Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Old Flute Economics

Hmm. Just noticed the date of the last blog! I think I'll have to change my approach to this, since the blog I've been meaning to write since then...the one about the cost of old flutes...keeps on retreating into the future. ( Can you use that expression? I read somewhere recently that there's a society somewhere who see the future as behind them and the past in front, logic being that you can't see the future, but can see the past. Makes sense to me)

I had written before about the cost and economics of the new flute, but as someone who is passionately interested in old flutes, both as a restorer and a collector myself, I really wanted to talk about the price of old flutes, vintage flutes, antique flutes, what ever you want to call them.
One thing that I have often remarked upon is how the emphasis among players shifted very quickly away from old flutes and towards the new in a short period time.
When I began making in 1979, and I was among the first, the vast, vast, majority of well known players played old flutes (I suppose to be more precise here I should say that what I have in mind when I talk about "old flutes" are generally English simple system flutes from the 19th century) By the late 1980s that situation had completely reversed, largely I believe because the quality and design of new flutes made them superior for the type of music being played.
This in itself had an effect on the price of old flutes, in a relative sense at least, as top quality new flutes began to be at least, and often more, expensive than the best old ones had been.
But there has always been something distinct about the market for old flutes, that sets it apart from the general area of antique musical instruments. Looking through the sales records of the major auction houses that have musical instrument sales, one of the most striking things, for me at any rate, is how with stringed, keyboard, and many other types of instrument, the price is controlled by such factors as age, rarity, and quality. We're all aware of the fabulous prices that Italian violins fetch, for example. Part of the reason for this, and one of the distinguishing factors between strings and woodwind is that the strings still have a musical functionality. Old Italian violins still feature largely in the hands of orchestral musicians worldwide. Since the advent of the Boehm flute the simple system flute has become very largely the concern of museums and collectors in general. It’s role in Irish traditional music and in the early music movement is a very small one overall, and as with Irish music, in early music modern copies nowdays have a bigger role to play.
Even given their bowing out to the modern flute, this does not quite explain how factors such as age, rarity, and quality seem to operate differently in this field. Antique firearms, for example have no practical modern role and yet the oldest and rarest, of the finest quality command very high prices.
Before I go any further it should be pointed out that from the buyer’s point of view there are two distinct levels of price…that of the auction and that of the dealer. A little consideration establishes that the auction price depends on the number of buyers who are interested in a particular flute, which can vary widely from day to day and place to place. The dealer on the other hand has a fixed price which is almost always higher, based on such factors as immediate availability, the availability of fully restored instruments, and often the ability to see and try the flute before buying.
The advent of the new flute has had an effect on the prices of old flutes simply because of the forces of supply and demand, as has the current economic downturn, to use a euphenism. And yet, the major element controlling the price of old flutes seems to be whether they are made by Rudall and Rose or not. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but as a generalisation it certainly works.
I would emphasize that, contrary to what most people think, the auctioneers, even those from prestigious houses selling high end instruments, have a very limited level of knowledge and expertise. So, I think that one way to look at what’s going on is to realise that a lot of people in the area (these days encouraged by internet boards), buyers, sellers, auctioneers, have latched onto the idea that flutes by Rudall and Rose ( and of course the other combinations of the firm with Carte) are the epitome of the 19th century simple system flute, and this idea is perpetuated to the exclusion of anything else. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, as long as it keeps going, it just gets bigger and bigger. One of the strongest points supporting this approach is, of course, that the flutes made by this firm are wonderful instruments, and truly deserve a central role. But the converse of this is that it diminishes the wonderful work done by many other makers, whose reputations in modern times lie in obscurity in the shadow cast by the promotion of Rudall and Rose.
In terms of the criteria mentioned above which normally determine the price of antiques, flutes by R & R certainly don’t score highly on the rarity front…with somewhere in the region of 7000 8 key flutes made between 1821 and the end of the century they are among the commonest of the type. In terms of age, all the flutes I’m talking about here are from the same period so that doesn’t really enter into it, and in terms of quality, doubtless though the quality of Rudall & Rose’s output is, it is easily matched, and often surpassed by the work of contemporaries.
Although the market for old flutes has fallen quite a bit in recent years, the large numbers of flutes made by Rudall and Rose ensures that they still come on the market frequently, and despite the fall in the market generally, appear to realise an average price of somewhere in the region of £stg2500. This will be for what we might call a standard R & R 8 keyed flute.
At the same time instruments of much greater beauty, rarity, and significance to the world of the simple system flute in general often change hands for around a third of this price.
Remarkable and confusing, but true.
I suppose one advantage, looking at it from a collectors point of view, is that it allows someone of restricted means to buy high quality instruments, and a large part of the fun of collecting anything is the satisfaction of discovering and buying something for a fraction of it’s real value.
And just to show that it’s dangerous to deal in generalities, or perhaps it really is the exception that proves the rule, consider this;
Within the last year a bog standard “German” flute was sold on ebay for $2000 and an absolutely mint Rudall, Rose & Carte 8 keyed flute in original case was sold at auction for £180…

Sunday, 7 October 2012

And on my windowsill today...

Just in passing here's a shot of the windowsill in my workshop just above my silver work bench.

