October 11, 2009


Pipes need clarity.I finally found time to take my primary set of pipes to master craftsman Thomas Doucet in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for refurbishment. Thomas reconditioned the dilapidated John Wilson MacDougall of Aberfeldy set liberated after 30 years from his widow, and subsequently sold for $13,000 to Troy Guindon. Doucet has established a name for himself for his meticulous attention to detail, and to the traditional and painstaking methods of bagpipe-making, so I’ve entrusted him with these 1936 silver-and-ivory Lawries.

In addition to refinishing them, Thomas will correct wear in the middle bass-section, nip a few hairline cracks before they get worse, polish bores and recreate to Lawrie specs a matching blowpipe with wide-aperture plastic insert.

Interestingly, Thomas isn’t a piper, and seemed to come about his business somewhat by happenstance, learning the trade by working with the late Jack Dunbar, who of course learned his trade at Peter Henderson’s in Glasgow.

Coincidentally, I’d been reading Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand by James Barron. The book tracks the manufacture of a single $90,000 piano from the point of order, to the sourcing of wood, through every minute aspect of the labourious process until the nine-foot-long instrument’s completion. At the end you understand why the Steinway brand carries such gravitas and luxury – not to mention why the company’s flagship model is so freaking expensive.

While Steinway since 1853 was often enticed to employ new manufacturing methods and technologies, the company steadfastly resisted, at least when it came to their more major instruments. Almost all of the dozens of stages of manufacture are the same as they were 156 years ago. While Japanese piano-makers were gobbling market-share, Steinway resolutely decided to adhere to what they now refer to as “anti-manufacturing.”

I like this notion. While new technologies are developed to streamline processes and, presumably, push out more product with lower manufacturing costs to make more money, when it comes to great musical instruments, craftsmanship is everything.

It seems to me that most bagpipe-making through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s may have been seduced by new technologies, and that’s why you infrequently see a top player with an instrument of that vintage.

But there are top soloists today playing drones from the last 10 years made using “anti-manufacturing” processes – that is, the traditional ways developed and perfected by MacDougall, MacRae, Henderson and Lawrie.

In an age of cheap, convenient, disposable product everywhere we turn, the bagpipe industry is again being led by those who commit to quality, sacrificing prosperity for the sake of the superior.


  1. Interesting. I was in St. Catharines myself last Friday dropping off my “sticks” for a bit of refurbishment. Mainly asthetic work, like adding an engraved silver sole to a chanter and buffing the ivory, but I also wanted to have the “innards” honed and trued in an attempt to improve the sound. I believe that parallel smooth cylindrical surfaces make the best sonic waveguides. Any physicists out there please chime in to correct me if I’m wrong…..

  2. The story of KO862 – the making of an INDIVIDUAL musical instrument. It really does give an account of something from scratch, from its very conception, and all the nurturing processes till it leaves home eventaully and has a grown up life of its own. Such an almost-human story. I guess bagpipes get known sometimes by who has played them, and in that way become very distinctive individual musical instruments, with a character and a story all of their own. And people who know the heritage of their instrument might even know who worked in the workshop at the time it was made, and hence whose hands fashioned the various parts. There’s something very wholesome about an individually crafted quality musical instrument, with a heritage and a history, a character and a life all of its own. Like the magnificent example in the article. Should every individual bagpipe have its own reference number like the ‘Steinway grands’, I wonder?

  3. Agree that I love true craftspersons, whether we talk instruments, furniture, vehicles, etc. Magic. However – not gonna lie – I’ve been really intrigued with the introduction of modern mfg esp to bagpipes. So I’m really torn by all this. Saw some of Jerry Gibson’s production methods – same stuff we use on our engine assmbly lines (basically). Was impressed. I know I can get repeatability out of the equipment, and so does he. My 70’s era pipes CLEARLY have someone’s hands on them – small differences in the engraving, boring, cutting, etc. But I like the idea that I can get two identical tenor drones from someone, rather than two that are close, but not exactly the same (like mine). Yep, it’s neat someone made my pipes, by hand, the old-fashioned way – sometimes I think I’d rather have the ones that I KNOW are perfectly bored, cause a line-boring maching did the work. BTW, the people operating those machines? We refer to them as “craftsmen” as well, cause you gotta know what you’re doing to make it do what you want 🙂 Machines can “make mistakes”, too, if not maintained, set up properly, etc. Anyway, I think there are merits to both approaches – and respect both.

  4. Someone’s tongue-in-cheek comment today on the previous “What are you playing?” post got me thinking about drum technology. Seems like the idea of anti-manufacturing can’t be applied to drums, or to pipe band snare drums, anyway, since the drive is to stronger, sharper, tighter, crisper. That requires new technologies and materials, and allows more complexity in scores and better definition to snare-lines. Anti-manufacturing perhaps applies mainly to drone-making, maybe. When it comes to pipe chanters, I would think that new technologies are helping to produce the top-shelf instruments that are more accessible than ever, whether a matched set of chanters for a band or a single chanter for a soloist. Interesting.

  5. Interesting line on the drums and drones.
    My entire inspiration for building my own drum was from a 1923 Leedy drum that I played in ScotsAire. It was damaged in a car accident and never truly re-gained it’s original resonance. I am currently using the most advanced materials and processes to replicate it’s sound.
    It is possible.

  6. There seem to a lot of craftsmen out there turning wonderful pipes at very reasonable prices right now – McPherson, Gellaitry, Huggins, Atherton to name a few.
    BTW: Don’t the Latin roots of “manufacture” mean “made by hand”? Funny how words end up with the opposite of their original meanings over time.

  7. It’s a bunch of tubes. Round holes drilled to lengths and diameters. You can’t possibly compare the complexity of a grand piano with a bagpipe. How hard can it be???

  8. Re “It’s a bunch of tubes. Round holes drilled to lengths and diameters. You can’t possibly compare the complexity of a grand piano with a bagpipe. How hard can it be???”
    Technically, that is a good point, but……………….
    Is it the right dimensions to produce the ideal sound? (This is the big secret)
    Is the right material? (What type of wood? Is the grain and density ideal?)
    Is the quality of the workmanship “up to snuff”?
    Has the wood been treated and aged correctly?
    Is the wood of sufficient quality to be able to reproduce the sound required?
    A good idea is to gather infomation that is available from the various sites out there to gain a deeper knowledge about what is involved in pipe making to answer these questions.
    Bear in mind that at the end of the day, as with all musical instruments, including grand pianos, not all instruments are created equally…………



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