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BILL TELFER and JIM MORRISON (writing from Hong Kong and North America respectively) describe some of the climatic problems affecting bellows blown pipes.

On holiday in Britanny during the summer I came across two English pipers busking their way through the piping regions of France. One of them had a bellows-blown set obviously modelled on Border pipes but (to my surprise) having a plastic chanter reed overblew well into the second octave. The pipes and reeds, I was told, were made by Jon Swayne, who started off by fashioning them (the reeds not the pipes) from yoghurt cartons. These pipers had little awareness of the Lowland and Border pipes, or even of the Northumbrian smallpipes, but instead were members of the Bagpipe Society. The revival of English pipes is an interesting and welcome development but the plastic chanter reed is a veritable revelation. Plastic practice chanter reeds have been around for years but, as far as I know, nobody ever expects practice chanters to play in tune. For those of us living in difficult climates, a stable reed, unaffected by ambient humidity, would be a blessing.

The vaunting of the cauld-wind system (as far as reed stability and longevity is concerned), for example in the LBPS tutor, is something to which I have for long had to take exception. Reeds may indeed perform well where relative humidity scarcely varies, for example, in the British Isles. But in the hot and dry or excessively humid areas of the globe where some of us have to play, it is mouth-blown pipes which have the advantage inasmuch as the player creates his own microclimate within bag and Pipes. As long as he plays regularly or "blows the pipes in", he is not at the mercy of the elements, as is the cauld-wind player. Having sometimes been asked to contribute something on the problems of piping in hot climates, I have never been able to muster’ sufficient objectivity to ascertain exactly why reeds behave as they do in particular circumstances. When something goes wrong and no amount of reed adjustment or manipulation seems to have any effect, then sheer frustration tends to set in until the weather picks up!

Briefly, what seems to happen is this:During humid spells (and in Hong Kong, for example, relative humidity is for long periods of the year, up in the 80-100% range) the fibres of the reed swell and without necessarily becoming harder to blow, the sound of the reed flattens, particularly at the top of the chanter. When the humidity dips (as it did recently in Hong Kong to near 20%) a reed will literally shrivel and seize up. The “leafier" the reed, the worse the effect - i.e. a long, broad, finely-tapered smallpipe reed will suffer more than a stumpy, thick-based Border chanter reed. Opening up at the bridle, squeezing, etc. has little effect as it is the cellular structure of the cane itself which has altered. I believe this effect is noticeable in Britain during warm, dry spells in the summer but perhaps not so extremely. Ferrules may become loose, stocks loosen in the bag and ‘have to be tied in again. An ‘A' smallpipe chanter I have bends like a boomerang. Eventually the weather changes and the pipes and reeds seem to rejuvenate themselves, although oiling and other commonsense measures are very much recommended.

There are, no doubt, sound scientific reasons for another phenomenon I have noticed on occasion, particularly when playing at Highland pipes in the open air. this is when acoustically the pipes sound so much better, brighter, like silver bells and, if memory serves me correctly, this seems to be on bright, mild days after rain - or then again it could all be in the mind! Meanwhile, I'm off to buy a carton of yoghurt.



The interior of North America experiences a climate which is hard on pipes of all descriptions, but are particularly tough on cauld wind pipes. The nearest large body of water is over 1000 miles away and temperatures range from minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit to well over 100 degrees in the summer. This is compounded by the extremely low relative humidity. Here are some of the things that one can do to alleviate the stress:

  • Do not subject your pipes to extremes of heat, cold or dryness. An instrument humidifier in the case is an excellent idea. Pick a cool place to store the pipes away from blasts of central heating. Try to become sensitive to the humidity, and pick the place you play your pipes. Direct sun in the summer or outdoors in winter is a bad idea, as is playing in front of the furnace..
  • A good way to solve the dryness problem is to wet the sleeve on your right forearm just below the air intake of the bellows. A wet spot about 4" in dia. works well and will last for a set of tunes before having to be replenished. A bit messy, perhaps, but it works. In extreme cases I have even tucked a wet sponge under the bellows strap. (Just make sure no actual water gets into the bellows). 3. Bag dressing can be a problem. A month after receiving my first set of pipes from Scotland, I began to notice strange dandruff-like flakes blocking the chanter reed. The original bag dressing had dried out to the point of flaking off in chunks, some as large as my thumbnail. The solution was re-seasoning with Airtight brand seasoning, used cold, allowing it to dry out completely before reassembling. I began using a case humidifier at that point. In my experience, some type of dressing is essential, for despite many claims to the contrary, even a cow –or elk hide bag won't remain absolutely airtight in dry conditions. My impression so far is that Airtight works better than the oil and beeswax mixtures. I wonder if anyone has yet tried a Canmore goretex bag on the cauld-wind pipes?
  • Even with all the above precautions, you are going to have problems. Cane reeds are not meant to be played when totally dry, not as dry as we can get them here anyway. When you hear your chanter begin to rise in pitch and start sounding screechy in addition to becoming harder to blow, then the humidity that was in the case and the bag has begun to dry out and problems are on the way. Playing an extremely dry reed will cause the tips of the blades to fray and eventually cause them to split. This can sometimes be repaired with cyano-acrylate cement ("Superglue"), but the tone is never the same. If the fraying is just barely perceptible and cracks haven't started yet, trimming the tip of the reed will help. The utmost care is required as well as an extremely sharp blade. Humidify the reed slightly by blowing on it, then cut down across both blades against a hardwood block, taking off no more than 0.5mm or so at a time. The reed will of course have to be reseated a little further to bring it into balance again. Extremely thin blade tips will not play well in this climate, so trimming can extend the life of a reed.
  • Although the standard wisdom is to keep your clumsy fingers off your reeds, there are times when one is forced to do some reed surgery either to tune with other good instruments or just to get the bloody things to play. A good introduction to double reed manipulation is Keith Lorain; A handbook on making double reeds for early woodwinds, Musica Sacra et Profana, Berkeley, 1982. This might not be available in the UK but there must be something similar. Early woodwind players are generally pretty adept at reed manipulation, the main difference being that they play theirs wet, but all the rules are the same.