A Fine Set of Pipes

Their notes can bring joyous tears / While others may plug up their ears / But to Nate Banton what’s good / Is carving some wood / To craft a bagpipe for the years.

A Fine Set of Pipes

“Everything starts out as blocks of wood,” Nate Banton says, standing in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn workshop, where a heap of rough, rectangular wooden blocks—future bagpipes—sits on a shelf overlooking one of the lathes. They are easy to miss in Banton’s packed workshop, which is tucked into the back of a two-story brick building, behind a door peppered with white and orange graffiti. Here, for the past six years, Banton has served as New York City’s only bagpipe maker.

He shares this building with jewelry-makers and metal- and woodworkers, but has a “somewhat soundproof” tuning booth in which to test his bagpipes. The lathes are by far the largest tools in the room, but there is also a buffing wheel, a grinding wheel, a drill press and a torch for silver soldering.

The bars on the windows rattle in the breeze as Banton, who is thirty-six, explains how he puts bagpipes together. It is drafty inside the workshop, and Banton is dressed accordingly in a gray wool sweater, sturdy sneakers and a green wool hat pulled over a baseball cap. He sits, cradling his own set of smallpipes—the smallest Scottish bagpipe, cousin to the great highland pipes most people are familiar with—in his lap. “That’s what we’re aiming for,” he says, indicating the pipes, whose spindly drones and leather bag he has crafted himself.

Banton spends his days refining hunks of wood, metal and antler into the delicate curves and ridges of an instrument that has existed in some form since before the Middle Ages, and whose strident tone is irresistible to some and bizarre to others. His specialties are not the enormous, ear-splittingly loud instruments that people usually imagine when they think of Scottish bagpipes. However, the border pipes—which are larger than the smallpipes, but not as large as the highland pipes—and smallpipes he spends his days making fill an overlapping musical (and social) function.

A few years ago, Banton reckons, he couldn’t have made a living making them. But the niche market for pipes has opened to allow the smaller, softer cousins of the famous highland pipes to reemerge. In the early 1980s, the folk music resurgence slowly revived the smallpipes and border pipes, which were adapted to be the right size and volume to play in pubs. Today, they have joined the larger highland bagpipes to infuse the pub performances and parades that pipers use to keep Scottish music alive.

Bagpipes of all sorts live on the fringes of musical and public awareness, but even in this niche trade there is room for development. Soft-spoken yet determined, Banton is more than a craftsman—he is an innovator. The bagpipes Banton makes are evolving, becoming capable of playing more notes and a wider range of music under his hands.

“There are customers who want the Swiss army bagpipe,” he says “They want as many drones as possible and as many chanters as possible all to fit in one bag.” But whatever the request, Banton is an exacting craftsman. Of his pipes, he says, “I think they’re among the best being made today and possibly ever made. But I’m always trying to make them better.”

The great highland pipes are the quintessential large, loud instruments seen in parades. Like all Scottish bagpipes, they are composed of a chanter (a wooden tube drilled with holes that players cover to sound different notes), a set of drones (pipes that each play one note constantly, a form of simple accompaniment underlying the melody played by the chanter), and a bag that players fill with air and squeeze to power the instrument. The highland pipe has a mouthpiece that players blow air into, while the border pipes and smallpipes are fed by bellows.

The border pipes are, essentially, a smaller, softer version of the great highland pipe. “We’re trying to make our border pipe quiet so you can play it with fiddles and accordions and things,” says Banton. “Highland pipes … are a military instrument, they want to be played outdoors.”

Nate Banton’s apprentice Will Woodson playing a five drone set of Banton Border pipes.

Even so, the border pipes sound remains edgier and less mellow than that of the smallpipes. They play at a higher, more piercing pitch than the smallpipes, and have a conical, or trumpet-shaped, chanter, which makes their sound louder. “I used to hate the border pipes,” says Timothy Cummings, a friend of Banton who plays the highland pipes and also composes bagpipes music. But over time, he says, he has come to appreciate their “impish sneer.”

