Dan Nevans: there’s life in the old pipes yet – a love story

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“Mind aw they adverts for animal shelters?
The ones wi’ wee sad lookin’ dugs an’ that?
That’s wit they pipes looked like when
ah first clapped eyes on them”

Dan Nevans, to anyone who would listen, February 2017

Dan Nevans

by Dan Nevans.
Piping Today #86, 2017.

Stop reading this article. You’re not ready. Take five minutes and get a cup of tea. Put your feet up.  This is going to get weird.

I don’t really have a religious opinion. I don’t know if there is an all-powerful creator being managing the to and fro of the universe. To be honest, if there is I’d rather keep out of its way, lest interactions with the divine interfere with my piping. Saying that though, there have been a few times where I have felt “the trousers of time” funnel open and send me down one leg rather than another. One of those times happened just at the end of January during a Piping School meeting here at The National Piping Centre. 

Piping School meetings are very important as they allow us, the teaching staff, to discuss our projects with colleagues and management in a formal yet supportive environment. There is an agenda to be followed and the fruits of creativity regularly spring from it. 

At this particular meeting I had quite a lot to report as the Evening/Weekend class programme, of which I am the coordinator, had just begun its winter term, the Higher National Certificate music theory class I teach had just sat their second round of exams and I had some positive news from Hutchesons’ Grammar school where I teach on a Friday. From Hutchesons’, I was pleased to report that three of my chanter pupils were just about ready to move on to pipes but there was a small problem. 

I am particularly proud of this trio of pupils as they have done so well having been playing for under a year and had put in an almost Herculean effort. In fact, I had begun teaching them the basics of piobaireachd technique to try to slow them down a little but they achieved the level required to make a start on to pipes. The issue was physicality, none of the three were taller than 4ft 5 (a little over a metre for our metric readers). So full-sized pipes would be too difficult to manage, but the NPC had sets of pipes recently donated by the Jewish Boys’ and Girls’ Brigade and they were not being used at that point. 

I asked and received permission to set up one of the three-quarter size pipes donated to allow a smoother transition on to the full-sized pipes for these smaller than normal pipers. I am very grateful to the Principal Roddy MacLeod for letting me use this resource as it is paying dividends as we speak. I popped into our museum and started looking through boxes. I found a set of three-quarter Robertson’s with wooden mounts and only some superficial damage. These pipes required very little work to get going again – a liberal application of bore oil and poly resin to get the pipes living again and seal up cracks.

The ancient Greek’s had four types of love: “eros” – go listen to Whole lotta Rosie by AC/DC, “phileo” – platonic friendly love, “agape” – unconditional comforting and supportive love and “storge” – the love for family. I opened an old wooden pipe case in the back of The Museum of Piping and fell in agape with a set of half ivory Henderson’s in wicked, disgusting form. It seems awful to quote one’s self in the beginning of an article that’s about yourself but my opening statement is fundamentally true. Why did I bother bringing these pipes back to life? 

Someone, at some point, was caught in the glorious folds of agape with this instrument. They were a trusted friend and companion. Considering where they came from, these pipes have likely had a couple of masters already. Call me a romantic fool but I feel like our instrument takes on a spark of life. Not just a tool for releasing the artistic qualities of the player but also an aspect of humanity is taken on by the wood. 

Sometimes…

Sometimes it’s more than wood and ivory. 

Sometimes it’s alive.

That life seemed to call out to me from the dust at the bottom of that old wooden box. They called out and said: “I still have something left to give. Put me on your shoulder. I can be relied upon. I have waited for so long to sing again.” 

My disclaimer – I am going to explain to you how I got these pipes going again. I am NOT telling you to do anything. I am NOT advising you to reclaim pipes with any of the techniques I describe. If you choose to replicate any of this THAT IS YOUR CHOICE AND RESPONSIBILITY.

Now that’s taken care of, I can tell you about all the negligence and black magic I employed in getting these pipes going. 

