Friday, December 12, 2014

1974 Price List

This week, we went into the archives and found a price list from 1974.  Hard to believe that was 40 years ago, but alas, time flies -- especially when you are making flutes.  Times change as well, and 1974 was the first year the Powell offered the Cooper Scale for the Handmade and Commercial models with drawn tone holes.  The Powell Scale, at that time, was offered for Handmade models with soldered tone holes.  After being introduced as an option in 1974, the Cooper Scale was available on Powell models from 1974 - 1984.  Follow this link to read our previous post on the introduction of the Cooper Scale at Powell.

Other items that were offered in 1974, as you can see from the price list, were an 18k gold lip plate, a left hand low B lever, and a metal piccolo headjoint.  Another interesting option was that of either closed or open hole keys.  Finally, you'll see in the section of "extra items" that a flute tie clasp and a flute pin were available. We haven't see any of these in the archive, so if you have one, please let us know in the comment section below!

Powell flute with left hand low B lever.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Fitting a Wooden Flute Headjoint

We see our flute finishers fitting metal flute headjoints and footjoints regularly, and this week, we had the opportunity to catch up with finisher Matt Keller while he was fitting a wooden headjoint. The goal for the wooden headjoint is the same as for any other (metal) headjoint -- a secure fit that is not too tight or too loose and that is even all the way around the tenon. Since the wooden headjoint has a metal tenon, the process for fitting the wooden headjoint is essentially the same as it is with a metal headjoint. The finisher can sand the metal tenon on the wooden headjoint as you will see in the photos below.  S/he can also expand the tenon on an arbor if the fit is too loose. However, when we caught up with Matt, he explained that fitting the headjoint can be quite complicated, because it is possible for a one area of the tenon to fit too tightly (or loosely).  The headjoint he was fitting seemed to be a bit too tight, but it was only tight at the end of the tenon.  This meant that Matt needed to even out the tenon, which he did by burnishing it on an arbor. Click here to read a previous post on burnishing the body tenon to fit a footjoint.

With a metal headjoint, there is more room to work with when burnishing the tenon because the circumference is the same around the full length of the headjoint.  However, with a wooden headjoint, the metal tenon has a smaller circumference than the wooden area   So, there is very little room to work with between the end of the tenon and the top (where it meets the wood).

As Matt worked on fitting this particular wooden headjoint, he reminded us of one other basic rule of thumb for fitting both wooden and metal headjoints -- small steps.  It's always better to make very small changes in very small steps.  This gradual process takes patience and practice -- which is certainly worth it!  Changes in the metal that are done too quickly and are too much of a change certainly would not give the finisher the desired result.  In fact, it would most likely lead to something that is not reversible -- like taking off too much material!  Once it's gone, it cannot come back...  So, in the case of fitting headjoints (and flute making in general), careful, precise work is key!

Carefully sanding the metal tenon.
Closer view -- headjoint spins rapidly as it is sanded.
Red lines outline the edges of the wood and metal, and the base of the wood.  There is only a small area (the metal) that can be burnished.
Burnishing the metal tenon.
Another view of the burnishing process.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Material Matters

With the help of flute finisher and headjoint cutter Lindsey McChord, we’ve been learning a great deal about the art of cutting flute and piccolo headjoints.  After speaking with her about cutting metal flute headjoints, wooden flute headjoints, and Profiled piccolo headjoints, we started wondering -- what about different metals?  Is the process different for cutting headjoints made from different metals?

The answer is – yes, there are differences.  The overall process is essentially the same, but the technique differs.  In fact, Lindsey told us that she has a different technique for each metal – including the different karats of gold (9k, 10k, 14k, and 19.5k).  Of course, there are also platinum and Aurumite (9k and 14k) headjoints to be cut!  The main factor amongst the metals is hardness.  Silver is the softest, gold is harder, and platinum is the hardest.  With each increase in karats gold, the hardness increases as well. 

