Pipe-makers return to native woods

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By MORGAN HOLMES • Piping Today 2017.

Environmental depletion and resource sustainability have been of critical concern the world over for several decades.

These issues were brought home to pipers in January 2017, when African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) was added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix II. In a nutshell, this means that African Blackwood — the timber out of which the vast majority of Great Highland Bagpipes are crafted — is at risk and will, for the foreseeable future, be closely regulated in terms of trade and transport.

For pipers, pipe-makers and piping-supply merchants, sorting out and dealing with the implications (including international transport) of this new status will take time.

One of the opportunities this situation presents our community with is a reconsideration of making pipes out of what are sometimes termed ‘alternative woods’ and, in particular, ‘indigenous woods’ — woods grown where the pipes themselves are created. 

Turning to history sheds some interesting light on this matter, as piping historians have long recognised that Scottish bagpipes were originally turned from durable indigenous woods, such as hornbeam, holly, apple, boxwood and laburnum (the latter was introduced from Europe in the 16th century).1 The displacement of those woods is, in large part, a knock-on effect of the expanding British Empire, which made available dense, tight-grained exotic woods — such as cocus wood, ebony and African Blackwood — that could be easily turned on a lathe by a growing number of professional, urban pipe-making firms.2

•Nate Banton and Ross Calderwood.

Among the handful of pipe-makers in our present era resurrecting the tradition ofusing indigenous woods are Nate Banton (in Portland, Maine) and Ross Calderwood (in Balmacara, Ross-shire). Both men are respected makers of Scottish smallpipes and Border pipes. Their instruments are in high demand in their home countries and around the world (and, if you’re anything like me, paying a visit to these men to learn more about their pipe-making ethos and approaches will give you a serious case of workshop envy).

Getting started

Inspired, in part, by the work of E.J. Jones, in 2005 Nate made his first set of American-wood smallpipes out of mesquite, which his uncle had brought to him from Texas. 

Nate recalled: “As a wood-turner I didn’t find mesquite all that great to work with, as it is a fairly fibrous wood. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how terrific the set sounded.” (He still sells a couple of mesquite sets each year).

•Nate Banton Texas mesquite and horn.

Around the same time, Nate began making prototypes for Border pipes out of Osage orange, which grows in southern Oklahoma and Texas, and out of which Native Americans in those areas at one time fashioned bows and settlers made fence posts and tool handles. Although it is “a nicer wood to turn,” said Nate, “many people find its bright yellow and orange colouring visually unappealing.” 

Like Nate, Ross began using indigenous woods straight away. In 1994, he was living in Cumbria, England, while working on large engineering projects in the area. To pass the time in the evening, Ross began giving piping 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 wood-turning and my background in engineering to make our own. We even built our own lathe from washing machine parts.” 

The first set of smallpipes Ross and his friends made was from a piece of cherry a retired joiner in the village had given to them.

Motivation

As Ross’s wood-turning skills grew, so too did his interest in discovering more about the indigenous roots of Scotland’s pipe-making heritage. He began “going around museums having a look at anything to do with historical piping”. He said: “I was amazed at the great variety of timber in early pipes, particularly those made in the 18th century and before.” 

•Ross Calderwood’s holly with laburnum mounts.

For Ross, the motivation to create smallpipes and Border pipes out of Scottish woods also stems from an environmental sense. He said: “The materials I use are mainly timber by-products that would otherwise end up in landfill or even burned. African Blackwood isn’t ecological and it goes against my politics.”

Nate also points to “sustainability”. He said: “While I didn’t set out to be an ‘indigenous wood guy’, I found I greatly enjoy using wood from one particular tree harvested from a forest of trees. I like knowing where my woods come from.”

Sourcing indigenous woods

After so many years crafting smallpipes and Border pipes, Nate and Ross have used dozens of indigenous woods. Nate estimates he has made pipes out of nearly 20 different species. Some, like apple and hop hornbeam, have been durable successes for him. Ross also turns apple and hornbeam sets, as well as ones made of cherry, holly, hawthorn and maple.

•Nate Banton’s workshop table with hop hornbeam Border pipes and apple chanter. Photo: Morgan Holmes

As Nate added, however, not all indigenous woods he tries make it into the permanent catalogue — one such wood is black locust. He said: “I was intrigued to give it a go but I discovered it’s a bit soft for turning and not terribly attractive.”  

In a strong sense the pipe-making equivalents of locavores, Nate and Ross today draw most of their timber from their local regions, often relying on personal connections.

•Maine applewood ready for turning. Photo by Morgan Holmes

Nate’s first piece of applewood, for instance, came from his friend Brett Hamilton’s home in Vermont. He said: “The apple from Brett’s woodpile was so much denser than any I’d found commercially. That’s likely because the tree he felled had been growing wild for so many years and had survived all the natural stresses of time and weather.”

Nate has also made many smallpipes out of plum harvested in his home state of Maine and, remembering that Benedict Kohler had used hop hornbeam to make prototypes, he “began looking around for that, too.”  It took a few years, but eventually his friend and Piping Today contributor Tim Cummings gave him his first hop hornbeam piece — from a tree that had grown in Tim’s Vermont yard.