From left to right, this is what was on it on the 3rd of October:
A length of 6mm stainless steel threaded bar...part of the make up of a screw cork.
A bellows from a set of Northumbrian pipes, which I made in the early 80s. The bellows alone survives.
Sticking up behind the bellows, and not very visible...a bore measuring gauge.
The strange yoke with holes, is a tensioner from the rear stay of a small sail boat ( anyone want to buy a small sail boat?)
An old boxwood folding carpenters rule, and just beside it a double pencil sharpener.
A piece of coral, picked up on the beach on Aitutaki, Cook Islands.
A Phaleanopsis orchid, that I'm trying to encourage to flower again. (seems to be working!)
A cable tie (not everything here is interesting) Sticking up is the handles of a large artery forceps which makes a great clamp for holding very small things.
The tip of what must have been a very large elephant tusk.
A Banksia nut, turned to a cylinder.
A .270 cartridge ( spent)
An engineers square.
Finally a series of books, mostly workshop notebooks, but also including:
Traditional Slow Airs of Ireland, Ó Canainn
Workshop technology Part 2, Chapman
An Index of Musical Wind-Instrument Makers, Langwill ( Ist ed. 1960)
Band Instrument Repair Manual, Brand
Harrison Horizontal Milling Machine Manual
Hardening, Tempering, and Heat Treatment, Cain
A Zeus book
Running a Milling Machine, Colvin

So there you are now...

Friday, 28 September 2012

Flutes and Economics

That adage about people overly concerned with money that suggests that they know the price of everything but the value of nothing got me thinking about the price, and the value of flutes. As someone whose profession is intimately tied up with this, it’s something that I give quite a bit of thought to, and yet find it hard to come to any logical conclusion.
There are two quite distinct areas here, new flutes, such as I make, and associated with them in the same general area of interest, old, mainly English, 8 keyed flutes.
What determines price and value in both areas is distinct.
Lets look at new flutes first.
Here the normal factors that determine the price of most handmade products have an obvious importance. Firstly objective things, which are inescapable for all makers, but will obviously vary according to location and other circumstances:
Cost of raw materials
Time taken in manufacture
Cost of manufacture ( workshop costs, insurance, purchase and replacement of tools and machinery)
Secondly ( largely) subjective things:
Quality of work
Reputation of maker
These last two not necessarily being the same thing.
Supply and demand then positions a particular makers work in the market.
(I should add here that I’m talking about fully professional makers here, that rely totally on the income generated. Hobby makers, I’d argue, are able to operate in a very different financial environment.)
The supply and demand thing is quite different, or rather was quite different for newly made flutes, for prior to the late seventies there was no supply, and the demand only began when myself and others began to provide a supply.
In my own case, the first instruments that I produced commercially were priced at £100. To try and place this figure,  which is in the currency of the time, the punt, the average industrial manufacturing wage at the time was £82 per week, and a pint would have cost you 55 pence. Lets put all this into current Euros, and the flutes cost €127, the wages were €105, and the pint 70 cent. Put another way you could get 150 pints for the price of a flute in 1979, and today you would get 178 (at  sensible rural pub prices!)
That initial £100 pricing was really a shot in the dark. It seemed a nice round figure, but I really had no idea whether it was commercially viable or not, whether people would pay it for a new flute, and whether, depending on demand of course, it would provide me with a living. It should be remembered that a good old flute could be bought for £100-200 at the time. I had bought my first Rudall and Rose in 1977 for £150, and that was a dealer’s price…they could be had considerably cheaper at auctions. It pays to remember, though, that there was no one at the time available to restore a flute, unless you did it yourself.
Eventually, with more and more makers coming into the market throughout the 1980s, individual makers began to specialise, supplying particular markets with an increasing range of what was now widely known as the “Irish flute”.
The interesting thing to note here is that broadly speaking new flutes are basically the same price in comparison to the cost of living as they were when they first came on the market.
Where does this leave makers who are trying to make a living from flute making?
The fact that there are many many professional makers out there ( I proposed around 60 at the level I’m talking about in the second edition of the Flute Player’s Handbook, a couple of years ago) means that it is possible to make a living, and from what I know of other makers, I’d propose that professionals, no matter where they’re living, or what markets they are selling into, are making incomes in the same ballpark. This is despite levels of production, price to the consumer, waiting lists etc.
On the subject of waiting lists, one thing many people don’t realise is that the length of a waiting list is not necessarily related to demand, but rather is more closely related to the speed at which a particular maker works. Thus (and this statistic is quoted from a real situation] a five year waiting list may be the result of one maker producing five flutes a year against an order backlog of twenty five orders, where as a two year wait may be the result of another makers yearly production of twenty instruments, and an order backlog of forty.
I think that’s enough for now. I’ll get onto the pricing of old flutes in the next post.
Here’s something to think about before I leave. In late 19th century England, a top quality 8 keyed flute cost somewhere in the region of £12. If this flute was bought in, as very many were at this stage when the Boehm flute had become dominant, the maker would have received around £4. A middle class wage was in the range of £50-£150, so for someone in the lower eschelons a good flute (remembering that the 8 key flute was just about obsolete at that time ] would cost you a quarter of your yearly income.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

On the one hand.....

