Re-thinking Bellows

There is a joy to making, even the mistakes although frustrating, can be instructive. This summer I have been making bellows again. I have made quite a few over the years for my small pipe workshop and they have all been a bit different. The only constant thing about them is the form.

French Musette Bellow
Form of a French Musette Bellow

The bellows I am making are still in the shape of the old Musette bagpipes I saw in various bagpipe museums in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Gijon. The shape of the musette bellows intrigued me, and the designs and colours made it stand out as a work of art. It depicted the culture of the French court of the 18th century, the flamboyance, the intricacy, the colour.french bellow design

I thought to mimic it’s form but keep a Border/Northumbrian style of “austerity and plainness”; a protestant in stead of a catholic style! The shape (sosceles trapezoid) also allowed me to play around with the construction of the bellows, it is a deliberate move away from the traditional way of making NSP bellows.

The style of Northumbrian Small Pipe bellows are plain, with the natural wood being the only design and the leather as the only other material. The clack valve being either wood or ivory, and plastic with modern designs. The form of the NSP bellow has also a rounded back.

Besides the form I wanted to change the position of the clack valve; the NSP bellow has the clack valve in the front on top of the cheek, this is prone to obstructions from shirtsleeves, jumpers, arms etc. The closing of the air hole due to these obstructions made blowing problematic and it often gave a sound like a “whuppy cushion” which not the desired harmonic effect I am after!

The construction I have been playing around with this summer is to put the clack valve at the back of the bellow, out of the way of the arm and any clothing. Instead of 1 clack valve I made several clack valves in case if one got blocked others would still draw in air.

Underside of my bellows
Underside of my bellows

I had experimented with solutions to this problem before, by putting the clack valve in front next to the hinge. I have also experimented by drilling holes in the side of the clack valve so air could still be drawn into the bellow if it became blocked, but it was never enough air for it to be practicle.

A friend of mine, has a small pipe bellow from France, its form is not like the Musette, but it has its clack valve at the back of the bellow, it has only one valve and recently I had a conversation with a piper who said this design is prone to get blocked by cushions on seats etc. So I renewed my idea of having multiple clack valves. My first attempt had only 3 clack valves, but this did not allow enough air to come through; this summer I made 8 clack valves, but I think this is too many, I have a feeling 6 will be adequate, and it will be my next experiment with this system.

Another observation I have of bellows (after visiting Piping Live 2018) is that they look very heavy. I would say there are 3 types of bellows in my region: the NSP style of bellow – plain; Irish pipe style – padded, heavy and dripping in studs; and the 3rd type the French style which is mainly used in the South of UK. I am experimenting with the object of getting rid of the weight, it serves no purpose, in fact it is detriment to the playing technique. The weight of the bellows pushes the bellow down towards the hips (instead of the desired position of the lower chest), so the position of the bag will be off-kilt, the bellows dragging down the blowpipe; there is no reason for this. A lighter bellow will be kept at the desired height, by the belt and arm, blow pipe and bag; less weight pulling the bellows downward.

Topside of new bellow
Topside of my bellow

My final experiment is to play around with the decorative design on the bellows. Again, thinking of the original Musette bellow with its ornaments and colour I have been looking at decoupage techniques and thinking of ways to personalize the bellow cheeks. To move away from the plainness of the wood (however beautiful that may be) and to use images or designs to highlight the bellow’s surface. I used to cover it with fabric and it can work well especially when it matches the fabric of the bag, but why not be more creative with the design? Also, I am thinking to burn images onto the wooden bellow cheeks, to give it a added beauty.

I think once I made the decision to move away from the traditional making/design style of the Border/NSP bagpipe I feel there are possibilities for creativity. For those who feel tradition should be left alone, I say that without experimenting and breaking away from tradition we would not have the NSP pipes at all. I would argue that the NSPs are a result of breaking from tradition. Innovation is part of the tradition.

Here my bellows experiments until now:Jpeg

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