Care and feeding of your new flute

Please read this article, including instructions, before assembling and playing your new flute.
Warning: Do not assemble or play your flute before reading this article. Your new flute is at its most vulnerable in its new dry condition, and overplaying in a new condition can seriously damage the instrument.

This article is comprehensive, and I know that you will be impatient to try your new flute! Please do take the time to read the article before you play your instrument. Do not be unduly alarmed by frequent reference to the various ways that the instrument can be improperly handled. It is simply that the new flute, at its best, is a delicate thin walled wooden tube that is now beyond the reach of the maker, and as such the player must now be responsible for its care and handling. Almost all disappointments can be avoided by not assembling joints that are too tight, and by not playing a dry instrument too much, too soon. This is crucial, and is now the responsibility of the! Be patient, and read on...

This flute is made from natural materials which are affected by changes in humidity and temperature. If you follow a few simple rules, you can avoid risking permanent damage to your instrument, such as warping or cracking. We have many examples of fine-playing, original flutes from the eighteenth century, so it is clear that a properly cared for instrument will last many years. It makes good sense to read and adhere to the following instructions on care of your instrument:

  1. Lightly grease the thread wrappings on the tenons before each assembly.
    If you do not have woodwind 'cork grease', sold in music stores, use a little 'Chapstick', or petroleum jelly. Assemble the joints using a half turn, as you push them together.
  2. Never assemble the flute if the joints feel too tight.
    It is quite easy for an inexperienced player to crack the sockets of any wood flute by simply forcing the socket and tenon together when the adjustment is too tight. The greased joints should feel firm and secure, without being too tight. One common mistake is to test the tenon of a wood flute and find it tight, and then add grease to the tenon so that it can be pushed into the tight fit resulting in the socket being cracked. On no account use joint grease to solve the problem of tight assembly. You must make sure that the thread wrappings are adjusted to give you a secure joint with a minimum of strain on the socket. Since wood changes shape depending upon temperature and humidity, the flute may have changed its shape a little on its journey to you. The tenons may be a bit too loose or too tight now, even when they were in proper adjustment before mailing. Instructions for adjusting follow later.
  3. Play the flute only for a short period.
    Hopefully, you will be anxious to play your flute right away, giving it a good test, and enjoying its character. Please keep in mind that the flute is new and it should be played in gradually. This will be explained later. You can now play the flute for no more than five minutes, then continue reading these instructions.
Many players are already experienced with the baroque flute, however we will assume that the reader is unfamiliar with the instrument.

To Play In your Flute.

What will help with a new or dry instrument is to go slowly, playing ten minutes on the first day, morning and evening, and increasing this each day in the following rough sequence:-
10, 20, 40, 60, 80 minutes, 2 hours, 2.5 hr, 3 hr, 4 hr, and 5 hr.
Slower Schedules are also fine! This allows the moisture entering the wood to be limited in quantity, and to have time to permeate evenly throughout the total cross-section of the wood flute, slowly building up to an equilibrium saturation level, allowing the instrument to be played continuously. The process should be stretched out over about ten days. Keeping the flute and its case in a plastic bag while not in use helps retain the moisture in the wood so that playing-in is not required if the flute is idle for a week or two. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Remember that a flute which has remained un-played and allowed to dry out needs to be played in again just like a new flute. Players with a scientific mind will weigh their flute when dry, and graph out its increased weight against time as it is played in. Using this graph as a reference, the player will know how dry the flute is at any time simply by re-weighing it, See the paragraph on the effect of moisture in woodwinds for further information.

After playing your flute. Cleaning and Oiling.

