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Some notes about African Blackwood

[ and other various materials ]

Back in the 1700's and earlier, the best pipes were made of a native wood, bog oak. It grew slowly and was a very dense, dark wood. It was abrasive to use because of all of the minerals it leached from the bogs it grew in. When the "3 corner trade" began developing between Africa, UK and the North American colonies, pipe makers began to have access to the tropical hardwoods. These woods were quickly proven to be superior for pipe-making, as well as for the manufacture of the orchestral instruments. We use African Blackwood and Gaboon Ebony for our pipes as well as a man-made Acetal resin, manufactured under the brand names of Delrin® and Polypenco®.

African Blackwood [Dalbergia melanoxylon] is probably the best wood to use for the pipes, for which we have seen no equal . Although the name African Blackwood can be used for any of several species of wood, we use only the real thing - Dalbergia Melanoxylon - which is in the rosewood family. It is one of the more dimensionally stable woods with respect to changes in humidity and temperature. It is a fairly small, slow growing tree, that has all sorts of interior faults such as pitch pockets and burls. When it is green, it sinks in water, and when dry, it barely floats. There is often as much as 60% waste from the log when it is used for pipes. It also turns beautifully. Tonally, it is a matter of some debate as to whether Ebony or Blackwood [or Delrin!] has the superior sound. It is our opinion that if identical instruments were made from these three materials, there would be very little -if any- discernible difference between them.

However. The sound does seem to be affected by how much pipes have been played, and how consistently in tune they have been played over the years. Given two identical instruments, with one having been well played for years and the other just stored for the same time, chances are the former instrument would have a superior tone.

Brazilian Rosewood [Dalbrgia Nigra] was another good wood for drones, and we once used it, but it is no longer easily available.

Kingwood [Dalbergia cearensis] Is another good bagpipe wood, and somewhat available

Cocuswood [Brya ebenus ] was an excellent bagpipe wood used from the late 1800's - to the mid 1900's. It was used almost to extinction as a commercial timber. It is still available in small quatities and tremendously expensive.

Gaboon Ebony [Diospyrus spp.] has been used by the Scottish makers for pipes over the past 150 years or so, and makes an excellent instrument. It is a good choice in Scotland, in subtropical areas, or anywhere it is uniformly damp in summer and winter. However, it isn't as dimensionally stable as Blackwood and will expand and contract more with changes in temperature and humidity. Therefore, it has to be treated with care in locales that have wide climate swings such as we have in here in the northeast USA. For this reason we are not as comfortable using the material with mouth blown instruments. However for bellows playing, or in climates with small seasonal humidity changes, Ebony is fine. Just keep in mind that you may have to re-hemp joints more frequently. Ferrules on Ebony pipes tend to get loose during the dry winters here in the Northeast. So frequent, moderate oiling with almond oil, and drying after playing are a must. In fact, all wooden pipes should be oiled regularly.

Cocobolo [Dalbergia Retusa ] Is another South American wood in the Rosewood family. Not quite as dense as Blackwood or Ebony, but very close, it is a bit more porous while still being pretty dimensionally stable. With Smallpipes, there is little difference in tone, but with the GHB's it gives a slightly warmer than the blackwood.

Delrin A.K.A. Polypenco [acetal homopolymer] has proven itself to have many qualities that make it a very good material for pipes as well as practice chanters. It is stable, strong, waterproof, won't crack, and machines well. Aesthetically, wood is more pleasing to the touch and to the eye, but functionally, Delrin performs at least as well - and it's practically maintenance free. We know wood pipes can last and be played for 200 years or more, and we don't know that about Delrin yet! . Also. because the material is non-porous, Delrin drones must be swabbed out more frequently than wooden ones, as water tends to bead up and roll down into the reeds more quickly. The pores in a wooden instrument break up the skin tension of the water that condenses in its bores, thus slowing this process.

Wood moves over time, with changes in temperature and humidity. This is because the cells within the wood fibers accept or shed off water molecules to come into equilibrium with their environment. This movement is more pronounced tangential to the growth rings of the tree than it is parallel to them. A round hole bored in a piece of wood becomes oval over time. Further, as the grain in any given piece of wood isn't perfectly straight, you end up with a randomly twisted oval. So there is no such thing as a perfectly round bore except in the Delrin, or other man made materials. Theoretically, if you keep the wood at the exact temperature and humidity that it was at during it's transformation into a musical instrument, the bore will stay round.

Almond Oil: This is where treating with almond oil comes in. There has been some discussion over the years as to which oil is best for wooden instruments. I am of the opinion that petroleum oils - which are often touted as woodwind bore oils- are NOT the best choice. Because they resist water, they can trap water in the wood if you put a surface film of it on your bores. Almond oil is a tree oil, is hygroscopic, [meaning it is compatible with water], and doesn't polymerize too much [meaning it won't build up in your bores over time]. If you maintain your pipes with regular oiling, almond oil goes a long way towards maintianing your wooden pipe's original dimensions. If you oil regularly, you in effect buffer the changes the wood goes through as the environment changes around it. When it starts getting drier, you will notice the pipes “sweating” oil - which is good. This is what it should do. The danger is that as the environment gets damper, the wood needs oil, and if it can't get oil, it will take on water. The water, being more volatile than the oil, allows the wood to change more quickly, thus inviting checking to occur. Currently, I lean towards moderation in oiling, not overdoing it at any one time. Put a few drops on a cloth or in the bore, and then use a pull-thru or a brush to spread it out. If you regularly maintain your pipe with almond oil or -even better- a mixture of 88% almond, 10% olive and 2% vitamin E oils, the oil will stabilize the expansion and contraction, gradually displace the water in the wood, protect it from drying and, therefore, cracking. Despite one's best efforts, wood still does crack though. It is after all a natural material!

Antler: For a long time we had been looking for some natural material that could take the place of ivory for the projecting mounts. We were so happy to discover antler, and now use it on our premium sets of pipes. It has much more color variation than ivory, and makes a very unique looking set. The Moose and deer antler are a great substitute for ivory. Antler has similar physical properties to ivory, isn't too expensive, and can be used with a clear conscience as only the “sheds” the animals drop each year are used. It is a bit lighter, and more porous, so the pores must often be filled. Moose has the whitest color with the subtle activity in the grain. We have used Elk, but it is very porous and needs to be filled. The moose is a better choice. Deer is too small for GHB's but is fine for HSP's.