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 the concern justified?
I wanted to switch to playing a sheepskin bag. I was concerned, though, like many pipers, that it would require too much maintenance. In Part 1, I described the process of tying in the stocks to a new sheepskin bag.
Nothing says piping like the smell of warm Airtight. Seasoning does offer some challenges, but the challenges are surmountable. When I first seasoned my new bag, I was unable to achieve total airtightness. I had kneaded the seasoning well into the skin but it would still leak air. So I kept adding seasoning. By the time I had added almost two cans of seasoning, I knew I had added too much.
I worked the excess out of the bag, using a rolling pin, and applied just a little bit at a time. I tried Andrew’s extreme seasoning method for working the seasoning into the skin and the seams, placing the bag on the floor and rocking on the bag with me knee. That proved to be the trick that got me over the top. My bag was now airtight.
Seasoning provides two functions with a hide bag. It fills the pores on the skin and in the seam to provide an airtight seal. It also acts as a hydroscopic agent to provide moisture control. To that end, in my experience, seasoning does an outstanding job. Throughout the summer, in a very humid climate, I have not had to deal with any moisture issues whatsoever on my sheepskin bag. If anything, the chanter reed has been somewhat dry.
In contrast, the hybrid bags that I have used retained moisture in the bag. There is no seasoning in a hybrid synthetic bag to mitigate moisture issues. In my case, moisture would build up on the drone reeds and they would shut off even after a short practice session.
The workaround is well known: Employ a moisture control system (MCS). I have used several different MCSs. After adjustment, most would work to keep the drone reeds dry. However, unfortunate side effect is that many MCSs will also keep the the chanter reed dry. I achieved my best results by using an MCS that employed a canister with tubes leading to the drone stocks. Moist air could get to the chanter reed and the MCS would provide dry air to the drone reeds. This is, perhaps, an important point when considering a hybrid versus a sheepskin bag. A hybrid bag does require maintenance to achieve the proper balance in moisture control. Achieving that balance may require trial and error. And when you do find the proper balance, the desiccant will need to be dried when it becomes saturated. As with all things in piping, one can refine one's technique with practice.
A sheepskin bag, in contrast, does require regular seasoning. As with achieving a balance with an MCS, one becomes better at seasoning a bag the more one does it. I have found that each time I season my bag, I am able to use less seasoning and still achieve a fully airtight bag.