the bores, mix with the excess oil, and slowly clog them up. So don't skimp on this step.
If your pipes are made from a non-fruitwood, oiling is okay, but not as necessary. Sonokeling, Osage and Palisander could use an oiling every other year. I doubt that African Blackwood, Bois De Rose and Palo Santo ever need oiling, but it's acceptable to oil them once every five to ten years.
If you have antler on your pipes, oil can darker it. Try to keep the antler from getting oil on it. A little won’t hurt, but drenching them in oil will discolor them over time.
If you want to restore the shine of the pipes, you can use “Renaissance Wax”, a microcrystaline wax that is easy to apply. A little will last a lifetime. I have a small 65ml jar that I’ve barely dented. Bore Doctor sells it in tiny jars that could last your whole life. You can use it on any parts of the pipes, including the metal.
The chanter reed has the potential to last a long time if taken care of. The real difference between Smallpipe or Border Pipe reeds and Highland Pipe reeds, in terms of maintenance, is that the Smallpipe and Border reeds have a “bridle” on them. The bridle allows the player to adjust the opening of the reed. When it’s humid outside, the reed tends to open up (though sometimes it can do the opposite) and when it’s dry, it tends to close down (though, again, some reeds do the opposite). You want the reed to always have about the same opening, no matter the humidity. Bassoon and oboe players adjust the aperture of the reed with their mouths. We don’t have that luxury. We use the bridle. Small changes in pitch should, like with highland pipes, be handled by pushing the reed in or out of the reed seat a hair, but large swings in pitch, caused by the reed becoming too open or too closed, will need to be handled with the bridle.
Many makers of many bagpipes say not to touch the reeds at all, and for good reason. Bagpipe makers (of the sort we play) have traditionally been from the British Isles where fluctuations in humidity are much smaller, so less futzing is necessary. And also, because reeds take a long time to make, and customers have a tendency to be very good at destroying them, they recommend just waiting a bit and hoping that things will return to normal. And in Europe, that is often what happens.
I recommend the wait and see approach as the first course of action is all cases. But in the US, I don’t think we have the luxury to hope that a reed that leaves the shop will arrive in close to the same condition as when it left. And with the winters that many of us go through, we need to know how to adjust the reeds. Just please be careful! These reeds can last a long time if you care for them.
Smallpipe Chanter Reeds
If the reed sounds very harsh and is too flat, the reed needs to be closed down. I do this with a pair of needle nose pliers I keep in my case. It is possible to do this with your hands, but I find it easier to make small adjustments using the pliers. I squeeze the bridle on one side of the twisted bit and then again on the other side to even things up. A little squeeze goes a long way. Squeeze a little and test in the chanter. Look at the opening of the lips of the reed. Is the opening equal across the lips? If not, you may have squeezed the bridle more on one side than the other.
If the reed is very easy to play, closing and not playing, and/or way too sharp, or muted, it needs to be opened up. Now squeeze with pliers on the edges of the bridle. Take note, it is easier to open the reed than it is to close it down. Please see the video I made on this subject.
Remember that adjusting the reed will affect the top-hand notes more than the bottom notes. So if the High A is flatter than the bottom A, pushing the reed in (or closing the reed down) will bring the High A into tune with the bottom.
Border Pipe Chanter Reeds
Border pipe reeds can be somewhat intimidating to look at in terms of adjusting them. They are small and fragile looking. Do treat them carefully, as the corners of the reeds are easily chipped, but don’t be scared of them. Despite their tiny aperture, I don’t find that I need to adjust my border pipe chanter reed any more than my smallpipe reeds. And it is much harder to damage them when adjusting the bridle than you would think.
Perhaps the most important piece of knowledge you need for my Border pipes is that I’ve designed the reed to sit very deep in the reed seat. It has happened more than once that a piper has put the reed where he thinks it should sit in the reed seat and horrible tuning and intonation has resulted. I get a phone call and the piper is unhappy. I suggest putting the reed deeper into the chanter, and everything falls into place!
Like with smallpipe reeds, if the reed sounds very harsh and is too flat, the reed needs to be closed down. I especially recommend using pliers for the border pipe reeds. They are very small and the bridle in particular is a tiny thing. You will have much better luck applying pressure on the little bridle with needle nose pliers than with fingers. I squeeze the bridle on one side of the twist and then again on the other side to even things up. A little squeeze goes a long way. Squeeze a little and test in the chanter. Keep looking at the opening of the lips of the reed. This is how you can tell what you’re doing. Look at the aperture as you squeeze the bridle. You can see the aperture flex more and less open as you squeeze. Also, make sure to squeeze equally on both sides of the twist. Is the opening equal across the lips? If not, you may have squeezed the bridle more on one side than the other.
