There are many great flute builders out there and just about as many different styles as there are builders. Very few, or at least of the ones that I know of build their flutes the way I do. The phrase “Handcrafted” means different things to different people. Here in Wyoming when we say “Handcrafted” we are saying that the majority of the building process is done by hand, using primarily hand tools.
The process of building a quality flute that not only looks good but also plays well has many factors to consider. The crafting process has many steps and will take some time from start to finish to complete correctly. I am constantly asked by hobbyist and other flute makers about the process I go through to make one of our custom made to order NAF flutes and what the crafting process entails. Because of my passion for this craft, I truly want to help others who have a genuine interest in building their own flute. I want you to better understand what it is that you need to do to complete one of your own.
For those people who might be interested in owning one of my flutes I want them to better understand the process that I go through and how much effort goes into crafting one of our finished flutes. A better sense of appreciation is garnered when you know how much of yourself goes into a single flute. Hopefully this too will enlighten the new flute maker a bit.
The Wood Selection
Any good flute starts out with the selection of the wood that will be used to craft it from. Now some would say this is the easy part but I have certain things that I look for when I am going to build a flute. To be truthful you can build a flute from just about any piece of wood that is long enough and thick enough. But not all wood sounds the same, not all wood looks the same, and different species have different characteristics when cutting, chiseling, planing, sanding and finishing. I think that selecting the right piece of wood for your flute is one of the most important steps you will take. It will affect everything that you do during the crafting of the flute.
Another thing to note is that wood is unlike other man made products such as metal and plastic. Wood, once alive is an ever changing canvas. Depending on altitude, humidity, heat and cold a piece of wood can change constantly. Finding well seasoned wood is not an easy thing to do. And, even though it may be well seasoned you will want to let it acclimate to your exact climate for a few weeks before you start cutting. A straight piece of wood in one part of the country becomes a twisted mess in others. So just know that all wood can change depending on the conditions in your shop area.
Old Growth Stock
For me my preference is to use woods that are native to the United States and Canada. I definitely have my favorites and in most cases a really good piece of wood is hard to find. I like to use Old Growth, first generation cut Port Orford Cedar, Alaskan Yellow Cedar, Cherry, Red Elm, Old Growth Walnut, Ironwood, Sassafras, Sycamore, Western Red Cedar, Wormy Chestnut and others. But my favorites are Old Growth Port Orford Cedar, Alaskan Yellow Cedar, and Old Growth Walnut. Note that I reference “OLD GROWTH” when I am talking these woods. This means that the source of the wood is from logs that are from first generation trees that are either very old before they are cut or from logs that were from trees that were fallen many many years ago. Most of the wood you will find today is second or third generation growth timber and wood from newer trees simply do not have the same qualities as older growth timbers. This includes lumber that comes from reclaimed sources. Some hand hewn beams are as old as 200+ years old. A lot more work goes into getting reclaimed wood ready to use but it is worth every minute you put into it.
What I like about the old growth wood, when you can find it, is that the grains are tighter, the wood is harder and denser and the working qualities are more desirable. Not to mention that old growth timber is generally more beautiful when finished and the sound of your flute will tend to be warmer. So your first hurdle will be finding a piece of old growth timber in the first place, and then finding a piece with the right grain patterns to fit your purpose.
If you are wanting to build your own flute and do not want or have the time to find a desirable piece of wood we may be able to help you. We scour the countryside and stock and sell flute blanks for the hobbyist and professional flute maker, but they are a bit more expensive to buy this way. But if you are not going to build a large quantity of flutes or you simply do not have a need for larger quantities of lumber this is a good way to start.
One of the first things you will need to decide is how you are going to build your flute. I make all of my flutes using mostly hand tools with few exceptions. In the early days I used to hand carve all my flute bores, windways, and slow air chambers, by hand and still do on few occasions. Today most of the insides of the flute are crafted using a jig of our own design and a high quality plunge router.
Although I have cut many flute blanks using technology such as CNC tooling I still prefer my own jigs and our plunge routers. CNC technology sounds great and is very effective as long as you can find the wood that will all remain consistent. Today all of our flute blanks are first cut from Old Growth roughstock (when available) using table saws, jointers and planers to achieve the desired blank dimensions. All of our flute bores are cut using either plunge router technology or CNC technology depending on the blank stock. Some builders create their flute blanks from a single piece of solid stock using a boring machine which uses a completely different process
One final note here – when you build your flute body from two separate blank halves you have the opportunity to completely work the inside of the flute and making sure you have created smooth sealed surfaces for your breath to flow across. It is especially critical to hand tune the inside of the windway area as it is to fine tune the outside of the flute. There is nothing better than a good piece of Old Growth lumber to make you smile.
What do I look for in a piece of wood?
So what do I look for in a piece of wood? Well mostly the overall quality of the board, the grain patterns, the hardness of the piece and the age of the wood is what I am selecting. I want a piece of wood that has physical qualities that when finished makes for an aesthetically pleasing flute. Some woods are very difficult to work with when you are hand carving your flute parts. Woods like Ironwood for example are very hard to work with. They are harder to cut, carve, chisel, plane, sand – just about everything you do with a piece of Ironwood will take more time and patience to complete your task.
