Swedish bagpipes

Instrument care

On this page, I have collected various tips and trick, mostly about maintenance of the instrument itself. Peter Frodemo contributed to major parts of this page, in particular to the sections on bag seasoning and maintenance.

Bag seasoning

It is very important that the bag is airtight. It should not be possible to squeeze any air from a bag with plugged openings. Even a very small leak may make it noticably harder to play the instrument and also affect tuning, since leaks make it more difficult to maintain a constant air pressure.

There are many recipes for bag seasoning which makes the bag airtight. Here is one which works very well.

  • Buy hide glue (in granulated form), glycerine (glycerol) and a conservative such as Atamon (sodium benzoate, or whatever your old grandmother used when she conserved lemonade).
  • Pour two table spoons of hide glue in a can. Cut the top off a beer can or use a plastic cup.
  • Pour water over the glue, so that it covers the glue by about 0.5 centimetres (1/5").
  • Put the can in a pot of simmering water on the stove and stir until the the glue is completetly dissolved. The liquid should now have the consistency of unwhipped cream.
  • Add glycerine, about 4 times as much as there is glue in the can. Also add a table spoon of Atamon (or whatever conservative you use).
  • Stir and then let the solution cool down a bit.
  • Remove all pipes from the bag and plug the holes for chanter and drone with cork.
  • Pour about 1.5-2 decilitres (less than a cup) of the solution into the bag, through the hole for the mouth piece. Knead it thoroughly into the bag, and particularly at the seams and around the stocks.
  • Insert the mouth piece and carefully blow som air into the bag. Don't blow it up too much, just so that the insides don't stick to each other.
  • When the bag can't suck up more seasoning, remove the corks and mouth pipece and hang the bag up, upside-down, so that excess seasoning can drip out. Let it hang for a day or two.
The inside of the bag may remain sticky for a few weeks, but don't worry, the sides won't glue together. Excess seasoning can be stored in a bottle or jar with a tight seal. If kept cool it will last for a long time and can be used again after carefully heating it up again in a water bath or in a microwave oven. If you use a microwave, heat it up in steps, 5-10 seconds at the time. Don't let it become hot.

Air valve

The bagpipe's mouthpiece has a one-way valve attached to the end which goes into the bag. This is to prevent air from escaping back out through the mouthpiece, so it should be absolutely airtight. Two types of valves are common, the classic leather valve or a rubber valve. Both work great, but leather valves may require some maintenance to keep them airtight.


Leather valve

The leather valve stiffens over time and may require the occasional application of some some olive oil or almond oil to soften it up. A valve that feels soft but still won't stay airtight can be greased with some vaseline to make it sticky. Leather valves often work better if a second half circle of leather is glued to its "free" end, to make it heavier.


Rubber valve

The rubber valve consists of a "cap" of rubber, attached to a metal tube at the inner end of the mouth piece. It is essentially maintenance free and should work perfectly for many years (*). The disadvantage is that if it starts to leak there is not much else to do than to replace it. Go to a kite makers store - kite makers use this kind of rubber caps to protect the ends of the kite frame. Cut the "lid" with a sharp hobby knife or razor blade.

N.B. When the above picture was taken, I blew air through the mouthpiece to make the lid visible (to open it). It stays closed when resting, and the crack can hardly be seen.

(*) The mouthpiece in one of my bagpipes has been stuck, as if glued into the bag, for 14 years when I write this - fortunatey, I've never had to adjust the valve, it works perfectly.

Stiff bags

Nowadays, most bagpipe makers use chrome tanned hide when making bags and such bags usually don't require much maintenance. But there are also bark tanned bags around and those can get stiff or even hard after a few years. To review a stiff old bag, go to a saddle maker and buy some saddle oil.
  • Remove chanter and drone from the bag, and cork the openings. Leave the mouthpiece where it is.
  • If the bag is not too stiff, blow it up (carefully if very stiff).
  • Knead saddle oil into the outside of the bag, all over and particularly around the seams.
  • Let the air out, and knead the bag until it has sucked up all the oil it can take.
  • Let the bag rest for a few hours.
  • Repeat if necessary.
Warning: Oiling the bag will most likely make it a lot darker, and it won't let moisture through as well as it did before.

Watertrap

Your reeds' greatest enemy is humidity, and it does get rather moisty in a mouth blown bagpipe bag. One way to do away with some of the problems associated with moisty reeds is to get a bellows blown bagpipe. But there is another, very simple and cheap solution, and elegant at that since it is invisible; Make a watertrap!

The idea is to lengthen the mouthpiece inside the bag using a plastic hose. Some moisture will condensate on the inside walls of the hose, but the main point is that the air enters the actual bag at the back, far away from the reeds. That way, the bag itself will catch much of the moisture before it reaches the reeds. So, to be precise, it is the bag which is the real watertrap here, not the hose.

The effect is almost like playing a bellows blown bagpipe, i.e. you can set your reeds to work best when dry. That means that you can just pick up your bagpipe and start playing, without having to "warm" up first. If you set up your reeds like that in a mouthblown bagpipe without watertrap, they will quickly go out of tune when the humidity gets to them. With a watertrap it takes much longer (several hours in my experience) before you get tuning problems.

If your mouthpiece is equipped with a rubber valve, it is very easy to make a watertrap. Just remove the rubber cap from the metal tube it is attached to, attach the hose there instead. Now, insert a similar metal tube, halfway, into the other end of the hose so that you can attach the rubber cap there.

If you have a leather valve, the detaching and attaching of the actual valve gets more tricky, but the principle is the same. I recommend taking this opportunity to replace the leather valve with a rubber one. Widen the mouthpiece bore at the inner end, so that you can insert a metal tube there with the same inner diameter as the rest of the mouthpiece.

