Thursday, 7 June 2012


Thought I'd post this as a result of a very animated discussion I had with a friend and fellow musician about what constituted a hand made instrument and what didn't, and it led me to think about if there is there a line to be drawn and if so where to draw it, and also because it's of particular relevance to woodwind instruments and hence the flute.
The first thing to be considered is, of course that wind instruments as opposed to string instruments have never, except in their very earliest manifestations, been hand made. Take say, the fiddle, as the classic stringed instrument, and although no musical instrument is made using only human hands, let's not be pedantic here, and accept that in the sense that the old makers used only edge tools such as knives, planes and chisels, then an instrument made in this way is classically handmade.
Woodwinds, on the other hand, have been made using machines ( the lathe being by far the most important) since they began to made from bored pieces of wood as opposed to natural tubes. Given that, and the OED definition of handmade as "made without the use of machines" then the woodwind instruments that concern me as an Irish traditional musician are not handmade.
And yet, there is wide acceptance them as being so.
The argument I had with my friend was initially sparked by his insistence that the use of computer design programs or CNC equipment was the dividing point between what could be considered handmade and what not. Giving this some thought, I came to the conclusion that this fact in itself cannot be used to make that separation. Bringing it back to basics, if a fiddle maker uses an electric drill or bandsaw in his work, does that mean to say that the fiddle is "machine made"? I would argue that only a pedant would insist on that point. Similarly, when a flute maker uses a lathe to make the basic shape of their instrument, I believe the same principal applies. A machine is used, but the preponderance of handwork involved in the overall process still means that most reasonable people still see it as being broadly in the handmade area.
Woodwind making, it must be admitted, lends itself to the use of more than just a lathe, and most makers nowadays use such standard machine tools as milling machines, table and bandsaws etc...the sort of equipment which is found in any small woodworking or engineering shop.
Since I began as a maker, this machinery has been revolutionised by the introduction of CNC (computer numerically controlled) equipment, which although it was initially much too expensive for consideration by the vast majority of individual makers, is now becoming rapidly more accessible. We're getting onto more dangerous ground here, because if any argument could be made for allowing things made on a lathe for example, to be considered handmade, it was because the tool was being guided by the manual skill of the operator. With CNC gear this is no longer the case, so where does this leave the handmade argument?
Basically in the same place, I believe. I'd argue that as long as the processes which make the difference between a good and a poor instrument (let's say built to the same basic design and dimensions) are done by hand..and I'd also argue that they have to be...then a flute can still be considered handmade.
I'm talking here about such processes as cutting the embouchure, undercutting the finger holes, fitting and springing the keys ( called stringing, strangely by flute makers), carving the blocks, fitting the tenons, padding the keys, corking the joints...the list goes on.
In fact it might surprise you to know that even given the maximum amount of machine work even if CNC assisted, the hand processes make up the vast majority of the time taken to make a flute.
On that point alone surely, instruments made by such as myself deserve to be considered handmade?

1 comment:

  1. I think you and your friend discussed the issue from the wrong perspective. IMO, what makes an instrument handmade has little or nothing to do with the means of building the finished product. If tools and/or technology become part of the equation, anything beyond the material of the instrument and the makers bare hands disqualies the end product as being handmade. I think the heart of the matter lies in the maker. If I walk into your workshop, I guarantee the best I'll come out with is a tube with holes in it. In short, it is the dependence upon the skill and artistry of the maker that qualifies an instrument as being handmade. All other considertions are moot.