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UILLEANN PIPE MAINTENANCE

 By Ted Anderson

             In my travels to various piping events, I have had the opportunity to examine a number of sets of Uilleann pipes, both antique and modern. One of the most noteworthy things I have seen is the large array of materials used for wrapping tenons, ferrules and mounts on pipes. A lot of modern substances have been used for this purpose, some which are marginal and others not adequate for the purpose. It is my opinion that PTFE (plumbers’/Teflon) tape has no place in a set of pipes. A number of GHB (great highland bagpipe) players seem to love this stuff, but it doesn’t work very well there either. Most makers of GHB and uilleann pipes seem to agree with me. Dental floss, nylon string, sewing thread and others are often pressed into service.

In this photo, Ted is teaching reed making at NPU Tionol In Ireland

            Let’s examine the “whats and whys” of the traditional materials used. Most antique sets and a number of modern ones have used ‘shoe thread’ to wrap these joints. Shoe thread is a single-spun linen thread, used in hand-sewing boots, shoes and harnesses by high-end custom makers, but it has been difficult to find in recent years. A century ago, single-spun cannabis fiber was often used. This is the true hemp. The older pipes were wrapped in thread which was bleached white. The yellow thread sold by GHB suppliers is referred to as “hemp”, but is, in fact, linen thread. I was told it was dyed yellow, so that inspectors of British military piper’s instruments could see that the outlawed cannabis fiber was not being used. About eighty years ago, all cannabis products were made illegal, in order to fight the drug marijuana, even though there is not enough drug in the fiber to get a fly high.  I will refer to either linen or cannabis thread in this article as hemp.

            Unfortunately, linen was not as good a product for mouth-blown pipes as cannabis. Linen rots more readily than cannabis when wet. For this reason, some years back, GHB suppliers began importing yellow linen thread which was saturated with paraffin wax to stop the rotting. It should not be used in uilleann pipes. GHB suppliers also sell some other worthless (for bellows pipes) products. One is sold as “black waxed hemp”. It is linen thread, dyed black and saturated with paraffin wax. There is no adhesive black wax, as described herein, in the product whatsoever.

            The function of the unwaxed hemp thread is to make an air-tight joint and provide a cushion for the normal shrinking and swelling of the wood in the pipes. The fuzzy fiber ends along the thread help stop air from escaping. The thread should be attached to the pin in a tenon so it will not break loose and spin around the pin if the hemp is stuck to the socket. When this happens, it can take a lot of time to get the joint back apart. The attachment is made by dragging a foot or so of the starting end of the thread through “cobblers’ wax”, thoroughly coating it, with the waxed layer being the first layer wrapped on the wood. This is a product unknown to cobblers (repairpersons). It’s shoemakers who use it and they call it coad, hand wax or other names. I will refer to it as black wax in this article. It is adhesive and for this reason is used to attach the base wrap to the pin in the tenon. It can melt in heat, so it is best not carried in your pipe case unless well contained. The joint is tightly wrapped with further layers of hemp until the socket of the tenon will fit over it snugly. If a joint takes a number of layers of thread, some of the bottom layers can be coated with beeswax, leaving two or three layers of unwaxed hemp on the outside of the wrap. The tension in the joint can easily be adjusted by the piper by adding to or removing some of the outside layer of hemp, to make the joint looser or tighter, as needed. A tenon taking thirty turns of hemp may only need as few as two or three or as many as twenty or so evenly spaced turns on the outside wrap to make a proper fit. This gives a range of adjustment. For example, a drone slide should move fairly easily, but the tenon at the reed end should be tighter so it will stay in the stock while tuning.

            Waxed hemp lacks the needed cushion, so unwaxed hemp is needed for a proper joint. Ferrules and mounts are often secured to the pipes with a small amount of black waxed hemp which fills any space between the ferrule or mount and what it is placed on. It allows some contraction or swelling of the dissimilar materials, while keeping things together. This can help prevent cracking a mount. A metal ferrule may be heated and forced-fit over the waxed thread for a tight fit. The wax will melt, helping it stick to the ferrule. The glue in glued-on mounts can give way, resulting in a loose mount. An entire set of pipes can be put together securely with nothing but black wax and hemp. This facilitates easy repairs by the piper.

            Some pipers use Teflon tape to make these tension adjustments, supposedly temporarily. Often it is not replaced. It is as easy to have some hemp, rather than Teflon tape in your pipe case to make these adjustments. Teflon tape may fill the gap, but it is very slick, so it is often placed on in layers to make the slickened wrap hold the joint together. Teflon often shreds in use and bits of Teflon tape get stuck in the tenon or make their way into the bag. I do not recommend its use. Waxed dental floss is sometimes used in tenons. It lacks cushioning. It may be OK in a metal to metal joint, like the joint to access the bass regulator reed. Hemp will work here as well, but it should be beeswaxed and lubricated with cork grease or a similar product.