Bit of an accident last Friday is keeping me out of the workshop so I have a bit of time on my hands (or rather hand) resulting in this and maybe one or two other rather long posts. 
This is something that I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time.
I’m sure that, like me, many of you read and sometimes contribute to the on-line boards and discussion lists relating to traditional flute/Irish music.
            For those from outside Ireland in particular, this has become one of the main ways in which they keep in contact with the Irish music community in general, and in their own area of enthusiasm in particular.
            To those who have come to the music in the digital era, it can be hard to explain just how different it was back in the day, when the cassette recorder was considered to be the cutting edge of technology.
            When my own interest began to develop in the early 1970s the only sources of tunes or the way of playing them were a couple of dozen LP recordings, the players themselves, and if you were lucky what you or your friends recorded on the new fangled cassettes. There were also a few printed collections, but abc notation was unheard of, so this source was barred to anyone who wasn’t musically literate, and even then one still needed to hear the notes played by a traditional player to make any progress.
            Classes and formal tuition were scarce in general and unavailable in many areas. It required serious effort to try to learn traditional music.
            Of course this was not all bad. There’s an expression in Irish - cad is anamh is iontach- which simply means what’s rare is wonderful, which I think is appropriate here. Nowdays one can access even the most obscure recordings - even video recordings -  with a few clicks of the mouse, and there’s an element, for me anyway, of over exposure taking some of the good out of it. Eating an exotic food every day soon reduces it to the level of the mundane. I suppose that part of the attraction for me, and I’d suggest many others, was the esoteric and non-commercial nature of the music scene in those days.
            I have to confess to being partly resposible for this whole internet/traditional music thing. When I was a PhD student at UCC in the early 90s myself and one of my colleagues, Paul McGettrick set up the Irtrad-L discussion list which was the first of it’s kind, and amazingly this year has it’s 20th anniversary.
            Since then of course, there are such resources almost without number. But the question that has to be asked is...what effect has this had on the traditional music community?
One the major effects is that this community is now more than ever an international one, not that this is totally due to the internet. Since the first days of Irish emmigration Irish music has been international, but with the advent of the internet, this internationality has moved far beyond the original limits of the Irish diaspora, which were largely the USA and UK. Recently, for example, I have sold instruments to Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Belarus, and the Ukraine, something which definitely would not have happened in pre-internet  days.
However despite all this internationalism, is the internet really leading to a more homogenous traditional music culture?
One major factor that has become apparent to me, speaking as someone who is familiar with the Irish traditional music community both in Ireland and abroad, is that those outside Ireland are much more likely to be involved in the internet music community than those Irish born and still living in Ireland, despite the fact that the Irish are major participants in every other aspect of digital communications and social networks, twitter etc.
This of course, is one of the results of the spread of the popularity of Irish music abroad, and that popularity has,  for a considerable number of years spread far beyond the Irish diaspora, something which in some part has been due to the influence of the internet.
Within a comparitively short period of time, we have moved from a situation where Irish traditional music was the concern of a minority within Ireland, ( lets include the diaspora for accuracy) to the current state of affairs where that same group now find themselves as a minority in a world wide community.
How this situation is now presenting via the online media is essentially what concerns me in this post.
Having been, as I’ve pointed out, there from the very start, and having been at times a keen enough participant in the whole online area, I find that recently I’ve become simply a lurker, with little interest in active participation.
There are several reasons for this.
One of course, is lack of time, but if I were honest with myself and my readers here, I’d have to admit that in general the discussions and exchanges that take place among the online Irish music community are of little to interest me, and the reason I have no interest is that they largely deal with situations, topics, and areas of interest that have no relevance to me as a practising musician and instrument maker living in Ireland.
What worries me, is that very many of the participants appear to be involved for just that very reason...that in some way they’re now, even if vicariously part of the Irish traditional community that those of us living in Ireland (the heartland of it, I think you’d have to admit) are part of.
A board that perhaps many of you are probably familiar with, and one which I’ve been a member of for some years is the Chiff and Fipple forum.
This forum currently has over 10,000 members so to the uninitiated it can appear that they’re reading the distilled wisdom of a group of this size. Like almost every other online forum without exception though, the regular posters are a tiny percentage of the overall membership...not the fault of this or any other forum, of course.
What’s more worrying, and what has encouraged me into almost complete lurker mode on this and other forums, is that the opinions expressed, taken in total, reflect something completely different to those that I know are held by the traditional flute community in Ireland, on just about every thread discussed.
I’d argue that as a group, flute enthusiasts based in Ireland hold radically different views on all the common issues that are discussed from day to day on such forums, such as favourite recordings, players, styles, makers etc. This is not to say of course that such opinions are invalid in any way...except as being representative of Irish opinion, which is presumably what the majority of the forum members are keen to find out.
Of course such forums cannot and should not be restricted as to membership, something that would quickly lead to elitism.
But perhaps more people should be aware that many traditional Irish music forums are dominated by opinion from outside what might be considered the core group.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Catching up.

Well, what with travelling and teaching etc., I haven’t posted in quite a while, so this is what I’ve been up to.
Travelled to St. John’s Newfoundland to play at the Feile Seamus Creagh, and spent a great few days there. The connection is that Seamus spent about 5 years living in St. John’s from 1987 to 1992, and apart from knowing Seamus well from when I arrived in Cork in 1976, I recorded a CD with him and Con Fada Ó Drisceoil ,  “It’s No Secret” in 2001.  I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Newfoundland a good few times since my initial visit in 2003, and have made good friends there among the music ( and angling ) community.
Initiailly I was asked up to play at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, since I was “next door” at the Boxwood flute camp that year, and I think this year was my eighth or ninth visit... and hopefully not the last.

Directly off the plane from St. John’s and onto the train to Westport to do my annual  teaching gig at Scoil Acla, where I meet up with Harry Bradley and Liam O’Connor again, my  co-conspirators from Bordeaux. No burning pianos this time, it’s too wet!
Scoil Acla, held every year on Achill Island Co. Mayo, is a great summer school, and is going from strength to strength. This year the teachers were myself, Harry Bradley, Peter Molloy ( yes, son of that Molloy!), Emer Mayock, and Maureen McGrattan.

Shortly after I come back from Achill, sad news of the death of Leslie Bingham, one the major figures in the revival of traditional flute playing in the north of Ireland.
When I was just begining to become aware of the flute in traditional music, Leslie was one of the few players that were around in Belfast, constantly encouraging to young players, and in the days when flutes were like hen’s teeth both giving me the loan of the first wooden flute that I ever played, and advising Dessie Wilkinson and myself before our first flute buying trip to Dublin.
We had heard the CCÉ had some flutes for sale at their headquarters in Dublin, which in those days was in Harcourt St.  I sold my guitar and we headed off. We both bought German flutes for £45, which in today’s money was somewhere around €300-€350. Given the fact that you can buy a similar flute today for more like €250, you can see that flutes weren’t cheap back in the day, as some think.
Leslie had told us to look out for a type of flute called a Rudall and Rose...that was the first time I ever heard those words...but of  course what we found there was a bunch of old fairly battered German flutes. I also remember that the person we dealt with in Harcourt St. was Mary Bergin.

