Following Tommy Pearston’s article last week, cultivated from the Piping Times archives, we reproduce another of his pieces on hygiene, this time on the subject of disinfecting our instrument.

This article appeared originally in the Piping Times of June 1953 and covers some misconceptions and sound advice on disinfecting our instrument.

Disinfecting bagpipes
By Thomas Pearston

Printed below is an extract from the British Medical Journal concerning disinfection of musical instruments.

Thomas Pearston.
Thomas Pearston.

Q. What is the most suitable method, free from danger of damage to materials, for the disinfection of music wind instruments? The instruments I have in mind are the bugle, trumpet, flute, piccolo and parts of bagpipes?

A. It would be interesting to know what predicament has prompted this question, not only to satisfy idle curiosity about possible epidemics in military bands, but because the resistance to disinfectants of, for instance, the tubercle bacillus is considerably greater than that of the spirochaete of syphilis.

No one method is suitable for all the instruments mentioned. Those made of silver or brass present the simplest problem, since these metals are self-sterilising in the presence of moisture unless the surface is grossly soiled, as the interior of such an instrument may well be by accumulated secretions. The instrument should therefore be thoroughly cleansed with water: for additional safety in immediate use it may be washed through with a phenolic disinfectant such as 25% Lysol®, care being taken to remove all traces of this with water before further use. Hypochlorite disinfectants cannot be used for brass instruments, since they react with this metal. A flute could best be disinfected by exposure to formaldehyde vapour.

Bagpipes present a special problem, and the common assumption that whisky vapour in the user’s breath maintains them in a sanitary condition should not be relied on. The bone mouthpiece is detachable and could be boiled. The bag itself is made of sheepskin, and might suffer from chemical treatment: on the other hand, it can be filled with boiling water after detaching the mouthpiece, and reeds, and is in fact usually so treated from time to time with a boiling sugar. solution to maintain its condition.

Dettol® is an important component of the disinfection process.
Dettol® is an important component of the disinfection process.

Below is the letter sent to the British Medical Journal concerning the above answer relating to the disinfection of the pipes:

“Dear Sir, in the ‘British Medical Journal’ of 4th October, I read with interest the answer to a correspondent’s query on how to sterilise a set of bagpipes.

“The methods suggested to disinfect the various parts of this instrument are not quite satisfactory, and I am prompted to give the following technique used by the College of Piping. As noted, the most pathogenic organism likely to be associated with the bagpipes is the tubercle bacillus, and the elimination of this organism is the principal aim.

“Ribbon, cords and cloth bag cover may be sterilised by boiling. All parts of the bagpipe are taken to pieces and the thread used to make the joints airtight is cut away and burned. Attempts to sterilise the sheepskin bag by boiling or chemical disinfectants are unsatisfactory. It should simply be burned. The leather valve in the blowpipe and all reeds are burned.

Sterilisation of the wooden parts presents a difficult problem, as immersion in severe disinfectants such as Lysol® blackens the ivory and attacks the wood. Also, immersion in fluids for any length of time may warp the wood on drying.

Contamination would probably be from flecks of sputum blown into the blow-pipe and other parts, and if disinfection is to be adequate the procedure would be to ensure that all traces of contaminating materials are completely removed by thorough washing in cold water containing 5% Dettol®. With the thorough removal of gross contamination, rapid disinfection with 5% Dettol® in methylated spirit would be possible, and immersion for five minutes would be sufficient.

After washing away the Dettol® from all parts, the instrument is dried with a clean cloth, new thread is wound round the joints, and a new valve is inserted. A new bag is tied in and new pipe reeds inserted.

If the bagpipe is bought from an unknown source, complete immersion after washing in 5% Dettol® in spirit and allowed to act for five minutes will effectively destroy the tubercle bacillus. Certain types of varnish may be affected by the spirit but re-varnishing can be done at a low cost.

The above methods have been found satisfactory and do not harm wood, cane or silver. In the case of plastic mountings and mouthpieces, these should not be immersed for longer than the five minutes sufficiency for disinfection.