The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Woodwind instrument making (flutes)

 

The making of ‘flutes’. Open flutes include the transverse flute and panpipes; closed flutes include the recorder, ocarina and organ pipe.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category  Instruments
Historic area of significance
Area currently practised  UK
Origin in the UK
Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Current no. of trainees
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  11-20
Current total no. of craftspeople  11-20

 

History

Since World War II, flute and other wind instrument making has largely ceased in the UK. Until 2003 Boosey & Hawkes was a major manufacturer of brass, string and woodwind musical instruments. The most famous names in flute making today are American or Japanese. There are many businesses offering the repair of instruments, although none concentrate on flutes alone.

A flute is divided into three parts: the head joint – the most intricate part of the instrument which contains the mouthpiece and is where the sound comes from; the middle section; and the foot joint. The latter two comprise the ‘body’ of the flute. Most flute makers around the world, both factories and hand makers, offer a complete instrument. However, there are also many independent head joint makers working under their own business names and supplying to shops – the head joint requires far less equipment to make than the rest of the flute. A lot of musicians will discard the original head joint and replace it with a handmade one. In the UK, there are several head joint makers and one body maker, plus perhaps three makers who make the whole instrument, although none of them work full time at it. In total, there are probably fewer than fifteen people making complete flutes or parts of flutes.

 

Techniques

 

Local forms

Musical instruments from different countries can sound very different from each other.

 

Sub-crafts

  • Head joint making – the making of the ‘head joint’, the end piece of the flute which contains the mouthpiece and is considered to be the most important part of the instrument

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Training issues: There are no flute making schools in the UK. The School of Musical Instrument Crafts at Newark offers a useful course to begin with but it is impossible to learn everything in three years and gain the depth of understanding required to earn a living from the craft. Daniel Bangham established the Cambridge Woodwind makers to encourage people to enter the trade by having a go and then going on to Newark if they like it – so far there have been three hopefuls in the past 3-4 years.
  • Ageing workforce: Makers are retiring or dying and not being replaced. While the craft is currently classified as ‘endangered’ because there are still people who can do the work, in the next ten years or so it will become ‘critically endangered’ as there will be nobody to pass the knowledge on.
  • Recruitment issues: Young people are not hearing about musical instrument making as a career option. It tends to be mid-life people rather than younger people who are interested in taking up the craft. Also difficult to find people with the necessary skills to take on and train.
  • Market issues: To compete on the world market a handmade instrument has to be extremely good in every respect. If it is, then a high price can be put on it – but it usually takes many years to get to that point, during which the maker may suffer a very low income. However, there is often a mindset that it is not possible to compete on price so it is not worth bothering. On the flip side, it’s not that things can’t be made more cheaply, but it is important that makers charge according to quality.
  • Market issues: It is very difficult to make a living from flute making – there is no money to be made unless you can offer something almost revolutionary that the flute world promptly falls in love with. While developing their skills, a maker will suffer a very low income.
  • Market issues: Cannot keep such things alive artificially by giving them grants – ultimately it is the market that will determine whether such manual skills have a place in the modern world. Start-up grants are probably very attractive if you can get one but what then…?
  • Market issues: Professional players want an instrument that works for them – they don’t mind whether it is mass produced or handmade, as long as it works well.
  • Market issues: The digital revolution within the manufacturing world has brought costs sharply down on every front. Coupled with low labour costs in the Far East, more or less anything can be made quickly and efficiently and delivered to the customer within days. However, small makers are able to offer a certain amount of bespoke design – it really costs no more to put in some minor changes whereas a factory would avoid deviation from its standard designs.
  • Skills dilution: Making flutes is not very profitable, but repairing is doing well with good money. This means that there will be people with the skills to repair instruments but the skills to make instruments will disappear.
  • Loss of skills: Too much machinery dispels some of the handskill. However it is often forgotten that nothing can be made without deep understanding of both materials and methods. The computer takes you so far but the designer must know what he is doing.
  • Loss of skills: People no longer have the skills to make keys.

 

Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known

  • Michael Allen
  • Robert Bigio – specialises in head joints
  • Albert K Cooper
  • Nick Crabb
  • Jack Frazer
  • Ewen McDougall
  • Ian McLauchlan
  • Andrew Oxley – specialises in head joint making and repair
  • Howel Roberts
  • Harry Seeley
  • Willy Simmons
  • Stephen Wessel – specialises in making the bodies of flutes. Looking to retire in the next few years
  • Peter Worrell – embarking on making very specialist clarinets with one-handed mechanisms

Further details about many of the makers listed above, including what they make and how many isntruments they have made, can be found on the Top Wind website.

 

Other information

 

References