After all the galivanting ( more of it this week with 7 visiting musicians from Newfoundland getting their own back) I’ll really have to get the nose against the grindstone in the coming weeks.
The first flute with the new style keys is nearly finished, so I hope to post some pictures of it soon.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Sous Fifres de Garonnes

So, the festival that I was at in Bordeaux wasn't all burning pianos. In fact it was a festival based (loosely) around the fife tradition of that area, which is about 50k east of Bordeaux. The Festival website is here, but go directly to a couple of videos of previous years here.
I was over with Harry Bradley and Liam O'Connor and had a ball it must be said. Here's a video clip (courtesy of my iPhone, so don't expect Hollywood) of the local fife players this year.
We were playing a session is a local restaurant, and they played outside to attract a crowd.
I met an interesting chap there called Christian Vieussens, who has been largely instrumental, pun unintentional, in encouraging and maintaining the fife tradition there. For those who read French, he has compiled an exhaustive study of the fife in the music of the Garonne region, which you'll find here.
They've promised to send on photos and recordings etc (of me and the lads) so watch this space.

P.S. As someone equally interested in food and natural history, I had the opportunity to eat something unusual while in St. Pierre. Last time I saw one of these creatures he was attached to a large trout (caught by Liam, as a matter of fact) up in Galway. This time it was on a plate in a nice red wine sauce...mmmmm lamprey!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

What I did last weekend...

Have a look at this video first, and it might give you some idea.

Yes, that is a piano on fire...it was a rough gig!

Sunday, 17 June 2012


So the crack work is finished, and in fact the whole head restored. and came out as I had hoped. Photos below are again taken from the same angle as the original, but the one taken directly from the side probably gives a false impression, in that the ends of the stitches are in fact not as visible as they appear in the photos. As you can see the actual crack itself is very hard to see...which is the whole point of the operation.

As you also can see, that's a pretty fancy head cap, and the ring's not to bad either. I acquired this flute some time ago, and it is unusual, not to say unique. I'm in the process of restoring it, and in that process I hope to document the flute and how it was put together, because it seems to be the work of more than one maker, or, as I suspect a collaboration between a professional flautist and more than one maker.
So whether I'll post about it as I go along, or save it all up and post it at one go, I'm not sure.
But just to give an idea of the quality of workmanship that we're dealing with, here's a snap ( as my mother would've called it) of that head cap.

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?

Thursday, 31 May 2012

The crack goes on...

Making some progress on the cracked head that I posted about. It's at the stage that I'd call "early cosmetic". Here's a couple of pics.

Tried to get the same angle as the original image, so you can see where the crack was.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Top of Coom

I was fishing up in Galway when the news came through that our local pub, The Top of Coom had burnt to the ground. First of all, nobody was hurt, which is the most important thing, but it's hard to explain, particularly to people who don't live in a small very rural community, just what a loss this is, and more particularly the loss that it is to the traditional music community.
For as long as most people can remember, The Top of Coom, which was the highest pub in Ireland, at just over 1000ft, was a really important centre for music and even more particularly for singing.
It featured in very many TV documentaries over the years, and perhaps a lot of you know that Conal Ó Gráda's first CD was named after it. Unfortunately, this is what it looks like now...

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Key cup punch and die.

The punches and dies for the new key cups have been set up in the neat little press that I got. Here's a video of it in operation. If the backs of the cups look odd when I take them out, it's due to the grease that I put on the disc to ease it's passage through the die.

Still working on the key shaft castings...they need a bit of tweaking!

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Crack....

With all the repairs I've done recently, it got me thinking about one of the most common and misunderstood faults that flutes, old and new, can have - a crack.
Cracks in wooden flutes can occur for two reasons. Firstly they can develop in the seasoning process of the timber. This is one of the reasons that timber suppliers wax the ends of the billets, because moisture leaves the wood much more easily via the end grain, and if this happens too rapidly it can lead to cracks.
If these are big enough, then the piece will be rejected in the manufacturing process, but what can happen is that a very fine crack will go undetected until the flute is finished and begins to be played. Then the stress caused by the timber absorbing water and drying out again, as happens in the normal process of playing, can cause this minor cracking to quickly become bigger. If this is the reason for a flute joint cracking, then it generally appears very soon after the flute arrives from the maker and begins to be played. It's also one of the reasons why it pays to play a flute in gradually.
Cracks which develop later on are generally due to water stress, typically caused by a combination of not playing on a regular basis, playing for long periods of time with out swabbing out the moisture, and storing the flute in conditions which are too dry. Essentially it's moving the timber from very wet to very dry conditions too quickly. Physical stress may also result from this as when a swollen tenon can crack the socket.
The metal lined parts of the flute, the head and barrel, tend to suffer more from this, as wood trying to shrink over a metal tube has "nowhere to go".
Fixing cracks is one of the commonest repairs that the flute restorer has to face, and unfortunately is also one of the most misunderstood. The two commonest methods used, filling the crack, and glueing the crack are unfortunately also the two most unsuccessful.
Putting material into a crack can on a short term basis solve the problem...particularly if air is leaking from the crack, but although a soft material such as beeswax will not cause this problem ( it causes others) a harder material, such as the commonly used epoxy, essentially only serves to push the two sides of the crack further apart. It may take some time for this to happen, but if you look carefully you will eventually see very fine cracks developing, one on either side of the filling material.
So in attempts to avoid this the idea of gluing the crack closed arises, and in fact some fillers are glues in their own right, such as the epoxy mentioned above. The problem here is that the types of timber that flutes tend to be made of do not glue at all well, and given the fact that by the time the repair is attempted the internal surfaces of the crack are usually covered in oil or grease, the chances of any sort of permanent adhesion are extremely low. It must be remembered that the forces that cause the crack in the first place are extremely strong, and even if there was good adhesion it might not be sufficient to overcome them.
Again, if an old flute is repaired by this method, it may hold for a while, especially if it's not played much, but eventually cracks will appear again between the glue and the timber.

