The Bellows Conundrum

I do not understand why bellows are made the way they are. Primarily, and my samples only include bellows I personally own made by Scottish smallpipe makers (Kinnear, Garvie, and Hope; although uilleann pipe bellows seems to have the same design:, the bellows outlet tube comes out of the inner cheek of the bellows at an angle (you can see this in my first photo bellow). The problem with this angled outlet is the bag is not in front of my body, it’s on the other side. So the bellows outlet is not pointed at the bag inlet. The tube that connects this angled bellows outlet to the bag’s inlet then must curve, or kink, depending on the rigidity of the tube. Would it not be better for the bellows outlet to come out perpendicular, at least more so, to the bellows cheek? With the angled outlet, rigid tubes end up placing force, or perhaps torque is more appropriate, on the connections used to attach the tube both to the bellows outlet and bag inlet. At worse, this torque results in connections slipping loose and at best, the torque will push and pull the bellows and bag in ways that minimize this torque that in my experience results in discomfort.

Another potential problem with bellows connecting tubes is length. Too short or too long again push or pull the bellows and bag into suboptimal, uncomfortable playing positions.

Lastly, should one’s bellows connecting tube break, finding a replacement can be tedious. It is rare to find the bellows outlet and bag inlet with the same outer diameter preventing one from simply getting a piece of tubing to connect them. More often than not an adapter is necessary to couple the tube to the bag inlet. This isn’t a problem per se other than this additional connection is a friction fit between two wooden adapters (bag inlet + tubing adapter) which is less sturdy than the tubing directly overlapping onto the bag inlet without a tubing adapter. Add in various torques and the friction fit between bag inlet and a tubing adapter will slip whereas bare tubing would not. Additionally, friction fits between rigid pieces (even buffered by hemp) is yet another connection that is more likely to leak.

How is it possible that it is allowed for this situation to persist? Why must we couple the positioning of the bellows to the position of the bag with all the aforementioned constraints (angled bellows outlet, rigid tubing, etc)? The connection between bag and bellows should completely decouple their motions. My struggles with decoupling bellows from bag on my A smallpipes have kept me from playing them much and a newly acquired half-set of uilleann pipes forced my hand to really explore a permanent solution.

I already own a practice set of uilleann pipes, but I have not played them much recently because…I don’t know. The Hope bellows I have used for the practice set as been fantastic, but with only a chanter, there is not much issue finding a good position that minimizes bellows-bag forces as there aren’t many things to position . But a deal on some cocobolo Daye drones that came with a Benson chanter could not be resisted and I now find myself figuring out how a big set of uilleann drones fit into the bellows-bag equation. The set did not come with the bellows as the seller kept them for his smallpipes, which is fine as I have 4 sets of bellows. But getting one of mine to work proved to be quite the undertaking! Of the 4, the most successful adaptation of what I already had involved using the Garvie bellows as it has the least angled bellows outlet, and therefore had the straightest connection from bellows to bag. However, the unmodifiable connection adapters proved too long to avoid unwanted torques. This resulted in pain as the bellows cheek pressed into my hip bone with each stroke and my arm was taking a beating from the strap due to the odd bellows angle. The uilleann pipes come with enough things to think about (a second octave for one) and struggling with air flow should not be something to think about with any bagpipe. And pain is bad and padding it all with hand towels is a bit…”extra’.

My final solution relied on both the bellows outlet of the Hope bellows I was using with my uilleann practice set and the bag inlet both having an outer diameter of about 0.5 inches. This similarity in outer diameters could allow me to connect them with a piece of tubing without appealing to a tubing adapter. The trouble is, what sort of tubing to use to connect them? Past enquiries made by myself on bagpipe forums resulted in many suggestions that included automotive radiator hose, garden hose, reinforced vinyl tubing, and the Na Piobairi Uilleann rubber bellows connector. The former 3 in that list are quite rigid and the last gets kinked with angled bellows outlets such as on my Hope and Kinnear bellows. After some thought and a $7 gamble, I bought 10 ft. of 1/2″ I.D. unreinforced, plain black vinyl tubing. I then cut it just short of the first kink in the tube (due to how it’s packaged with twist ties) and managed to find that this length encircled my body once, and that’s exactly how I use it. How fortuitous!

Unreinforced vinyl tubing is prone to kink (as evidenced by how it comes when you buy it) so I am currently being very careful about pinching it between things, but so far it works a treat. The length gives plenty of freedom for it to move as needed without placing any stress on either bellows outlet or bag inlet. Below is a photo of it in action. You cannot see the bellows in the photo because my hands were busy, but you can see the tubing come over the main stock and bag inlet, disappear behind me and then come up from below to connect to the bag inlet.

Immediate results include better air efficiency and absolutely no discomfort. Woot! I’m not super good but here’s a video I posted to Facebook. The Daye drones are very stable across the pressure range required for playing in two octaves. The chanter is my Rogge chanter from my practice set as the Benson chanter reeds came a bit too closed at the mouth to work properly, but I will fettle them some to see if I can make these 8ish year old, mostly unplayed I believe, reeds work. Lastly, the bag neck may be a bit too long as it does kink, but I’m not fond of tying in chanter stocks so unless it becomes a problem, I will not yet cut it shorter. The bag also has a hard folded ridge on the top (not a seam, just where the leather is folded is quite hard and rigid) which is part of the problem; this ridge prevents the bag neck from opening to a cylinder shape given the minimal pressure required to operate a uilleann pipe.

I am currently attempting to unkink the remaining length of tubing by placing a piece of metal tubing through it and leaving it out in the sun. I am curious if reinforced vinyl tubing will be just as applicable, if not more so since the length being used offsets its rigidity. Now I aim to see if this method will work to make my A smallpipes more enjoyable to play. Whereas uilleann pipes have a heavy set of drones that rest on your leg, Scottish smallpipes curiously having completely unsupported drones save for the pressure in the bag to keep them aloft. This is nuts! Not only do you contend with potential bellows-bag connection torques, you have to deal with the weight of the drones constantly pulling the bag down. :rolleyes:

February 2021 Tune of the Month: The Girl of the House

I have stumbled upon yet another Irish jig that transposes quite well to the highland pipes with just a few slight modifications. This fact means you could play it along with an Irish session group if you were playing smallpipes in D (mixolydian), the little tiny chanter. It’s a fun little two parted jig!

The Girl of the House – sheet music

The Girl of the House – audio