December 03, 2016

Blackwood use could soon become tricky

increasingly rare. Even top solo pipers have used synthetic chanters for years, with many top prizes gained with them.

But drones made from anything but wood have not yet caught on, particularly because of the material’s penchant for becoming cold quickly and gathering condensation when warm, moist air channels through them. Drying mechanisms, though, have brought an unprecedented degree of moisture control to the instrument.

With African blackwood becoming scarce, its use increasingly bureaucratic or, in time, perhaps banned outright, the time might be ideal for a shift to all-synthetic instruments of quality, from drones, to chanter, to stocks, to pipe bag, to drone reeds, leaving only a cane chanter reed and hemp as necessary natural elements.

The late John Weatherston cutting a large African blackwood log in the 1960s for R.G. Hardie & Weatherston Bagpipe Makers. [Image used with permission of copyright owner]
Most Highland bagpipe makers offer complete sets made from synthetic materials, generally for the entry-level buyer. Legendary piper Bill Livingstone in the 1970s was convinced enough by a set of drones made from plastic that he used them at the Northern Meeting, only to be faced with significant wetness problems. But this was before the advent of moisture control systems, synthetic drone reeds and manmade material bags.

It’s not the first time that there have been problems with African blackwood, which is typically harvested in Mozambique and Uganda. In the 1970s there was a temporary shortage of the material due to trade problems under the Idi Amin government.

“We don’t see it as a massive problem,” MacLeod continued. Things like this have happened over the 30 odd years I’ve been involved making bagpipes, but it just more bureaucracy which will add cost to the new buyers.”

A new blackwood pipe chanter is generally priced between $350 and $500. Pipers or bands insisting on a new blackwood chanter could be paying $1,000 or more for the opportunity. Other woods have been used over the years. In the 1980s, William Sinclair & Son Bagpipe Makers of Edinburgh brought out a chanter made from maple. The chanter never caught on, but there are alternative non-endangered woods that might emerge.

Two years ago when the United States government decided to enforce CITES restrictions more closely, pipers with ivory-mounted instruments entered and exited the US border at their peril. In August 2014 two pipers had their antique instruments confiscated at the US-Canada border, but eventually had their heirloom pipes returned to them.

+ Confiscated! Two vintage bagpipes seized at US border

Since then more pipers with ivory-mounted instruments have taken pains to procure a CITES permit and organized meetings with government officials before, during and after they travel. But many US-based pipers are simply avoiding the hassle by playing instruments with only synthetic mounts when they travel abroad.

With African blackwood set to be added to the official CITES lists, travel with African blackwood pipes might become a whole lot trickier, and buying new instruments made with dalbergia melanoxylon could be a lot more expensive. Counterintuitively, the market for second-hand or antique instruments could see a resurgence, with the cost gap between old and new pipes potentially narrowing.

To take the strain off of African producers, there have been recent ventures to grow African blackwood is places like Naples, Florida, apparently resulting in taller and larger trees because of the rich soil and conditions. Dalbergia melanoxylon trees take about 60 years to mature.

Stay tuned to pipes|drums for more on this story as details emerge.





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