So, what's the answer? In a word pinning. In principal this technique involves drilling small diameter holes across the crack, at 90 degress to it, and at a tangent to the bore. Small pins are then inserted and glued into place, and then the repair is cosmetically finished. I said glued into place, but in fact originally silver wire was used, sometimes threaded ( as in a screw thread). This is the only type of crack repair that one sees on 18th and and 19th flutes, due in part I'd imagine to the fact that contemporary glues were just about useless in these cases.
The technique that I use involves threading, but this time of the sewing variety. A bunch of threads, the number depends on the size of the drill used and the thread thickness, is pulled into the hole until about 20mm still protrudes. A drop of superglue is applied to the thread, and this is then rapidly pulled into the hole. The result is that the pressure causes the glue to set almost instantly, resulting in a hard pin which is glued into the hole. The ends are cut off, and the process repeated.
The reason that this is such a successful method of crack repair is that the pins act directly against the pressure caused by the crack wanting to widen, and the area of glued surface which resists this is vastly bigger than just putting glue on the sides of the crack, which of course also happens in this case.
Here's a photo of the head of a flute by William Card that I'm currently working on. I left it unfinished, so that you can see the crack itself, the holes drilled, and some of the thread pins inserted. (they've been cut off flush on the right hand side)  I'll post another photo when the work is completed.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Repairs and Restorations

Completely snowed under at the moment with repairs and restorations, which have forced me to put lots of projects on which I'm working on hold, and this got me thinking about the whole area of restoration/repair and it's relationship to flute making.
Of course, back in the day when there were no (or very few) new"Irish" flutes, restoration formed a major part of my work, and this was important to my development as a flute maker in that it allowed me to examine and measure and play just about every make of English flute from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries.
As new flutes became the first choice instrument of the Irish traditional musician, the volume of this work declined, and most of my work in this area now consists of work on the flutes of other revival makers.
Strange to say, repair/restoration is a fairly different art to flute making, and being good at one doesn't necessarily imply being good at the other. Here again my early experience in the workshop was crucial, and provided experience which is largely unavailable to the younger generation of makers.
Here's few observations that occurred to me.
When I'm really busy with work for my own clients, I often have to turn away flutes by other makers. I hate to leave people down, but I don't think it's too much to expect that makers will maintain/repair their own work. This is something people sometimes don't think about when they buy a new instrument...
I have someone else I can recommend to them when I'm that busy...as I am at the moment, but I have to look after my own customers above all else.
A classic scenario, which I'm getting better at avoiding, goes like this:
Someone turns up at the workshop with a very battered old flute which they want restored. Almost without exception the story going with it is that it was their grandfather's, and it was "a great flute in it's day". It's usually obvious that it was no such thing, but the element of sentimental value and rose tinted glasses ( or ears ) plays strongly here. The amount of work involved in even getting the instrument playing is usually huge, and in value much greater than that of the flute itself, so I've many times been persuaded to take on such work. Sometimes it works out well, but on just as many occasions the restored flute doesn't live up to the memory, and the restorer gets the blame!
In all cases honesty is the best policy, and it's easier to gently explain to people that their grandfather's flute may have been a great flute in it's day, but it's past it's best, and they shouldn't waste their money trying to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, rose tinted or not!

When this current batch of work is finished, hopefully by after the weekend, I'm taking a sabbatical from restorations...of other people's flutes at any rate, unless it's something really interesting that I want to examine and measure etc.
I have about 20 mostly very nice old flutes of my own, dating from a late 18th century Potter Senior up to some very late Rudall Carte 8 keyed, with a few early mechanised flutes along the way that are all waiting for a bit of TLC. Someday, someday, I'll measure and photograph them all, and publish the results on     the website, but for now it's back to re-corking, repadding, bent keys, pinning cracks etc etc.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The 5th Cruinniú na bhFliúit

Just coming back to normality after our fifth Cruinniú na bhFliúit. Having just typed that, I can see why most people call it The Flute Meeting, which is what it is in translation, of course. Cruinniú is the word for meeting, based on the root which means a gathering together, and which also occurs in phrases for butter forming in the churn, or a cabbage forming a head!
The last word is of course the word for flute, here in that notoriously difficult form an tuiseal ginideach, the genitive case, and that accounts for the bh in front of what is obviously a loan word from French or English.
People nowadays commonly use the term an feadóg mhór when talking about the wooden flute in Irish, but it's an expression which I personally hate. In direct translation it means a big whistle, which is just about as demeaning and inaccurate a description of a flute as you can get, and historically is much more recent than fliúit. Surprising who you'll hear using it too!
But anyway, the event was a great success. Speaking as one of the organisers, and teachers, it's also absolutely exhausting, so by the time Sunday lunchtime came, we were very happy....but glad it was over, until next year.
We spend a lot of time getting feedback from our students, not just formally, but also in casual discussion, and it appears that the difference between ourselves and other teaching festivals, is beginning to establish itself in people's minds.
The essentials of this are:

Non-graded classes. We believe that the learning experience is enhanced by watching how others who may have abilities/talents either above or you, assimilate the class content.

