working as a Bagpipe Maker

By:

In Feb 2008 I received this email:

Hello,

I am an English language and culture student at the University of Grenoble in the south of France. We have been given some research to do about jobs that are are directly connected to culture of the English speaking world. Particularly attached to Celtic culture I have decided to deal with typical Scottish craft. I am currently looking for an Scottish craftsman to give me an insight of what his job consist in, tell us about the skills it requires and so on ….Would you mind answering a small questionnaire for me ?

I have been working hard on that project but unfortunately have not found a craftsman willing to help along yet. If you accepted to answer a few questions…I would really be grateful ! Your participation to the project would give an essential and genuine touch to it…And hopefully will give us French students a better knowledge of what the art of bagpipe making is.

I am looking forward to hearing from you kind regards…

I replied that I was happy to answer a few questions and explained that I was not the best person to talk about ‘Celtic culture’. I was born and educated in England, but have lived in Scotland for the past 38 years.

The questionnaire was substantial and having completed it I returned it to her with this email:

“Many thanks for sending me this! My original intention was to spend only an hour on it. But it has caught my interest and I must have spent 4 or 5 hours answering it and I keep thinking of more things I want to say. Even now there is so much more I would like to write!…..Thank you so much for providing me with this opportunity for personal reflection on what I do, how I do it, what I have created and what my aims are.”

Since writing this we have kept in touch and in May 2009 she visited my workshop along with her boyfriend and father.

Re-reading my answers now I see it could be the blue print for my block buster book The Autobiography Of a Geminian Pipemaker, which I will undoubtedly never get around to writing. However here is an edited and updated version of the questionnaire. Re-reading it today, a major change that I note is that the woodwind department of The London Polytechnic has now been closed. As far as I am aware there is now no available course on woodwind instrument making available in this world.

Questionnaire. Working as a bagpipe maker

I) Your status & trade

What is the exact name of your job ? Do you call yourself a “bagpipe maker” ?

My Business is called JULIAN GOODACRE BAGPIPE MAKER.

Could you describe what your job consists in, the different tasks you are assigned ?

I try not to think of it as a ‘job’ or a ‘business’. It is a passion and a vocation. It involves much of my life, lifestyle and my social life. I do everything; office work, sourcing all the materials, collecting them, making tools, making the bagpipes, displaying them, repairs to old bagpipes, researching history, writing letters and articles, lecturing, performing, answering emails and the phone, sweeping the floor, packing my pipes, walking to the Post Office, repairs to my workshop and much, much more.

Do you work on you own or do you have employees ?

I work on my own. A friend comes twice a year to help with making the wooden boards of the bagpipe bellows. Another friend comes for 2 hours every 4 or 5 weeks to help with my business accounts and records. I pay them both.

Do you work with other companies/ music stores ?

No

Who are your suppliers ?

I buy leather in England, brass tubing and plastic by post. I buy wood from saw mills or find trees and get them cut to size locally.

Who are your prospective clients ?

Bagpipers and people who want to learn to play the bagpipes. I have also made bagpipes for museum collections.

Do you have a lot of competitors ?

I make a very wide selection of bagpipes. No one else makes the entire range that I make. I have developed much of this range myself. There are several other makers, who each make a smaller range, but I do not view them as ‘competitors’ . I think of some of these people as friends. They come to visit and stay at my house or I visit them. My own pipes are unique to me. They are a product of me and no other bagpipe maker would have the same relationship with my customers as I do. Other makers have their own relationship with their customers. I enjoy my connection with my customers and many of them have become close friends.

Who are they ?

Some of the makers who I know best are Jon Swayne, Nigel Richard, Sean Jones, Colin Ross, Hamish Moore, John Tose, Jim Parr, Dominic Allan, Robbie Greensitt and Ann Sessoms, Richard and Anita Evans - all people who I like. I am also friendly with other European pipemakers who I meet at the St Chartier Festival in France. I have exhibited there 20 times. I also know some pipemakers in the USA who I meet at the Pipers Gathering in Vermont. I have been to that festival about 6 times. I enjoy talking with other makers and usually become friendly with them.

In what way could they harm your trade ?

My friends would not harm my business. Perhaps if some new maker came onto the market and copied my pipes and sold them a lot cheaper? I do not think so, because I give such personal service to my customers and I am always available to help with maintenance and repairs to my pipes.