“There’s some variety within border pipes. Some can have that more sneery tone, that slightly feral quality to them,” he says. “Others can be a little sweeter. Nate tends to make sweeter, quieter border pipes.”

The smallpipes are softer and the chanter plays an octave lower in pitch than either of the others. They are Banton’s favorite member of the bagpipe family. “Smallpipes I play for simplicity,” he says. At the same time, the smallpipes’ quiet tone makes them ideal for playing in groups. “It’s very warm, and it’s a very friendly instrument,” says Banton.

All three types of bagpipes are distinguished by the harmonic interaction between the melody-playing chanter and the drones. “Most bagpipers, myself included, are just kind of obsessed with that interaction,” Banton says. This harmony is possible because the notes on a chanter are tuned to sound their best with the drones. A piano, Banton says, “is just slightly out of tune so that it can play in any key that you want, whereas a bagpipe, if tuned properly, is always in tune with one key.” Some notes on the bagpipe’s scale may be flatter or sharper than they would be on a piano, but when played against the drones they are more in tune with that one fundamental note. “It’s the simplest, most pure harmony,” Banton says.

Granted, for some listeners the unique sound of the bagpipe can be off-putting. Banton feels that this has less to do with the inherent sound of the instrument itself than with the fact that most people are never exposed to good bagpipe players.

“People pick this up as a hobby,” he says. “They get together to play in parades and sometimes drink a lot of alcohol, and the music is not the reason that they’re doing it.”

“So unfortunately a lot of times what people are hearing are very poor players playing one of the loudest instruments,” he says.

Heritage is often a motivator for many people who become involved with the bagpipes. “People ask (if) I have Scottish ancestry,” says Banton, whose mother is of Scottish descent. “They don’t ask that if you play the oboe—they don’t say, ‘Are you Romanian?’” But, he allows, “My theory is you have to be an oddball to choose an oddball instrument.”

For him, the keening call of the bagpipes was irresistible. Growing up in Maine with its proximity to heavily Scottish Nova Scotia, he became aware of the instrument at Scottish cultural festivals such as the Maine Highland Games, which he has attended since infancy. Amidst the plates of haggis and breads and cookies, shaggy highland cattle, sheepdog trials, dancing, and the athletic feats meant to mimic farm work (which included throwing rocks as far as possible and tossing hay bales up as if into a barn), strains of highland pipe competition music played over the din.

Banton says he must have heard the bagpipes for the first time when he was five or six months old. “I don’t remember the first time I heard them,” he says. “I only remember loving them.”

Though he loved the bagpipes since he was a small child, Banton did not play them until his mother bought him a practice chanter when he was in college. Banton joined a competitive highland pipe band, the Maine St. Andrews Pipes and Drums, which gave free lessons. By the time he graduated from college, he had also taken up the smallpipes.

Even as a child, Banton loved to build from wood and string.

“When I was a little kid I wanted to make wooden toys for a living. I probably should have gone to school for engineering,” Banton says. “The bagpipe is kind of like a grownup’s toy.

“I was very interested in the production of them. I started trying to make them on my own, but didn’t get very far.”

In 2001, Banton took a job as the winter caretaker for Hidden Valley Camp in Maine. In his spare time, he began hunting for an apprenticeship, contacting any bagpipe maker whose address he could lay hands on. He wrote to forty or so bagpipe makers around the world. As it happened, Seth Gallagher, maker of Irish uilleann pipes in Cold Spring, New York, needed an apprentice.

Three years later, Banton knew everything he needed about the production of bagpipes and opened his first shop in his mother-in-law’s basement in Rockaway Beach, Queens.

For Banton, making bagpipes fulfills a craving for both mechanical and artistic work. “It’s very rewarding to build something by hand, to start from nothing and then move to a finished product which is a working machine,” he says.

“You can do these types of things in other fields,” he concedes, “but I love bagpipes. I love the instrument, I love the people that play them and I love the community.”