Small classes. From both teacher's and students perspectives this is essential

It's not a tune mill.  We strongly believe that if you're going to succeed in playing Irish traditional music on the flute, then you need much more than just the technical ability to do so. This why we emphasise such aspects as flute history, trad music history, and music lore in general, both through the lectures and the classes.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Practice Flutes

Been busy recently with a large commission for practice flutes, which are now all done and waiting for the courier to collect and deliver. That's part of the reason for lack of posts, but the whole thing got me thinking about practice flutes, and the role they've played in my work over the past good few years.
The first flutes of this type that I made were prompted by necessity. In the early 1980s I was asked to teach a class in Bantry, and when I arrived to find a room with about 12 or 15 students, I also discovered that they had at the most two flutes between them, and they weren't the most playable of instruments.
Rather than let the class founder on it's first appearance, I went home, had a think about it, and came back the next week with a bunch of flutes made from black plastic pipe. It was what was called overflow pipe, destined to carry excess water from attic water tanks, but it was around the diameter, 19mm internal, that I wanted. They were extremely basic. A 19mm tube with a wall thickness of around 2mm, a circular   embouchure, and six finger holes, and an old wine cork. But they got a lot of kids started on the path of music.
Of course I soon realised, or already knew, their limitations. A purely cylindrical bore will never play in tune with itself over more than about one and a half octaves, certainly with a flute in this pitch (440).
(It's a bit different for smaller cylindrical flutes, like fifes)
The other restriction was that the embouchure had only a depth of 2mm, determined by the wall thickness of the tube, and it's very difficult to develop a proper player's embouchure with a flute embouchure like that. So the Mark II flute was an aluminium tube with a wooden sleeve over the embouchure which allowed me to make an embouchure that had a depth similar to that on a wooden flute.
This worked much better, but didn't solve the tuning problem. The Mark III addressed this by introducing a taper into the bore. The technical issue of tapering an aluminium tube led me to adopt a basic Boehm bore, making a plastic head with a taper which fitted onto the tube.
This, with a few tweaks over the years, is still the basic design of the practice flute, and it has proved amazingly successful. I'm not sure how many I've made to date, but it's many hundred, and a good proportion of people come back to me looking for a "real" flute having learned the basics on one of these.
The aesthetics of the design might not be the most attractive, but I work on the principle of keeping the price as low as possible, and the functionality as high as possible.

Our annual flute festival, Cruinniú na bhFliúit ( The Flute Meeting) kicks off in a few days time here in the village
We've managed to get a new website and forum up and running this year. Have a look, and I'll try and post about it, and put up a few video and sound files.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The (Murky) World of Exotic Timber

This post was motivated by a curious turn of events. A pipemaking friend was short of a few pieces of blackwood, and asked me to recommend suppliers that he could buy from without having to order and wait, as he needed it yesterday. I immediately thought of Theodor Nagel Gmbh, in Hamburg, from whom I bought a lot of blackwood ( and some cocus) in the early days. In looking out the link to send to him, I logged onto their site, and noticed that they had nothing listed under stock. I initially put this down to a blip or re-organisation of the site, but soon realised the reason was that Nagel has apparently gone out of business and is filing for bankruptcy.
The company has been around for a very long time, since 1837 I believe, and was one of the largest players on the international exotic hardwood scene.
I'm not sure if there is a direct connection with the business failure, but a little bit more snooping revealed that there had been some trouble with timber they had supplied to American guitar making giant, Gibson. Apparently Gibson are in trouble for illegally importing wood, and Nagel was the supplier.
Murkier and murkier I came across this article which claims that Fox news were trying to politicise the story, claiming that Gibson had been targeted by the government because their CEO was a contributor to the Republicans. Worth reading if you're interested in US politics and this time, by extension, the politics of international timber trading.

Monday, 19 March 2012

In spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to.....

.....problems with drains, for the most part, is what has been occupying what I laughingly call my free time. As I speak there's a mini digger and a large hole in my front lawn, and neither seem like going away very soon. Then given that weather has been dry ( Ok, what I really mean is less rain) I've also been occupied with garden chores, which aren't really chores as long as you don't have to do them in the rain.
So today, I finally got around to replacing my very old strawberry plants which produced good quantities of large but entirely tasteless berries, with a new variety, which will hopefully be better on that front.
Then on the flute front, which is why I presume most people read this stuff...... ( thank you seven followers!)
I took the models for the new keys up to the casters in Dublin ( see entries for 20th and 21st Feb). I always like to try and establish a personal relationship with people who do work for me, and in the past I've traveled as far as Arizona to do so. This was a useful visit, as one of the problems with castings can be the way in which the rubber mold is cut open to remove the model, in order that the empty space left can be filled with molten wax. If the seam of the mould passes over the surfaces which on the finished key will be those that bear against the sides of the block, this can sometimes cause problems.
 When the original model is being made, one must take into account the fact that there is a degree of shrinkage...about 4%...between the model and the casting. Also, the amount of material removed when cleaning up and polishing the castings must be taken into account, and one learns just how much bigger to make the model by trial and error...experience, I suppose. But what can affect this hugely, is if the rubber mould is closed slightly "off" then the two sides of what is cast in the mould...in this case the wax...will not match exactly. This is normally a very small deviation, but it can add considerably to the amount of material that has to be removed to get a clean surface, and the result is a key which is too loose a fit in the block.
So...this time I was able to explain to the casters which surfaces are dimensionally important on the finished key, and which are not, so these moulds can be cut in a way which won't effect the former.
Meanwhile the dies for the cups are nearly complete, and I expect to have the first castings back in about two weeks.
 I'll post photos of the new keys....won't promise when, mind you.
On a different topic, I have nearly finished the restoration of the Rudall Carte flute which inspired me to post about the issue of pitch some time ago. I'll post a few pics of that when the time comes.

Monday, 5 March 2012

and by coincidence....