Swab the flute out after each playing session, and polish the outside with a clean, lint free cloth, especially around the mouth hole. I recommend using a little natural carnuba wax thinned with vasoline 50/50 as a good polish for the outside of the flute. Never leave your flute near a central heating duct. With a new wood flute, it is a good idea to oil it a few hours after playing, each day, until it appears that the wood will not absorb any more oil. The flute will sound best a few hours after oiling. It is very important that you do not use linseed oil inside the bore of the flute. This is because linseed oil is a hardening oil, and it will leave the bore sticky, and often contributes to gluing the silver key shut. Instead, use a non-hardening oil such as peanut, almond, or olive oil. One good way to oil the bore (the inside hole down through the body of the flute) is to use a chop stick with a pipe cleaner wrapped around the end of it in the form of a tight spiral about three centimeters long. Dip this into the oil and wipe partially dry, then use as a paintbrush in a spiral screw thread motion down through the bore of each joint. When oiling the bore of the foot joint, slip a piece of stiff paper under the key pad to keep the pad from becoming oiled and sticky. Sometimes the key pad will be made from a foam rubber which seals very well. In the event of any stickiness, use a little talcum powder on the pad and seat to prevent this. After letting the oil sit inside the bore of the flute for about half an hour, wipe out any excess with a paper towel rolled round a wood stick, such as a chop-stick. You may be tempted to leave your flute assembled when not in use, perhaps even leaving it out to be seen on a bookshelf or table. This is not a good idea, especially if you live in a dry climate or centrally heated house. It is safer to place your flute in its case, and place the case in a plastic bag with a slightly damp cloth. Don't forget to close the plastic bag to keep moisture from escaping. Obviously those living in humid areas will not need the plastic bag.

Description of the Baroque Flute.

Another name for the baroque flute is the traverso. This shorter name will be used from now on. The traverso was made in three sections early in the Baroque Period, and was called the French Flute. About 1720 it was made in four sections: the head joint, the middle joint, the lower joint, and the foot joint. This is by far the most common design re-created today. The French flutes were pitched quite low, near to A392, and today we rationalize a standard mid -baroque pitch to be A415.

The Head joint, as its name implies, is the top joint of the flute and contains the blow hole. Notice that the blow hole of the traverso is much smaller than on the silver flute. This, plus the conical bore, gives the traverso its dark tone color, and also allows for rapid correction of pitch. The top of the head joint bore is stopped off by a well fitted cork located about one bore diameter's length from the center of the blow hole. The exact position of the cork is crucial to the tuning of the flute. This is described in a following page on the Screw Cap.

Many of the originals of the period were equipped with up to seven interchangeable middle joints. This allowed the flute to be played at any pitch over a range of about one semitone (there was no standard pitch in the eighteenth century). Our modern pitch standard of A440 is not a very warm sound for the traverso, yet many players today require an A440 joint to allow them to play with friends who may not be equipped at the A415 baroque pitch. If your flute has A415 and A440 middle joints, these would be the equivalent of numbers 1 and 7 of a typical set of seven. This means that A415 and A440 demand that the flute play over the widest practical jump of pitch (one semitone). You will find that the traverso manages remarkably well at both pitches, considering that only one part of it is replaced. A415 is usually the most centered pitch, and you will be drawn to it quite naturally.

The foot joint of your flute may be equipped with a Foot Register. This is the name for the sliding extension at the end of the foot joint, usually including the lowest imitation ivory ring of the flute. The foot register and its use are described fully in a later page.

Care of the Eb Key.

Looking at the foot joint, notice that it has one silver key covering the seventh tone hole. Since the lowest note is D, we can say that the keyed hole is the E flat note. The key is sprung, and when depressed it stops just short of touching the lower joint. The silver key is easily bent if pressed hard, and too heavy a hand will alter its setting, causing it to touch the lower joint. Try to resist leaving your finger on the E flat key. The key is padded with leather, or foam rubber and it should hinge squarely onto the top of the tone hole. A little talcum powder applied to the key pad helps to prevent the pad from becoming sticky from bore oil. A dry winter might sometimes shrink the foot joint slightly so that the slot for the key narrows and stiffens the action of the key, rendering it unworkable. The key needs to be removed and a small amount of filing on the width of the stem will allow it to loosen up and work properly. It is always okay to return the flute to be re-adjusted in this fashion, but if time and distance are a consideration, and there are no convenient woodwind repair shops, your local friendly jeweler should be able to do the job in about five minutes. If the key is very firmly stuck, place the foot joint in a plastic bag with a damp cloth for a few hours or a few days, and this should loosen it. The key can be removed by first pushing out the silver hinge pin. The end of a paper clip is just the right size for this job. Do it carefully, and do not scratch the wood.