In regard to metal qualities, silver is the easiest to work with from what Lindsey shared.  She said when cutting silver headjoints, the pieces come off evenly and smoothly in strips – almost like pieces of curling ribbon.  Gold, however, is much harder, and the pieces come off in chunks.  Because it is so much harder, Lindsey must exert more pressure on the gold with her tools.  Gold headjoints also require more sanding and are so hard that they can actually tear sandpaper in the process!  That being said, Lindsey told us that her sanding technique definitely varies from karat to karat in the gold family. 

But what about Aurumite?  It is either gold on the outside and silver on the inside, or silver on the outside and gold on the inside.  Well, the riser is where most of the cutting takes place.  So, if the riser is silver, it would be just like working with a silver headjoint.  If the riser is gold, it would be like working with gold.  With the Aurumite 9k, the riser is silver.  With Aurumite 14k and Ruby Aurumite, the riser is 14k gold.

It was great speaking with Lindsey to find out more about this cutting metal headjoints.  We knew the processes for wood and metal were different, but it truly was eye-opening to find out just how specialized the techniques are even within the metal category!

Silver shavings definitely look like curling ribbon!
You can see silver scrapings next to the headjoint Lindsey is cutting here.
Close-up on shavings -- red circles around the chunks of gold.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Engraving Process

We recently had the pleasure of meeting with Weiling Zhou, our engraver and one of our flute finishers.  After seeing so many examples of his engraving work, we were curious to know more about the process…

Weiling engraved his very first flute with a small screwdriver!  As he became more interested in the engraving , he went straight to the library for extensive  research.   Powell’s VP of Production, Rob Viola, asked Weiling to engrave for the company and then provided Weiling with tools and engraving bowl base.  Weiling now has about 50 different engraving tools.

He also has a book of his own engraving patterns, although he makes many custom designs for people.  Custom patterns can be especially difficult on lip plates due to their complex shape.  One of the most popular engraving requests he receives is for bird patterns.  Weiling has several books with photos of birds that he uses to guide his engraving.  When it comes to birds, Weiling tells us that engraving images of them from the side is easier, and some birds (like the eagle) are very distinctive.  Because engravings do not have color, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a blue jay or cardinal -- so it's best to stick with something simple that looks good in black and white.  Initials are another popular engraving request, which Weiling tells us takes about 10 minutes.  Engraving a key cup takes roughly 40 minutes.

So, how exactly does the process work?  Weiling showed us with the example of a key cup.  He marks lines within the cup to help as guides and then sketches in the shapes or patterns to see, roughly, how they will fit and work best.  The engraving bowl vase can be adjusted to hold headjoints, barrels, and anything he is engraving.  When it comes to a smaller part like a key, the key is first "stuck" to an adapter with a waxy substance known as “pitch”  He then takes the appropriate tool for the cut he is going to make and begins.  Because the bowl rotates, it makes it much easier to engrave something round like a key.  Each line is cut with a single stroke, and these lines are engraved in a series to make the pattern.  To engrave texture, he uses more pointed tools and lightly taps them into the metal with a small mallet.

We were quite mesmerized watching Weiling create these patterns and textures all completely by hand.  He did mention that it is best to engrave solid metals because engraving through plating causes rust.  So, if you've wondered whether hand engraving is really done by hand, well, we can see that it is!  If your flute is not plated and you are interested in having engraving done, make sure to contact our Director of Quality and Service, Rebecca Eckles, and she would be happy to help.  She can be reached at or by calling (978) 344-5160.

Engraving bowl and tools. 
Heating "pitch" to hold keycup.
Initial sketches on keycup.
Different tool used to make texture.
A few sections of the pattern.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Signature Piccolo Mechanism

Last week, we visited with Signature flute and piccolo stringer Ranjana Ranjana as she was building the pinned Signature flute mechanism.  We also had the chance to speak with her about the Signature piccolo mechanism, which (just like the Signature flute) is pinned.  Why is it pinned and not pinless? Well, it is actually quite simple -- there is not enough room for a pinless mechanism on a piccolo!  As you can imagine, everything is very small on the piccolo mechanism, and there is simply not enough space to create the bridges that a pinless mechanism requires. So, both Signature and Custom Powell piccolos have pinned mechanisms.