Having been talking about old flutes and pitch what landed in the workshop a few days ago but a very nice, mint condition Rudall Carte & Co. flute. This, in terms of English eight keyed flutes, is a very late instrument. The address, 23, Berners St, tells us that it's from between 1878 and 1910, and I'd guess that it is probably a flute made in the late 1880s. The nickel keys indicate that it was one of Rudall Carte's cheaper models, and was very probably made outside their workshops (which at this period were entirely devoted to the Boehm flute) and bought in.
When it arrived the slide was fully closed, and in giving a quick initial check to the instrument, I extended the slide, which although stiff, was moveable.
As you can see from the photo...

...there are two lines crudely inscribed on the barrel liner.
The first thing that struck me was that in all probability, the previous owner ( see below) had made these marks as a guide to the pitches in which he or she most commonly played.
So here's a chance to illustrate my argument made in previous blogs, that a=440 was not a functional pitch for these flutes.
I removed the keys, ( the pads were burst and useless) and blocked the key holes. The head cork had dried and was loose and leaking, so that was also replaced.
When assembled, the flute, given that it probably hadn't been played in many many years, spoke easily with the full rich tone that one expects from a Rudall. I wanted to warm it up before checking the pitch, so I played it for a short while, then wiped the moisture from the bore, and began to check the pitch, using the Cleartune app on my iPhone.
As I suspected, but at the same time was relieved to find, the flute confirmed what I've been going on about in the last blog. The slide extension pictured above, is where the flute plays at a=440, when warm, to my embouchure.
I was interested to also check the two pitches indicated by the marks on the slide.
The upper one ( closest to the embouchure) gave a pitch of a=456, and the inner a=462, and finally, with the slide fully closed a=467, which is just marginally flat of G#. In other words, with a good tight embouchure and a warm day, this flute would be capable of being played in Eb!

I love to get old flutes like this in the post, knowing little about them until the case is opened, revealing something of their past history.
This one was in the original case, which was a bit shook, as they say, but all there. The flute gave the strong impression of an instrument that had simply been put back in the case one day, perhaps over one hundred years ago, and simply never taken out again. It obviously had been played to some extent, but not a great deal, I would have thought.
There are a few things that will indicate to the careful observer, the degree of use that a flute has undergone. On a very well used flute, there will often be wear on the edges of the finger holes, more marked on the side of the hole that the finger approaches from, i.e. on the side opposite from the player on the top three holes, and vice versa on the lower three. Sometimes, one can also see the marks of the finger nail on the surface of the flute, close to the hole, on the opposite side from the wear described above.
Another fair indicator is the condition of the maker's stamp. By necessity, the mounting and dismounting of the flute require the areas where these stamps are to be rubbed and handled, and on very well used instruments they can often be very faint and almost illegible. In this case, they were clear and precise, as you can see to some extent in the photo. Remember that the barrel stamp takes a lot of wear by necessity, as it's the only place you can grip the head to remove it.
The main stamp, including the address was even clearer.
This will be a great flute when restored...and there's almost nothing to be done. New thread joints, new pads, a good cleaning and a lick of oil. It should play wonderfully....but not at a=440.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Flute Pitch and Sunrise

So...what is a "reasonable"position for the slide? One very strong clue lies in the way in which flute tuning slides are constructed, on the vast majority of flutes at any rate. In order to give enough overlap of the two tubes, and to hide the inner tube when the slide was extended, the old makers had a section of the barrel liner protrude from the barrel, and a recess was cut in the head, over the the head liner, to allow this to slide into the head when the slide was closed.
When the slide was open, the normally brass or plated brass barrel liner, would be seen. So for purely aesthetic reasons this was generally sheathed with a silver tube. This, I must admit, looked well when the slide was extended. In other, less common examples, the barrel tube extension was sheathed in wood, originally the same thickness as the rest of the barrel, but turned very thin, comparable to the silver sleeve, so that it fitted into the recess in the head. ( One problem with this solution is that the very thin wooden sleeve is very often cracked )
On some heads, most notably the Potter Patent head, a series of incised rings on this sleeve allowed the player to note exactly the extension of the slide, and these rings were sometimes numbered to correspond with numbers on the little piece of the screw cork which protruded from the end cap. Matching the two numbers set the cork in the correct position for that slide extension...according to the makers idea. An early, less mechanised version of the later Rudall and Rose patent head.
So, isn't it reasonable to assume that the maker, having gone to all this trouble to hide the inner liner tube, never intended the flute to be played with the slide extended beyond this point, which would expose the head liner? The addition of the tuning marks, I think, is a further strong indication of the greatest extent to which the slide was meant to be extended. It would have been a simple matter to make the barrel tube extension and its covering sleeve that bit longer.
If one accepts all that, then the problem arises when trying to play in modern pitch on very many of these flutes. For me, ( and I accept the caveat that a lot depends on the embouchure used) a large proportion of  English classic flutes have to be extended up to half a centimeter beyond the sleeve.
I therefore have grave doubts that these instruments were intended to play as low as 440. They can be made to do so, but what we're looking at here is the original intention of the maker, composer, and musician. ( BTW, Ardal Powell's book "The Flute" is wonderful in the way that he considers the instrument throughout its history from as a combination of the contributions of each of the above )
One thing that does to some extent argue against what I've just proposed is the internal tuning at various slide extensions, but that's for another day....

I'm lucky, very lucky, to live in a great place. Both from the point of view of community, but also physical beauty. A few years ago, I happened to be up early one morning, and got this shot of the sunrise from my back door. ( it was the 22nd September '05, the computer says...)

Monday, 27 February 2012


Last Friday brought a TG4 TV crew to the workshop, filming for a program called Deanta in Eireann (Made in Ireland) which is not just about flutes, or even just about music, but about all sorts of things made in the country. Given the state of the place at the moment, there is a movement to try to help matters by supporting local industry.
 I was interviewed by Manchán Magan, and the talk got around to something that surprised him a lot....the fact that a lot of the traditional flutes available in Irish music shops are from Pakistan and India! So we discussed the economics of handmade versus mass produced instruments. Be interesting to see how it comes out. Not sure when it will be shown, but watch this space.
Which reminds me, that since we're on the topic, the program, featuring yours truly as a low whistle maker, in the Ceird an Cheoil series, made about four years ago, was re-shown recently.
You can still get it on the TG4 player
NB the funky lighting in the workshop, produced with the aid of a smoke machine, no less!
Coladh sámh agaibh....