This community has been growing as many highland pipers, frustrated with the rote world of competitive piping, opt to give border pipes and smallpipes a try—and give Banton enough business to work full time as a bagpipe maker. Each year, Banton sells a few more bagpipes than the year before, and sees a few more people at the workshops he runs. He now makes twenty five to thirty bagpipes a year, which he sells to customers all over the United States and Canada. Most sell for $2,000 to $2,500, although custom jobs can be more expensive.

Entrance to Iona Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Monday Night Sessions take place.
Entrance to Iona Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Monday Night Sessions take place.

In a pipe band, players all play exactly the same melody. “You don’t feel like a person, you feel like part of a machine,” says Banton.

As a pipe band marches down the street, the players all face straight ahead. “Playing in a pub, you’re all in a circle and you’re playing together,” Banton says. “You’re drinking your beer and looking at each other and having a musical conversation.”

The sessions Banton plays at take place every Monday evening at Iona, a bar in Brooklyn. These community sessions did not exist twenty years ago, but have slowly sprung up as more people take up the border pipes and smallpipes and connect online. “It’s easier to find each other because of the Internet, and come together from various places,” says Banton.

He feels that traditional music sessions fill a need for connection that can be particularly acute in large, urban centers like New York City. “As the world gets really big and you find yourself just one person among billions of people, you’re looking for a community to feel part of,” he says.

When Banton wishes to make a set of bagpipes, he begins by cutting the crude blocks of wood in his workshop down to a manageable size with a bandsaw. He then uses a lathe to spin the pieces at high speed, shearing them down with handheld tools or mounted blades. He hollows out the wood using a gun drill—a tool that pushes a hole through the middle, blowing the dislodged chips free with compressed air. Later, he affixes mounts—decorative accents made from various woods or animal horns—to the drones.

At the back of Banton’s workshop, the half-finished sets of pipes are arrayed like a small forest on a shelf jutting from the white-painted brick wall. He carves the sleek wands from a diverse array of woods.

Most bagpipe makers use one kind of wood. “African blackwood is hands-down the favorite around the world for turning,” says Banton. “It’s just lovely to turn—it’s very hard, it’s very attractive, it’s dark, which is always classic.”

African blackwood is the same wood from which clarinets and oboes are fashioned, and it is in danger of being depleted. “I’m trying to show people that there are other woods that work really well, also,” Banton says.

Most of the alternative woods he uses are harvested from South America, including poisonwood, snakewood and bloodwood. Also on his shelf is mesquite. “It’s not a real flashy wood,” he says, “but it’s super stable.”

And then there are the fruitwoods—osage orange, apple, plum, pear and apricot. “I try to use wood from the United States,” says Banton. But, “A lot of people want exotic woods. They’re usually darker and prettier and harder, but the fruitwoods work really well for smallpipes and border pipes.”

Later, Banton returns to the lathe to finish turning the wood, adding more complicated decorative curves to the pipes. The finished set of drones resembles a small city, crowded minarets adorned with rings and arcs. Banton then ties the drones to the bag with artificial sinew.

Many bagpipe makers don’t fashion their own bags, instead buying from specialized bagmakers. Banton does, however, and is experimenting with his technique, making bags with soft seams instead of the hard riveted keels that cut into some players’ arms. The leather he prefers is chrome tanned, making it airtight. Here again the material varies. “There are bags in Italy that are made out of goats,” says Banton. “They still have the fur on them—they look like a little goat.” In Scotland and the United States, most bags are adorned by a plain, dark velvet cover or a wool tartan.

Occasionally Banton also makes the bellows that power his smallpipes and border pipes. The other essential component of all pipes are reeds, slender wafers of wood that sit one apiece inside the drones and chanter, vibrating in the air column so quickly that the resulting resonance sounds constant. Banton makes his reeds, also unusual for a bagpipe maker. The reeds are crafted from thin wafers of cane tied into a metal tube called a staple, with a wire called the bridle wrapped about it.

Adding an extra hole and a piece of metal called a key (typically seen on instruments like oboes and clarinets) to cover it increases the notes available to a player. The key is like an extra finger, reaching where a player’s hands cannot. Banton makes his by soldering pieces of steel, shaped by a grinder and files, together with silver wire.