In what way do you distinguish yourself from your competitors ? (things that your bagpipes have and that other’s may not have.)

I use British hardwood and often supply photos and descriptions of the actual tree that the pipe is made from. The shapes of my pipes are very distinctive as I only use hand held tools and pride myself on the beautiful, flowing ‘lines’ of my pipes. These shapes can never be achieved by using machine lathes. This makes my pipes very distinctive - they are immediately recognisable as pipes made by me. I have developed my own plastic reed design for my smallpipes. This is my own design; they work very well and last for years.

How do you advertise your products ?

I have always had a small printed booklet about my pipes, but this is now rather out of date and I have not updated it as over the last ten years my website has become very important for advertising my bagpipes. I play my pipes at concerts and I record CDs. I do not pay anyone to advertise them; the bagpipes advertise themselves. I have been making pipes for over 20 years and I have a good reputation for what I do and make. And of course it is always important for any instrument maker to have high profile pipers playing their instruments in public or recording with them.

II) Life as a bagpipe maker

1. Daily life

How many hours a day do you usually work ?

Currently at my workshop I am working about 20 hours each week. At my house I do all the leather bag making - 3(?) hours a week perhaps? Office and administration is about 10 hours a week. Sometimes office work is much more when I have to write an article or I choose to spend a few hours answering a long and interesting questionnaire! I use the phone a lot to order supplies, etc. Email takes a long time as I am rather slow at typing.

I often speak on the phone for a long time to my customers. I take great delight in talking and connecting with them - I am fascinated by people. So these phone calls often involve talking about their lives or mine… many other things than bagpipes.

Describe your daily schedule

I do not have a daily schedule. I try to get up early in the mornings and do my email. Work has to fit in around the other demands of my life as a father, friend, and a member of the community. I usually have one ‘office day’ each week. Recently I have been at the workshop in the afternoon and evenings - I love working from 8.00pm - 10.30 pm! I also need to practice - I am recording my second CD this year (2008) and am giving concerts.

Where do you work ? (Is your workshop

separate from the place bagpipes are

sold ?…)

My house and workshop is near the

centre of the small Scottish town of

Peebles. It takes me about 43 seconds to

walk to my workshop. I work at my workshop and at my house. My office is in my house. I do not have a ‘shop’. The majority of my bagpipes are ordered through the internet; it is not often that the customer comes to my workshop. Most of my customers live outside the locality…. many are from overseas.

  1. How to become a bagpipe maker ?

How have you become a bagpipe maker ?

I had a passion for discovering more about English bagpipes… no instruments had survived, only pictures. This was originally an interest of my eldest brother and I eventually turned it into my lifestyle and way of earning my living.

Have you been to a particular school ?

No - I taught myself. There is a college in London - The London Polytechnic - which has a course on woodwind instrument making. I have friends who studied there. (The woodwind instrument department has now been closed).

How long has your training lasted.

I am always learning new things and techniques. I hope I never stop learning new things. But I do consider that my own personal ‘apprenticeship’ is over. That does not stop me still making mistakes!

Are there any diploma required ?

Nothing is required.

Could you tell me about your “history” as a bagpipe maker ?

I was never very academic at school, but spent much of my time at the metal and woodwork shops and at the Music Department, but I did not learn to read music, so I did not make much progress with playing, because that was the way music was then taught. At the age of 26 I started to play the ‘penny whistle’ by ear…. I still have not learnt to read or write music.

How and when you started, the evolution of your career throughout the years.

I started getting interested in instrument making when I was travelling in Africa and the Far East in 1979 - I taught myself to make penny whistles with Araldite and old tins, when I was staying in cheap hotels or camp-sites. When I returned to Scotland I began experimenting with making bagpipes and surprisingly quickly taught myself how to make them.

Why have you chosen to become an instrument maker ?

It brings together many of my skills and interests.

What advice & warning would you give to a young person willing to become a bagpipe maker ?

It is essential to learn to play the bagpipes so you can develop and test your own pipes. It is very useful to have a supportive partner, preferably one who earns additional money, or who is interested in taking part in the pipe making, and it helps your reputation to have at least one ‘high profile’ piper playing your bagpipes. It is important for anyone starting out as a pipe maker, who wants to turn it into a career, that they realise that there is a business as well as a creative side to the whole process.

