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...)