Care of the Tenons.

The end of the thread wrapping on the tenons is not tucked in. It is held neatly against the windings by a little cork grease, and it can be located by scratching across the windings with your fingernail until the end shows. The thread is pure silk impregnated with beeswax. If at any time the end of the thread starts to unwind, this indicates that the joint should be greased with cork grease (use commercial cork grease from a music store, make your own from beeswax and Vaseline mixed together hot about 50/50, or use 'Chapstick'). Provided that the joints have been well greased with cork grease, it is a good habit to lightly coat the joints with Vaseline only before each assembly. My experience is that the average player tends to neglect this, and threaded tenons are often forced dry into the sockets resulting in unraveling the thread, and sometimes in cracking the sockets. If the threads do become untidy, it is a simple matter to locate the end of the thread, unwind as much as necessary, then rewind the tenon neatly, before greasing.

If necessary, use the extra thread supplied to adjust the fit of the tenons You will be tempted to use the socket to help squeeze a new layer of the thread into shape. Don't do this. It might result in a cracked socket. Instead, add a few turns at a time, grease, smooth down the windings with the fingers, then carefully fit the socket. Do not cut off the thread until you are satisfied that you have a good fit. The joints need only feel secure, not tight.

Flute Pitch and Intonation.

If the same traverso is handed to a dozen good players, it will be played at a dozen different pitches. This is because each player tends to develop the embouchure that works best for their sense of the sound they wish to develop. Each of us will have a favorite sound to reach for, or be influenced by the playing of our teachers, and it is probably true that the situation was the same in eighteenth century Europe. Ideally, it would be good to allow the flute to play at, say A415, for every style of player. The head joint can be pulled out by a small amount ( about 3mm) without much affect, but more than that begins to interfere with the overall response. Notice the difference in the thick wall of the tenon, compared with a modern silver flute, which has a wall thickness of half a millimeter. You will appreciate that pulling out the head joint of the traverso begins to make a large swelling in the bore at the head of the socket, whereas the modern flute may be pulled out quite a bit, allowing a large change in pitch without interfering with response.

Until such times as players adhere to a relatively uniform style of playing (hopefully, they will not!) it is best to let the flute maker know your style of playing beforehand. As a generalization, American players play the same flute sharper than Continentals, and the British play lower still. Your flute has been made with a definite sound center at the correct pitch, but it may not necessarily work there for you. If this is the case, try living with the instrument for a few weeks to see if you find that center. After that time, if you wish to have the overall pitch or intonation adjusted, please contact the maker. Ideally, the flute should work for you at the correct pitch, with the head pulled out about 1 mm when it is warmed up, and in a playing room which is at a comfortable temperature (68 degrees F.) The pulled out head allows you some latitude for colder rooms. Remember the flute's pitch is a function of air temperature, humidity, and your playing style. The pitch of a flute rises with temperature. Try to avoid testing your flute by blowing at a 'Korg' tuner, or some other meter. It is 99% certain that you will play sharper into a test meter than you will in a musical context, and A is not the best note to test. Middle d is more stable. This is true in my experience, even for very experienced professional players. It takes a lot of practice to avoid regarding the sound meter as a test of strength and support. The best way to test if the flute is centered at the correct pitch is to test it in a musical context, preferably with a fixed pitch instrument, such as a harpsichord. The flute should be warmed up, the harpsichord must be stable and its pitch measured by a meter, and the room should be at a temperature which is characteristic of your normal playing environment. Now play a few sonatas. If under these conditions you feel you have to press hard, or hold back, then an adjustment should be made. Remember that your playing style is another variable. A beginner would do well to question their style as part of the test. A good teacher is an asset here. The beginner is usually puzzled by the apparent flat F# and sharp F natural, until they get used to the meantone tuning, and the technique of rolling in and rolling out. Again, a good teacher should be sought where possible.