As for the process of building a pinned piccolo mechanism, it is basically the same as building a pinned flute mechanism. Ranjana must insert the pins and cut them to length -- making sure that the mechanism components fit and function properly. In the photo below, Ranjana is holding the right hand section of a Signature piccolo mechanism that she was building.  You will see a red arrow pointing to one of the pins that has been inserted but not yet cut to length.  There is a red circle around one of the finished pins (it is at the top of the mechanism, all the way to the right of the red arrow).

Close-up on right hand section.

Just as she does with the Signature flutes, Ranjana solders mechanism components -- including some additional parts for the piccolo keys.  In the photo below, we see a comparison of left and right hand sections in different stages of the building process. The right and left hand sections at the top of the photo were in an early stage, and the sections at the bottom of the photo were further along. We've added red arrows to the sections in the bottom of the photo to point out elements that Ranjana would be finishing on the sections at the top of the photo.  As you can see, the bottom sections have a few more components for the keys, a few pins, and a spring catch.

Once the mechanism is fully done, it will look like this!

The Signature piccolo is made from grenadilla wood and has a sterling silver mechanism.  It is available either with or without a split-E, and the standard headjoint options are the Classic and Wave style headjoints.  Follow this link for more information on the Signature piccolo.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Signature Flute Mechanism

Last week, we stopped by the Conservatory and Signature stringing department and watched Stefania Iamandei building a pinless mechanism for a Conservatory flute.  This week, we had the chance to catch up with Ranjana Ranjana as she was building a pinned mechanism for a Signature flute.

The pinned mechanism allows for different movement of multiple keys on one steel by using pins to hold keys in the proper position on the mechanism.  The pins run all the way through the key, mechanism tubing, and inner steel and then exit through the mechanism tubing on the opposite side of the point of entry.  This allows everything to stay in place.  The pins are very small, and you may not even notice them!  In the photos below, they are a little easier to see because many of them have not yet been cut to their final length -- and for the ones that are cut to length, we tried to zoom in with the camera!

To build the mechanism, Ranjana pins certain keys and solders others.  She also solders the spring catches so that the finishers can install springs.  Just as we saw with the Conservatory, every part of the mechanism must fit and function properly, with the keys opening to the proper heights.  In the photo below, we see several sections of the mechanism: left hand section, right hand section, trill keys, c key, G# key, and thumb keys.  We've also circled one of the spring catches.

Ranjana showed us how the left and right hand sections fit together:

Right and left hand sections from a different angle:

One crucial part of building the pinned mechanism is to make sure there is no lateral motion between keys on the mechanism tubing -- the keys need to be in place securely.  In the photo below, Ranjana showed us that the keys were certainly secured to the mechanism tubing.

The pins and pin holes can be very difficult to see, so we pointed them out in the photo below.  The yellow arrow points to a pin that is in place and cut to length.  The blue arrow shows a pin that is in place but not yet cut to length , and the green arrow points to a hole for the next pin.

Once everything fits and functions properly, Ranjana has some aesthetic elements to create, like the beveled edges of the key tails:

If you have a Signature flute, take a look and see if you can find the pins.  It's difficult to capture them all in one shot, but in the photo below, you will see a finished Signature with red circles around the pins.  The one exception to the circles is an arrow, which points to a pin that is not visible because it is on the key below the Bb shake.

For more information on the Signature flute, including a list of options, follow this link to the Signature page on the Powell website.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Building Bridges

Powell's pinless mechanism is found on the Handmade Custom and Handmade Conservatory flutes.  It is a mechanism that allows for different movement of multiple keys on one steel. As opposed to being pinned to the mechanism, keys on a pinless mechanism are connected by bridges.  You can read a previous post on the pinless mechanism, complete with links to video demonstrations by Powell's president, Steven Wasser, by following this link.

We stopped by the stringing department to visit with Stefania Iamandei as she was building bridged mechanisms for Conservatory flutes.  

The bridged mechanism is comprised of several different parts that vary depending on the specifications of the flute.  For instance, the left hand piece is different depending on whether the flute has an inline or offset G.  The right hand has an additional piece for flutes made with a split-E.  You will see the bridge components in the photo below.

