Do you find yourself constantly adjusting the snugness of the joints of your drones’ tuning pins, or the joints where the drones enter the stocks, or your chanter joint? Wouldn’t it be nice to have joints and tuning pins so well hemped that little time at all is needed to make needed minor adjustments?
A few years ago, at Piping Hot Summer Drummer, Stuart Liddel showed me how to apply hemp to any joint of a bagpipe—and have it last for many years. It takes a bit of time for each joint to do it correctly, but spending time now will save you time and headaches in the future. Here, I will share with you what I learned from one of the world’s best pipers today.
In this post, I describe how to hemp a tuning pin, in this case the upper joint of the bass drone, but this method applies to any joint. I typically use black waxed hemp, for no particular reason other than I think it looks good. But either yellow or black hemp, as long as it is WAXED, work equally well. Never, ever, use unwaxed hemp anywhere on a bagpipe. All hemp will swell with moisture, but waxed hemp is far superior to unwaxed hemp in decreasing moisture absorption. As a result, waxed hemp will assure far less swelling and expansion of a joint. For the following pictures, I used yellow hemp because it shows up better than the black against the African Blackwood tuning pin.
How to Do It
Step 1. Remove any residual hemp so that that you get down to the combing at the end of the tuning pin. Use a fine brush to remove any remaining wax or hemp buried in the combing grooves. See Figure 1.
Step 2. Apply some cobbler’s wax, or Hemp Seal, to about 15 to 20 inches of the waxed hemp. This sticky wax will help the first layer of hemp to stick really well in the combing grooves. Now, slowly and carefully, and starting at the out end of the tuning pin, wrap the hemp around the pin while applying constant tension. Put the hemp down into each of the combing grooves. This first layer may take several minutes to accomplish, but it is critical that the hemp does not “bunch” up anywhere. The cobbler’s wax is used only on the first layer. The single wind "overlap" can be seen making its way down the combing. See Figure 2.
Step 3. Next, carefully apply the hemp, always under tension, back along the tuning pin, keeping each “wind” around the pin as closely to the preceding wind as possible, with no overlaps. Now you have two layers done, the bottom layer (in the grooves of the combing) and a second layer. See Figure 3.
Step 4. Perhaps unique to this method, each layer of hemp is “rolled” between two pieces of wood. I prefer hardwood, but a soft wood such as pine or poplar also work well. The purpose of rolling the hemp is to assure that it is tightly compressed and the layers are “flat”, again without overlaps, and parallel. See Figure 4.
Step 5. Add another single layer of hemp, rolling each layer before adding another layer. I usually rub a small amount of bees wax across the layer before it’s rolled, but this added wax probably doesn’t make much difference besides looking really nice and professional. Keep adding one layer at a time, rolling between each, until the hemped joint fits snugly into the upper joint (or stock). Secure the end of the hemp with a half hitch and complete this last layer by rolling one final time. See Figure 5.
Step 6. In most cases, after rolling the final layer of hemp, the tuning pin fits the upper joint perfectly and will smoothly adjust up and down by using only a finger and thumb. However, if the joint is still a tad loose, but not so loose as to allow a complete additional layer, change to the alternate color of hemp and wrap only 3-4 “winds” around the previously applied hemp. The different color makes it obvious where the few new wraps were applied. This is especially helpful in dry weather, where a little extra hemp is needed temporarily to keep the joint snug. It is easy to remove this extra hemp when the environment demands it.
All of the underlying layers of hemp, wound carefully and evenly, and compressed by rolling, should last for several years. It takes me between 30 to 45 minutes for each joint, but the time spent on doing a good job will pay dividends for a long time. Now that I can hemp bagpipes joints just like Stuart Liddel, I'm ready to get the rest of my pipes sounding like his!