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  1. #1
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    African Blackwood: Why, and when?

    Since everything kilt-related is new and of interest to me, could someone school me as to why African Blackwood is the wood of choice for so many things associated with Scotland, Highlanders, and such, such as bagpipes, chanters, sgian duhbs, etc. To a newbie like me at first glance the wood seems a bit geographically out of place, unless there are African Blackwood trees all over northern UK and Scotland? I'd have thought native wood varieties would prevail.

    Update: Noodling around the web I might have answered my own question, since I see it's favored for machining/turning on lathes, and traditionally used for oboes, clarinets, etc. It's also very close to being on the Endangered Wood species list - which would not portend well for high-end pipe makers.
    Last edited by picker77; 28th August 18 at 03:23 PM.

  2. #2
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    In the 18th century in Scotland they were importing timber from Scandinavia just to build houses. Scotland was interconnected with all of the world via trade.

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  4. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by picker77 View Post
    why African Blackwood is the wood of choice for so many things associated with Scotland... such as bagpipes, chanters, sgian dubhs,
    About Highland Bagpipes, African Blackwood is rather recent.

    We have the price lists of all the leading 19th century Highland bagpipe makers and African Blackwood doesn't appear on them.

    For example the Alexander Glen price list from 1849 has:

    1. The great Highland or military bagpipe, made of ebony, full mounted with ivory 8 0 0

    Both ebony and ivory are imported materials.

    Their 1871 list is more in line with most 19th and early 20th century makers:

    No 1. The Great Highland Bagpipe, made of Ebony or Cocoa Wood, full mounted with Silver 30 0 0


    "Cocoa wood" or "cocus" as we call it today was an extremely popular wood in the 19th century for flutes (which were wood), clarinets, and bagpipes. Many flutemakers and pipemakers consider it the ideal tonal wood. It's too rare and expensive now.

    Cocus was long used for Highland bagpipes. The earliest documentation of a set of Highland pipes being purchased is the following:

    19 Sept 1748. Acco. The Hon Sir James McDonald to Adam Barclay.

    To a sett of Hyland Pipes of cocoawood mounted with ivory 3=3=


    Cocus is native to the Caribbean and would have become available in Britain around that time

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brya_ebenus

    The appearance of African Blackwood can be traced in, for example, the price-lists of Peter Henderson, Glasgow.

    Their 1888 list has:

    1. The Great Highland or Military Bagpipe, made of Ebony or Cocoa Wood, full mounted with Ivory 7, 8, 9, and 10 0 0

    Their 1900 list has the same, but also has an interesting footnote:

    African Black Wood, 10s extra.

    By the time we get to their 1930 list African Blackwood has climbed from the bottom of the list to near the top:

    The Great Highland Or Military Bagpipes

    Made of Ebony, Cocus Wood, or African Blackwood


    Though note African Blackwood is still listed last.

    Their 1969 list only mentions African Blackwood.

    Why the switch to African Blackwood in the first half of the 20th century? The story I've often heard is that it concerns Glasgow being a major shipping and shipbuilding city. Hundreds of old wooden ships were sailed into Glasgow to be scrapped. And what was in the bottom of these wooden ships? Literally tons of African Blackwood. It's very heavy and doesn't rot in water.

    So the story goes the pipemaker Peter Henderson got enough African Blackwood out of the bottom of one ship to last them for a century.

    Modern Highland pipers usually imagine that their vintage pipes are African Blackwood. Part of it is that they began piping at a time when African Blackwood was standard. Part of it is that they're simply not familiar with the look and feel of Ebony and Cocus. So they're tell you that their pipes are African Blackwood, even when it can be documented that the firm that made the pipes didn't offer it at that time.

    As a fluteplayer I've played hundreds of 19th century Cocus flutes, so I'm used to the look and feel of Cocus and I can spot it right away. Ebony too is quite easy to spot if you're used to the look and feel of it. Neither wood can be mistaken for African Blackwood by anybody familiar with all three woods.

    Now things have turned full circle and pipemakers are scrambling to find alternatives to African Blackwood. Why? Because it's under international ban, just like ivory is. You have to go through a tedious and expensive process to move African Blackwood across international borders. (Or you can take your chances!)

    They keep adding more and more woods to the banned list. Every time a pipemaker starts making pipes out of some tropical hardwood it's on the updated list. That happened recently to Cocobolo, an excellent wood for bagpipes that a number of makers had turned to. Now many pipemakers have turned to Mopani.

