Sunday, November 24, 2013

Introduction of the 3100

Inside of 1999 catalog

We were looking through the archives and found a Powell catalog from 1999, which marked the introduction of a new model known as the 3100.  Made of Powell's patented Aurumite® 9k, the 3100 joined the 2100 in a category known as the Conservatory Flutes. The story behind the 2100 and 3100 Conservatory flutes was noted in the catalog as follows:
The name "Powell" has meant excellence in flutes since Verne Q. Powell established his own workshop  in 1927. Mr. Powell made his first conservatory flute in 1928, called the Commercial Model.  These flutes had extruded tone holes, and plain cups with Y-arms.
The Powell shop discontinued the Commercial flute in 1988 but continued to receive requests for a conservatory model instrument.  Since flutists were expressing a preference for French-style pointed arms, rather than the Y-arms found on the Commercial Model, Powell embarked upon a complete redesign of the old Commercial Model in 1991.
Artisans at Powell set to work on the new design. Finally, after two years of development, during which it was tested by customers around the world, the new flute was introduced.  It was named the 2100 in anticipation of the twenty-first century.
Soon after Powell introduced the 2100 flute, flutists began asking for a gold version of it.  The craftspeople making the 2100 were inspired to use Powell's patented Aurumite® technology to achieve this.
Aurumite is the unique combination of sterling silver and gold, developed by Powell in 1987, and used for some of its Handmade Model flutes since then. Through a patented fusion process, Powell produces flute tubing made of interlocking layers of gold and silver. 
The Conservatory Model version of Aurumite is called the 3100.
The 2100 and 3100 flutes were offered with several options: pitch of 442 or 444, B foot or C foot, inline or offset G, and French or American cups.  For the 2100, there was a 2100 headjoint available in either sterling silver or Aurumite.   The 3100 had an Aurumite headjoint.  Both models came in cherry wood cases -- the 2100 with a nylon case cover (option to upgrade to leather), and the 3100 with a leather case cover as a standard feature.

The 2100 and 3100 number designations were dropped in 2002, and a new model name was introduced -- the "Handmade Conservatory" models -- in either silver (former 2100) or Aurumite (former 3100).

Close up of Conservatory section
The story of the 2100 
Spec chart for 2100 and 3100

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Visualizing the Process

We’ve seen quite a few grenadilla Custom Powell flutes come through the finishing department this year and were curious to know more about them.  They always look and sound beautiful, but we wondered about the crafting process and what the challenges may be.  After all, wood is very different from metal, so how would one even begin to make a grenadilla flute?

We visited with our Wood Instrument  Shop Manager, Tim Burnett, and asked  -- “what are the biggest challenges to making a wooden flute?”  He simply said, “the tone holes.”  Really?  Why would that be?  Sitting down with Tim, it became much clearer to us.  He told us that piccolos are made from a traditional construction process of reaming a piece of wood.  The conical shape of their bore is common to other woodwinds, and the process of making these instruments has been around for centuries.  To make a flute, however, one must create an “accurately formed cylindrical bore with raised tone holes” – and this is extremely challenging.

Tim shared with us that it is the size of the tone holes that makes the process very difficult.   The size of the tone holes in relation to the bore, specifically, is a tremendous challenge. As you can see in the photo to the right, the tone holes are quite large relative to the bore, and they are also very close together.  The tone holes must be very carefully placed relative to the growth of the wood.  One must look at the orientation of the growth rings of the wood to truly get an idea of where the holes should be placed.  Issues that arise when tone holes are not placed properly include cracking and the formation of tone holes that do not have a stable seal.  The D# and trill keys are particularly vulnerable to cracking because they are close to the metal.  Because of the expansion and contraction of the wood, spots where the metal and wood meet have traditionally been at risk for cracking – although, Tim tells us that modern adhesives used in the process allow for more movement of the wood.

So, the most essential part of the process occurs before any holes are drilled.  Tim begins by inspecting a piece of wood and deciding if it is suitable for a flute.  The inspection requires skill well beyond looking for “blemishes” -- you have to be able to look at the piece of wood and visualize it as a finished flute body, footjoint, or headjoint.  Tim looks at the wood from top to bottom, going back and forth to determine what it may become.  Often times, it is not the entire piece of wood that will be used.  For instance, Tim may look at a piece of wood and visualize a footjoint in one section of the piece (he points out the footjoint section in the photo to the right). This section would then be cut to length, and the process would begin.  The same could be said for headjoints.  For a flute body, the entire length of the piece of wood would be used.

