Friday, June 28, 2013

Gauging the Situation

Checking pads with feeler gauge.
We've seen our flute finishers checking pads with a feeler gauge, but we recently stopped by to see finisher Lindsey McChord, and she was in the process of making a new one.  Why?  How?  Well, we will answer those questions in this post.

Lindsey explained that the feeler gauges actually do wear out -- and rather quickly.  That may seem surprising, but it is because they get a LOT of use here at Powell.  They are used in flute finishing, repair, and even testing.  The gauge is a small piece of mylar attached to a very small stick.  Lindsey says that she can tell when it needs to be replaced because there will be "wear" at the tip.  Also, when the gauge becomes worn, it tends to snag when being used.  Lindsey uses about 2 gauges per flute -- one for the body, and one for the footjoint.  She says that the number can vary depending on the situation.  Also, if the finisher is working on a flute that is almost done, using a new gauge is not a good idea, because it can leave a black line on the pads.

Making a new gauge involves a few steps.  First, finishers will cut a large piece of mylar, which will be used to make several gauges.  It's convenient to keep this large sheet at their bench.  Then, a very small strip is cut from the large piece.  It's important to cut in a very straight line so that there are no bumps or snags in the material.  Cutting the correct width is important and takes practice.  If the piece is too wide, you will not be able to feel leaks as easily.  If the piece is too thin, you may pick up small things that may seem like problems, when in actuality, the pad seating is correct.  The small strip is then curled vertically just a bit to thread it through the cap.  It's good to have it extend just a bit past the bottom of the cap because it will get pushed forward as the stick is inserted.  Once the cap is secured onto the stick, you are done!  The gauge is a simple tool yet extremely important in detecting leaks and seating issues with pads.  It is also not too difficult to make new ones, although as is the case with flute finishing, practice makes perfect!

Cutting a strip from the large piece of mylar.
A straight cut is important to avoid bumps or snags.
Width must be accurate.  Here, Lindsey explains the issues with a piece that is too wide.
Getting ready to put the new strip on!
Curling the strip to thread it through the cap.
Strip in cap.
A bit of the strip should extend past the cap -- it gets pushed as stick is inserted.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Excerpt on Headjoints from "High Flutin' "

Ed Machon had a 32-year career at Verne Q. Powell Flutes, beginning in 1949 at the original shop location at 295 Huntington Avenue in Boston  He ultimately became president of the company, and in 1961, he and partners Richard Jerome, Elmer Waterhouse, and Edward Almeida purchased the company from Verne Powell.  His book, High Flutin', captures many stories from his time at Powell -- shedding light on the atmosphere, personalities of customers and workers, and (of course), flute making techniques of the time.  In the excerpt below, we read a bit more of his thoughts on headjoints... 
"The headjoint is 90% of the flute."  How often did I hear those words from the old man?  I do not know how it affected the rest of the flute makers, but I felt what in the hell is the use of making sure all the adjustments were correct, keys were straight, bearing surfaces were reamed right on, and, in general, it looked like a Powell should.  After all, the work I did represented a mere 10% of the flute.
Headjoints are a funny thing, and they all have one thing in common -- they play.  Some better than others, but they all play.  I have seen some embouchure holes that resembled a bath tub -- all out of proportion to our specifications.  They were okay when they left, but some flute players and would-be makers when armed with a knife, are down right dangerous.  The process of using a knife to carve out more of the hole is called "freeing up" and making the flute more responsive.  Usually, the artisans, or as we call them, blacksmiths, went too far.  At that point, a new headjoint is in order.  Next to a knife in the hands of a flute player, a screwdriver is the most dangerous weapon.

Somewhere in the 1960s, several flute players in California began ordering the "Cal Style Head" or Roger Steven's specs on the cut of hole and height of wall.  After several of these went our and seemed to please all who received them, I received a call from Roger asking, "What the hell is the Roger Stevens head?"  He had 3 or 4 Powells with wall heights from about .185 to .203.  Just about the time this fad was at it's height, we had a flute of his in for repair which had the .203 wall.  That's how it all got started.

Sam Most, a most respected jazz flutist, sent a flute in once for repair.  I swear, the embouchure hole was done with a drill just about the right size.  No undercutting -- a real sharp edge.  That man can really play jazz.  Undoubtedly, someone else could end up with no sound at all with it.  To each his own.

When I went to work for Powell in 1949, the trend was to lower walls.  A wall height of .185 was average.  This was probably due to the influence of Laurent, BSO Principal for years.  I do not recall any radical changes, or special heads other than the one for Harold Bennett, or one of his students.  He played on a .212 wall as did most of his students.  I heard in later years, many years, that if VQP made a head for you, you took it and did not complain.  The only complaining was done out of ear shot.

