September 30, 2012

Lee & Sons add bag-making to product line

You might say that Jack Lee and his sons want more skin in the games. The Vancouver-based Lee & Sons Bagpipes, headed by renowned piper Jack Lee, have added pipe bag-making to their line of products for sale, specializing specifically on zippered natural bags of sheep and goat skin.

The bags will be manufactured entirely in Canada by the Lee family, with the skins themselves coming from the UK -based tannery that most other bag-makers work with already.

According to Jack Lee, the bags, which start at $299 for models without a zipper and $349 with one, are aimed at “the serious piper who wants to get the richest tone they can. With our bags pipers can get all the benefits of goatskin and sheepskin and still keep their drones dry and steady.”

The integrated air tight zipper, he says, allows for the addition of a moisture-control system, while still obtaining the purported benefits of an all-natural bag.

He said that the target market is “pipers around the world who would like to improve their chanter tone.  Often pipers are unhappy with a thin chanter sound that they may be getting. Some pipers have previously been reluctant to play goatskin or sheepskin for fear that their drones would get wet.  Our zippers enable pipers to install a moisture system inside the bag to keep the drones dry.”

Since the 1980s, synthetic pipe bags have gained popularity, augmented by the use of moisture control systems, which have been impossible to integrate with all-natural bags without an access point. Other makers have introduced hybrid bags with a natural exterior affixed to a synthetic interior, while Gannaway in New Zealand offered cowhide bags with an integrated zipper.

A pipes|drums survey of Grade 1 pipe bands conducted in early-2012 showed a rise in popularity of natural pipe bags at the top level and a subsequent drop in the use of moisture control systems beyond a basic tube water trap.

Lee said that goatskin provides the feel of sheepskin, but is slightly thicker and thus could have a longer life. Most skin bags need to be replaced every year when played daily.

The only other full-time pipe bag maker based in North America has been L&M Highland Outfitters of Nova Scotia, which introduced hide bags starting in the 1960s.


  1. So, SFU played a hide bag (Gannaway) and canister set-up for a couple of years about 6-7 years ago, then went back to sheepskin with no gizzards and won back-to-back worlds. Now that set-up suddenly doesn’t work and they need to go back to something similar to the previous rig…? Interesting. The one thing I noticed about SFU’s drone sound this year at the worlds (as it also was around 2005/6) was that it has noticeably thinned and lost its usual resonation and depth, as compared with its former sound and with peer bands on the day. This is because they are now using a canister set-up (“bananas”) on the bottom of each drone – the whole reason for having the zipper on the bag. While it might buy you some playing time and is probably a very good solution for many pipers, I don’t think SFU are actually showcasing a better sound with this set-up. Any canister system is a compromise because it causes a restriction and acts like a muffler on the drones. It’s undeniable, basic physics. It therefore makes “all the benefits of goatskin and sheepskin” obsolete because the air flow is controlled and governed by the canister(s) before it hits the drone reeds. Canisters also limit/cancel any vibration in the air that goes on inside the bag and helps to produce that sonorous and ‘throaty’ sound that only skin bags can produce. Skin bags work best in an ‘open’ set-up with no restrictions on the drones. It allows for maximum air flow and encourages the whole instrument to vibrate in harmony. Playing a canister means you might as well play a synthetic bag because it cancels-out any bag and renders it to simply being a reservoir for air. Looks like a well-made product, but I respectfully disagree with claims that all the “benefits” of a skin bag can be enjoyed if a canister system is employed. It’s simply not possible.

  2. there’s more than one type of water trap availabe to use. If the architibule (sp?) water trap doesn’t work because of drone volume loss there are others on the market like the gibson etc that may work too which do not touch the drone stocks. Lets face it SFU would have have been laughing if it had rained…we’ve all played in Scotland and know you only get 15-20 minutes with a sheep and water tube in wet or cold conditions. i for one think being able to get in there is huge and a great idea!

