The pipe craftsman returns to the natural forest.

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By Morgan Holmes • Plumbing Today 2017.

Environmental depletion and resource sustainability have been critical concerns around the world for decades.

These issues were brought to light in January 2017 with the addition of African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which made piper enthusiasts I was keenly aware of this. In short, this means that African blackwood (the wood from which the majority of Great Highland bagpipes are made) is at risk and will be heavily regulated in terms of trade and transportation for the foreseeable future. do.

It will take time for pipers, pipe manufacturers and plumbing suppliers to sort out and deal with the implications of this new status (including international shipping).

One of the opportunities this situation presents to our community is to manufacture pipes from wood, sometimes referred to as “alternative wood,” especially “native wood,” which is wood grown in the area where the pipe itself is made. It’s about rethinking things.

A look at history sheds some interesting light on this issue. Plumbing historians have long recognized that Scottish bagpipes were originally made from durable indigenous woods such as hornbeam, holly, apple, boxwood, and kiburnum (the latter being his (introduced from Europe in the 16th century). ).1 These timber transfers were, in large part, a spillover effect of the expanding British Empire, which produced dense, tight-grained exotic timbers (cocas, ebony, African black) that were easily harvested. Wood, etc.) can now be obtained. An increasing number of companies in urban areas that specialize in pipe manufacturing are manufacturing lathes.2

●Nate Bunton and Ross Calderwood.

Among the few modern pipe makers who are reviving the tradition of using native wood are Nate Bunton, of Portland, Maine, and Ross Calderwood, of Balmacara, Ross-shire. Both are respected Scottish manufacturers of small pipes and border pipes. Their instruments are in high demand not only in their home country but around the world (if you’re like me, you can visit them to learn more about their pipe-making ethos and approach and experience an authentic workshop envy).


Inspired in part by the work of EJ Jones, Nate built his first American wood smallpipe in 2005 from mesquite his uncle brought from Texas.

Nate recalls: “As a woodturner, mesquite wasn’t very easy to work with because it’s a fairly fibrous wood. But I was pleasantly surprised by how good the sets sounded.” We sell mesquite sets).

•Nate Bunton Texas Mesquite and Horn.

Around the same time, Nate began building prototype border pipes from Osage oranges, which grow in southern Oklahoma and Texas. Osage oranges date back to a time when Native Americans in these areas made bows and settlers made fence posts and tool handles. Nate said the tree is “a good wood to turn” but “many people find its bright yellow and orange colors to be visually unappealing.”

Like Nate, Ross quickly began using native forests. In 1994, he was living in Cumbria, England, working on large-scale engineering projects in the area. To kill time in the evenings, Ross begins giving plumbing lessons to his friends Angus and Ronnie. He said: “When it came time for them to get a set of pipes, we decided to combine Ronnie’s hobby of woodworking and my engineering background to make the pipes ourselves. Using parts from washing machines. I also built my own lathe.”

The first set of small pipes that Ross and his friends made were made from pieces of cherry given to them by a retired joiner in the village.


As Ross’ woodworking skills improved, so did his interest in further exploring the indigenous roots of Scotland’s pipemaking heritage. He began “going through museums looking at anything related to historic plumbing.” “He was amazed at the diversity of wood in early pipes, especially those made before the 18th century,” he said.

•Ross Calderwood’s Holly and Kiburnum Mount.

For Ross, the motivation to create small pipes and border pipes from Scottish forests also comes from environmental awareness. He said: “The materials I use are primarily wood by-products that would otherwise end up in landfills or even burned. African blackwood is not environmentally friendly and I It is against the policy of

Nate also points out “sustainability.” “I didn’t set out to be a ‘native wood enthusiast,’ but I found it very enjoyable to use wood from specific trees that were harvested from forests. I like knowing what’s going on.”

Sourcing indigenous wood species

After years of making smallpipes and border pipes, Nate and Ross have used dozens of native woods. Nate estimates that so far he has made pipes from nearly 20 different species. Some, like apples and hop hornbeams, were a lasting success for him. In addition to apple and hornbeam sets, Ross also makes sets made from cherry, holly, hawthorn, and maple.

•Nate Bunton’s workshop table with hop hornbeam border pipe and apple chanter. Photo: Morgan Holmes

However, as Nate added, not every native forest he attempts ends up in the permanent catalog. One of his such woods is black locust. he said: He said: “I was curious and tried it out, but found it to be a bit soft to spin and not very appealing.”

Locavores in the strong sense of pipe manufacturers, Nate and Ross now source most of their wood locally, often relying on personal connections.

•The main applewood is ready for turning. Photo credit: Morgan Holmes

For example, Nate’s first apple tree came from his friend Brett Hamilton’s home in Vermont. he said: “The apples from Brett’s woodpile were much denser than the apples I’ve found commercially. It’s probably because the trees he felled had grown in the wild for years, and over time and weather. It is thought that this is because they have endured all kinds of natural stress.