That oul' pitch question again!

Funny how things get onto the back burner. Had quite a few things that I wanted to blog about in the last week, but more mundane things got in the way as usual. But anyway...
First of all a bit of a rant induced by a thread over on Chiff and Fipple, about a rather nice flute by Wylde which was for sale on eBay. The discussion got around to what pitch it would likely play at, which is, of course always an issue with 19th century English flutes that people want to play at modern pitch. It wasn't long before various "sounding lengths" were being quoted as if this was in some way a definitive measure of the pitch the flute would play at.
When oh when will people realise that the pitch any flute plays at is not simply a function of the physical flute itself, in terms of sounding length, but is a combination of player and flute. Any number of different players will elicit any number of different pitches from the same flute with the slide at the same position. It largely depends on embouchure. This is one of the main reasons for the invention of the tuning slide ( and before that the corps de rechange system). It allows different flute/player combinations to play at the same pitch on the same instrument ( and in different atmospheric conditions!) I wouldn't mind, but a lot of the people waving the banner of "the sounding length determines the pitch" are experienced enough to know better.
And while I'm on a roll here, I also have to say that I think I can blow a flute as good as the next man ( or woman) and the vast majority of classic English simple system flutes that I've seen and played, will sound way higher than 440, with the slide in any reasonable position ( which is what, I hear you cry, but I'll get back to that another day). One can certainly play these flutes at modern pitch, but the tone and response is only a pale shadow of what it is when played around 10-15 hz higher.
So would a maker intend an instrument to play at a pitch which masked the tone and response of which it was capable?
I (partially) rest my case, Watson.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

It has to be done...

The new keys are sort on the back burner for the moment, or at least for a few days this week. Have to make some money, and make sure the waiting list doesn't get out of hand.
I should have said that the idea with the new keys is a sort of a compromise between casting and fabrication, so I'm planning to cast the key shanks, but press the cups with a die, and then join the two.
I'm trying to figure out a way to give me an option here, of either soldering them on, or attaching them with some sort of thread or screw à la Hudson....which latter I find a very attractive style of keywork.
 But, for the moment, I have to finish a set of whistles, and organise delivery of two six keyed flutes which I finished recently. Then there's a couple of used keyless to be finished and sent to their new owners, one local, and one which will end up in Chile.
Amazing how the traditional Irish flute is a global instrument now. I think I've sold flutes in over 20 countries ( must check and get a correct figure) including recently to Mexico and Ukraine!

Monday, 20 February 2012

I'm currently designing new keys, which raises all sorts of issues that one mightn't at first consider.
In the old days, which for the purposes of this blog we'll take to be the days of the classic English flute, say from 1800 to1850 or 60, silver keys appear to have been fabricated, i.e. cut forged and filed from silver rod or bar. The cup would be made separately, from silver sheet, with the aid of a doming punch, which would raise the cup from a flat disc of sheet with one blow of a hammer. The two elements were then hard soldered together.
Later on in the period, it seems to have been more common for keys to have been cast, and later again when nickel or German silver became a common material for keys became more common again.
So one of the big issues for the modern maker is fabricate or cast, and the price of silver has a large influence on this. There's a lot of scrap silver, admittedly recyclable, left after fabricating a key.
The link above shows silver prices going back a long way, and looking at it reminds me that when I started making in the late 70s there was a huge peak in silver prices which in those days were almost the same as they are currently. So that was an encouragement to cast keys as opposed to fabricating them, and in fact to use other materials altogether such as brass (looks manky if you ask me) or ivory (beautiful but structurally poor, and with "moral" problems, of which more later).
The big problem ( there's always a problem, isn't there?) with cast silver is that it's really really soft. You might just about get away with short keys, but the long C and F are like sugar candy on a hot day, and will bend at the slightest provocation. The answer is work hardening, a process of hammering and filing which produces a key every bit as tough as a fabricated one, but at the expense of a lot of time, and the danger of making the shank of the key too small for the slot in the block.
A second problem is that the thin walls of the cups don't cast well unless the caster knows what he's doing, and they don't all (as opposed to the all don't which means something different).
I forgot to mention, of course, that before key cups as such, there were flat "flap" keys, but here the problem was finding a material that would form a good seal and still be thin enough. Leather was the only option back then, but it got hard and fell off, and was generally a bit of a bugger to attach and get to seal.
OK if you've only got one key, as with the baroque flute, but when you get to eight...it's no wonder that the key cup and purse pad soon took over.
If they'd had modern adhesives, and closed cell foam back then...maybe we'd still be using them.
They can certainly look well. Here's one on a flute that I was restoring lately. What's not to like about that, gorgeous engraving and all!
I'm being tempted to do a flute with flap keys.....and closed cell foam, of course.
Until next time...be careful out there.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Here goes.

Well, here I am, nearly 25 years after first getting an E-mail address, finally dipping my toe into the world of blogging. To be honest, I'm not sure what the point of this really is, but hopefully I'll find out as I go along, and it'll end up as a blockbuster with a cast of thousands (of clichés)...or else peter out miserably.
Readers should note that the photo on my profile is not exactly current ( think less hair [ok, even less hair]) but it was the only one I could find that had anything even remotely resembling the ghost of a smile.
I'll be hoping to post more recent pics of me (and the workshop, and some of my activities therein) but for now, given the fact that I look at least three weeks dead on any passport or photo ID image that's ever been taken...it'll have to do yis!
That's all for now.