October 31, 2006

Blackwood quality becoming a concern with some bagpipe makers

October 13, 2006

The world’s makers of Highland bagpipes may be faced with blackwood quality and quantity issues, mainly due to technology and the whims of some African governments. Much of the world’s supply of African blackwood comes from Mozambique and Tanzania, countries that have made exportation more difficult because of crackdowns on illegal logging.

Because Highland bagpipe makers comprise only a small fraction of the world’s use of African blackwood for musical instruments, supply has not been a problem, since smaller orders are easier to fill.

“There are and always have been a number of suppliers of African blackwood,” said one bagpipe maker. “Some are more reliable than others regards delivery, and some are noted for better wood and some for drier wood. Some are cheaper and from time to time they offer deals. Basically the more you buy the cheaper you get it. We do tend to buy from a few sources rather than sticking to the one supplier.”

The overall quality of blackwood may be becoming more of a concern for makers, though, with the advent of computer numerically controlled (CNC) engineering lathes that automate the process of turning bagpipes and many of their mounts. The automation of bagpipe making may be resulting in less stringent control when it comes to the quality of blackwood.

“One spin-off from the CNC revolution we are seeing in [the UK] is the quality of acceptable wood is going down,” a maker stated. “The reason for this is simply because a CNC turning centre does not complain when the wood you feed in is knotty or cross-grained. It doesn’t recognize these problems in the wood and can cope with these difficulties; however, it does not make for a better set of pipes.

“What has become acceptable as musical instrument quality grade wood is maybe a little different from maker to maker depending on their production methods.”

Using darker, close-grained blackwood has traditionally been the goal of bagpipe makers. In the past it was not untypical for manufacturers to “season” blackwood for as long as eight years before using it for instruments.

Most of the more established bagpipe makers are now using CNC machines, each costing about $50,000. Some makers use CNC technology, but only for stable materials, such as plastics used for imitation mounts, chanters, and blowpipes. Makers that continue to turn blackwood by hand may demand better quality wood, rejecting some materials that are too knotty, wide-grained or unseasoned.

CNC manufacturing is largely credited with the overall increase in volume of better quality Highland pipes at competitive prices. One major pipe maker in Scotland reportedly employs more than 20 full-time “turners” to satisfy the demand for new, quality bagpipes.

As for the overall availability of African blackwood, problems may arise in the regularity of supply because of the unpredictability of the politics in the supplying countries. For a brief period in the 1970s, Uganda, then the primary source of the world’s wood for musical instruments, interrupted export of African blackwood during the dictatorship of Idi Amin.


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