Woodwind Bores.

Players who are new to wood flutes need to know that these instruments react to moisture and temperature in a more delicate way than do metal flutes. There is an excellent probability that your wood flute can last for centuries with proper care, and without that care it may be harmed in just a short time. Cracks can and do occur, but the incidence is low. Of the seven thousand wooden flute joints ( four joints make up one flute) that I have made, about forty have cracked, and mostly because of the way they have been treated. Most players would like to believe the fault lies in the material.

Existing original renaissance and baroque woodwinds are not sealed against moisture in the bore. They require conscious care in order to prevent cracking, both while playing, and while in storage. The same applies to present day woodwinds which have a bore treated only with natural oils. Quite simply, if you wish to have a flute modeled as closely as possible on an original, the bore must not be too smooth, and it must be soaked in a non-hardening cold pressed vegetable oil, such as peanut oil. Such a flute can give many years of trouble free service when treated with care, yet it could possibly be damaged in thirty minutes no matter what its age if it is subjected too quickly to changes of temperature and humidity. Some priceless originals have been cracked by too much playing too soon by eager musicians in the process of re-discovering their fine qualities. It is best to bear in mind always that a flute is a delicate thin-walled wooden tube which has to be continuously subjected to big changes in temperature and humidity, factors which result in very definite changes in its physical geometry. There is a limit to what the flute maker can do in preparing the instrument for such an environment, and proper care for the flute by its owner over the whole life of the instrument is to be encouraged. I have met many players who have good care habits, but my experience has been that the average player's treatment of his or her instrument tends to be a little forgetful. Here is a good test for the experienced player: When did you last oil your flute, and what condition are the winding in? When where the tenons last greased?

A further complication exists for players who live in conditions where the air gets much dryer than was experienced by those who lived and played in Europe two hundred and fifty years ago. This is the case in much of the interior of North America, and in the East Coast of the US. where in winter the humidity drops very low, and wood dries out fast. Remember also when traveling by air, cabin pressure is equivalent to standing at the top of a very high mountain, and the air pressure surrounding you and your flute is quite low. This sucks moisture out of the flute in a rapid drying process. The prudent flute player will always carry the instrument in a plastic bag to seal the moisture in. In areas of dry winter months, keep your flute in a plastic bag when not in use.

You will have noticed by now that the subject of 'too much playing too soon' and its danger to woodwinds has been repeated often in this text. This is being done with purpose, not to be alarmist, but so that the subject becomes second nature to you as you enjoy your new flute. This way, your flute will last a lifetime. Here is some more information about wood and water:

The Effect of Moisture in Woodwinds.