Stefania was putting together the mechanism for a flute with an offset G and split-E when we stopped by.  We outlined the components in the photo below (left hand piece is red, right hand piece is yellow, split-E piece is light blue). The split-E section that is "upside down" on the bench does not have the long piece yet that is located between key cups, so we have that piece outlined in a darker blue on the mechanism in the photo below.

The two bridges are outlined with red boxes in the photo below.

The next photo shows a close-up of the bridges.  As Stefania builds them, she has to make sure that they have the correct fit and that they function properly.  She also has to check that the bridges (and the entire mechanism) open to the correct height, because once she is done, the flute goes to the finisher.  The finisher ads foam and cork adjustment pieces to the bridges to prevent metal-to-metal contact.

Below, we see a close-up of the left-hand bridge.  Once the mechanism meets the correct measurements and is functioning as it should, Stefania adds beveled edges -- purely for aesthetics.

The photo below shows the left-hand bridge as it will look when it is open.

In the photo below, we see another view of both bridges.  You can clearly see the tabs that function to create key motion.

Finally, we see a photo below of the bridges on a finished Handmade Conservatory Aurumite A9 flute.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Profiled Piccolo Headjoint

In 1993, Powell introduced a new piccolo headjoint with a "profiled embouchure plate to help provide greater comfort for flutists switching back and forth from flute to piccolo."  This headjoint style was named the "Profiled" headjoint and is one of three piccolo headjoints offered today (Profiled, Wave, and Classic).  Powell's Director of Service and Quality, Rebecca Eckles, spent many years performing professionally on flute and piccolo.  She shared that the Profiled headjoint definitely allows for a "more comfortable transition from flute to piccolo."

Flute finisher Lindsey McChord also cuts headjoints for Powell, and you may remember her name from previous posts -- especially last week's post about cutting wooden flute headjoints. She told us more about cutting the Profiled piccolo headjoint, highlighting its similarities to the wooden flute headjoints, which also have a "profiled" lip plate.  The Profiled piccolo headjoints, just like the wooden headjoints and other piccolo headjoints, are all made from one piece of wood.  Lindsey begins cutting a Profiled piccolo headjoint exactly the way she would for a wooden flute headjoint -- by filing the lip plate until the wall is the correct height. She also uses a gauge on the outside of the lip plate to make sure she has the correct angles for the front and back angles.  After that, she continues cutting and filing as she would with the wooden flute headjoints.  For wooden flute headjoints, there are metal versions of these styles (Soloist and Philharmonic).  One difference between wooden piccolo headjoints and wooden flute headjoints is that there are not metal versions of the three piccolo headjoint styles.

We realize that Lindsey wears many hats in terms of cutting headjoints and finishing flutes, but we know she is also a flutist. So, we asked for her thoughts on the Profiled piccolo headjoint from the player's perspective as well.  Lindsey noted that because of its profiled lip plate, it may be more comfortable for flutists who don't play much piccolo.  She said that often times with other piccolo headjoints, flute players may need to spend time rolling in or out to get the headjoint in the right spot.  With the Profiled piccolo headjoint, she said that one does not have to adjust.  She said, "You can pick up the piccolo, and the headjoint is right where it needs to be."

Piccolo headjoint styles.  Left to right: Classic, Wave, Profiled.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Cutting Wooden Headjoints

Measuring angles

What does it take to cut a wooden headjoint?  Is it the same as cutting a metal one?  Luckily, we stopped into the headjoint room this week just as Lindsey McChord was working on wooden headjoints, so it was the perfect opportunity to find out more...

Powell's wooden headjoints are available in the Philharmonic and Soloist styles.  The process of cutting these headjoints involves different tools but produces the same shapes and angles that a metal headjoint in these styles would have.  Of course, working with wood is very different from working with metal.  In fact, Lindsey tells us that the characteristics of these two materials are quite opposite from one another.  Wood does not respond well to steep angles and metal does.  Wood also does not respond well to very deep undercutting and overcutting -- and metal does.  With wooden headjoints, rounded shapes and edges create a much better response.  Essentially, when it comes to cutting a wooden headjoint, it is all about blending without disturbing the shape.