            I use black wax on the hemp used in the gasket wrap at the open end of a drone reed. This adheres the reed to the seat and prevents the reed from coming loose from the drone. Some reed makers use black wax to coat their reed wrappings. This can make the reed airtight, by rolling the wrap between the thumb and forefinger. After it sets for a while, the wax will harden so the reed can be handled. The wrap can easily be removed so the head can be repositioned on the staple. Add a bit more wax, if needed, and the reed can be rewrapped. I used to make drone bridles with black waxed sewing thread. I applied the bridle with the same technique as whipping the end of a rope, usually using four wraps for the bridle. The black wax allows the bridle to move and keeps the bridle together. I have since moved on to a bridle cut from silicone tubing 2 to 2.5mm wide, with a bore of 2mm (5/64”) and an outer diameter of 4mm (5/32”). It is available in 6 inch lengths, enough for 60 or more bridles, from the store at NPU.

            GHB suppliers have some substitute products available for black wax they sell as cobblers’ wax. They used to sell Thermowax, made in England, but it is no longer made, except by C. E. Kron, GHB maker in New York, who got licensed to make and sell Thermowax from Caswell Ltd. of England. It is OK as black wax, if you can find it. The other substitutes are worthless as an adhesive wax. They are paraffin based and simply do not work.  I hand make small batches of black wax, from formulas found on the web. Google “coad wax” to find the link to the Crispin Colloquy, a shoemakers’ site. I sell it as Shoemakers’ wax and it is available from the store at NPU. The store at NPU sells a yellow linen thread (called “hemp”) of a nice weight for uilleann pipes. It is made by Coates-Barbour. I hope they can source the same product in undyed white. I will be sending NPU some unwaxed rolls of cannabis hemp for sale in the near future.

            A couple of times a year, I take apart my set of pipes to check for leaks. A set of pipes should be absolutely air-tight. This requires the use of a set of corks or rubber stoppers. I cork off the chanter stock, main-stock and air supply stock in the bag. Removing the chanter stock cork I blow up the bag and replace the cork. I squeeze the bag. It should not deflate at all, even very slowly. I do the same with the bellows. If they are air-tight, I add the flapper valve to the bellows and blow-pipe with flapper to the bag and pressure test. There must be no leaks from these valves. The chanter head can be corked at the chanter end and blown into the other end. I have found leaks at the top mount more than once. If the mount seems snug, beeswax can be dropped onto the inside of the mount, melted with a hair dryer and blown into the gap to stop the leak. The bass regulator bar end cap should be pressurized and checked, as a leak can occur at the mount. The bass drone has a few places where leaks can occur. Beeswax may cure smaller leaks here. The slider can be checked separately from the reed end. The regulators should be checked for leaks at the key pads and end caps, especially around the tuning pins. The chanter key pads should be pressurized and checked for leaks. The drone shut off switch should be checked by putting the main-stock with all exit holes corked off, into the airtight and corked bag and applying pressure. Cork grease may be adequate to stop leaks here and at tuning pins. You may find a leak where the bass regulator bar attaches to the stock. Leaks can be found around screws and even out of round sockets in the stocks. A stock may be leaking at a crack in it. Any leak at all produces intonation and playing problems with a set of pipes. I have often found more than one air leak in a brand new set of pipes.

            I am indebted to Denis Brooks for the following from his “The Tutor” for the Irish Union Pipes. A leaky bag can be made airtight by a melted mixture of lard (or Crisco) and beeswax at a 4:1 ratio. If a leak is along the seam, a rolled up worm of this mix can be placed at the leak on the inside of the bag (or bellows), the worm melted with a hair dryer and the corked bag (or bellows) pressurized to force the mix into the leak. The bellows uses a 5:1 ratio of lard and beeswax and the same technique used to seal it. This is also a good sealant at the drone shut off rod if a thicker product is needed. A larger amount can seal up leaks through the porous leather in bag or bellows. The inside of the leather should be coated with the melted mixture, with the excess removed. You can re-melt the excess with a hair dryer, if needed to facilitate the removal of the excess. Some use liquid latex for this job. It would be good to know if any treatment was used previously, as some treatments don’t work well with others. Avoid any mixture containing neat’s-foot oil. It will eventually bleed through the bag or bellows and make a mess of your clothes.

            Adjustments to the amount of hemp on the joints can be made as you reassemble the pipes. A light amount of bore oil may be applied when the pipes are apart. I recommend “Doctor’s Bore Oil”, available on the web. This is optional. Don’t be too surprised if your pipes play better after this maintenance. 

            For making a drone reed, I use a special sealing wax to add ballast to the tongue and seal the end of the reed. I use dop wax, a very sticky wax for mounting gem crystals on a “dop stick”, so the gem can be faceted. I melt it with an alcohol (spirit) lamp and apply it to the reed. It is less brittle and grips better than normal sealing wax. You can re-melt the surface over the lamp to give it an even, shiny surface. Excess weight on a tongue can be removed with a file or sandpaper.

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