On this page we hope to give some hints on basic maintenance and fettling. It is always advisable that any work on you pipes is carried out by their maker, if that is possible, or an experienced fettler, but there are a few things you may wish to do and some suggestions from experienced pipe fettlers are listed below. The Northumbrian Pipers' Society takes no responsibility for the information given here and any fettling carried out at your own risk.
This piece was written by Nick Leeming in response to a request for material for the NPS website. Please consider it the opinion of an experienced piper, who has found it useful to have an emergency fettling pack in his pipecase. It should not be considered definitive or mandatory. The initial request was for the content of the pack; when this was supplied, a further request was made to give an idea of what each item is for and how to use it. Finally, a check-list is included, which the wise piper might use before going out to play in public. Other pipers have contributed information (for which thanks, particularly to Julia Say). Interested pipers might also like to refer to the excellent article by Francis Wood in the Winter 2012 NPS Newsletter.
I carry a little zipped bag in my pipecase for emergency fettling. Most problems that this stuff can fix relate to lubricating or replacing poor bindings on stocks or standing parts of drones, or stuck (or slack) valves or tuning beads.
If a piper maintains their pipes properly at home and checks them before going out to play, emergency fettling should rarely, if ever, be needed.
- Oil. I use a plastic miniature spirit bottle (as used by airlines). Other containers will work if they don't break and the closure doesn't leak. The type of oil has been the subject of a heated debate over several years. Many pipers favour a light mineral oil such as liquid paraffin, available from pharmacists. I have used a commercial leather oil (such as Lincoln Blended Neatsfoot Oil - available from saddlers) for 30 years. I use it to keep the key pads and clack valves soft, to lubricate all moving parts, and to keep the leather of the bag and bellows supple.
- Small paintbrush to apply oil. Use oil sparingly. Oil keeps the leather used for clack-valves and key pads moist and supple, which helps keep the valves from drying and changing shape, and pads airtight. It also lubricates tuning beads on their cork seats, and valves at drone-ends.
Note that oil is only to be used on keyed chanters with leather pads. Oil should not be used on keyed chanters fitted with plastic pads, as these do not need to be kept moist - indeed the oil may adversely affect the adhesive used on plastic pads. For this reason, if the pipes have plastic pads, it may be better not to carry oil at all, in case there is inadvertent contamination.
- White Petroleum Jelly, in a 1" dia. plastic pot with lid. This (and oil) can be used to lubricate the sliding joints of the drones, and also the other joints in the pipes, such as drone and chanter stocks. Available from pharmacists (and 'Pound/One Dollar shops')
- Bobbin of black cotton Available from haberdashery dept. of large stores, e.g. J Lewis. Use real cotton, which being a plant fibre absorbs oil, wax and petroleum jelly, making the fibres swell, and helping the joint to be tight. Synthetic sewing thread nylon fibres do not absorb these lubrcants, and are not recommended. PTFE tapes can work, but they need to be an exact fit.
- Bobbin of Hardy Yellow Hemp Available from JG Windows, Central Arcade Newcastle and highland bagpipe suppliers
- Beeswax Beeswax from commercial honey suppliers and from furniture shops. Soft beeswax is very useful to correct slack bindings. Simply place a piece of beeswax the size of a grain of barley on the binding of the joint, and rub it in around the joint with your thumb, being careful to rub in the direction the cotton or hemp fibres are wound on (or you risk unwinding the fibre). The warmth of your thumb and the pressure you apply will partly melt the wax into the fibre and create a wonderfully smooth and slightly sticky surface. If it is too sticky, use a tiny amount of petroleum jelly to ease it.
Note that beeswax can be soft and pliable (this is the best type), or rock-hard and brittle. This latter may be referred to as 'boiled beeswax', as it has been heated significantly higher than melting point. Heating drives off water and lighter wax fractions, making it hard and inflexible. It should be pliable, so boiled beeswax is not recommended. If it is all you can get, you can make it soft by melting in a 'bain Marie' and adding petroleum jelly. With permission of the person in charge of the kitchen, place a small (approx. 2-3 cm cube) lump of beeswax in an eggcup or codling dish, the add petroleum jelly at approximately one tenth of the volume of the beeswax. Place the eggcup in an old pan with a little water in it, and heat the pan gently, until the wax melts. Take care not to allow the pan to boil dry. When it melts, stirr it, remove the eggcup from heat and allow to cool for several hours. Remove it from the eggcup by briefly placing the eggcup in hot water, which should melt only the very edges of the wax, allowing you to remove it easliy from the eggcup.
- Cotton, hemp and beeswax are used to replace defective bindings on stock joints and standing parts of drones, and to attach new clack-valves. The cotton or hemp is pulled across the surface of the beeswax; the wax on the fibres eliminates fluff and (although it may seem contradictory) both increases friction in the joint and makes it easier to move in a controlled way. Note: unless you have been shown how to replace bindings, it may be unwise to attempt it alone.
- Small scissors (to cut cotton and hemp). Haberdashery dept. Remember to remove these from your handluggage if flying.
- Small elastic bands. One on each bobbin. These have the dual function of stopping the bobbins unravelling, and can be used in an emergency if a key spring breaks, being wrapped around the chanter, over the key just behind the head, to return the key. They can also be used to repair melodion keys in a similar manner.
- A small metal ruler (6” - 15cm). If a chanter reed needs to be removed for adjustment (either of the reed, or if the chanter needs work and the reed needs to be removed for its own safety), measure and record the distance between the tip of the reed and the shoulder of the chanter (the rim of wood near the top of the chanter just below the binding). Then the reed can be replaced accurately. The ruler can also be used to roll new hemp or cotton bindings to flatten them.
I also carry a few cotton buds to clean various blocked orifices on other people's pipes. Other pipers carry spare self-adhesive pads to replace lost pads, or tiny bottles of liquid shellac (commercially available as Knotting fluid from DIY stores) to glue loose pads back with. Personally, I have not yet lost a pad where it was attached by inserting a fragment of shellac flake between the pad and the head of the key (with the key in place on the chanter, and the new pad in position over it's hole), and heating the outside of the head of the key with a soldering iron to melt the shellac.
As noted previously, checking the pipes before going out to play can go a long way to avoid the need for emergency fettling. Here is a check-list:
- Do the bellows hold air
- Can all the drone sliding parts move easily, without unseating the standing part in the stock
- Do the tuning beads move easily
- Do the end of drone valves open and close properly
- Is the chanter secure in its stock
- Does the blowpipe stay engaged with the bellows pipe
- Do the pipes play, with all notes (keyed and unkeyed), and all drones sounding
If the answer to any of these is no, then the pipes need fettling. Once fettled and in good playing order, the best thing for the pipes is occasional lubrication of the moving parts combined with frequent use. Pipes are like any other machine; neglect them, or don’t use them (or a part of them, such as a tuning bead), and they will not work as well as if they were used regularly and maintained properly.