What do you like about your job ?

I like the contact with other people and the freedom it gives me to live the way I choose to live. I have a lot of choice. I love transforming a tree into an instrument that can make people dance. I am now making bagpipes from an apple tree that I have made 49 bottles of apple wine with. One day we will have a dance and drink the wine and dance to music played on the same tree….

What are the advantages and assets of your job ?

Freedom, creativity, connection with others. And having a job where I can listen to my own choice of CDs at full blast when I am working at my lathe! Yea!

What, do you think, are its main drawbacks ?

Making pipes is quite isolating if one is working on one’s own. Trying to keep a balance between administration & office work / and the creative work of making pipes.

What can be discouraging sometimes ?

A day spent at the computer instead of being in the workshop… I love being at my workshop. It nourishes me. And I have learnt to accept that business administration is essential as it nourishes what I love doing, which is being at the workshop. Drilling the thinnest bores in long bits of wood can be dispiriting… on some days the drills can wander and the piece of wood is therefore not useable.

Could you tell me your best memory as a bagpipe maker ?

Many wonderful memories….. An early memory……. shortly after starting making pipes hearing one of my Leicestershire smallpipes on BBC national Radio 3 being described as “immaculately crafted”. I taped this radio program and listened to that sentence over and over again!

Your worst memory ?

An early memory…… being evicted from my first workshop. I was told that I must leave in three weeks. That hit me like a blow… I had about 20 days to find new premises and move all my wood and tools and equipment.

What do you find gratifying about bagpipe making ?

Being able to express myself and innovate in wood, leather, music. And knowing that I am leaving a legacy of over 640 beautiful instruments and maybe 50 tunes that may still live on for a long time after I die.

  1. The work in itself

What is difficult in your work ?

Trying to keep a balance between administration & office work/ and the creative work of making pipes.

What are the risks of your trade ?

My business depends on my own good health. There is currently no one who can do all the jobs I do and if I get ill or injured then no work can be done.

What are the required skills and qualities of a bagpipe maker ?

Persistence, inventiveness, creativity, patience. And big lungs for blowing the pipes! And a sense of humour.

Let’s say you would like to hire someone to help you with your work

I would only consider this if I thought it might be a suitable person to eventually take over my entire business. I only have one child and he is not interested in taking over my business.

What experience, skill & qualities would you expect that person to have ?

It would have to be someone younger than me who appeared to have an interest in the entire business. It might be easy to find someone who wanted to concentrate on one particular part of the business. Wood turning, for example. But it is essential that whoever worked for me should have an interest in making reeds and getting the pipes to play. I feel a responsibility to future generations that there should be someone who can continue to repair and maintain my pipes. It would have to be someone who I really liked, who had a great sense of humour and was inquisitive and wanted to learn. It would have to be someone who lived locally and did not require a lot of payment. Pipemaking can be very rewarding, but the financial rewards are not great.

III) Business

How much do you sell a bagpipe for?

From about £560 - £2,500 - it depends on which type of pipe. If customers wants extra decoration or features this can raise the price.

How much time do usually spend on making a bagpipe ?

I try to make 24 each year… but I never seem to manage to do this. Recently I am finding that maintaining my customers older pipes is taking more of my time. After 10 or 15 years of playing a set of pipes it may require maintenance and attention. This takes quite a bit of time and reduces my time available for making new bagpipes.

Can you describe step by step how a bagpipe is made ?

Start by sourcing the tree, getting it cut into planks and then leave it to air dry for at least 3 or 4 years. Then cut it into billets of the correct length, bore a hole down the centre and roughly turn the outside. Leave these billets in a warm cupboard for a few months if possible. Then I take the pieces of wood, counter-bore them if necessary, glue on any pieces of brass, horn or more wood that may be required and turn and polish each piece on the lathe. Then I submerge the pieces in a tank of linseed oil and given a vacuum & pressure treatment. Then they are removed from the oil tank and left for 2 - 4 weeks for the oil to dry. Then I put them back on the lathe to polish them again. A bag needs to be cut, glued and hand stitched and the wooden stocks are then tied into the bag. Hemp has to be wound onto each moving part and then the bag is ‘seasoned’ to make it air tight. After that reeds need to be made and fitted and the pipe then needs tuning and adjusting. This process can take a lot of time. I like to play the pipe for a long time before sending it to the customer. So it can take me at least 3 - 4 years to make a pipe… if you count from when I source the wood.