As you can see, the process requires many skills – and visualization of the finished product is key.  Wood is a material with many variables that must be considered before it becomes a flute or headjoint.  In addition to grain growth, one must also consider the age of the wood and the location of the piece within the tree to determine whether it is suitable.  It has to be right from the beginning, because with a wooden flute, you can’t go back and fix it!
Tone holes are much larger than the small holes
for screws that hold the ribs on to the body.
The full length of this piece would be used for a body.
This piece (shorter than the one above) would be used for a headjoint.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Finish "Shine"

We recently caught up with flute finisher Karl Kornfeld as he was in the final stretch of finishing a Powell Conservatory.  All adjustments had been made, it had been played in, play tested, and it was ready to go.  But there was one more step -- the final "shine."  Before a flute goes out to its new owner, it gets one final round of polishing.  The polish that is used also contains an anti-tarnish "shield," so the flute is being protected from tarnishing while it is being shined!

The keys are polished and protected from tarnishing even before the flute comes to the finishers.  However, the flute goes through several testing steps, so the final polish really helps to give the flute that extra layer of protection and shine before it is sent to its new owner.  The polish is applied to the flute keys, body, and headjoint.  It is not applied to the tone holes, because there is a possibility that it would get on the pads -- which you certainly do not want.  Karl applies the polish to the keys with a dry Q-tip and uses a toothpick to remove any excess polish from the rings in the keys.  The keys are then polished by wiping them with a cotton pad.  Karl also uses a cotton pad to apply polish to the flute body and headjoint and to polish the body and headjoint as well.  The polish can dry to powdery finish, so Karl gives the flute a quick "dusting" of pressurized air from an air hose before and after it is placed in the case.  Finally, it is all shined up and ready to go!

A bit of polish in a small cup and a Q-tip -- ready to polish the keys.
Applying the polish to the keys.
Removing excess polish from ring.

Polishing keys with cotton pad.
Applying polish to body with a cotton pad.
Wiping off polish from body.
Body is polished and shiny!
Wiping off any excess polish from body with a Q-tip.
Polish is applied to headjoint.
Wiping off polish with a cotton pad.
"Dusting" with a burst of pressurized air.
Flute is ready to go!

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Look Back at Powell: 1989

Looking through some of our archival materials here at Powell, we found a pricelist from 1989.  Obviously, the prices were very different then, but that is true for just about anything.  Remember when gas was less than a dollar per gallon?  The 1989 pricelist is now almost 25 years old, so it makes sense that it would be quite different from today's!

What we found particularly interesting were the product offerings.  You'll notice Series 7000 flutes, which were what we would currently call "Handmade Custom" flutes.  These flutes were available in a couple of different metals: sterling silver, Aurumite® I, Aurumite® II, 14K gold, platinum, and Platinum*4™.  The Aurumite® I was the same as our current Aurumite 14K -- sterling silver on the outside and 14K gold on the inside.  Aurumite® II was comprised of three layers: 14K rose gold on the outside, a layer of sterling silver in the middle, and then a layer of 18K gold on the inside.  The Aurumite® II was rather difficult to work with and was later discontinued.  Platinum*4™ was another combination metal which consisted of four different elements -- one layer of a combination of paladium and ruthenium on the outside, and one layer of a combination of platinum and iridium on the inside.  This Platinum*4™ combination metal proved very difficult to attain from metal suppliers, so only a few headjoints and flutes were produced from this.

What was behind the name of the Series 7000?  Well, Vice President of Production, Rob Viola, told us that it was just something different -- something that sounded modern.  He recounted that Verne Powell was a master engraver, and after Mr. Powell's death, the production team did not have anyone who could match Powell's skill level of engraving.  So, for about 10 to 15 years, the flutes were engraved on the barrel -- because the barrels were engraved off site by a qualified engraver and sent back to Powell.  Then, the Series 7000 was introduced, and the company decided to bring back many of the engraving characteristics of the flutes that Verne Powell produced,  So, like the flutes made by Verne Powell, the Series 7000 flutes returned to having engraving on the body and on the footjoint.

There are a few other differences in the 1989 product list -- different piccolo models and piccolo headjoint cuts.  The flute headjoint cuts were "Traditional," "Undercut," and "Crosscut™."  Powell's President, Steven Wasser, told us that the "Undercut" style was similar to our current "Philharmonic," and the "Traditional" style had very little undercutting.  Additionally, the alto flutes were available in silver or Aurumite® I.  Currently, Powell offers altos in the Powell Sonaré line in either sterling silver or silver plated nickel-silver bodies.  

You can find the listing of available options for Powell flute, piccolo, and headjoint models on the website at  After looking back at the 1989 product list, we can see that the 2013 offerings have a greatly expanded choice of materials and and options.  It will be interesting to see what the comparisons are when we look "back" to 2013!

Front of 1989 pricelist.
Back of 1989 pricelist.