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'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 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'll have to do yis!
That's all for now.