Most players do not use keys, but the practice has become more popular in the past few years. Banton creates keys to play oft wished for notes like a high B or low F-sharp.

Crafting every piece of a set of pipes gives makers more control and, in the case of Banton and his apprentice Will Woodson, the opportunity to create an instrument with greater technical capabilities. In addition to adding keys, Banton has invented a contrabass drone, an octave lower than the bass drones that border pipes and smallpipes typically have.

He and Woodson have also designed a drone stock (the barrel-shaped piece of wood that the drones dock into) with multiple keys. This lets a player turn one set of drones off and turn another one on during a tune. Normally, Banton says, players must finish a piece of music, stop and retune, and then begin another in a different key. “The drone stock that Will and I developed allows you to change that on the fly,” he says.

While most smallpipe drones only play one note, he designs the drones for his smallpipes to play two notes, A or B, depending on how far the pieces of the drone are pulled out (not unlike a trombone).

“There’s this whole other set of makers out there who are making these big, powerful, brash instruments,” says Woodson. But the border pipes Banton and his apprentice make strive for a sweeter, quieter sound paired with greater technical capabilities.

“We are in the midst of a tremendous amount of development,” says Woodson. “In a couple of decades people will be talking about smallpipes, border pipes and this third instrument which might be the one that we’re working on right now.”

“Our shop is definitely pushing the envelope with border pipes,” Banton says. “We’re taking a bunch of different ideas…and having them all in one place so you can do more with the instrument.”

Musicians during one Monday night session at Iona; from left, Matt Diaz, Karen Brown, and Calum Pasqua. (Photos by Emon Hassan)
Musicians during one Monday night session at Iona; from left, Matt Diaz, Karen Brown, and Calum Pasqua. (Photos by Emon Hassan)
Andrew Forbes plays bagpipes during an Iona Scottish Session in Brooklyn. (Audio by Emon Hassan.)

Iona is a narrow bar, with wooden tables and mismatched sconces emulating a candle and a gaslight affixed to its brick and plaster walls. Orange and yellow holiday lights are strung about the windows, while a blossom-shaped lamp in the corner casts a persimmon-shaded glow over the tables.

Andrew Forbes playing the Highland Bagpipes during an Iona Session.
Andrew Forbes playing the Highland Bagpipes during an Iona Session.

The pipers, flutists, fiddlers and guitarist stride in one by one, swinging instrument cases and chatting. The light from several tabletop candles flickers on their faces as they begin to play. Between them are beers and glasses of red wine, forgotten as the musicians—five of whom are bagpipers, including Banton and his apprentice—tilt toward the climax of another tune. Some close their eyes as they play; others sway slightly.

Between tunes, the players chat, catching up. Banton, who had fifteen bagpiper friends at his wedding, is asked how his baby is doing.

For six years he has been New York City’s only bagpipe maker, but soon he will be one of three in Maine. This Iona session is the second-to-last he attends before moving to Cape Elizabeth, just south of Portland. He and his wife Rachel are hoping to find a quieter, slower-paced life there.

While Banton says he won’t miss schlepping boxes and cases full of materials though the New York City subway, the Iona session is another story. “I’ll miss all the musicians. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of playing with those folks,” he says. “I hope to visit them again soon—and often.”

There’s no Scottish session where he lives in Maine, but he and Woodson, who is following him to Maine, plan to start one in Portland.

Though he won’t reveal exactly what he’s planning, Banton says, “I hope to bring a lot of innovation and excitement to the bagpiping world in the near future. But the plan is more or less to keep cranking out bagpipes.”

Charles Forsman was born in Pennsylvania in 1982. He graduated from The Center for Cartoon Studies in 2008 and is a two-time Ignatz Award-winner for his self-published minicomic, Snake Oil. Forsman’s first graphic novel will be published by Fantagraphics Books in 2013. He lives in Hancock, Massachusetts, where he runs Oily Comics.