  3. Interesting comments from both contributors, personally – why re-invent the wheel? Having played almost everything from hand made/stiched Sheepskin to synthetic machine stiched bags (Including Goretex and from Ross to Gannoway and back) I tend to agree with Lawrie on this subject, then again I suppose its a case of Horses for Courses” if your a bedroom piper or occasional piper you can not beat the convenience of a Water trap zipper bag etc. but at the top level where practice time is not an issue then IMHO natural is best for volume tone and resonance – for what its worth I currently play a hand stitched Bennet Goat with cane drone reeds and wont be changing anytime soon!”

  4. ‘djhuddy’, very good call regarding alternatives to use a trap system rather than a filter/canister on the drones. But if a trap is used, a stitched-seam bag produces a better sound and would be better suited. The zip then becomes superfluous unless a bottle type of trap is used (one that won’t fit through a split stock). I just personally felt that SFU took a step back from their usual rich and harmonic sound, and many others who are ‘up there’ in the caper thought the same. Not a criticism, just an observation. I don’t believe a band at their level needs to step down to a system like that. Lower-grade bands need to ‘play the percentages’ and often have more trouble-shooting/playing time involved, so this product will offer something to them. However the elite level is all about the pursuit of unbeatable tone and learning how to manage to that end. I respect and appreciate the band is a great ‘launch pad’ for new products for Messrs Lee – that’s a right they’ve earned in spades – but it’s not a tonal improvement on what the band had before, in my opinion. If it had rained at the worlds this year, the cream would still rise to the top because they’d all adjust their methods (as they often do/have) and employ their experience in ‘course management’ (to borrow a golf expression). Most bands at that top end, if it’s wet/cold, just warm the pipes, fine-tune a few touchy notes and go. The bulk of the work has already been done in the days leading up. Like ‘toneguru’, I also use a hand-stitched Goatskin Bennett, and use a MacCallum water trap (typical tube trap with a PVC section on the end with interchangeable cloth). Normally, a good hour of playing can be done in almost all wet and cold conditions, but it can be a very personal thing and not apply to everyone, of course. I also think that stitched bags produce the optimum chanter vibrancy because of the imperfect/kinked neck. Glued seam bags, like their synthetic cousins, have open/perfect necks so they get ‘clean air’ to the reed and don’t get the same vibration and ‘craw’ on the top hand. In many cases, the ‘old ways’ of having to use materials out of necessity/lack of options, and not being spoilt for choice like we are today, produced the ultimate sound, almost in spite of itself you might say. For all the technology and choice we have these days, it’s amazing to think that we simply haven’t been able to develop anything that tops the resonation and sheer quality of tone that a skin bag produces. Look at the top flight bands – all on sheepskin bar one or two. The elite are all on sheepskin.

  5. I read this article with interest having been an avid fan of the synthetic since their introduction in the eighties, yes they had there issues in particular moisture control but as they developed over the years they improved considerably and I could not be convinced to go back to smelly old hide bags, the thought of having to season your pipes every week to keep them air tight with the seasoning oozing oot the bag and your uniform having that constant aroma of boiled stale seasoning, naw naw naw naw no way. I was constantly being barraged by my playing colleagues to drop the synthetic and go back to hide. Well about 5 years ago I eventually folded and bought a Mark Bennett Goat Skin bag and to put it bluntly I was just stunned at the difference to the sound . It had been at least 10 years since I had played a hide bag and I just could not believe the difference in both the chanter and the drone sound, it was as they say in the Irn Bru ad, “Phenomenal” gone this dull boring tone to be replaced with this fantastic bright sound by just changing the bag from synthetic to hide , Incredible. The bag I bought is still going strong only requiring some occasion seasoning and was no where near the costs being mentioned in the article. It has been a great bag and convinced me to return to hide with all my fears of how it used to be well and truly quelled. As far as moisture is concerned I only have a plastic trap at the bottom of the blow stick stock and my drones stay dry, no zip required. So if you are like I was and do not wish to leave the safety of a synthetic and not convinced to go back to hide then try playing a Mark Bennett Goat skin and hopefully like me you will be blown away, Just Superb and made in Scotland, from Girders. A. S. Montague,