Many old woodwinds have survived from the eighteenth century, both in museums and in private collections. The bores appear to have no sealer to prevent moisture from the player's breath from permeating the wall material of the instrument (wood or ivory). Various oils were used as a partial barrier, probably natural vegetable oil. Oiling the bore of a woodwind appears to both improve the sound if the instrument is dry, and also to act as a barrier to droplets of water condensed from the player's breath. Oil is very useful as an acoustical seal to improve tone, and it does help repel moisture in liquid form. It does not stop moisture in gaseous form from penetrating into the wood or ivory of the flute. (The oil in its molecular structure can be thought of as a large lattice fishnet trying to stop very small water molecules from passing through...without success). An oil-soaked flute will absorb moisture from the player breath just as quickly as a dry flute. It is important to remember this: Oiling the bore of a flute does not allow you to play it for longer period, In the case of a new instrument or an old one that has been in storage, playing floods the flute with moisture from the player's breath. We are used to thinking of moisture as drops of liquid, or the cloud of vapor coming from our breath on a cold day. This is moisture which is not in solution, but air absorbs and carries moisture in the form of an invisible gas, and it is this form which quickly penetrates the inside wall of the flute, expanding the innermost layers of wood while the outside remains dry and stable. The idea of 'playing in' your flute is to allow enough time for this moisture to permeate evenly throughout the wood. Too much playing, too soon results in the inner layers of wood swelling to impose a 'hoop' stress which can strain the instrument unnecessarily. This is why it makes good sense to adhere to the 'playing in' schedule referred to earlier. Swabbing with a cloth helps a little by preventing further absorption, and it should always be done as it also improves the tone. Remember most of the moisture enters the flute as a gas in the player's breath. This cannot be swabbed. Note: These paragraphs are included to offer the player a fuller understanding of how wood and water interact. Use this information to increase your enjoyment in playing, and do not feel that you have to be overly cautious. Your flute will often survive lapses in care and attention, but not always. It will give of its best by following the few simple rules given earlier.

Wood as an Instrument Material.

Wood and ivory are very beautiful materials in both sound and appearance when used in woodwind construction. As building materials, they would not be first choice in terms of maintaining their correct shape, and resisting being stressed. Wood is an excellent material for its original purpose: to pump water efficiently from ground to leaf, and to resist moderate strain while in a supple green state (waterlogged) as a living tree trunk. It is sometimes agreeable to think of a wooden instrument as a 'living' thing, compared with, say, a plastic instrument. The fact is, both the wood and the plastic are quite dead, and the dead wood readily soaks up water and changes its shape in doing so, much in the same way as a dead sponge soaking up water in the bathtub. This change of shape occurs unevenly, as a drying log will shrink more around its circumference than in a radial' direction. This is why woodwinds which have not been stabilized by seasoning usually warp into oval cross-sections.

Preparation of Wood, Seasoning.

Freshly cut wood is usually at least 50% water by weight, and is called 'green'. Before use, it must be dried to around 6%-9% moisture content, a typical measure of equilibrium for wood used in string and wind instruments. The drying or seasoning of wood is not necessarily irreversible. Serious study has not revealed any particular merit in, say, slowly air drying for twenty years, compared with kiln drying in a few days. Wood dried for many years before manufacture of a woodwind may be saturated up to its green state in a relatively short playing session. The use of wood in woodwinds can present special problems of stability compared with, say, stringed instruments. The reason, again, is that the wood in woodwind instruments shrinks and swells unevenly when subjected to moisture. Part of my rigorous stabilizing process is to soak the wood after drying, pretending to the wood that it is being played, then allowing it to dry once more. Ideally, we want an oiled bore, like the originals, yet we do not want to have warping and cracking when the instrument is flooded with moisture from the player's breath.

The question is sometimes asked, whether early instrument makers had a particular way of treating wood, now forgotten or lost, which allowed a woodwind to resist damage from moisture. 'Burying boxwood in a pile of manure for twenty years', is often quoted in this respect, from Bate's book on the flute. This in fact was a good way to store the wood without cracking. Variations of this storage are still used in Georgia. It may be that there were effective ways of dealing with moisture in wood, however serious investigation has not uncovered them. The behavior evidenced by surviving originals shows susceptibility to moisture and damage. Opinions and positions abound on this topic, and there is always the tendency to inject some magic into the mysterious process of producing the definitive instrument. Magic is a wonderful ingredient to include in instrument making. It is best added after the details have been handled.

This article covers more than is strictly needed for the enjoyment of your flute, and it is offered here mostly for your interest. Please let me know if you can improve my understanding on all of the above.

Roderick Cameron