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A Universe of Bagpipes White Paper:

No. II

Man vs Machine!

~ Art and Mass Production in Bagpipe Making ~


Man vs. Machine
Man vs. Machine


A Great Highland Bagpipe has fifteen major parts that are made on a lathe. The lathe is the most basic and earliest power-driven tool. Its ancestor is the potter's wheel. Its basic function is to make odd-shaped things round. This is done by spinning the workpiece and engaging it with a variety of sharp cutting tools, such as chisels, drills and reamers. Traditionally, when working relatively soft materials such as wood, many of these cutting tools are held and controlled directly by hand.

"It must be understood that in some ways, a turner is an artist. The wood is their canvas and the tools are their brushes. Whether adhering to a template, copying a specific style or design, or working with a concept or idea, the finished product is an expression of the artist within and machining abilities of the turner." Piper and Drummer Magazine, August 2002.

Today, highly sophisticated computer-controlled ("CNC") lathes can be used to produce large numbers of identical items at high speed with little or even no involvement by a human. Such machines are used to mass-produce all sorts of things quickly and cheaply. Without them, many common items, from automobiles to fishing reels, would cost a whole lot, even if made in China. Automated manufacture is thus often appropriate and beneficial both to the maker and consumer, and allows ownership of both necessary and recreational items at reasonable cost.

However, there are differences other than cost and speed between things made by machine and by man. Some such differences are fairly obvious and are the results of the ways automated machines work materials. For example, CNC machining often leaves the edges on inside and outside corners rounded, resulting in a recognizable lack of crispness in the overall look of a workpiece. Surface finishes are another area in which automated systems are limited. In making and in using most utilitarian objects such shortcomings don't matter.

But there is more serious if less obvious trouble when automated manufacturing processes are used to produce objects that traditionally involve bringing together many subtle elements and skills to create something that is intended to go beyond mere utility (especially when using materials such as wood that are not uniform). Simply stated, mass-production machines cannot create art. Bagpipe making is an art. That's either understood and acknowledged or not. If it is understood, then it should at least be considered when deciding what to buy.



A Bagpipe Maker
A CNC Lathe Operator
From a manufacturer's perspective automated manufacturing is highly seductive. Notwithstanding the fundamental shortcomings which limit the results to little beyond serviceable but undistinguished bagpipes, using modern mass-production equipment results in the possibility of capturing a large market share. A primary reason for this is of course low cost in the long run, which should translate to low prices.

The remaining problem for the mass manufacturer is mass marketing. It is in this area that the UK firm McCallum Bagpipes Ltd, currently the only firm mass-producing bagpipes, has broken new ground. Bagpipe makers have traditionally relied on little more than word-of-mouth for advertising, with perhaps a modest brochure and more recently a Web site thrown in here and there. McCallum on the other hand markets their pipes very aggressively to pipers, dealers and distributors. Their marketing, with slick brochures and advertising, dealer and piper incentives, etc. has made McCallum almost a household word after only about ten years of making pipes. It brings to mind (on a smaller scale) Honda's campaign in the 1960s marketing their then distinctly pedestrian mass-produced motorcycles, at a time when motorcycles were not very popular and few of the other makers spent more than a few dollars on advertising. It wasn't long before children on the street were calling every motorcycle a "Honda" and it wasn't long before a whole string of makers of much finer machines went belly-up (or nearly so) as Honda seized the lion's share of the market.

Another marketing tactic by Macallum, this one reminiscent of the mid-twentieth century chrome-and-tailfin glory years of the Detroit automobile, involves a huge selection of glittering trim and what is somewhat loosely called engraving. There is no doubt that McCallum is the King of Bling. The modern Great Highland Bagpipe in its familiar form, with its ivory (or more usually imitation ivory) projecting mounts, its beading and combing (decorative turnings in the wood), its metal ferrules and slides, its elaborate drone end-caps and sometimes with its deep engraving is stylistically already an impressive collection of Victorian gingerbread.
1959 DeSoto tailfins

Add to this, as options or standard items on a McCallum, metal inserts in the tops of the projecting mounts, a variety of contrasting materials, extensive (but shallow and somewhat cartoonish) machine engraving that covers most metal surfaces almost completely and last but not least gold plating, and you have a bagpipe that may not only deafen but also blind the unwary passerby.

