The topic of sheepskin bags comes up frequently in the Dojo Engage Facebook group. Many pipers are anxious to try sheepskin but are concerned about the maintenance that sheepskin bags require. Is this worry justified?
I was anxious about trying a sheepskin bag as well. I was concerned, like others, that it would require too much maintenance. I made the conversion though, and have lived to talk about it.
I was intrigued with the notion of playing a sheepskin bag. Back in the 1970s, I had played sheepskin. In the 1980s, I made the move to elk hide. But, after a hiatus of thirty years, I rebooted my piping career with a hybrid, gore-tex bag.
There is a certain cachet associated with playing a sheepskin bag. Sheepskin has a reputation of producing a superior tone. Sheepskin also has the reputation of facilitating better strike-ins and stops. It also has the reputation of requiring more maintenance.
So I made the leap.
Here is a blow by blow of my good, and bad, experiences in making the conversion to a sheepskin bag. Since my recent experience is with a hybrid bag, I will compare and contrast my experience with a hybrid synthetic bag with sheepskin.
Tying in the Drone and Blowpipe Stocks
Tying in a hybrid bag is relatively easy, at least with regard to the drone and blowpipe stocks. Even an inexperienced piper can have the drone and blowpipe stocks installed in a very short period of time on a hybrid bag with rubber collars. One disadvantage is that, with a hybrid bag, you are stuck with the spacing and angles that the maker has selected. For the most part, the spacing of the drone stocks has never been a problem, at least from my perspective; however, the angle of the blowpipe stock has proven to be a problem, albeit a minor one.
In contrast to a hybrid bag, tying in a sheepskin bag requires more effort. You must mark the bag, cut the holes, and then tie the stocks in with tie-in cord. I had used sheepskin bags and elk hide bags in the past, so I was not unfamiliar with the procedure.
I acquired a one-inch, hole punch to cut the holes. I also made some initial practice cuts on an old elk hide bag. The hole punch cut through the elk hide like a hot knife through butter. When I got down to the business of cutting the holes in my new sheepskin bag, I was able to do it easily. It was much easier than marking the locations and then making the cuts with a knife.
In contrast to a hybrid bag, on a sheepskin bag, or any hide bag that is tied in, you can place the drone and blowpipe stocks where you want them. You can also cant the stocks according to your wishes. I canted the drone stocks slightly to the rear by adjusting them prior to tying them in. I also canted the blowpipe stock to the rear and slightly to the right before tying it in. By the time all was said and done, my pipes were very comfortable to play. However, as I mentioned, I had some experience in tying in pipes. It does take a little practice, as I recall, I had to redo my first few efforts back in the seventies to get things just right.
From a convenience standpoint, it is easy to tie in the drone and blowpipe stocks on a hybrid bag. It does take more effort to tie in the stocks on a sheepskin bag. It is not, however, difficult, and definitely not a reason to avoid sheepskin.
Tying in the Chanter Stock
The hybrid bag with which I have experience supplied a rubber o-ring that one placed in the tie-in groove. After inserting the stock into the neck, a pipe clamp secures the stock to the neck. Since my chanter stock is relatively aquiline, it is a challenge to get an airtight seal between the hybrid bag and the chanter stock. The skin of the bag tended to fold when I tightened the pipe clamp. This created little groove in the skin where air could escape. I solved this problem by slipping a section of bicycle inner tube over the chanter stock to give it a little bulk. Then I placed the o-ring in the tie-in groove and tied the stock in using the pipe clamp. I ended up using two sections of bicycle inner tube to give the stock enough bulk to “fill” the neck of the bag. Then, after tying-in, I achieved an airtight seal.
I encountered the same problem when tying in my sheepskin bag. I had two sections of innertube stretched over the tie in groove. I was still unable to achieve an airtight seal due to the size of the neck. So, I applied a liberal amount of blue tack to the seam of the bag. After I had done this, I was able to achieve an airtight seal. The tie-in was not pretty, but it worked.
Between hybrid and sheepskin bags, I do not see, in my experience, an advantage that one holds over the other in tying in the chanter stock. Both types of bags have challenges. It would be an advantage to look at bags from different vendors, if possible, when selecting a bag to make sure that you chanter stock will fill the neck. This will make the process of tying in the chanter stock easier.