What gives a bagpipe its quality ?

It is a subtle blend of good design, playability, sound, visual beauty……

How can I distinguish a good bagpipe from a bad one ?

Each piper has to find a bagpipe that suits them. Different pipers may have different tastes and criteria. So one piper may like a pipe that another piper does not like.

Has technology altered a lot the way bagpipes have been made throughout the years ?

Modern Highland pipe makers have embraced many modern techniques and materials. Plastic chanters and bags…. Synthetic drone reeds….. computer operated lathes. I use modern glues and I make and use plastic reeds.

Do you think technology can take its toll on traditional bagpipe making ?

No - I think it is fine, though I have no interest in pipes that are manufactured on computer operated lathes. My own pipes are created individually and I relish the fact that each of my bagpipes is an individual creation. There is a lot of ‘me’ in every one of my bagpipes.

Is there a traditional way and a “non traditional” way of making bagpipes…?

Each maker has his own approach to making pipes - all of these are valid, as long as the end result - the bagpipe - plays well. My approach is extremely personal. Pipemakers in previous centuries would have adopted new techniques, woods, materials and designs.

Do you know a bit of history about bagpipe making ?

This is an interesting subject and no one knows much about pipe makers from before the 1800’s. I have great respect for the pipemakers from the past, who did not have the advantages of electric power, gun drills, modern glues etc. I certainly want to know as much as I can about previous pipe making techniques and I gain useful information from handling and measuring old sets of pipes. This informs the pipes I make today.

Are all bagpipes conceived the way you do ?

Certainly not. Some of my designs of pipes take their inspiration from historical pictures or carvings. Other designs are from copying existing museum examples in the greatest detail possible. Other of my designs are a mixture of the two.

How do you think the trade of bagpipe making trade will evolve in the future ?

Highland pipe making is now mostly done in a small scale industrial manner and the competition is so fierce that the price for these pipes is unrealistically low. Supplies of African Blackwood will soon give out. For other types of pipes I imagine things will continue much the way they are now… lots of individual small scale pipe makers, making a wonderful variety of pipes.

What are the things that are commonly repaired on a set of bagpipes ?

After 15 or 20 years on a mouth blown set of pipes it may need a new bag fitting. The blowpipe non return valve may need to be replaced. New reeds may need to be made and fitted. The inside measurements may need checking and returning to the original size by re drilling. Sometimes the chanter breaks or cracks and needs repair or replacing.

What are the things that require regular upkeep ?

The bag on a mouth blown pipe needs regular seasoning with a special treatment. Bellows blown pipes may need new wax seasoning perhaps after15 years. The non return valve needs regular oiling. The hemp binding may need replacing or adjusting. The reeds may need adjusting and tuning.

IV) To go further

Who would you advise me to contact to know more about bagpipe making ?

The London Polytechnic woodwind making department? Any of the bagpipe makers that I have listed or any of the European bagpipe makers that attend Rencontre de Saint Chartier in July in central France. They may be listed at info@saintchartier.org. This is the biggest annual gathering of bagpipe makers in the world. And it takes place in France. I imagine that most pipe makers will be too busy to reply to your questionnaire in the detail that I have. But I wish you luck!

Feel free to add anything you think may be interesting for young people willing to know about your job.

Do it! You will not get rich, but the other rewards can be great.

FINAL PIECE

My approach to bagpipe making is as an artist & craftsman. Other makers may approach it in a more ‘business like’ manner. As you may have gathered from reading my answers, my focus is not on achieving maximum profit from what I do. For me it is important to have as much control as possible over the whole process from tree to finished pipes… even after I have sent away a set of my bagpipes I still feel and acknowledge a connection with the pipe and player. I make myself available to any one who has a set of my pipes and am always happy to do repairs, offer suggestions, information and comment. My pipes have always been popular and I have quite a long waiting list for all pipes, except my Leicestershire smallpipes, which I can supply much quicker. I am nearly 60 and have no plans for retirement. I always want to be available for my customers. However I do imagine that at some stage I may begin to reduce the annual number of pipes that I make and concentrate more on maintaining my existing customer’s pipes.

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