Well, there's no accounting for taste and there's nothing really wrong with all of this, but an advantage in pumping up the glitter is that it distracts from flaws in the choice and/or quality of wood. Some might find it interesting to have the main pieces of wood in a bagpipe display differing colors and grain patterns, but traditionally that's not looked upon as a sign of quality or care. Unfortunately, mass produced wooden items, from furniture to bagpipes, tend to have poorly matched wood. Another matter concerns the seasoning time and methods employed. The rush of mass-production, coupled with the employment of lathe operators who don't have the feel for the state of a piece of wood that a bona fide bagpipe maker has, is perhaps responsible for more post-sale splitting of major parts than should happen. The good news is that McCallum is prompt and fair regarding warranty replacements, but it's of course still a bother at best.



Pipe Making at J. Dunbar
Pipe Making at McCallum
By now it may seem that our comments are elitist, that we're just rubbing salt in the wounds of people who can't afford to buy "art" and who out of necessity drive a Chevy, not a BMW, and wear a Timex, not a Rolex. But surprisingly there is not nearly the difference one might expect between the retail price of a mass-produced machine-made bagpipe and one of similar specifications made by any number of the still-kicking fine, old-line traditional makers.

To go from a serviceable factory-made violin or guitar to a good hand made one, or from a nice but mass-produced pocket knife to one by a custom maker, or from a Ford to a BMW, involves shelling out double, triple or even more times the money. Everyone knows that, but it's not the case with bagpipes. In part this is because all bagpipes have been chronically underpriced for a long time. There is little margin for a dealer or distributor in most cases (which is a reason bagpipes are not found in mainstream music stores).

The bottom line is that one can purchase a very, very nice bagpipe made by one or another of the "hand makers" for perhaps twenty or thirty percent over the price of a mass-produced pipe. The fact that fine bagpipes often last a lifetime, and in some regards get better as they age, shrinks that difference even further. Future value may also be a consideration. We don't know what a 50-year old mass-produced McCallum will be worth, as there will not be any such thing for another 40 years, but we do know that old pipes by traditional makers are sought after and often carry prices higher than equivalent new pipes.

Then there is that indefinable factor, the "art" infused into bagpipes by traditional makers. Perhaps it strays into metaphysics to say that people tend to play better on such instruments, but we think that something like that does take place, and that it's worth a lot. A fully set up Blackwood GHB with mid-range trim options by J. Dunbar Ltd. costs around $1600 US from most dealers, while a McCallum with similar specs will be about $1300. Is the Dunbar, made of carefully selected properly aged wood, turned in traditional fashion by a multi-generational family company that has been producing fine bagpipes for many decades and whose pipes have bloodlines going back to the wonderful pre-WWII Henderson pipes, worth the extra $300? It's no contest at all.

Some words regarding bagpipe-making as a whole: For the reasons stated above (among many others), we feel it is most important that there continues to be an ongoing, vibrant, wide-spread tradition of bagpipe making. While mass-produced bagpipes may have an eventual place within that tradition, we would not like to see such instruments become the only affordable choice for the majority of pipers. There is currently some danger of that visible on the horizon, and we suggest that this is something that should be considered when deciding what bagpipe to buy. It may not seem to matter in the moment, but after all, if you are a piper or are in the process of becoming one, you are part of an ancient but living tradition that includes learning, teaching, playing and making bagpipes. You will get the most from that tradition by respecting and supporting it in all of its aspects.

Several things should be understood about the preceding commentary. The object has been to inform, not to bash a particular firm; it just happens that at this time there is only one company engaged in the type of manufacturing and marketing discussed. Secondly, we are not technophobic and have no fundamental objection to any method and/or material if it yields decent instruments. In fact, we do provide pipes by McCallum to our customers on request, and usually keep a few of their more popular models in inventory. We would not sell them at all if we didn't think they were decent, usable bagpipes. But in our opinion, at this time the limitations of mass production prevent these pipes from rising to a level that is well within the reach of any of the traditional makers, and this shortcoming is far from compensated by their moderately lower prices, or by their glitter.

We will read all comments sent to us about the above, but please be aware that we may not have the time available to reply.


White Paper No. I: Buyer Beware

White Paper No. III: Pakistani "Bagpipes"

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