Making a flute & its history

Making a flute

there are many kinds of flute. The food that I’m going to talk about here is the classical concert flute, which is played in orchestral, chamber music, jazz bands and sometimes in pop bands. There are also a whole range of wooden flutes, such the Irish flute, which is mostly used as a folk instrument and has a deep rich sound but no or few keys, and then a whole mass of ethnic flutes made out of bamboo, read in anything you can think of that can be hollowed out, such as bones and horns.

But I’m going to stick with the orchestral flute. Most flutes are factory made in an industrial machining and drawing process, but some the more expensive flutes are more handmade than this, but they still rely on machinery to achieve the high accuracy is required for good intonation and easy playing.

Most flutes are made of drawn steel tubing, though I believe that very few the most expensive ones have solid silver or even solid gold platinum heads joints. Presumably the higher density of metals like silver alter the harmonics of the notes that is being produced.

There are three sections of tubing in a flute. The first step is to pass the tube through a drawing process, to achieve high accuracy of internal and external diameters. This is done, drawing press.

The ends are machined, after which pilot holes are drilled in the tubes at the centre of each finger hole. Temporary inserts, which act as positioning jigs, are inserted into these pilot holes and the machined and curved tubular sections which is going to be where the finger pad sits, is positioned on to the jigs and wired in place. The bearing posts on which the keys will eventually be located, and which are brazed onto a backing plate are positioned on to the tube, and the whole assembly is brazed into place. The holes then go through a final machining process to size them achieve high accuracy.

Many of the 120 individual parts that make up the flute’s 20 keys and mechanism, are cast using the lost wax process. In the lost wax process, the parts are first moulded in wax, then put into a cluster of similar parts called a tree, and then molded into a ceramic block. On heating, the wax melts and is absorbed into the ceramic, leaving a hollow the shape of part. When molten metal is poured in, it solidifies in the shape of the part. The cluster parts and the tree are broken out of its ceramic case, cut off and polished.

Individual parts are machined to create bearing holes, screw holes etc., and are assembled onto the flute. The head joint comprises small parts which are cut to shape using a template machining had, and again brazed into place. The whole operation typically uses low-tech machine tools and is fairly labour-intensive. It would be interesting to know whether any of the high volume of manufactures of student flutes that are made in China use CNC machine tools, but is more likely that the process is very similar as Labour is still plentiful in the country.

The history of the flute

Like any woodwind instrument, or indeed brass instrument, the note is produced by causing a tube of air of specific length to resonate. The length of the tube defines the frequency of resonance and hence the pitch of the note. The keys of the flute opened in various combinations varies the length flute that can resonate, when more than one hole is open it modifies the effective resonant length in various ways to achieve notes that lie between.

In the classical or concert flute, the initial disturbance of the air which initiates the wave and causes resonance to be maintained, is achieved by blowing air over a whole, impinging the air on a sharp edge. This causes eddy currents in the air which are rhythmical enough to begin the propagation of pressure waves at the joint of the flute which sets the air the length of flute into oscillation.

Close relative of the flute are instruments like whistles, recorders and ocarina, where air is blown into a mouthpiece which directs it against a sharp edge, which as in the concert flute causes turbulence which start-up the vibrations of air in the instrument. The advantage of this sort of instrument, with a mouthpiece, is that the air is directed in exactly the right direction against the sharp edge to cause the note. No skill is needed by the player, other than to keep the airflow within certain bounds, otherwise it either fails to play because not enough energy is being put into the system, or it squeals because too much energy is going in and it is going up an octave in pitch. (Blowing harder to raise the pitch by an octave is used by skilled musician on both recorder and a concert flute, but get it just right is very difficult.)

Another variation is to blow the air against the whole of the tube at one end. Instruments the work in this way other Japanese bamboo flutes, and also the panpipes, which do not have finger holes, instead having a number of wire together in a row, each one of a different length and playing a different note.

Flutes, along with trumpets and similar instruments which have been discussed earlier, have been around since prehistoric times. In their basic form their extremely simple instruments, and remains which are believed to be part of the flute have been discovered in caves, dating back 43,000 years, and are thought to have been played by Neanderthal hominids. Archaeological remains of ancient Egyptian flutes had been found in Royal tombs and inscriptions indicate that some Aryans also used similar instruments. We mostly think of panpipes being played by South American Indian bands, and this has become very popular in the last 15 or 20 years. But the ancient Greeks used panpipes and before that the Chinese. They fell out of favour in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, and single tube flutes with fingering holes were brought back into Europe from Arab countries, by the Crusaders.

Baroque flutes were wooden, much like the modern folk Irish flute, typically made of boxwood and with finger holes and no or at least limited number of keys. Instrument was redesigned in the 17th century by French instrument makers, splitting it into a head joint, a body and a foot joint. The design remains like this today. As the technology of flute making and flute playing developed, more keys were added.

The flute is a very versatile instrument, played in classical ensembles and symphony orchestras, including flute and string quartets which are popular for weddings, folk groups of all kinds including ceilidh bands and barn dance bands, jazz bands often being alternated with a saxophone and played by the same musician, and even pop bands.