    Time for pretty pictues!

    The pipes I played for several years, c1905 pipes in Ebony, Ivory, and German Silver by R G Lawrie Glasgow



    Pipes I used to own, by Glen Edinburgh probably late 19th or early 20th century, Cocus and Ivory



    Cocus is interesting because it can be extremely dark, or rather light. Here's another Glen cocus set:



    Here's an example of a modern pipemaker exploring alternatives to African Blackwood, a set in Cocobolo by Dunbar (St Catherines, Ontario, Canada). I custom ordered this set to combine plain and blingy elements. In person the wood matches much better than shows in this photo.



    Here's a modern set made of Mopani with African Blackwood mounts by Douglas MacPherson, Scotland




    What do the earliest Highland pipes look like? Here's one of the earliest known surviving sets. It might be made from local hardwoods, or cocus.



    The earliest clear depiction of Highland pipes, in 1714. The pipes appear to be of local hardwood, or cocus, with pewter mounts. (Pewter is standard for mounts on Breton and Bulgarian bagpipes.)

    Last edited by OC Richard; 29th August 18 at 04:15 AM.
    Proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; son of the Revolution and Civil War; first Europeans on the Guyandotte

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  6. #4
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    Beautiful instruments, OC Richard. I think I prefer the look of coco bolo, maybe because over the years I've made a few handgun grips and knife scales from that wood, and I have a fondness for wood that tends to dark, flaming shades of red. Working small projects with exotic woods is an intensely interesting subject to me. I've crafted several banjo & guitar fingerboards, bridges, headstocks, and a few other small items such as Comfort Crosses for hospitalized friends from Madascar Ebony, Indian rosewood, ebony, and such. I have no experience at all with pipes other than envy for those who can play them well, but as for your fine examples, although the blackwood versions are surely wonderfully crafted, blackwood itself has too much consistent "blackness" for my eye (odd, a bit hard to explain..), almost as if it's been painted - and its contrast with ivory ring caps and such compared to the rich, fiery, swirling grain of coco bolo leaves it wanting. I guess I'm saying blackood is very pretty but sort of visually boring compared to the flaming grain of woods like coco bolo and a few others, which capture the eye immediately. Thanks for the wonderful photos, you own some beautiful pipes!

  7. #5
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    You're welcome!

    African Blackwood, at least in the thousands of bagpipes I've seen over the last 40 years, is rarely pure black, but varies from an extremely dark reddish brown to a rich deep red-brown to a mid brown.

    Old ebony pipes on the other hand are a somewhat dull pure black.

    Cocus as I mentioned has a wide range of colours, when seen in old instruments.

    For over 20 years I played a cocus flute made around 1860 in London. Every joint (head, barrel, body, foot) was stamped with the maker's name and logo, hence all original, but the foot was reddish-brown while the rest of the joints were near-black. Everyone upon seeing it thought the footjoint was aftermarket, and I had to show them the stamps.

    About these imported tropical hardwoods that Highland pipemakers used, one species of Ebony was native to southern India and would have become available in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebony

    Cocus is native to Jamaica and Cuba; Britain invaded Jamaica in 1655 and one would think that Cocus would thus become available in Britain by the late 17th century

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brya_ebenus

    African Blackwood didn't become being used for bagpipes until around 1900

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalbergia_melanoxylon

    By the way, sapwood shows up in vintage Highland bagpipes quite often.

    Here on an old set of cocus Glens you can see a stripe of sapwood on both sections of a tenor drone



    Here's another old cocus set (probably Glen) with sapwood



    Here's a (probably Glen) set with loads of sapwood; if I owned this set I would swap the tenor sections. I would guess that the pipes were originally made for one tenor to have matching a matching sapwood stripe



    What one sees, over and over in old pipes, isn't sapwood all over like that, but only on the bass drone, sometimes only on the bass drone stock.

    Quite often the sapwood stripe on the bass drone looks intentional, not accidental, because a matching stripe will show up on all three sections.

    My most recent set is this one, said to be a Lawrie set from the 1940s. Several experts have said it looks more like Henderson to them. Both tenor bottom sections have bits of sapwood on them, which has been stained in an attempt to disguise it. Why?

