These days, Highland bagpipe makers are turning well-crafted sets from both wood and plastic. The primary difference between wood and plastic bagpipes is the material used. Plastic bagpipes are manufactured using polyoxymethylene (POM). POM is an engineering thermoplastic characterized by high stiffness, low friction, and dimensional stability. When referring to the synthetic material that they use, bagpipe makers will use the terms polyacetal, acetal (alternate spelling is acytal), or the trademarked names Polypenco® or Delrin®.
Plastic bagpipe chanters were the first parts to make of plastic, hitting the piping scene in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1960s, Jack Dunbar, a well known Canadian bagpipe maker, began to experiment with impregnated maple and extruded thermoplastics. He eventually settled on Delrin® as a material and produced one of the first commercially available sets of full plastic bagpipes in the 1970s and 80s. They were slow to catch on and, noticeably different in their sound quality when compared to the wood sets of the day. Today, a piper can find a full plastic set of quality drones offered from just about every major bagpipe maker.
Highland bagpipes have traditionally, been made of hardwoods. Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides), fruitwoods, ebony (Diospyros crassiflora), and cocus wood (Brya ebenus) were commonly used prior to the 19th century. African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) gained a foot hold in the late 19th century and became the predominant material in the 1920s. Today, African blackwood is the most popular wood while cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) is becoming more popular. All of these woods, like POM, are dense and have dimensional stability. These woods are popular not only for bagpipes but for many wind instruments as well.
POM is supplied in granulated form. Manufacturers form the granules into parts through heat and pressure. Typically, POM is injection molded or extruded. Bagpipe manufacturers typically acquire extruded POM rods and craft them into bagpipes on the lathe just as they would with African blackwood.
There are two types of POM that are used in the manufacture of bagpipes: a monopolymer and a copolymer. The copolymer POMs have high tensile strength and stiffness. Bagpipe manufacturers often use the generic name acetal if they use the copolymer form of the product. The trademarked name, Polypenco® is also used. Delrin®, a monopolymer, has, in comparison to the copolymers, higher tensile strength, stiffness, and significantly higher impact resistance.
One would be hard-pressed to identify a set of pipes as plastic at a distance. The color of the material is similar to African blackwood or ebony and the mount materials used on the ferrules and projecting mounts are identical to those used on wood sets. Close up, a set of plastic bagpipes does not have the grain that one would find in the tonewoods.
Since Delrin®, Polypenco®, and acetal are hard materials, they can be crafted in the same manner as wood. Makers use the same tooling methods on plastic pipes as they do with wood. Plastic pipes are available with full combining and a variety of mounts.
The tone that a modern plastic bagpipe produces is surprisingly good. The consensus, among pipers, though, is that wood will produce a better tone. Well-seasoned, and well-crafted wood bagpipes are, and have always been, prized by pipers. Plastic bagpipes though, are manufactured to the same specifications as their wooden counterparts, though pipers are slow to adopt them. Since the material is synthetic, no additional oiling or seasoning is required. Plastic bagpipes will have identical bores, similar combing, and similar mounts. Ultimately, the specifications to which a bagpipe is crafted will dictate the type of tone that it produces. As the specifications from specific makers are the same for the wood or plastic bagpipe, the tone will be similar in character. Different materials will introduce different tonal color to the overall sound whether the instrument is wood or plastic. Reputable makers have earned their reputations by creating well-crafted instruments. They apply the same discipline and craft to a set of plastic bagpipes as they do to those made of wood. Today's plastic chanters already have wide adoption because of their sound. Today's plastic drones produce a quality sound that would be difficult for some pipers to classify as "better" or "worse" than that produced by wood drones.
Plastic bagpipes are, generally speaking less expensive than comparable African blackwood models and present an affordable option. They are a viable alternative as a starter set since they are durable and moisture resistant. When you first start playing the bagpipe, it can be a bit clumsy. You will, without a doubt, eventually bang your bass drone against a low ceiling or doorway at some point as you get used to handling them. Quite frankly, most blackwood pipes will survive such an incident (but not without a chip or two in the wood), but it will certainly cause stress. With a plastic bagpipe, you won’t lose as much sleep and all you'll do is occasionally scuff up the ceiling. Plastic drones are durable and relatively indestructible. They are not subject to same risks of damage as wood drones.
Plastic bagpipes also make a sensible second set. Extreme outside temperatures or weather are not ideal for wood drones. There are occasions when sometimes it would be impractical to play a wooden instrument. If, for example, you had a gig in bitterly cold weather, you wouldn’t want to expose your expensive wooden instrument to the extreme temperatures and dry air (when the gradient of moisture on the inside of the stock is exposed to the dry, cold air on the outside, one runs the risk of developing a crack). Plastic bagpipes, due to their moisture resistance and wide operating temperature range, can be played in extremes of weather and temperature without engendering worries about cracks, and with minimal effect on their sound.
Many manufacturers also offer generous warranties for plastic bagpipes.
Since synthetic instruments are resistant to moisture, this can lead to excessive build up of condensing moisture inside the stocks and on the reeds. This is especially true if you are using a synthetic pipe bag. Moisture can be controlled using the same moisture control systems, or any of the variety of techniques pipers use today to control moisture buildup. Frequent swabbing of the inside bores of the drones might be needed depending on the conditions and playing time.
There are differences between wooden and plastic bagpipes, but not as many as one might assume. While the material is different, the design and construction, in comparison to wooden instruments, is virtually identical.
What is more important, and this is true of wooden instruments as well, is that a plastic bagpipe will perform well if it is well-maintained and produce a quality sound that is pleasing to the player and listener. A plastic bagpipe that has an airtight bag, properly hemped joints, a balanced chanter reed, and well-calibrated drones will be a joy to play. They will, as with a well-cared-for wooden instrument, last a lifetime.