HOPE, Maine — When Chris Pinchbeck isn’t watching his two young children, teaching an online photography course, running his property management business, training his puppy or maintaining his cut-your-own Christmas tree field, he is working on completing building plans for a new bagpipe workshop.
“In my spare time,” he said, laughing.
Pinchbeck is one of about five Scottish smallpipes makers in the United States. After 15 years of working from his home, he decided it’s time to build a real shop. To do this he purchased a piece of land on “The Corner” — the intersection of Camden and Hatchet Mountain roads, which is essentially the “downtown” of this community of about 1,300 people.
Playing the bagpipes had always been a dream of Pinchbeck’s. It wasn’t until he moved to the midcoast in the mid-’90s that he found a local bagpipe group that was willing to show him how to play. It didn’t take long for Pinchbeck — who calls himself a natural tinkerer — to try to make his own pipes.
Jump ahead 15 years and Pinchbeck has more than a dozen bagpipes — in various stages of completion — in his basement. His don’t resemble the quintessential, massive pipes played on some cliff on the coast of Scotland hundreds of years ago.
“There are over 200 kinds of bagpipes. People don’t realize that. People just think of a guy in a kilt. Every culture has a bagpipe. I don’t make highland pipes,” he said, pausing. “Yet.”
The smaller pipes don’t have the full, low dying-cow bellow of the highland pipes; their pitch is a bit higher. The Scottish smallpipes, which were developed in the 1980s, also are much, much quieter than its ancestor.
“It’s not overbearing at all. It’s meant to be played with other instruments, like a violin,” Pinchbeck said as he picked up a set of pipes and snapped it onto a belt that has what looks like fireplace bellows attached to it. This is the lungs of the little bagpipe. Unlike the highland pipes, where the musician blows into a pipe, Pinchbeck squeezes the accordionlike box with his arm to give wind to the cowhide sack.
The other major difference between the smallpipes and the highland pipes is that the wooden drones on Pinchbeck’s designs are longer in relation to the instrument. This allows him to tune the instrument in more ways. In a typical pipe set, each drone could be tuned to up to two notes maximum, Pinchbeck said. Each of his wooden drones can tune to four notes.
“It allows a lot of flexibility,” he said. “It gives you a lot more range.”
Each of his pipes takes between six months and three years to make. Mostly the timing is held up by the wood, which needs to be very dry before he attaches metal pieces to it.
The drones start as a long block of wood. That needs to dry. Then Pinchbeck carves the block into a solid cylinder. That needs to dry. Then he hollows out the middle of the cylinder to make the drone. That needs to dry. The process goes on.
“This is 15 years of intuition and reverse engineering and sheer trial and error,” he said with his pipe in his lap. “You can’t go to bagpipe-making school. It takes persistence. All bagpipe makers do it differently. It’s very personal.”
All of this happens in his home. Mostly in his basement, which is devoted to wood drying.
“It’s a blessing and a curse to work from home. I can’t turn it off. I was up until 11 last night working. Having a space down the road will be optimal.”
Pinchbeck plans to set up shop at the main intersection of Hope next winter. He wants to break ground on the project in April. So far, that corner has an apple orchard, the town office, a pub, the general store (owned by Pinchbeck’s brother-in-law), a jeweler, a cabinetmaker, a blacksmith, a photographer and a woodworker.
“This is causing a stir in town. A good stir. People are stoked we’re bringing this here and bringing vitality to the town. It could easily be an Irving station on the corner, you know? It’s a vital corner,” Pincheck said while sitting with a bagpipe in his lap and a baseball cap embroidered with the words “wicked pissah” on his head.
The town office seems pretty happy about the new addition.
“I think it will be a huge credit to the town of Hope and Hope Corner. Hope has become a real center for creativity and tradesmen and it’s attracted a lot of people to come here and try their trades and try to do their part. It’s the energy of the town,” said town administrator Jon Duke.
Fitting it to the town’s already tradesmenlike small-business feel is ideal, he said.
“All these small businesses combined are doing their part [to build up Hope]. This [bagpipe workshop] won’t have a huge impact. There won’t be a traffic light or anything like that. ” Duke said. “It’s a good thing. I get enough flak for the stop sign, never mind a traffic light.”