Monday, May 25, 2015

Shaping the Lip Plate

This week, we stopped back into the headjoint room to meet with flute finisher and headjoint cutter, Lindsey McChord.  In a few previous posts, Lindsey explained some of the actual cutting techniques used in the headjoint cutting process.  You can review these posts by clicking here to read the "Cutting Headjoints" post and clicking here for "The Scraper Blade." 

In addition to the cutting, part of the headjoint making process involves shaping the lip plate, and this is done by exerting pressure on the plate to create the desired shape (or "slope" or "drop-off").  Lindsey uses a vise, which is a device that holds the headjoint in place and allows her to press areas of the lip plate to get the desired shape.  Although the vise is a piece of equipment, it is controlled not by a motor but simply by Lindsey turing a handle to push the wooden plate of the vise closer to the lip plate -- and this helps gently bend the metal lip plate to get the desired shape.  You'll see the process in the series of photos below:

First, Lindsey places a popsicle stick under the side of the lip plate that she does not want to bend.  This keeps that side completely in tact:

In the photo below, Lindsey shows us the space between the tubing and edge of the lip plate on the side that she needs to shape.  Ultimately, this space will decrease when the plate is bent with the vise.

Positioning the headjoint in the vise properly is crucial.  She told us that she positions it so that she can see straight down through the embouchure hole.

With her left hand, Lindsey gently holds the tubing of the headjoint, and with her right hand, she turns the handle of the vise.  The side of the lip plate closest to the handle is the side she is bending.  The opposite side of the lip plate (above her left hand) will not be bent because the popsicle stick is holding it in place.

Lindsey removes the headjoint from the vise to show us that the gap has become much less as she has bent that edge of the plate into the desired shape.

Lindsey checks the space between the edge of the lip plate and the headjoint tubing.  The popsicle stick comes into play once again as it serves as the perfect gauge for this measurement.  She told us that although other commercial gauges have been made, she has tried them, and the popsicle stick really is the best.  It is the most durable, resilient, and accurate time and again.

Another nice thing about the popsicle stick is that it is wooden, so it has some give.  In the photo below, Lindsey demonstrates that she can also use it to bend parts of a lip plate very gently in the opposite direction.  In this case, she is working with a 14k lip plate.  She says that the stick is also a natural gauge for the amount of pressure she is exerting by hand.  "If the popsicle stick begins to split, I know I'm using too much pressure."

It's quite amazing to see the very simple and straightforward tools used for the lip plate shaping process.  Lindsey reminds us that, "It's because these headjoints truly are handcrafted.  There are no machines to do this -- it's all done by hand."  And, that is so very true.  With a little help from a metal vise to hold the headjoint, the actual pressure is controlled by Lindsey.  The measuring and assessment are done by hand, and then any additional "tweaks" are done by hand as well.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Shimming Pads

Shimming pads is something you may have heard about, but since most of us don't really take our flutes apart, it's sometimes hard to imagine exactly what is involved in the process.  Shimming is a technique that uses extremely thin materials like mylar to position and "seat" the pad properly. 

In the video below, we watch as flute finisher Matt Keller checks the pads on the footjoint of a flute he is padding:


In this next video, we watch as Matt shims a pad:


For more on shimming, click here to view the "Close-Up on Shimming" post from our Repair My Flute blog.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Verne Q. Powell - The Flutist

Verne Q. Powell

This week, we had the pleasure of corresponding with Verne Q. Powell's gradndaughter, Gail Powell Dearing.  She had written an article for the Winter 2013 edition of The Flutist Quarterly, detailing some very interested yet not widely known facts about her grandfather. In this excerpt, we learn about Mr. Powell's earliest days as a wind player...

Excerpt from "Second Wind: The Powell Spoon Flute at 102" (The Flutist Quarterly, Winter 2013)
By Gail Powell Dearing
It’s not well known that Powell was an accomplished flutist.  He started playing the ocarina when he was 8 years old, and at the age of 10, started a small fife and drum corps with a couple of his friends.  When he first heard a piccolo, he had to have one, so his brother bought him one for $3.40.  Powell said he shined his brother’s shoes for the rest of his life to repay him for the piccolo.  Then he expanded his group to six piccolos, six snare drums, and a bass drum; the group played at local ball games for the price of admission.

He bought his first Böhm flute when he was 17, and four years later purchased his “first good flute,” a Rundall-Carte wooden flute.  Largely self-taught, Powell had a reputation as a superior flute player long before he became better known as a fine flute maker.

Thus, his spoon flute was born of the combination of his skill as a jeweler and engraver with his love of music and facility with the instrument.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Undercutting Wooden Tone Holes

This week, we stopped by the finishing department just as flute finisher Matt Keller was about to begin undercutting tone holes on a wooden flute.  In a previous post (which you can read by following this link), we learned that cutting wooden headjoints required mostly filing and sanding as opposed to the cutting and scraping techniques used on metal headjoints.  So, we asked Matt if a similar technique is used for undercutting wooden tone holes.  Come to find out, it does!

Matt told us that undercutting wooden tone holes is done with a very small file, which you will see in the photos below:

File is to the right of the footjoint.

Matt holding the file in his right hand.

There are two areas of the tone hole that he files, which we've indicated with blue arrows in the following photo:

Why are these two areas the locations for undercutting?  Well, Matt mentioned that these locations are aligned with the direction of the air flow through the flute.  Definitely makes sense when you visualize it!  As for the reason behind undercutting tone holes in general, flute finisher Karl Kornfeld added that undercutting, "reduces turbulence as the air flows through the flute."  Matt files very carefully, a little bit at a time, using extremely light pressure. The process is much easier to see in a video than a photo, so we captured a bit in the video below!