As you can see from the picture above, the poor things were ragged and dry. In fact every ferrule, save on what became the middle tenor stock, dropped off in my hands. When dealing with pipes in a situation like this common sense says you must list the problems. Are there any cracks in the wood that would make the pipe unstable? Do you have all the pieces? Are all the projecting mounts, bushings and ferrules intact and secure? If the answer to any of these is yes then you’re going to have some work to do.  

I suppose this is a guide to restoring pipes on a budget really. You’ll have noticed by now that I’m not using any particularly specialised materials on these pipes. The next step is a little off-kilter but let me assure you I didn’t run into it without considering the danger. 

I, like many, own a deep fryer. The deep fryer runs on canola oil because it has a high boiling point and you can get your chicken wings really crispy. A lot of R&D went into that discovery. I tell you this to explain why I happened to have five gallons of canola oil in the cupboard at home. 

Why canola oil and not say, almond oil Dan?

Well, like almond oil, canola oil is a curing oil. This means that when it dries, canola oil hardens. For this kind of sensitive work, a curing oil is the best and as stated, I happened to have five gallons of it in the house. In the photo right, you’ll see that I had a freezer bag holding a bin liner filled with the oil. I submerged the pipes, every part, in this oil bath for a whole week. It was very important to me that the pipes were soaking for that long, I know I could have just run oil through the bores and a little on the outside and made do but I was INCREDIBLY PARANOID that I would crack something and then get in trouble. 

At the end of the week of waiting, I pulled the drones alone from the oil and cleaned off the excess. You do have to leave them at least overnight to settle before starting to do anything with them. I packed the bores with kitchen towels and wrapped them up quite tight in an effort to remove any greasy surface areas. 

I realised quite quickly that the reason folks don’t use canola oil for this task is because it smells really strongly. My pipe case smelled like a chip shop for two weeks till I Febreezed every inch of it. 

Because so many of the ferrules had detached from the wood, I took the opportunity to clean them off. There’s a guy on YouTube called Irish Mike who makes Big Giant Swords and I watch every episode, some are incredibly detailed and Irish Mike is pretty entertaining himself. In the show when Mike needs to remove the scale from steel, he soaks the piece overnight in a vinegar bath and this allows him to wash off the rust/scale with little to no effort.  I was desperate for a go at that. 

In the photo on the right you can see the ferrules were simply submerged in malt vinegar (I just used the bottle itself rather than decanting the whole thing) and washed the next day with cold water and kitchen towels. The other reason I used this method is because using polishing chemicals such as Brasso would not have removed the rust entirely, they would only have cleaned up around it, leaving awkward looking green stains on the metal. To attach the ferrules, I used beeswax and yellow hemp to get a tight but movable fit on the section. Once that was done, I used a very small amount of Loctite glue to secure the ferrule in place.

At this point I had essentially a set of drones ready to go. I used black waxed hemp instead of dry hemp and beeswax because I wanted to keep the look of the slide-less pins as dark as possible. Once the turning joints were ready, I hemped the bottom joints into the stocks on my solo pipes and, using the same reeds, finally got a sound out of a set of drones that were silent for decades. The tone…

My heart soared at the sound. Yes, I have had to tinker with the drone reeds to get the very best sound I can but right away from the first tone, I knew there was magic there. I am pleased to say that, at the time of writing, I have now started using the original stocks and played these pipes in competition and received extremely positive comments about them. 

So here I am, head over heels in agape with an instrument that has been much loved in the past and I like to think has found a new “forever home” with me. 

What about the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade? Good question. Well, in truth, a set of half-ivory Henderson’s from the early part of the last century is probably not the best instrument for a young person to start with. The National Piping Centre doesn’t really deal in vintage pipes so a deal has been worked out that I will purchase an equivalent instrument that would be more suitable for a young piper and donate that back to The National Piping Centre. 

I feel like I’ve been dropped a boon by the universe and I appreciate my luck in finding these pipes. I had always wanted to play with a set of vintage pipes and to have the opportunity to just get them going, regardless of playing them in competition, was a privilege. I look forward to using these pipes for many years to come.