When Lindsey works with metal headjoints, she uses tools to scrape and cut metal.  The tools are quite sharp so that they can remove material.  However, with wooden headjoints, Lindsey uses mostly files and sandpaper to make chages.  There is one small tool that allows Lindsey to scrape wood, but it is much more rounded at the end (as you will see in the picture).  The rounded end allows Lindsey to remove material without the risk of gouging the wood.  

To begin cutting a wooden headjoint, Lindsey must first adjust the height of the riser.  The riser is not a separate piece as it is with metal headjoints, so Lindsey makes the height adjustment by filing the top of the lip plate until the riser is the correct height.  She does this with a mill file, as you will see in the photos below.  The mill file is also used to create the shape of the lip plate -- which is completely round at first.  If she needs to remove a lot of material, she will also use a very course, 180-grit sandpaper.  Then, Lindsey must create the shape that one would see on the lip plate of the same style headjoint in metal.  With a metal headjoint, the lip plate can be bent, but with a wooden headjoint, the lip plate must be filed. 

Lindsey then uses small sandpaper file (or sometimes a razor file) for the inside of the wall.  She says it's important to use a firm touch, exerting equal pressure on the wood so you can detect and smooth out any bumps or knots.  The very smallest files (that you will see in the photos below) are used for  undercutting and overcutting the embouchure hole,  as well as for blending.  After she is done cutting the headjoint, she oils the riser and then leaves the headjoint overnight or for a couple of days, allowing the oil to soak in and the headjoint to settle. Then, she tests the headjoint.  After this, she will make any additional adjustments that are necessary.

Aside from the tool differences and opposite response tendencies in wood and metal, it is also very difficult to see your work with a grenadilla headjoint because the wood is so dark.  One does not have the reflections that a metal headjoint would provide. However, Lindsey told us that when cutting wooden headjoints, she also cannot use any type of motor with the tools because the wood is much different than metal.  With metal, the headjoint cutter has to use motors to power some of the tools because of the hardness of the metal.  The headjoint cutter must still control any tool powered by a motor when cutting a metal headjoint. With a wooden headjoint, the tools are "hand powered," so it is a very special process -- and certainly one that brings great pride and satisfaction to the skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who create these headjoints.

Headjoint and tools
Wood scraper has much more rounded tip than the metal scraper (blue handle)
Using mill file to adjust riser height
Using mirror to see inside
Sanding riser
Using wood scraper
Filing to blend and create overcutting

Friday, October 3, 2014

From the Beginning -- the Earliest Powell Flutes

Flutists have many choices when it comes to Powell flutes today, but what about the very first Powell flutes?  If you have wondered what options were and models were available, we went into the archive to find out...

Looking through historical documents, we found a brochure from 1930.  At the time, Powell offered two models of C flutes with the following specs:

1 - the Handmade Louis Lot pattern with thin wall tubing, soldered tone holes, open or closed key cups, and open or closed G#
2 - the Commercial model with 0.18" heavy wall tubing, drawn tone holes, open or closed key cups, and open or closed G#

Handmade models came in silver, 14k gold, and platinum and had options that could be added as requested, such as French pointed arms and a left hand low B lever.  In the 1930s, the gizmo key was developed by Powell and added as an option as well.  From the beginning, all Powell flutes were pitched at A-440 unless ordered otherwise.  During the time period from 1930 to 1941, flutes pitched at A-442 were produced for leading players, including Bladet, Madsen, Pappoutsakis, and Opava.  In addition to the standard models, Powell did produce a few unique items in 1929: a bamboo flute, an octave piccolo, and a piccolo with a low C.

So, how much would one of the very first Powell flutes cost?  Well, in 1930, the Handmade silver models were $250 for the "French model" (open keys) and $240 for the "American model" (closed keys).The Commercial models were $200 for the French model and $185 for the American model.  In the photo below, you will see a price listing from the 1930 Powell brochure.