  6. Bagpipermann, I can’t say I support much of what you’ve said. The top bands were all magnificent, including SFU (albeit thinner as per my previously expressed opinion). FMM have played Sheepskin for as long as Richard’s been there. They are and have been the benchmark. However, if you want to hear a ‘before and after’, check out SLOT from 2005 (Ross bags and gizzards), then listen to them in 2010 (Sheepskin). There’s your test case. Experience, trial and error has taught me (as it has a few other posters here) that the bag is EVERYTHING to the sound of the pipe. It is the heart of the instrument. The reeds are the ‘end-user’ and will only respond to whatever air supply and vibration (in the bag) is facilitated. I’ve spent many years trialling every drone reed you care to mention when I had a synthetic bag. Never got to where I wanted the sound to get, even in my vintage pipes, renowned for a ‘big’ sound. Then it seemed obvious to me that the bag (and gizzards) was the mitigating factor and needed to be changed. Even taking the gizzards out of the Ross bag and removing all restrictions made a HUGE difference. But they are synthetic bags and don’t transpire moisture at any reasonable rate (if at all), so that was not an option. I switched to a Goatskin (Bennett) and, without changing any reeds in my pipes, KER-BANG!!! The drone volume, vibrancy, depth, harmonics – everything lifted considerably, and that ‘throaty’ resonation returned like an old friend. The character and timbre of my pipes improved out of sight. The chanters (solo and band) all started to bristle and sparkle more than they ever had – again, with the same reeds in all of them. I was stunned, and wondered why I ever walked away from skin bags some 15 years ago. Over that many years, I’d become conditioned to a certain generic sound that the synthetic systems produced, not realising it was well below par and selling my 100-year old pipes very short. The Goatskin bag allowed the reeds to properly function and enabled me to better hear the differences between them all. As for comments about drone reeds, I think there’s a risk in thinking ‘size matters’. For example, contrary to what’s been suggested by Bagpipermann, a dB meter will tell you that a ‘small-bladed’ reed like, say, an Eeze reed is actually the loudest by far. They also produce more ‘bottom end’ harmonics than the long-bladed reeds, and vice versa. Long/harder-bladed reeds will be more vibrant and usually provide more ‘grumble’. The trick is to either play tenors that give you depth (e.g. Eeze, original MG’s), and a vibrant bass (Kinnaird, Canning, Crozier etc), or vice versa (e.g. Crozier, Redwood tenors and Cane/Eeze bass). Or buy at least 10 of each reed and try your luck with matching an all-cane set-up. The bag really matters. A lot.

  7. I think this is a great idea which has been missing from piping retail products thus far. It will give the flexibility to add a canister system to a sheep bag on a rainy day at a contest, but give the rich tone of the sheep without canisters on sunny days without having to have two bags and sets of stocks. It’s also ideal for the soloist who may prefer a canister system for stability in a Piobaireachd contest but normally plays sheep/goat in light music. I know many soloists who have two bags for this purpose. This is a great all-in-one bag. I’ll be purchasing one.

  8. Some interesting comments here although I would dispute some of the ‘facts’. I could go on about air resevoirs, restriction of airflow to drones, throaty sounds which are all equally answerable but would take a lot of time. I would rather state some facts. Jack Lee and the Lee boys have been playing the Highland Reeds Moisture System (or bananas….)for over 4 years in solo competition. I haven’t heard any comments about their lack of drone sound in this time. Last year’s Gold Medal winner and this years Clasp winner at the Northern Meetings, Calum Beaumont was playing Highland Reeds Moisture System as well as Highland Reeds Balance Tone bass drone reed. This years Open Piobaireachd winner at Oban, Stuart Liddle, has been playing Highland Reeds Moisture System for a number of years. Anyone who heard Stuart’s performance would have heard one of the most outstanding bagpipe sounds ever. There are many other top professionals using the system including Willie McCallum, Donald MacPhee, Niall Matheson, Fred Morrison, to name a few. It was estimated that of the 18 competitors competing in the clasp this year over 80% were playing synthetic set ups. Maybe they have it all wrong! BJ Hitchings



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