One thing, among many, I could not understand was some teachers insisting a student order a head with the same specs as the teacher.  This does not make any sense to me.  In the course of 4 or 5 years, you may have 2 or 3 teachers.  No way are they all going to have like headjoints.  Imagine someone with a mouth like Joe E. Brown (it looked like a torn pocket) ordering for a sweet young miss with a mouth resembling a tiny rosebud.

Further, on the matter of heads -- I always stressed the importance of people who picked up flutes at the shop, not to grab across the lip plate when putting the flute together.  This can cause a ridge in the plate which is very difficult to remove.  I don't think some of them heard me because they still came back with the ridge.  Oh well, I tried.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

PS-750 Review from Madrid

PS-750 in Indian Onyx

The Powell Sonaré PS-750 piccolo was introduced almost one year ago at the 2012 NFA in Las Vegas.  Since that time, many have had the chance to test it and have shared their reviews with us.  One of our previous posts shared testimonials from technicians (you can find it at  But what do performers and educators think?  Well, we found a review written by a university professor in Madrid.  Luismi from Sanganxa (our Powell dealer in Spain) shared the review with us.  For those who are able to read the original (in Spanish), you can find it at  The English translation is below.  Enjoy!

On November 12, 2012, my life changed. I fell in love:, when I slid my mouth over the embouchure, the intellectual look took my breath and soul. As my hands caressed her soft, stylized body, time stopped ... SONARE POWELL-750 PICCOLO! Powell has introduced a bold new concept in making piccolos. If it had "the apple”, it could have been a perfect creature made by Steve Jobs. The design of the mechanism, "artdeco", is radical and innovative and is made is made of stainless steel, a lightweight, unchanging metal that is cheaper than silver and gold.

Although her keys are square, it works well because it still has round pads and toneholes. Manufactured in a special resin (in three finishes), the Powell patented wood mimics the look and tone of a professional piccolo. The PS-750 is manufactured in the factory of Powell in Massachusetts (USA). Anecdotally, the first Friday after the piccolo was finished, Steven Wasser (owner of Powell), dipped it into a bowl of water. On Monday morning, he brought it out after it dried properly saw that it worked perfectly. Incredible!, Don’t you think?

The tuning is very polished and the projection is easy and very flexible through all the registers. You'll have a "high end" piccolo for super-competitive price: 2,445 euros.

We come into the world alone and we leave the same way, but in choosing a good piccolo never be alone. You can always count on the professionalism, craftsmanship and personalized advice from a company that is committed to innovation and quality of their products SANGANXA. And of course, with the friendliness and helpfulness of the "captain of the ship", Luismi Mateu.

PS-750 in Tuscan Umber
PS-750 in American Amethyst

Friday, June 7, 2013

Polishing Rollers

When flute finishers receive the "flute kit" of parts to finish a flute, B and C rollers are in there, already assembled on the mechanism.  The rollers are also polished and ready to go for the most part.  The finisher would, however, take the roller mechanism apart to clean the roller and polish the steel. Unfortunately, the roller can get scratched from time to time -- namely from springs.  So, does this mean that the rollers have to be scrapped?  Well, not exactly.  It's perfectly feasible for the finisher to remove scratches by polishing the rollers.

We caught up with flute finisher Karl Kornfeld to examine the process more carefully.  He begins by removing the roller from the mechanism.  He'll then start the polishing process by placing the roller on a steel in the bench motor.  The motor allows the steel (and roller), to spin very quickly.  While it is spinning, the first step is to smooth out the scratches with 600 grit sandpaper.  Then, the finisher will move on to a finer grit of 1200.  After everything is evened out with the sandpaper, it's time to polish.  A small buffing wheel is then attached to the bench motor, and tripoli grease is applied to the wheel.  The roller is buffed with this compound, and then rouge is applied to the buffing wheel to help with the final polishing.  Karl then takes a pipecleaner and dips in it a bit of alcohol to help clean the inside of the roller.  Just to make sure that the action is as smooth as possible in the mechanism, he also polishes the mechanism steel with 1200 grit sandpaper.  He oils the inside of the roller so that everything will work with ease, and then he's dine!  We've included videos along with photos this week to help demonstrate the process.  Enjoy!

Springs can scratch the rollers
Roller is removed from the key mechanism.
Roller placed on a steel.
Steel inserting into the bench motor -- ready for sanding.
Sanding starts with 600 grit sandpaper.
Finishing sanding with 1200 grit sandpaper.
Buffing follows sanding, and the roller is polished! (Buffing is featured in the video after sanding).
Cleaning any grease or rouge from the inside of the roller.
Polishing up the mechanism steel with 1200 grit sandpaper.
Oiling the roller.
Reassembling the key mechanism.