My blog is dedicated to the exploration of industrial hemp in America including the rich history of all forms of cannabis, the evolving law and politics of hemp and marijuana, the many products made from cannabis and the capacity, real or imagined, of hemp to re-industrialize rural America and revitalize the American family farm.
When it comes to bagpipes, the phrase “more than one way to skin a cat,” could not be more true. One of the biggest areas of conflict is what type of hemp to use and where to use it.
Part 1 of this article discussed what bagpipe hemp is likely made from. It also showed the different properties of each type of hemp. Knowing that each type of hemp can be used in different ways brings us to the next controversy.
Most other modern instruments will use cork where parts join. Highland bagpipers use hemp, mostly due to tradition but also because the properties of hemp make the seal around the joints more airtight under a higher pressure than, say, a clarinet.
Yellow bagpipe hemp absorbs moisture and swells. This helps to control the amount of moisture as well as add to airtightness. Black hemp creates a strong, smooth and stable joint. This works well in places that need an airtight seal that does not change over time.
With these 3 different types of bagpipe hemp, plain yellow, waxed yellow, and waxed black, how are they used? The modern controversy comes from where you use which type of hemp. Each method gives you the same general result, making your joints airtight but everyone was taught a little differently.
The traditional, or old school way was to have just one roll of hemp, unwaxed yellow, a lump of cobblers wax, and a lump of beeswax. Cobblers wax is just a mixture of beeswax and resin that produced a hard, sticky blob. It is used by shoemakers, from where it gets its name, fly-fishers, harness makers, and bagpipers.
The old school process involved taking a long length of the hemp and running about two feet of it through warmed cobblers wax. The gives you a length of sticky, black-coated, hemp that will stick to the wood as a base layer. A good portion of the rest of the hemp would be run through the beeswax, and the last portion left plain. Starting on an unhemped joint you would start with the sticky black part creating an unmovable base. Then the section with beeswax would go next, and the very top layer would be plain hemp.
It’s a lot of work, the cobblers wax gets everywhere, and your hands will smell like honey for days.
Traditionalists, including myself, follow the old school technique but with modern hemp. A layer of black waxed hemp to provide a base and then a layer yellow waxed hemp on top. This gives a good seal and allows for free movement of the joints. All the joints are done the same way.
Another way to do it separates the types of joints into categories, movable joints, like the tuning pins, and non-movable, where the drones meet the stocks. The movable joints might get yellow waxed hemp. The tackiness holds the joints in place but also allows the joints to slide. The non-movable joints get black waxed hemp. This creates a strong, sticky, seal so the drones do not move in the stocks when you are tuning. There are also those who reverse the two: a smooth, stable black hemp wrap that doesn't change much on the tuning pins; and swelling yellow hemp on the stock joints for airtightness.
There is also a modern take on the old school way: Black waxed hemp as a base with yellow waxed hemp on top. A final single layer of yellow unwaxed hemp would finish it off.
Then, you have still other pipers who will swear by only one type of hemp, yellow or black, and use on for everything. Many of these pipers get great results on their instruments using one type. Other pipers also get great instrument results using the combination methods described. To complicate matters, given the number of joints, and the different ways of hemping them, there are dozens of variations of any of these methods. It really depends on where you think the performance of the different types will be an asset to you.
Looking at it, it doesn’t seem that complicated. Just pick a method you like and go with it. However, when it comes to bagpipe competitions everyone is looking for that little edge, the elusive better sound. That extra stability. When you are hunting for this edge, anything, even small details, could help.
Resonance and harmonics are everything when it come to bagpipes. Reeds create their sound by vibrating. Some people think that by using mostly yellow waxed hemp, the thinner, less sticky type, allows the vibration to transfer more easily up the wood of the drones. The vibration causes broader resonance in the wood, which increases the harmonics.
Other people think that moisture control and air efficiency are everything. Yellow hemp, even the pre-waxed variety, absorbs more moisture than black hemp. If most of the joints use yellow hemp, they will swell. This swelling leads to tighter joints which reduces the vibration and resonance.
Using black hemp on some, or all of the joints, reduces the swelling. This keeps the joints at a constant level. The bagpipes will be consistent because the changing moisture does not effect the tightness of the joints.
Then there are the pipers who use a hybrid system. Certain joints, the ones that might get too much moisture and could swell and stick, will just get black hemp. Other joints will get just yellow so they move easier. Commonly, people will use black hemp on the chanter and blow stick, parts that are removed and swapped often. Sometimes they will also use it on the dronestocks and the just the top section of the base drone.
Into this mix we'll also add the question: Which type of hemp do you use on reeds? Things then spiral out of control quickly. The Dojo U method is the traditionalist version. Many high-level competitors use the joint-type method.
Is any one way better than another? It’s hard to tell. Like everything it comes down to a matter of personal preference and applied results. Try one way of doing it. If your pipes sound great. Leave it alone. If you don’t like it, try something else. Keep working at it until you find a sound you like.