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 with the .018" silver Custom body, 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.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The "Stand In"

We stopped by the finishing department this week and saw something particularly interesting at flute finisher Matt Keller's bench.  It looked like a metal flute body with extra ribs going in odd directions. It was also on a flute peg right next to a grenadilla Custom flute that Matt was finishing, so we had to had ask, "What's this?"

Well, it turns out that this ribbed metal "body" is actually a "stand in" to polish the ribs that go on the grenadilla flute.  Matt needed to polish the ribs as part of the finishing process, but he could not polish them on the wooden body.  Definitely not.  If you think about it, metal flutes have ribs that are soldered onto the body. Since the body is also metal, the body and ribs are polished together on a wheel that is spinning very, very quickly.  Although the image below is a photo and not a video, it helps in visualizing the polishing process for metal flutes:

With the wheel spinning so quickly, it's certainly not a good idea to have the wooden body anywhere close...  Also, the ribs are screwed on to the body of the grenadilla flute, so they can be screwed onto the metal "stand in" body, polished, unscrewed, and then screwed onto the wooden body.  Matt and our Repair Technician, Rachel Baker, tell us that once the ribs are screwed onto a grenadilla flute or piccolo, they have to stay!  Why?  Well, taking them on and off again and again can really weaken the wood and lead to more problems.

Matt told us that all of the ribs for the grenadilla body and footjoint are all on the "stand in."  So, the "stand in" might look a bit odd, but it truly is helpful for polishing the ribs that go on a grenadilla flute!

Close-up of the wooden flute body (which is upside down),
footjoint, and the "stand in."