Nate also makes many small pipes from plums harvested in his home state of Maine, and remembers Benedict Kohler making a prototype using hop hornbeam, so he “started looking into that as well.”It took a few years, but eventually his friend and Today’s plumbing work Contributor Tim Cummings gave him his first hop hornbeam piece, taken from a tree in Tim’s yard in Vermont.

Tim says, “There’s a certain fascination with knowing my chanters since they were living trees, and playing instruments that grew from the same soil that I eat and walk on.” “It is,” he said.

•Nate Bunton’s two hornbeam chanters (outside) and buckthorn chanter (inside) are all wood from Tim Cummings’ property. Photo credit: Tim Cummings

In a similar spirit, Nate’s business partner Will Woodson plans to build a set with dogwood he harvests from his family’s property in North Carolina.

Ross, on the other hand, has several sources of native wood, including trees that happened to fall in a neighbor’s yard in high winds and trees felled from the side of the road. As well, he has his eye on smaller independent wood suppliers such as his Ullapool Woodturning Center and Black Isle Woodturning. He added: ‘I also particularly like working with the Galgere Centre, a social enterprise based in the Govan area of ​​Glasgow, which started out building boats and now also has a timber supply division. ” he added.

•Ross Calder wood hornbeam with ramshorn mount.

On the decorative side, the pair also noticed that many customers want vehicles made from native deer antlers. Some of Ross’s supply comes from horns he finds while wandering the woods of Kyle of Lochalsh, but primarily his horns (and the ram’s horns) come from the Highland Horn Company. I am.

For Nate’s antler mounts, he relies on small commercial suppliers locally in New England and as far away as Alaska. “Like each piece of wood, each antler has its own unique color and grain, adding to the uniqueness of the finished pipe,” he said.


Nate’s comments about the individuality of each pipe set are part of the aesthetic pleasure he, Ross, and their customers derive from hand-cranked domestic instruments. Both manufacturers agree that the tonal differences between the various domestic timber pipes are relatively small. Ross explained, “The main factors in tone are the specific reed setup and bore size.” As a rule of thumb, Nate added: “The less dense the wood, the mellower the sound.”

But that doesn’t mean native wood produces a dull sound. Fruitwood will never have a mirror finish like African blackwood. However, Nate says: “With careful and repeated reaming of the bore, very high levels of smoothness can be achieved. For example, the tone produced by an apple chanter is not ‘mellow’ but ‘mellower’ than simply made. It just becomes. of African blackwood.

•Ross Calderwood Holly and Kibana.

“For years, Tim Cummings played a smallpipe chanter that I made out of plum, and everyone commented on its bright, big, clear tone. But no wood is softer than plum. ” Ross recounted his surprise during a lesson with Angus Mackenzie when he discovered that his yew call was actually louder than the Mackenzie call made with lignum vitae. he said: “If we had done a blind test, I don’t think anyone could have told us which was which. It certainly sounded different, but we can’t say one was better than the other.”

Beyond tone, the primary aesthetic appeal of indigenous pipes lies in their visual dimension. While polished African blackwood is fairly uniform across multiple pieces of wood, the color and grain of natural wood varies visually from tree to tree and branch to branch. “The variation in color and grain structure that we see in native forests is very fascinating,” Ross said.

Similarly, for example, Nate is attracted to the wide range of brown colors found in apples and hop hornbeams. Tim Cummings agreed. To his eyes, hop hornbeam has a “beautiful blond quality, with a ‘clean’ grain, sometimes resembling a subtle ‘frame stitch’ pattern.” Despite being a dense wood, its pale color gives it the impression of weightlessness. ”

•Nate Bunton’s Plum and Antler Smallpipe to Tim Cummings.

Regarding buckthorn, Nate said, “The character of each piece is further amplified by its almost holographic quality when polished.” Tim added: “I can’t think of a better use for a troublesome invasive species than turning it into a chanter or the perfect musical instrument. Buckthorn’s color resembles strawberry blonde or light auburn hair, with golden highlights in the grain. It is characterized by unexpected feathers.”

country maker

Although a vast ocean separates them, Nate and Ross share a sense of being part of a long tradition of independent, local pipe manufacturing. Ross recalled: “I mainly consider myself a country maker, the type of person that was in England centuries ago.”

However, the past is not the only thing the two of them are looking at. The native forests that Nate and Ross use in their work ground them in the living present of their environment, while also transmitting to the future the joy of music that comes from instruments made from native materials by local makers. It is also useful.

Learn more about Nate Bunton’s Indigenous pipes here.

Listen to Nate perform traditional Appalachian songs on a set of hop-side pipes.

Find out more about Ross Calderwood’s Indigenous pipes here.

Listen to Ross talk about his approach to pipe making (with son Callum playing fiddle tunes in the background):

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