Sharing from Ron Bowen @ The Bagpipe Place — St. Patrick’s Day is everyone’s favorite day in March. Parades and Pubs dominate with music and fun for all. It’s also the most difficult day of the year for bagpipes. Pipers stand for extended periods of time in near freezing temperatures, pick up their pipes at a moment’s notice, and play a parade. We then bounce from pub to pub playing pipes and enjoying festivities. It’s only a day or two later that we discover that our bagpipe didn’t make it through in one piece. The blowpipe, stocks, and drones all take a beating.
Why do bagpipes crack? It’s all about moisture and temperature.
Bagpipes generally crack as a result of warm, moist air being introduced too quickly into the internal bores by the player’s breath. In contrast, the outside of the instrument remains relatively dry and cold. The internal bores expand causing considerable stress along the outside surfaces of the various pieces. That stress, if too great, will cause the wood to crack.
Let’s look at North America and our cold dry winters. Most homes are kept at around 20° C (70° F) and about 35% humidity. When you play your bagpipe, your breath is about 35° C (95° F) and the moisture content is at 95%. You can see where this is going.
St. Patrick’s Day aside for just a moment, most pipers want to blame the maker and the wood when they experience a crack with a new bagpipe. Chances are that they haven’t paid attention to the “science” presented above.
It’s no secret that bagpipes are generally happier in Scotland, where the relative humidity is very stable and ranges between 75% and85% just about all year long. January and February are generally the coldest months in Scotland, with the average low around 0° C (32 °F). July and August are normally the warmest months in Scotland, with temperatures that average around 20 – 25 °C (70 – 80° F) . Compare that to the highs and lows in your state or province. Quite the shock, eh?
Your wood bagpipe is safe from cracks when it is stress-free. That means the temperature and moisture content is consistent throughout the wood, inside and out.
Here’s where I tell you that there is no certain way to prevent your wood bagpipe from cracking if playing in cold weather. If you play it in these cold dry conditions, you’re risking a crack. The only way to avoid this is to play a polypenco (delrin) bagpipe on the day. Most don’t. They take their chances. Some are lucky. Some are not.
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