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What do things cost?: Pipe Bags

Joke’s on you pal … you just might become my next pipe bag. =P
Image: modernfarmer.com

Pipe Bags

~$200 – $400

Yes, I know it’s called the bagpipe, but funny enough … the bag is NOT a permanent part of the instrument. Think of it like the tires on your car. Sure, they’ll be on there when you first buy the vehicle, but you’re going to have to replace them eventually if you intend to “go the distance.”

This is a tough area to price out, as there are a wide variety of choices now-a-days. There are all kinds of natural skin bags, and there’s also a whole bunch of synthetic options.

Most pipers today tend to prefer some sort of synthetic bag, as there’s usually far-less maintenance involved—though this really depends. Natural skin bags are still highly favored by many pipers for comfort and tonal quality (though the tonal difference is something that’s heavily debated).

By far, the most important things to consider in a bag are comfort and airtightness. However you achieve both of these is entirely up to you.

Below, I’ll briefly run over some of the various options out there and what they cost. It’ll be up to you (and/or your instructor) as to which option is truly “best” for your needs.

Natural skin/hide bags

A bag made from cow hide. This one is made by Begg Bagpipes, a popular bag manufacturer.
Image: Pipers Dojo

Natural skin bags tend to employ either cow/elk hide, goat skin, or sheepskin. Since they’re a natural material, they’ll need to be kept airtight by occasionally using a material called “seasoning.”

Seasoning is a thick, liquid solution that’s poured inside of natural bags—though at room temperature, it’s usually solid. After heating it up, liquified seasoning soaks into the skin/hide and then solidifies again, effectively sealing the bag and making it air tight. The effects are only temporary though—every natural skin bag will need to be reseasoned from time to time. Every few months is common.

Far and away, the most frequent seasoning product used by pipers is the aptly named, Airtight.
Image: Scott Currie Music

The lower end of the price scale for natural bags tends to be cow hide. When I was a kid, elk hide also seemed to be quite popular, but I’ve not seen those around for quite some time. Along with being cheaper (around $150, give or take), cow hide tends to need seasoning less often, and it also usually has the best overall lifespan for natural bags.

The most costly option for natural bags is usually sheepskin—they seem to range $300 – $400 or so.

Begg sheepskin bags—definitely among the most popular products for players who don’t mind the maintenance of natural bags. Image: www.beggbagpipes.com

Sheepskin is the opposite of cow hide, in that it’s a much thinner material, so it tends to wear out sooner (thus needing to be replaced), and usually requires seasoning more often. Also, sheepskin has a particular reputation for needing to be played regularly in order to maintain airtightness (despite the frequent need for seasoning). Consequently it’s no wonder that many pipers shy away from sheepskin—they consider it to be an expensive hassle, and they have a point.

For some though, the advantages of sheepskin outweighs the inherent cons noted above. Sheepskin bags are remarkably efficient in absorbing moisture, which helps to prevent your reeds and pipes from getting all sorts of pesky wetness up in them. It’s among the most comfortable options out there, and most of all, sheepskin is generally regarded as having an amazing effect over the sound of the instrument.

Don’t ask me how, but one way or another, bag material DOES manage to have an effect in the quality of sound the instrument produces.

That said though, the tonal benefit of ANY bag doesn’t matter very much if there are bigger problems going on. If the bag isn’t comfortable, isn’t airtight, or causes reeds to get soaked … the player won’t have the opportunity to enjoy “tonal magic.”

Lastly, there’s goat skin. I haven’t ever played one, but from what I’ve seen and heard, goat skin serves as a pretty good balance between sheepskin and cow hide. The cost is comparable to sheep—but it’s a bit thicker, so it tends to have a far better lifespan than sheep, and requires less seasoning. The tonal qualities are also said to be comparable to that of sheep, though most folks maintain that sheep still reins supreme in that area.

Synthetic bags

A Canmore hybrid pipe bag. Canmore was one of the first manufacturers of synthetic bags, and they remain very popular. Note the included tube and bottle trap—necessary, in that bags of this sort often trap moisture in the bag.
Image: Canmore

Synthetic bags can be made from a variety of materials. Some are a thin, Gore-tex sort of fabric, while others will combine such materials with some manner of natural material (like hide) so that the bag feels thicker and more comfortable. These are called “hybrid bags.”

Synthetic bags do not require seasoning to remain air tight, which for many, is a big selling point.

So overall, synthetic bags are nearly maintenance-free in comparison to natural bags. But there’s always a “but.” =)

BUT … many synthetic bags effectively “trap” any moisture inside of the instrument, and eventually this will lead to a whole slew of problems. Pretty much all natural bags (sheep being the best among them) will semi-magically “breathe” moisture out of the bag, which greatly helps in cutting down the amount of wetness that can collect inside.

Some synthetic bags are better with moisture than others, but most tend to bring about trouble with too much trapped moisture. Because of this, usage of a synthetic pipe bag normally necessitates purchase and use of a moisture control solution of some kind.

The use of an effective moisture control solution should eliminate the moisture issue presented with synthetic bags, but:

  1. The moisture control is a whole additional item to have to buy
  2. The moisture control is a whole additional item to need maintenance.

So clearly, a synthetic bag is not entirely care-free in terms of maintenance.

Finally, there’s cost. At worst, a synthetic bag will have a comparable cost to natural bags, though many can be a fair bit cheaper. Most synthetics will cost around $200 or less.

When to “bail on the bag”

Once a bag fails to be/stay sufficiently airtight, it generally needs to be replaced—especially with synthetics.

With natural bags, seasoning the bag again should get the bag back to being air tight. If and when seasoning doesn’t seem to do the trick, well … “the time has come” … as they say. With synthetics, many people try to apply generous amounts of the thick rubber cement stuff that’s normally used for sneaker repairs. Areas such as the seam are good spots to try. This can help, but really … it’s only prolonging the inevitable.

A seam repair done on an old Canmore Gore-Tex bag. The shininess is from the use of adhesive that’s normally used on sneakers.
Image: Bob Dunsire Forums

The longevity of a bag depends upon a myriad of factors, with use being chief among them. Sensible enough really—a piper who plays for an hour or two every single day is almost certain to need a new bag well before someone who only takes their pipes out and gives them a toot for 10 minutes per week.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play regularly though—you really, REALLY should. Sure, the guy who’s playing every day might have to think about a new bag more often, but their progress as a piper will be exponentially greater than the lazy guy who still has that “new bag smell” after a whole year has past.

Most people I know will tend to get a good couple of years out of any given bag—a year at the absolute minimum. And some bag manufacturers have started offering warranty periods ranging from 2-3 years. So all-in-all, I’d think of 2 years as a good minimum period to expect for a bag’s lifespan.

As you can see, this is a big topic. As soon as possible I’ll be posting some further articles on this site, delving into bags in greater detail. In the meantime, I hope this page is a sufficient help.