The watertrap has some drawbacks, but in my opinion the advantages outweighs the disadvantages by a great margin. The sound of blowing air into the bag gets louder with a watertrap, and it is a bit harder to blow since the tube is longer. If the hose is too long, the valve may hit the back end of the bag and temporarily stop working. If so, just shorten the hose a bit. Another disadvantage is that the bag won't be as easy to fold when you put the instrument away. The mouthpiece stays rather rigid and won't fall down towards the bag if you release it while playing, which to me is an advantage since I often do.

Rubber rings

Bees-wax is often used to tune individual notes on the chanter. That works well, and for semi-permanent tunings I use it as well. However, it is a bit cumbersome to use bees-wax for holes that often needs fine tuning, e.g. the minor/major double hole under the upper hand long finger, or the bottom hole (E on an E/A chanter). The same goes for the the tuning hole(s) on the drone.

For many years, I have used rubber rings instead, cut from a bicycle hose (thin hose, for racing bikes). There are some disadvantages do that, though. The rubber, most often black, can stain the wood, and when used for the major/minor double hole I have had problems with air leaks under my finger when playing the chanter tuned to a minor key. The colour as such may be an aesthetical problem. Bicycle hose does exist in other colours, but most bicycle shop owners are not used to customers who care, so they are not easy to find.

A better alternative, at least for the major/minor double hole, is to cut rings from the little finger of a dish washing glove - the cheap common type in rubber. The inside of such gloves are often lined with thin white felt. I turn these rings inside out, rubber side towards the chanter. That way, the colour of the rubber is not an issue and, in addition, it makes a tighter seal. Rubber gloves are thinner than the walls of bicycle hose, so the risk of leaks under the finger(s) is reduced. On the other hand, the rings are not as easy to move up and down along the chanter, as the bicycle hose rings are. Therefore, I still have a bicycle hose ring at the bottom, for the low E, since I often retune that note with my right hand pinkie while playing.

There are even thinner rubber gloves, in latex - the kind used in hospitals, for example. In my opinion they are too thin and even harder to move around.

A reed's life

Musicians on other reed instrument change their reeds often. Oboists, for example, often make their own reeds and replace them at least once a week. But Swedish bagpipe reeds seem to last for a long time, no one knows for how long. Two of my reeds (the one to the right is one of them) are 14 years old when I write this. I know of reeds in daily use that are more than 25 years old.

So, it is unlikely that you play your reeds to their death, and old age does not seem to be a problem either. An accident is more likely, and that can happen anyone, anytime. Therefore it is a good idea to keep your reed making skills in shape, and to have spare reeds with you at all times (and to play them regularly).

Wood maintenance

When a bagpipe is made, the wooden details must be treated in some way to make them resistant to moisture, among other reasons. It is common to oil them in, or to varnish them with, for example shellack. Some people claim that oiled wood needs to be retreated quite often, once a year or so, to prevent cracks from developing. In my opinion this is an exaggaration and the risk of cracking shows tell-tale signs of urband legend.

If your bagpipe was made in softer wood (birch is common for Swedish bagpipes) and if they were oiled in when crafted, you may have to oil them in again once or twice in the instrument's lifetime, not more. Varnished wood should not need treatment again, ever. I have not oiled in any of my instruments (of any kind) since 1995, and have so far not noticed any problems due to that.

But, if you want to oil your wooden parts anyway, soak them in a 50-50 mixture of terpentine and linseed oil (boiled). Swedish bagpipes are rarely made from materials too hard for this mixture to penetrate, but if you have details in harder woods, like ebenholz, bubinga, african blackwood or similar, use a thinner oil. Almond oil, for example.

Unwanted resonance

Not many pipers ever experience this problem, but for those who do it can be very confusing; resonance between the chanter and drone reeds. The risk of this happening depends on many factors, for example the bag's shape and the distance between drone stock and chanter stock.

A typical effect of resonance between chanter and drone reeds is that the chanter suddenly goes out of tune when you switch the drone on or off. Another effect is that the drone may refuse to fine tune - when you move the tuning slide, nothing happens, then nothing, then suddenly the tone moves drastically. Like ketchup from a bottle. In both cases, the resonance keeps the reeds locked to a particular frequency. If that frequency happens to be the right frequency, fine, but few are that lucky.

If you are among the few who experience this, try doing some minor adjustment to one of the reeds (preferably the drone reed). If that does not work, try replacing one of them. If that does not help either, or if you have no spare reeds, you can try to insulate the bag by inserting a piece of foam rubber through one of the stocks.

Things that are good to have

Most Swedish pipers I know are very inventive, often using things for other purposes than they were intended for. For example the abovementioned bicycle hose or dish washing glove. My toolbook is full of various things of practical use. Here is a list.
  • dental floss, strong sewing thread, thread seal tape (teflon tape), used to wrap joints.
  • toothpicks, to pick out or fine tune bees-wax in the finger holes.
  • a weapons brush for air guns, a 4mm drill, or a round chainsaw file, to clean out the pipes when needed.
  • tweezers, used to move the hair (if you have them) under the tongue of your reeds.
  • o-rings or cut pieces of a thin plastic hose, used as bridles for the reeds
  • cigarette lighter, to adjust reeds and to melt (weld) bees-wax when doing semi-permanent retuning of finger holes.
  • cut fingers from a dish washing glove or bicycle hose, used to retune finger holes and the drone
  • hobby knife, small cutting board, caliper, razorblades, lacquer, reed segments, used in reed making
  • bees-wax, for reed making and finger hole adjustments

Olle Gällmo http://olle.gallmo.se olle@gallmo.se