Port Orford Cedar on the other hand is softer in every way but not too soft. Most other types of cedar in my opinion are generally too soft and in some ways can be just as difficult to work with as harder woods can be – but for different reasons. Two exceptions in my opinion are Old Growth Port Orford Cedar and Old Growth Alaskan Yellow Cedar – both of which we stock in our shop and it is available on our website. When you get your hands on a piece of Old Growth Alaskan Yellow Cedar cut with a tight vertical grain you will understand what I am talking about. These two cedars are amazing to work with, they smell heavenly in the shop and they finish like glass. Not to mention they make incredible sounding flutes.
When you are using mostly hand tools you need to take all of this into consideration as some wood species will be very difficult to achieve what you want because of the difficulties each species can create. This is also true within the same species of wood too. So choose your wood carefully.
So this is what I look for in a piece of wood before I begin. Little if any knots specifically in the area that will include the bore, windway or slow air chamber. Which is just about the whole flute. Pay special attention to where your windway will end up as you do not want to deal with knots or irregular grain patterns here if your can avoid it. Grain patterns – the straighter and tighter the grain pattern the better it will hand carve and plane. But the finished flute will not have the spectacular effects that you would have from say a piece of burled wood. That is not to say that the flute will not be a beautiful specimen when you are finished – just not the flash that other woods can offer.
When you work with woods like walnut this is especially true. Look very closely at the grain pattern through the whole length of what will be your flute. Walnut is beautiful and has awesome grain patterns but when you are carving the bore by hand for example these changes in grain patterns will require a more skilled hand so you do not end up gouging the bore or carving past the edges of the bore.
If you are planning to use a router to carve your bore and slow air chamber then maybe you will want to look for a more wild wood grain pattern as modern power tools when setup properly can carve a clean consistent bore channel very quickly. In order for you to effectively use a plunge router to bore your flutes interior components you will need to make a jig that you can use to guide your router down the length of the flute bores.
Most will agree that if they are limited on time they do not want to spend hours setting up jigs and boring the interior components of your flute project. This is why we offer the flute building enthusiast the option to purchase pre-cut, pre-bored flute blank kits from our store. Buying your flute blanks pre-bored can save you endless hours of frustration allowing you to focus on the important part of the project – creating your dream flute.
What about Exotics?
There are many flute builders who like to use exotic wood in their flute making. There are some really beautiful woods out there and most are expensive to buy and sometimes much harder to come by. Some flutes you will see may have multiple species in a single flute. This usually requires cutting and gluing up several pieces to render you your proper sized blanks. My style is not that – all of my flutes are made from a single piece of stock (native to the U.S.) and with few exceptions the only other woods you will find in one of my flutes is sometimes an inlay in the windway area. And the fetish will many times be made from a different wood like Ironwood (from the southwest) or something with a different color or tone.
I do not use exotics primarily for two reasons. One reason is that many exotics are so hard that I would have tremendous difficulty in building a flute. For example – ebony is absolutely beautiful – but it is from Africa and very very hard. Another reason is that the Native American did not have access to exotics.
Having said that there are a few exceptions in the exotic area that we do get involved in. Old Growth, River Reclaimed Honduran Mahogany is an awesome wood to build a NAF flute from. We source all of our exotics from a sources that are here in the U.S. . This way we know it has been imported to this country legally. In addition to Honduran Mahogany I sometimes get my hands on other species of wood time to time and there are occasions when I will make a fetish from one of these or do an inlay in the cutting edge area. The bottom line here is when possible choose your wood selection carefully – you will be happy you did.
Choose Your Blanks Carefully
When choosing your blank stock make sure that the wood you select is a large enough piece for your project. The minimum dimensions you will need is a piece that is no less than 3/4 inch thick, by 1 1/2 inches wide and +2 inches longer than the length you are planning your flute to be. Because I use hand tools I want a bit more room for crafting my flutes. My preferred dimensions for a blank is 7/8 of an inch thick by 1 3/4 of an inch wide by 28-30 inches long. If you purchase flute blanks from us they will almost always be in these larger dimensions. The extra thickness, widths and lengths are important and give you an extra margin for errors.
When you purchase wood for blanks you have several options. Truthfully much will depend upon the tools you have in your shop, the amount of time you have to dedicate to creating your blanks and your skill level. We sell flute blanks in four basic options. We sell solid blanks (billets) from which you can cut your halves from. We sell pre-cut flute blanks (two halves) ready for your to bore your interior parts. We sell blanks that have already been pre-bored to specific dimensions that include that basis for your Windway area. Finally depending on stock we also sell blanks that have been bored, sealed inside, the windway completed and the blanks glued up ready for your to lay out your playing holes and shape the flute. These blanks also have been voiced but you will have to cut to the correct lengths depending on the fundamental note you are seeking.
We build flutes that have bore sizes from as small as ½” up to 1 ½”. So we craft flutes with bore sizes of ½”, ¾”, ⅞”, 1”, 1 1/8″ 1 ¼” & 1 ½”. The majority of the flutes we make fall into the ¾”, ⅞” and 1” categories. The larger the bore the bigger and longer your flute will be. Most of the flutes made today have ⅞” and 1” bores as these are the most popular to work with.
The larger the bore the deeper the fundamental note or sound that the flute plays. Some bore sizes will not make flutes in certain keys. For example a 1” inch bore works really good for a lower C#, D, D# and E. Any higher or lower in the key range starts to be a bit difficult. So you more than likely will not be able to make a great sounding flute in every key or range depending on the wood and bore sizes you select.
Because NAF flutes play a single key you will more than likely end up with a collection of several bore sizes and lengths. There is really no one bore size that is better than the other – it really depends on what your personal preferences are. But if you are a beginner in building flutes I like to start people with a ⅞” bore and a 24” inch long blank.