Carl's Take: Poly vs Blackwood

Which is better? This is a common question we get here at the Dojo.

Common Question:

"I'm about to get a full set of pipes... [my local pipe shop] has reopened so I'm going to take a trip there in mid August to pick out a set. [We] like to travel and I'd like to be able to take my pipes with us without worrying too much so I'm kind of leaning towards a set of poly pipes. I want to listen up close to both blackwood and poly before making a final decision. ...Any thoughts on poly vs. blackwood?"

Our Thoughts at the Dojo:

So here's the skinny on Poly vs Blackwood. Long story short, in a blind test, it's doubtful that any top piper would be able to identify the poly pipes solely based on sound. This shouldn't really be a consideration when choosing the instrument.

The elements that effect the sound of the pipes the most are as follows (in order of magnitude largest to smallest):

  1. Instrument Maintenance and airtightness,
  2. Tonal quality of the person playing (steadiness in the sweet spot),
  3. Moisture control (Specifically the lack thereof! and especially, nothing plugging into the drone stocks; a tube trap is okay)
  4. Drone Reed calibration, [Also, Chanter reed quality/brand]
  5. Drone Reed design / Brand,
  6. Bag material (hide sounds better than a standard synthetic),
  7. Design of the drone bore (brand of pipe), [Chanter Design /brand]
  8. and lastly the material of the drones themselves. [Chanter Material]

So when deciding on a set, and especially when going to listen to them at Henderson's keep track of any differences. There is a chance the that poly sets will have cheaper synthetic bags on them while the Blackwood pipes might have hybrid bags. Likewise, sometime poly pipes have budget drone reeds and Blackwood better reeds.

There's a good analogy in road biking (something I practice and I'm a big fan of). You'll have a better riding experience on a simple/in expensive aluminium frame bike with top of the line components (gears, shifters, tires, etc) than an expensive carbon fiber state-of-the-art frame with mid level components. Same in Piping, get a decent set of pipes but spend your money getting a good reeds, bag and learning how to make them work really well.

So with any potential rumours hopefully dispelled. Here's my recommendation. If travel is something you're passionate about, poly pipes will give you the peace of mind to take them anywhere. The more you take them with you, the more you play, the more you play, the better you get and the more you will play. The more you play, the more you will enjoy the art form as well!

There is, in my opinion, one downside you should be aware of with poly pipes. They don't handle long playing sessions (60 mins +) as well as a Blackwood set. They seem to condense moisture in the drones, on the reeds and stocks, a bit faster. So if solo or band competition is of interest down the road, we generally recommend going for the Blackwood sets of pipes for that little added stability between 60 and 90 mins (after which all pipes will be soaking anyway). **don't be tempted or talked into to putting any sort of moisture control canisters, in your poly pipes drones... it's the fastest way to wreck the good sound of the pipes. And besides, most folks don't need more the 45mins of play time anyway.

Hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any questions.


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  1. Great article! I have a set of Dunbar polys with Kinnaird Evolution drone reeds and a Gannaway bag. They are great for Chicago parades in 13 degree weather and driving rain St. Patrick's day parades. Such peace of mind playing them outside where I would be very concerned about my McCallum's in that kind of weather. One of my band mates broke a stock at that 13 degree day on his blackwoods.
    I've also been asked when playing my polys by some very experienced pipers, "what kind of polys are those? They sound great!"
    I love my McCallum's too because of their great tone. I have a Gannaway hide bag and MG White Mambas after having EZ Drones when I started five years ago.
    It's not easy keeping 2 set maintained, but with the unpredictable weather we have in Chicago, I am more comfortable having the polys out in the weather.
    One thing to note, the polys are heavier than the blackwoods. At least mine are.