Pipes and Chanters: To Oil or Not to Oil?

South Africa correspondent Nicholas Taitz has written regarding this important question for all pipers….

Nicholas Taitz

I was wondering what the opinions of Piping Press readers were on the oiling of pipes and/or chanters. Blackwood of course – no point oiling plastic.  Should drones be oiled, especially on the inside where they are not varnished? 

Should chanters ever be oiled, and if so, outside only, or also on the inside? 

Other woodwind ‘wet’ instruments such as clarinets are recommended to be oiled.  They are often made of African blackwood too. 

Assuming the answer is to oil, what oil is best?  The same stuff that is recommended for clarinets? 

I have oiled an old Henderson set with what guitar players call ‘lemon oil’ – it’s a Dunlop product, a plain mineral oil with a lemon smell. 

The old pipes absorbed it all in, I left them wet with it, and in the morning they had absorbed it all.  They seem to be going very well.  They had no cracks to start and still don’t, except in their ivory. 

Thoughts of those who have knowledge?  Some say ‘never oil pipes’.  Some say ‘oil pipes, but never a blackwood chanter’.  And some say ‘always oil pipes, including the blackwood chanter’.

I mentioned this because I remember Barry Donaldson quoting old Willie Sinclair as saying never to oil pipes (including chanters); this brought the issue to my mind again. 

I have also wondered about it for some time, as many other instruments made of comparable tone woods are recommended to be oiled periodically. 

  • I don’t believe in oiling Nicholas, though in the past I have cleaned drones with bore oil made by instrument manufacturers Selmer. I was always taught that heavy oils would dull a blackwood drone or chanter. Blackwood is a naturally oil-rich wood anyway (try burning some off cuts). Like you, I would be interested in what readers, and pipemakers, think. Ed.
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5 thoughts on “Pipes and Chanters: To Oil or Not to Oil?

  1. Hello Robert
    I have had several sets made of different woods. Actual ABW set does not need any oil because after a while it is full of moisture and flows exactly like plastic material.

    black ebony can play more without moisture that means it absorbs a lot of moisture and needs oiling. Other woods like laburnum (very old set) need many oil to prevent from cracking.

  2. I know that this topic has always been controversial amongst pipers, but I have my own story on oiling pipes that simply convinced me it is the thing to do.
    I found an old set of Starcks in Ohio, they had set in a garage in the Midwestern winter and summer for a few years at least. The fellow who owned them didn’t play at all. I finally convinced him to sell them to me. but just looking at the wood one could see it was very dry. I was afraid to play them for any extended time fearing the moisture would cause cracking.
    At the time I had done a lot of reading on the topic but decided to go ahead and oil them. I stripped all of the hemp off and and purchased almond oil and gave all the separate pieces(sticks and stocks) an oil bath for at least a half hour. I then stood them up on a stack of old newspapers and let them drain for about a week. The pipes came back to life and they looked much like those pipes of today without the varnish but an oil finish on them. The pipes proved to be excellent in tone and to the best of my knowledge they are still being played. But I had no trouble with any sort of cracks developing while I owned them. As mentioned I would never oil a chanter though, it gets enough oil from ones fingers.
    As a further aside. There is a fellow here in Atlanta where I live who is a chemist and a woodwind player. He has developed a bore oil specifically for woodwinds. I believe it is called Dr. Products Bore oil. But is for instruments such as ours.

  3. I was always told by Hugh McInnes to oil the pipes now and again. As he did, I use almond oil.
    My pipes have no varnish finish. If I’m out playing on a wet day, even if I dry the pipes off, within a few days the wood changes colour slightly. If I oil the wood, it changes back to the original black colour. I note what others are saying about the oil content of ABW, but if your pipes are over 100 years old I would find it hard to believe that the original oil content of the wood, at the time of harvesting, has not reduced over the years.
    If you’ve got old unvarnished drones. Wipe some almond oil on them and leave them in the box for a few days. When you go back to them some, or all of the oil will have disappeared, absorbed by the wood.
    I was alway told to oil pipes and chanters if they’ve not been played, exposed to moisture, for a long while. If you don’t, and the pipes get wet from playing, theres a good chance the wood will crack.

  4. I’ve owned only antique pipes since I have been piping and have always oiled my sets for the last 33 years (I only play or own one set at a time) I was always told by two of my piping teachers (two Gold Medalists) and three certain pipe makers, one of them the late Greig Sharp, to always oil. BW and especially ebony which my 1918 all silver HM’d Henderson bagpipe is made of is brittle and prone to drying out especially in our dry humid central heated North American climate.
    Oil oil oil. I have never heard of any professional musician playing a wooden instrument that did not take the closest interest in oiling and maintaining their delicate precious instrument as ours are. A lot of pipers I regret to say do not take proper care of their instruments and have seen a lot of cracks in their wood as a result which is due to lack of oiling compounded by lack of maintenance. It’s unfortunate that as musicians that we pipers still have to ask this question when our professional brethren in the classical musical would think it’s a no brainer. Oil it is.

  5. Hello Robert , like yourself I have always been told that it was no use oiling drones , particularly made of African blackwood , as this wood is full of oil which acts like tar , preventing wood from absorbing oil or water .
    In fact there is no difference between a set of plastic drones and a set of ABW drones as far as absorption of oil is concerned.
    This is another story now concerning drones made from Indian ebony , this wood is full of silicium and more porous , absorbs water and oil , and more liable to crack with changes of temperature , so a little oil will probably help .

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