FROM TREE to BAGPIPE to BAGPIPER.
I use British hardwoods for my bagpipe making and I always prefer to know where the wood actually grew. Nearly all the pipes that I played my last CD, Some Of me Pipes, were made by me from trees that grew in Ashby Parva, the village in south Leicestershire where I was born and brought up. The Leicestershire smallpipe that I am playing on the front cover is made from a flowering cherry that grew in the churchyard and died in 2003. This tree grew 10 feet away from where, 67 years ago, my Aunt Alice was buried. This pipe is part of my family tree.
This year (2011) I have been making an English Great Pipe from the same cherry tree for my nephew, who lives in Ashby Parva, so I decided to take the opportunity to make a photo diary to chart the progress of these pipes from tree to the finished bagpipes.
Where to start?
People often ask me “How long does it take to make a bagpipe?” The answer depends on what you consider is actually the start of the process. I make all my pipes of wood and to get wood, you need a tree! And that tree needs to grow and generally speaking the slower it grows the better the wood. So the actual germination of most of my pipes began before I- the pipemaker- was germinated!
‘Aunt Alice’s’ cherry tree.
I don’t know in which year this tree was planted, but it grew at a corner of the Goodacre family plot in the graveyard at the church in Ashby Parva, Leicestershire. 10 foot away from it is my Aunt Alice’s grave. She was buried in July 1944. On the other side of her grave is the joint grave of my grandparents and beyond them is the grave of my parents. It may be fanciful, but I like to think the cherry tree was planted by my grandfather to commemorate Aunt Alice.
The tree died in 2003. I do not have a good photo of it; however it does feature in the background of a photo at the wedding of my brother John and Stephanie in July 2nd 1994.
Here are some of the guests at my brother John and Stephanie’s wedding in the graveyard at the church in Ashby Parva. You can just see the foliage of the cherry tree above the Bridesmaids and the Page, my son Liam, who is standing next to Aunt Alice’s grave. I am now making this set of English Great Pipes for John and Stephanie’s son, who lives at the other end of the village.
The tree died of its own accord in 2003 and it was cut down in 2004. Here is
the remaining tree stump in 2008. It was never a very big tree.
The churchyard in 2008. ‘Aunt Alice’s’ cherry tree grew at this end of the stone wall and was cut down in 2004. The three other cherry trees which grew beside the brick wall all died 5 years later.( I have the wood from these trees cut up and drying for future sets of pipes) It is possible that all four were planted at the same time.
Once a tree has been cut into manageable logs I usually cleave it while the wood is still wet. This allows the wood to divide along the grain to curbs its tendency cack all over the place. I then roughly saw it into suitable billets and seal all the end grain with waterproof paint which prevents it from drying to fast. I leave these billets for a minimum of three years in my woodstore, which is shaded and cool. It is important to let the wood dry slowly. (The log that I am cleaving in this photo is one of the three cherry trees that grew by the brick wall)
Here is the set of billets cut out for the English Great Pipes after the wood has seasoned for seven years. Each tree that I use has an individual reference number- this tree is 225. I paint the end grain of the bells with black waterproof paint to discourage it splitting. Ideally I make the chanter and drone bells from ‘cross cut’ timber, but as this tree did not have a very wide diameter it was a challenge to find pieces suitable for these bells.
Here are the pieces after I have rough turned them. After this I kept them in my house airing cupboard for a few months
I have now bored and dimensioned each piece.
I have now counter bored all the drone slides, turned the inside of the bells and glued them in position. All the buffalo horn mounts have been turned, fitted and glued.
Here is the chanter, the blast pipe and the stocks before they have had the vacuum and pressure oil treatment. At this stage the wood has been polished and is light coloured and dry to the touch.
Every piece of the pipe is submerged in a tank of linseed oil mixed with genuine turpentine. After a day of vacuum and a few days of pressure (plus gentle heat) I lift the pieces out. This is always a special moment as some woods can darken dramatically and I am always keen to see each piece as it emerges! The wood takes on a mellow sheen that will darken over the years.
At this stage there is a thick coating of oil on each piece and everything looks rather luscious! Most of the surplus oil drains off back into the tank and after a day or so I wipe away the remaining oil. I then need to leave each piece for the oil to dry thoroughly on the surface; with cherry this can take about a month. Plum wood is much faster. The oil has been driven very deep into the wood which adds to its stability and resilience.
Compare the wood now to the photo before it had the oil vacuum and pressure treatment! The oil has penetrated very deep into the wood. Much of the air that is held within the cells of the wood has been drawn out by the vacuum, initially causing an impressive amount of froth to appear on the surface of the oil in the tank. Then the pressure drives the oil deep into the cells of the wood. Once the pieces have been removed from the tank the oil begins to harden on the surface and eventually deeper into the wood. This seals the pores and the wood is therefore far less affected by variations in humidity and temperature. It gives the wood more weight, stability and improves the tone of the instrument. And it highlights the grain and gives it depth and lustre, which will darken and mellow over the years.
I really enjoy the shape of my bells.
Here are the drone parts ready for their oil treatment. The oil tank is not big enough to take an entire set of English Great Pipes, so I need to treat them in two batches.
Here are the drone parts newly risen from the oil.
A close up of the drone bell after it has emerged from the oil.
The drones few weeks later after the oil has begun to harden.
Looking inside the drone and chanter bells
The middle of the chanter.
A few weeks before the pipes were ready to assemble I sent samples of the leather colours I had in stock and he chose this green. I sew all my bags by hand with saddle stitch and it takes up to three hours to cut out, glue and stitch each bag.
The cords are held in place by specially turned beads- on this pipe I made them from mulberry wood that was from a branch of a mulberry tree my sisters and brother and I gave Mum and Dad in 1968 for their ruby wedding present. This tree grows in my brother Johns garden at the other end of the village from the church; the house where I was born and where my nephew lives.
Here is the pipe assembled, reeded up and fitted with a natty cord and tassel.
Meanwhile in the Ashby Parva church yard this year the tree trunk is host to a splendid crop of fungi. Dust to dust- ashes to ashes; all thing decay. This is the way of all things.
The final photo is of my nephew playing his pipes when I delivered them to him on Sunday 4th December 2011.
My task is completed- it’s up to him now!
JULIAN GOODACRE Dec 8th 2011