Friday, April 24, 2015

Tube Thickness

Have you heard the term "heavy wall" in regard to flutes?  When we go to shows like the NFA, we do have people asking if we have "heavy wall" flutes.  So, what exactly is the "heavy wall" flute?

Well, "heavy wall" refers to the thickness of the body tubing.  For our silver Custom flutes, you have the choice of three different tube thicknesses: .014", .016", and .018."  In that series of measurements, the "heavy wall" is the .018" tubing, because is it the thickest tubing of the three.  Many of our flutes have the .016" thickness, including our Signature, Conservatory, and Aurumite models. Currently, most of our orders for silver Custom flutes request the .016" tubing as well.

The Custom silver flutes have thickness choices, but what about gold?  Platinum?  All of the Custom gold flutes (regardless of karat), have a body thickness of .012,"and the body tubing for platinum flutes is .010." 

It's good to keep these different body tubing thicknesses in mind when trying headjoints as well.  Silver headjoints are available in .014" and .016" tubing.  As you might recall from a previous post on silver headjoints (follow this link to read it), we found that the .018" tubing on silver headjoints didn't produce the desired sound qualities we were looking for, so the .016" silver headjoint fits that particular flute.  Of course, if you have a .014" silver flute, the .016" headjoint would definitely not fit!  From yet another post (which you can read by following this link), we learned that sometimes the barrel thickness is different than the body thickness.  Lots to think about!  So, if you have the chance to try different thicknesses on silver flutes, see if you can feel and hear a difference.  Obviously, there's more than one size to fit all when it comes to silver!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Missing Ingredient in Nickel Silver

Powell Sonaré 601 (with silver-plated nickel silver keys).

By Steven A. Wasser
President, Verne Q. Powell Flutes, Inc.

Do you know the silver content of nickel silver?  If you guessed anything more than 0%, you are misinformed.  Although the name is clearly intended to make you believe that this is some kind of silver alloy, the fact is that nickel silver is comprised primarily of copper and nickel. 

Here is how this apparently came about.  An alloy of copper and nickel was developed in China, perhaps in the mid sixteenth century.  It was called paktong.  Europeans wished to copy this alloy, which had the appearance of silver, and finally succeeded in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Since the European metallurgy was developed in Germany, this silvery-looking alloy was called German silver.  Subsequently, because of its silvery look, it also became known as nickel silver.

Musical instruments can generally be made of nickel silver in 2 situations: where the nickel silver substitutes for sterling silver because it is cheaper, or where it substitutes for brass because nickel silver is harder.  Thus, you will find nickel silver flutes, saxophones, and French horns. Because nickel silver is relatively easy to shape and solder, you will also find instrument keys made of nickel silver, such as for clarinets, flutes, and saxophones. 

Even though nickel silver might initially look like silver, it tarnishes easily.  In addition, many people have allergies to nickel, so nickel silver used for musical instruments must be coated with something to protect the musician.  The normal coating is silver plating. 

Although silver plating looks nice and shiny at the start, it will eventually tarnish, just like sterling silver.  While the plating can be polished clean, dent removal and other work that requires manipulation or abrasion of the surface will remove the plated layer of silver.  In addition, constant daily use can wear off silver plating. 

At Powell we use only sterling silver or gold alloys for the precious metal flutes we make at our Boston area workshop.  For our Powell Sonaré flutes, we make the bodies and headjoints of sterling silver or nickel silver.  Our Asian key assembler uses nickel silver keys plated with silver to keep costs down.

In 2013, as the price of precious metals skyrocketed, we began to search for alternatives to sterling silver for flute and piccolo keys.  We looked at nickel silver but preferred a strong, clean alloy that did not require plating.  Our answer was stainless steel which, as the name correctly implies, is “stainless” or tarnish resistant, and is also strong.  (Some of the same properties which make stainless steel strong also make it difficult to form.  This required us to develop special machining and brazing technology.)  The strength of stainless steel assures the flute or piccolo player that their keys will stay in adjustment longer than instruments with nickel silver or sterling silver keys.

In 2013 Powell introduced the Sonaré piccolo with a stainless steel mechanism.  We designed the instrument with the nature of stainless steel in mind, using an art deco style that allowed us to machine the parts.  Now, 2 years later, we are introducing another version of the Sonaré piccolo which will use stainless steel keys, but with a more traditional, circular design aesthetic.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Rejection, or Why Not?

By Steven A. Wasser
President, Verne Q. Powell Flutes, Inc.

Several of our current headjoints, including 10k gold, 14k gold, and platinum.

Most of our blog articles affirmatively describe things we do.  However, as instrument makers one of our responsibilities is to decide what not to do. 

We recently conducted some experiments with a precious metal alloy that is 95% silver and 5% platinum.  Our hypothesis was that this alloy would provide some substantial acoustical benefits over sterling silver, such as a darker tone and improved response. 

Since the headjoint is the most critical acoustical component of the flute, we started the 95/5 experiment with the headjoint.  We ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of 95/5 tubing, flat stock for lip plates, and casting grain for walls (this stuff is considerably more expensive than sterling silver!).   

In order to control as many variables as possible, we used our existing designs and simply varied the material.  After making several headjoints with the 95/5 alloy we reached a conclusion – no.  Although it might seem counter-intuitive, the silver alloy with 5% platinum was very soft.  Neither the lip plate nor the tube wanted to stay where we put it.  We also found little acoustical difference. 

The softness of the 95/5 alloy was a knockout factor, but we also concluded that we have plenty of precious metal choices already available with sterling silver, several versions of Aurumite, and 9k, 10k, 14k, and 19.5k gold.  Unless the 95/5 offered something special and distinctive, which in our view it didn’t, there was no point in adding another material.

So now you know about something we tried and decided not to do.  All the 95/5 material we ordered and the headjoints we made are being melted down for us by our refiner.