Have you checked you bag recently?
It's important to give your bag a thorough check for complete airtightness on a regular basis. I just made the move back to a sheepskin bag. Sheepskin has a reputation for being a tone monster. I can attest to this. After playing a sheepskin bag for a little over a month, my tone, at least to my ear, is an order of magnitude better than it's ever been.
Sheepskin, and any hide bag for that matter, must be tied in using methods that are as old as the bagpipes themselves. This can be a challenging process but it is a skill that is worth developing. Hide bags must also be seasoned, which is the first maintenance step to fix any airtightness issues in a sheepskin bag.
The process for checking a hide bag, though is similar to checking a synthetic bag:
- Check the bag overall
- Check the chanter stock
- Check the blowpipe stock and blowpipe (including the flapper valve)
- Check the drone stocks
- Check the seams, bottom, back, and front
- Check the zipper (if present)
Remove your drones and chanter. Cork all the stocks except the blowpipe. This will be the same starting point for synthetic as well as hide bags. Inflate the bag until it is tight and can accept no more air.
Let it sit.
Check it after a minute. Is it still inflated and tight? If the answer is “yes,” you are probably golden. Can it accept any more air? If the answer is “no,” you are golden. Reassemble your pipes, crack a cold one, and toast your good fortune.
In Part 1, I explained that I let the inflated bag sit for a minute. Others give the bag a strong squeeze. Still others may apply more pressure to the inflated bag by kneeling on it.
If the bag isn’t airtight and can accept more air after sitting or squeezing, adding a bit of seasoning is the first step to addressing the problem. Follow the label directions for your brand of seasoning then really work the seasoning into the bag with your fingers. After a few minutes, inflate the bag to really push the seasoning into the skin and the seams and check again for airtightness. If the bag is still not airtight, proceed to check it systematically using the steps outlined in Parts 1 and 2.
Check the point where the chanter stock is tied. Is it leaking? If it is, you need to tie it in again. It may be necessary to press some blue tack (available at hardware stores) into the seam where the tie-in grove meets the bag. It also may be necessary, as with synthetic bags, to add some bulk to your chanter stock by placing a section of bicycle tire over the tie in groove. When you tie the stock back in, really bare down on the tie in cord. If you are using a dowel underneath your feet to hold the tie-in cord, really pull hard on each wrap to get the skin seated in the tie-in groove. Make sure to smooth the skin and remove an wrinkles, crimps, or folds. As I mentioned in previous posts, these can act as channels to leak air.
Check each of the remaining stocks. Check them for leaks using the trick described in Part 1. Check each stock by hand, use a moistened palm to feel for leaks. Then, use your ear and listen for leaks. Finally, use a solution of dishwashing liquid and water (about 50/50) and paint it on to the place where the top of the collar meets the stock. If the tie in is not airtight, bite the bullet and tie it in again.
Give the stocks a twist. They should not turn in their wraps. If they do, it might be necessary to tie them in again really baring down on the tie in string. With each wrap, pull hard to get the cord seated in the tie-in groove. Again, pay attention to the blowpipe and flapper valve. Hemp the blowstick sufficiently and clean the flapper valve and make sure it seals properly.
Next, check the seams. Here is where your dishwashing liquid/water solution will come in handy. Paint the solution onto the seam and look for air bubbles. If necessary, mist the area with water, this will help to reveal leaks.
A leaking sheepskin bag is not as easy to fix as a bag made of synthetic materials. Most actual leaks come from the seam and can be remedied with more seasoning. Leaking tie-ins can be fixed with a tighter tie. Actual holes or leaks, no matter how small, and which are not stopped by more seasoning, will only get worse. They are generally unfixable and will require replacing the bag. The main point with any pipe bag—hide, sheepskin, synthetic—is that only 100% airtightness will do. Accept nothing less and you will set yourself up for great sound.