Tim said: “There is a certain charm to having known my chanters when they were living trees and to playing an instrument that grew out of the same soil that I eat from and walk on.”

•Nate Banton’s two hornbeam chanters (outside) and buckthorn chanter (inside) all wood from Tim Cummings’ property. Photo by Tim Cummings

In a similar spirit, Nate’s business partner, Will Woodson, is planning to make a set out of dogwood that he will harvest from his family’s property in North Carolina.

Ross, meanwhile, has several indigenous-wood sources, including trees that happen to blow down in neighbours’ gardens during a gale or others that have been cleared from road verges. As well, he turns to small independent timber suppliers, such as the Ullapool Woodturning Centre and Black Isle Woodturning. He added: “I also particularly like using the GalGael Centre, a social enterprise based in the Govan district of Glasgow that began with boat-building and now has a timber-supply arm.”

•Ross Calderwood hornbeam with rams horn mounts.

On the decorative side, both men also find that many customers want mounts fashioned from indigenous stag antler. Some of Ross’s supply comes from antlers he has found while rambling the forest around Kyle of Lochalsh, but he mainly draws his antler (and rams horn) from the Highland Horn Company. 

For Nate’s antler mounts, he turns to small commercial suppliers locally in New England and further afield in Alaska. He said: “Like each piece of wood, each antler has its own colouration and grain, adding further to the uniqueness of the finished pipes.”

Aesthetics

Nate’s comment about the individuality of each set of pipes is part of the aesthetic pleasure he, Ross and their customers derive from hand-turned indigenous instruments. Both makers agree that, tonally, the differences among various indigenous-wood pipes are relatively minor. Ross explained: “The main factors in tone are the particular reed set-up and the bore size.” As a rule of thumb, Nate added: “The less dense a wood is, the more mellow the sound.”

But that does not mean that indigenous woods produce a dull tone. A fruitwood will never have a mirror finish like that of African Blackwood. However, Nate said: “With careful, repeated reaming of the bores you can achieve such a high level of smoothness that the tone generated by, for example, an apple chanter won’t be ‘mellow’, just ‘mellower’ than one made of African Blackwood.

•Ross Calderwood holly with laburnum.

“For years, Tim Cummings played a smallpipes chanter I made out of plum, and everyone commented on its bright, loud, clear tone. Yet, you don’t get a much softer wood than plum.” Ross recounted his surprise when he discovered, during a lesson with Angus Mackenzie, that his yew chanter was actually louder than Mackenzie’s, which was made of lignum vitae. He said: “I reckon if you gave a blind test no one could tell you which was which. They certainly sounded different, but I wouldn’t say one was better than the other.”

Beyond tone, the main aesthetic allure of indigenous pipes lies in their visual dimension. Whereas polished African Blackwood is fairly uniform across multiple pieces of timber, the colours and grains of native woods are far more visually distinct from tree to tree, branch to branch. Ross said: “The variations in colour and grain structure you find in indigenous woods are so appealing.” 

Similarly, Nate is drawn, for instance, to the wide spectrum of browns found in apple and hop hornbeam. Tim Cummings concurred. To his eye, hop hornbeam “has a lovely blonde quality, with a ‘clean’ grain that sometimes resembles a subtle ‘flame stitch’ pattern. Despite being a dense wood, its pale colouring gives an impression of weightlessness.”

•Nate Banton plum and antler smallpipes for Tim Cummings.

About buckthorn, Nate noted that “the distinctiveness of each piece is magnified by the almost holographic character it acquires when polished.” Tim added: “I can’t think of any better use for a troublesome invasive species than to turn it into a chanter or complete instrument. Buckthorn’s colour is akin to strawberry-blonde or light-auburn hair, and the grain features golden highlights and unexpected feathering.”

Country-makers

Although a vast ocean separates them, Nate and Ross share a sense of their work as participating in a long tradition of independent local pipe-making. Ross reflected: “I mainly see myself as a country-maker, of the kind you would have had centuries ago in Britain.” 

Yet it is not only to the past that both men look. The indigenous woods Nate and Ross use in their work root them in the living present of their environments, while simultaneously helping to carry forward into the future the pleasure of music that springs from instruments crafted of native-grown materials by the hands of local makers.


Learn more about Nate Banton’s indigenous pipes: www.bantonwoodson.com

Listen to Nate play a traditional Appalachian tune on a set of his hop hornbeam pipes:
https://youtu.be/zi3EwdJJosw 

Learn more about Ross Calderwood’s indigenous pipes: www.lochalshpipes.co.uk

Hear Ross talk about his approach to pipe-making (his son Calum plays the background fiddle tune): https://youtu.be/NKCu0_DHUhc


  1. Anthony Baines, Bagpipes, Occasional Papers on Technology, 9. Rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 134; Barry W. Shears, ‘Wood, Horn and Bone: A Survey of Immigrant Bagpipes and Regional Pipe-making in Nova Scotia, 1820–1920,” in The Highland Bagpipe: Music, History, Tradition, ed. Joshua Dickson (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 47–69 (p. 50).
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  2. Shears, p. 69; Hugh Cheape, Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2008), pp. 131, 134. ↩︎