    Last edited by OC Richard; 29th August 18 at 04:05 AM.
    Proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; son of the Revolution and Civil War; first Europeans on the Guyandotte

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  9. #6
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    Different use, same wood. The photo is of the African Rosewood slats on the luggage rack of a 1930 Model A Ford. I removed them this spring, removed the old spar varnish, did a bit of sanding and finished them with new marine spar varnish.

    There wasn't a crack, splitting or checking in any of the four slats. That says a lot about the quality and durability of the wood. Henry Ford thought so and I agree.

  10. #7
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    Great photos, fascinating stuff. I see on wood-database.com that as of January 2017 the entire Dalbergia genus (all true rosewoods) were scheduled to be placed in the "Appendix II" category. Don't know if that actually happened. The list of "Appendix II" restricted woods is growing at an alarming rate. Pretty soon we'll have to cut down our back yard shade trees to build anything. All the major guitar makers such as Martin, Gibson, Guild, etc. long since went to Indian Rosewood instead of Brazilian, but if ALL rosewoods are now restricted life might get interesting for them again, as well as for companies like R.G. Hardie and Mccallum, although I'll bet they have a heck of a stockpile in the back room. Unfortunately, once a wood hits Appendix II on the CITES list, shipping a set of pipes outside the country of manufacture apparently becomes seriously problematic. Sounds like those who own high quality exotic wood bagpipes and other wind instruments had better hang onto them!
    Last edited by picker77; 29th August 18 at 03:51 PM.

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  12. #8
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    Many wooden flutemakers and pipemakers have been making instruments from Mopani which, from a playing standpoint, seems to be practically identical to African Blackwood and so far isn't on the list.

    Wooden flutemakers and pipemakers can sell instruments made of woods on the list (such as African Blackwood) across borders, it's just a hassle.

    A friend who is a wooden flute maker in the USA, who sells many flutes overseas, posted the following about the hoops he had to jump through. I put in boldface his mention of Murray Huggins, a highly respected Highland pipe Maker.

    "I finally have my CITES permits. This affects International shipments only.

    A photo copy of the USDA Aphis Permit must be included with the export documentation. Specific individual CITES permits issued along with the Master File must also accompany each shipment. I have to fill in the consignee, as well as the number of flutes I am sending (I have some clients who order more than one flute at a time). The Single Issue Permits are good for 6 months so in September the 10 that I have will expire if unused and I will need to order another 10 or more at $5 each.

    A record needs to be made of every International shipment and when re-ordering the Single Issue Permits I am required to report my International Sales and submit copies of the sent out Single Use Permits.

    Finally, before shipping the flutes out, I have to take them (in person) to a certified USDA/USFWS inspector who has to certify, stamp and sign the permits. For me the nearest inspector is at SeaTac Airport, an hour and a half commute away... My friend Murray Huggins in Ashland Oregon has to travel all the way to Portland and back to send his bagpipes out of the country."
    Last edited by OC Richard; 30th August 18 at 05:06 AM.
    Proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; son of the Revolution and Civil War; first Europeans on the Guyandotte

  13. #9
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    "We're from the Government and we're here to help you".

    I'd not heard about Mr. Huggins' pipes, but then I'm just beginning to try to learn where to put my fingers on a recently-acquired Hardie practice chanter. I play a lot of things that have strings on them, but couldn't resist seeing for myself if learning the pipes was as hard as advertised (it is). More of a challenge than I thought, mainly due to arthritis. If I work hard at it, in another six months maybe I'll be able to fumble through Amazing Grace, if I do it where nobody can hear me.
    Last edited by picker77; 30th August 18 at 06:55 AM.

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  15. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by picker77 View Post

    I'd not heard about Mr. Huggins' pipes
    His piping company is called Colin Kyo Bagpipes. https://ckpipes.com/ They're highly respected.

    Quote Originally Posted by picker77 View Post
    I'm just beginning to try to learn where to put my fingers on a recently-acquired Hardie practice chanter. More of a challenge than I thought, mainly due to arthritis.
    As with all instruments the learning curve is more difficult the older the beginner is.

    The handful of mature beginners I've seen become good pipers have had the following in common:

    1) fanatical dedication

    2) prior in-depth musical experience (were advanced players on other instruments)

    3) ample practice time

    4) weekly lessons with a good teacher
    Last edited by OC Richard; 30th August 18 at 04:50 PM.
    Proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; son of the Revolution and Civil War; first Europeans on the Guyandotte

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