If the chanter is very quiet, and uncontrollably squeaky (squeaking is also, often, caused by not covering the holes properly; wait until you are familiar with the chanter before assuming the reed is too closed down), than you may need to open the reed up a hair. Squeeze the bridle very carefully on the sides to bring the aperture of the lips more open. Again, a little goes a long way. Also, it will be easier to open the reed than to close it, so be even more careful. Please view my video on this subject.
Two peculiar things that happen with Border reeds and not smallpipe reeds is the breaking E and the gurgling low G. Both of these problems can be caused by the aperture of the reed being too closed down. Opening the reed a bit will usually fix these problems. (With the breaking E, pushing the reed further into the reed seat may be a better fix as discussed in the next section.)
Strange things that can happen when tuning a Border chanter.
Let’s take a side trip here and talk about tuning Border chanters in general terms. The Border pipe chanter can be a bit confusing to tune for the beginner because of its low pressure. Let’s say you have a perfectly tuned Border chanter with a perfect reed perfectly set up. If an experienced Border piper were to play this set, he would be happy and sound fantastic. But if a beginner Border pipe player were to try to play this chanter, he might very likely squeeze too hard (apply too much pressure). If he did this, the chanter would act as if it were too sharp, almost like the reed was pushed too far in. At that point, the beginner player might think, “Oh, I guess I need to pull the reed out!” Then, if he were to pull out the reed, the chanter might tune a bit better for him, but it would not sound quite right, and the E (and maybe the F as well) would likely break. The beginner would be confused and think, “Oh, I need to open the reed?!” If he did that, now he would have a reed that was too far out and too open. This can be a vicious circle of confusion for the beginner Border piper.
Beginner Border piper, it’s not as confusing as it sounds! I am arming you with the knowledge you need to stay out of this vicious circle. If you are aware that pressure is just one more variable you need to take into account, than you will be safe. If your top hand is sharp, don’t immediately assume that the reed needs pulling out. Try adjusting your pressure first. And if your E is breaking, try pushing the reed in first and adjusting your pressure to match the high and low A’s. If you keep in mind that pressure is a factor for tuning, it will make tuning much easier.
You might also notice a piece of wire in the chanter with poster putty on it. This is called a “rush”. It’s a piece of bagpipe technology from the uilleann pipe world. It has two uses: One, adding "tac" to the wire will lower the pitch of the note in the area to which it is added, while removing the "tac" does the inverse. And two, it’s presence reduces the overall volume of the chanter somewhat.
My old drone reeds are either miniature versions of the popular Highland Pipe synthetic reeds made by me, or they are all natural cane. The current versions of my drone reeds look a little different from GHB reeds, but should be fairly familiar looking to GHB players.
For the synthetic reeds, if a drone won’t play sharp or flat enough, the reed will need adjusting. This happens most often with the smallpipe drones that are required to play more than one note (such as second longest drone, the baritone). Their ability to play two different notes makes the extra length for tuning much shorter than normal. So they must be very precisely adjusted.
The current design of drone reeds are synthetic, but are modeled after natural cane reeds, and actually react well to the traditional methods of adjustment. Moving the bridle, like with all reeds, is the most straight forward method of adjusting them. Move it tiny amounts only, smaller than you can see. This will adjust the effective length of the reed tongue. The longer the tongue, the heavier and therefore flatter it will be, conversely for shorter. But if it is too long, it will be too open and be too hard to play. And if it is too short, it will close down too much and not play at all.
Secondly, these reeds react well to adding weight to the ends. So if you need to make the drone reed flatter, adding poster putty works very well, especially for the bass drone.
These drone reeds are designed so that the tongue can be removed if necessary. The tongue can be removed to adjust the bend in the tongue, which can be done by hand. In all likely hood you won’t ever need to remove it. However, you should take care, whenever you adjust the reed, to make sure that the tongue is lined up properly on the reed body before you put the drone back in the stock.
For the legacy drone reeds there is also the tuning screw. Screwing it out will make the drone flatter; screwing it in will sharpen it.
For cane reeds, the advice is mostly the same as with the synthetic reeds, except there’s no adjusting screw. Sliding the bridle (waxed hemp) toward the end of the tongue will sharpen it and away will flatten it (done in small amounts!). With the cane reeds, you can also add a bit of beeswax or poster putty to the end of the tongue if you need to flatten it more. Also, because these are natural cane, they will change with the weather. If the reed shuts off too easily, the tongue may need to be “flicked” once in a while. This means pulling the tongue up to flex it and letting it snap back. This brings back the proper amount of “openness” to the tongue (and flicking the tongue usually flattens the reed as well).
If you have spruce tongued reeds, you can follow the advice for the current model synthetic reeds, plus there is a chance (much less likely than with cane) that you may need to “flick the tongue”.
I am always willing to discuss the care of Smallpipes or Border Pipes. I want your pipes to sound their best — that’s how I sell more pipes. So, please don’t hesitate to contact me.