Working with vintage bagpipes is as much a hobby as a business for me. I enjoy the process of turning up old pipes and making sure they will be played for years to come. I think it is a good thing for piping. As such, I take great care in purchasing, examining and restoring old pipes.
My refurbisher is J. Dunbar Bagpipe Maker in St. Catharines, Ontario. Not only do they do masterful restorations, they have eagle eyes for examining 150-year-old wood and discovering replacement pieces and flaws that should be addressed before you play the pipes. If a set of pipes has a replacement or repaired piece, you will know about it before you buy.
You should know from the get-go that pretty much every bagpipe made before 1930 has required or will require repairs of some sort, especially if they are ebony. Ebony and cocuswood are superb woods from which to make bagpipes but they are less resilient than African blackwood. I suspect there is hardly an ebony bagpipe in the world made before 1920 that hasn’t experienced at least one crack.
However, repairs to cracked pieces are not the bad news one might think. An old set that has not been played in years dries out and existing cracks close up and become almost invisible. People might say they bought a vintage set and a piece immediately cracked when the pipes were played, but chances are the crack was already there. Playing them puts moisture back into the wood, and the crack opens up. I have pretty much every set stripped of its finish to uncover and address cracks so you don’t have to. After repairs are made, the pipes are given a natural oil and wax finish that shows the wood grain beautifully.
My refurbisher uses a new technique that seals cracks and renders them invisible. I would tell you what it is, but they are very proud of their innovation and won’t tell me what it is! In more rare cases, they employ a very effective technique called invisible whipping. This entails turning down some of the combing groups on a lathe, gluing the crack, then wrapping it with strong, thin cord that binds that crack closed forever. A mixture of blackwood dust and glue is then applied over the whipping. When this dries, the repairs are turned down, re-combed and polished. The crack will not open again, and there is no effect on the tone of the pipes. The repaired combing is only slightly noticeable as different from the original.
Both techniques are virtually foolproof.
While I have all sets examined carefully for flaws and integrity, I keep my restorations to a minimum. Mounts are reaffixed as required, and the wood is stripped and refinished as required. I do whatever is possible to retain all original pieces. Many refurbishers are quick to replace a cracked piece with a new one, but I feel it is far preferable for the tonal and historical integrity of the pipes to repair a piece than to replace it.
It is still possible for an otherwise sound vintage pipe to crack once you start playing it. Again, while a disappointment, this is not a tragedy, as the pipes can almost always be repaired to their original tone and steadiness. I cannot guarantee vintage pipes against new cracks, but if it happens I will work with you to see it repaired effectively.
To learn more about vintage pipes, here are some resources:
1) I wrote this article for the pipes|drums website some years ago, and it remains a good general tour of the world of vintage bagpipes. https://www.pipesdrums.com/article/enjoying-the-pleasures-of-pipes-past/
2) Ron “Ringo” Bowen’s Bagpipe Museum. http://www.thebagpipemuseum.com/. Ron and I have pipe band connections that go back to the mid-1970’s. We are good friends and we consult quite closely about pipes.
3) Highland Bagpipe Makers, by Jeannie Campbell. Jeannie has been associated with the College of Piping for what seems like forever, and she is a fantastic researcher on the history of bagpipes and pipers. I use her book, Highland Bagpipe Makers, constantly in my research and descriptions here. If you would like to purchase it and/or her follow-up book, More Highland Bagpipe Makers, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.
One more important note about old pipes…. Over the many years I’ve acquired and sold vintage pipes, I’ve noticed buyers gravitating toward the big names: Henderson, Lawrie, MacDougall, Robertson, Glen. These are great pipes to be sure, I frequently find 100+ year-old vintage sets that I can’t put a name to because I’m just not sure. I consult with Ron Bowen and one or two of my other vintage friends, and if we can’t determine the make, the pipes are posted as unknown. (Other sellers would do well to be less sure! As Jeannie Campbell once told me, at any given period when the big five or six makers were making, there were as many as 25 lesser known makers operating as well, and some of them were in business for 100 years!) Many of these sets are absolutely outstanding instruments, yet they will sit on my site for a year because I haven’t put a great name beside them. Finally, some adventurous soul will snap them up and be blown away by a gem nobody else wanted.
If a set looks attractive to you, and the description suggests they are a great set, email me. Tell me what you propose to use them for and I’ll let you know if I think they are suitable. Don’t let a real find pass you by just because it doesn’t have an obvious pedigree!