The bagpipes are a woodwind instrument, and with all woodwinds, they are affected by the environment in which they are stored and played in. This can result in problems with the care and maintenance of the bagpipes.
A woodwind instrument, being made of wood, expands and contracts slightly with the rising and lowering of humidity. If the wood is allowed to dry out, the wood can crack.
On the subject of oiling, there are different schools of thought. Certainly blackwood is naturally an extremely oily wood, even when it appears to be bone dry. Many pipers never oil sets made of blackwood to no apparent detriment. Others oil only the exterior. If oil is applied, it should be done lightly, and not too often. Woodwind instrument dealers or bagpipe will sell suitable oils; other substitutes, such as olive oil, vegetable oil, mineral oil, engine oil, etc., are not substitutes!
Hemping is the process of coating a joint with hemp. In order for bagpipes to perform well, joints must be properly hemped so they are airtight but moveable. Overhemping a joint should be avoided. Various types of hemp are available - it is actually made for cobblers, but are ideal for bagpipes - but the most convenient kind is the pre-waxed yellow hemp. The black hemp is coarser, but more moisture resistant, and can be useful for joints such as the blowpipe which get very wet. If unwaxed hemp is used, it needs to be coated before use either with beeswax or cobblers wax.
Hemp should be wound onto the join evenly and under firm tension, building the layers up one by one. A piece of timber can be used to roll the joint on a flat surface: this compresses the hemp down and speeds up the process of "bedding in".
In general, PTFE (plumber's tape) should not be used as a substitute for hemp, though some players use a very fine layer on tuning slides to assist in fine tuning. There is a school of thought which counsels against this, claiming that PTFE can become embedded in cracks and force them open. Whether this is true or not is not clear.
Seasoning the bag
Natural leather bags usually require a dressing which renders the inside of the bag airtight yet moisture absorbent; this dressing, and the process of applying it, is called seasoning. It is important to note that some bags are treated in such a way that they do not require seasoning, so it is important to check! Synthetic bags, made of nylon or gore-tex, do not require any seasoning (though they do need to be checked regularly for airtightness), and should be kept as clean and dry as is practicable.
Historically, seasonings were concocted from various widely available substances - honey and treacle were popular - but nowadays commercial preparations, such as Hardie's and Robertsons are available from bagpipe dealers. The recipes are trade secrets, but are widely presumed to be largely glycerine. Directions are unique to each product, but in general the best approach is to use generously - at least a cup or more - and once worked into the bag fully, allowed to drain out back into the container for re-use. Metal containers for seasoning are now mostly a thing of the past, but if encountered these should be transferred into a plastic container, as once opened the seasoning reacts with air and the tin and will go bad.
Natural bags do have a limited lifespan: sheepskin bags may last only a year (or even less if used in wet weather or if neglected), and hide bags may last four or five years (though they are now uncommon as they are very poor at controlling moisture).
Only a certain amount can be said about reed manipulation on the printed page, perhaps the best of which is: don't! Nowadays, we have many excellent reed makers and it should not be hard to find reeds that work well at a comfortable pressure for anybody. There are individuals who specialise in picking reeds for mail order customers who cannot visit a reedmaker personally.
Before altering a reed, it is very important to look for other causes of a problem, such as dirt and gunk built up inside the chanter. In general, a new reed can be gently squeezed at the top of the reed (too much will damage the cane: no more than is required to close the lips together is about right), to ease it slightly; if it is still too hard after squeezing, the best approach is to discard it in favour of another. However, it is possible to remove a little cane in order to ease a reed if needed; this should be done with a very sharp knife or fine sandpaper, and be done a very little at a time: every cut or scrape will make an audible difference, and cane cannot be put back on! This approach will also alter the pitch of the reed, and so should be done with care.
Chanter Reed Problem Solving
Reed Too Hard
- Gently squeeze lips of blade
- Lightly sandpaper or scrape blades above sound box
- With a pair of pliers gently close staple - this is an extreme measure and is likely to destroy the reed.
Reed Too Weak
- Open reed with a mandrel
- Snip a tiny amount off the lips of the blades
- Dispose of the reed and get a new one
Top Hand Too Sharp
- Raise reed in reed seat
- Sandpaper or scrape the upper part of the blades (not the lips)
Top Hand Too Flat
- Seat reed further into chanter
- As a last resort, snip a tiny amount off the lips of the blades.
Individual Note Flat
- Use a small file or very sharp scalpel to undercut the top of the hole. DO NOT MANIPULATE THE CHANTER UNTIL YOU HAVE EXHAUSTED EVERY OTHER POSSIBLE OPTION
Individual Note Sharp
- Apply tape to the top of hole
- Occasionally, single notes can be brought into tune with small movements of the reed - this is particularly true of D, F, and high G.
Dull Sounding Reed
- Reed may have become dry, so moisten either by blowing into it for a period of time for a slightly dry reed, or soak the reed in water and allow it to dry naturally
- Lightly sand the lips of the blades (This will sharpen the top notes)
- Reed may just be bad, toss
- Try remedy for weak reed
- Reed may just be bad, toss
- Reed is probably be too strong, or bad blowing
- Check for possible leaks
- Could be a bad chanter or incompatible reed
Double Toning F
- Carefully squeeze sound box until you feel the reed give a little. You may need to perform the squeeze a few times but the problem should disappear as the reed comes down in strength
- If it appears in a played in reed, bin it. You might be able to fix it by cutting and scraping, but the reed will never be reliable.
Scratchy High A
- Wait until you have played the reed for a couple of hours, and if the problem continues, try using very fine sandpaper to sand the tops of the lips
Drone Reed Problem Solving
Drone Reed Too Weak
- Move the drone bridle away from the tongue seat
Drone Reed Too Strong
- Move the drone bridle toward the tongue seat