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.

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