Monica Cass weaving a ‘tau tray’ using skeined willow in Norfolk. Photo copyright Katherine Mager.
A chair seater, a concertina maker and a brick and tile maker are among the recipients of the latest round of grants awarded to help safeguard some of the UK’s most endangered craft skills.
The Heritage Crafts Association, which is due to publish the third edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts in May, has awarded a further nine grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.
This round of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund has been offered with support from the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust, the Radcliffe Trust and the Swire Charitable Trust. The nine successful recipients are:
- Duncan Berry, from West Sussex, to buy tools to enable him to pass on his skills as a flint waller.
- Ben Bosence, from East Sussex, to develop and make bricks and tiles from waste clay that has been excavated locally.
- Monica Cass, from Norwich, to train a chair seat weaver in skeined willow techniques, and document the process.
- Collette Davies, from Monmouth, to help revive the craft of lipwork straw basketry.
- Tom Frith-Powell, from Cumbria, to develop a gelatine sized paper as part of his commercial handmade papermaking charity.
- Bob Green, from Brighton, to buy tools to enable him to develop and pass on his skills as a flint waller.
- Jake Middleton-Metcalf, from Buckinghamshire, to be trained in making the critical working components of the English system concertina.
- Tony Millyard, from Northamptonshire, to pass on flute making skills and to develop a new model of flute.
- Dominic Parrette, from East Sussex, to build shave horses to allow him to teach trainees how to make Sussex trug and Devon stave baskets.
A hand made Anglo-German Concertina by Jake Middleton-Metcalfe. Photo copyright Jake Middleton-Metcalfe.
These nine projects follow 18 awarded in previous rounds, covering endangered crafts such as scissor making, sail making, damask weaving, boot tree making, cockle basket making, folding knife making, neon bending, coracle making, fan making and swill basket making, coppersmithing, withy pot making, disappearing fore-edge painting, plane making and kishie basket making.
As usual the fund was oversubscribed, and the HCA hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.
HCA Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis said:
“The impact of COVID-19 in the last twelve months has only compounded the pressures on those at-risk craft skills that were already on the verge of being lost, but have so much to offer a post-COVID future, as productive and fulfilling ways to rebuild a sustainable economy. These projects will realise some of that potential.”
The Endangered Crafts Fund has been funded through generous donations from organisations including Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust, the Radcliffe Trust, as well as individuals who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds. The forthcoming 2021 edition of the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts is funded by the Pilgrim Trust.
The HCA continues to seek further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion. Donations are welcome at any time.
Stephen Wessel – photo by South West News Service
Deadline: 31 October 2019
The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) has set out to save British flutemaking by seeking potential trainees interested in learning this intricate and highly-skilled craft from a retiring master.
Stephen Wessel from Somerset is currently believed to be the last full-time craftsperson in the UK making fully handmade Boehm system flutes.
Stephen’s impending retirement, after 35 years in the business, not only ends a long and illustrious career, but could signal the end of flutemaking in the UK – a proud tradition stretching back to the nineteenth century.
Even before news of Stephen’s retirement, the scarcity of British flute makers had led to the craft being reclassified as critically endangered in this year’s edition of the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts.
As the organisation set up to safeguard traditional craft skills in the UK, the HCA has teamed up with Jonathan Myall (a lifelong flute enthusiast and owner of Just Flutes in South Croydon) who has offered to host and support a trainee while they learn the craft from Stephen.
The successful applicant will be keen to learn, will have a proven ability to solve technical problems, and is likely to have existing engineering skills (such as those gained from precision silversmithing, jewellery or model engineering) which will serve them well when learning to make the key mechanisms that create the beautiful even tone for which these flutes have become famous.
Stephen Wessel said:
“I started my working life as a research engineer. I didn’t care for it and left aged 26 to do my own thing… a good decision which I have never regretted, for I love making things and you can’t do much of that sitting in an office. Ours is still a great manufacturing nation and in my small way I feel proud to be part of it.”
For more details and application form, email Mary Lewis, HCA Endangered Crafts Officer, at email@example.com. Applicants should note that the traineeship is dependent on the HCA and Jonathan Myall sourcing additional funds once a suitable candidate has been identified.
Flute making (concert)
The making of as transverse flutes, blown across an embouchure hole and held sideways to the player, as distinct from the recorder or organ flute pipe. This listing includes:
- Concert flutes based on the Boehm system – these are usually made with a metal body, but can include wooden bodies and/or headjoints
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|3-4 makers of concert flute bodies;
Around 5-6 makers of concert flute head joints
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|1-5 part time students being taught by Robert Bigio. It is estimated that 1 of these will go on to sell an occasional flute
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
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 – an important part of the instrument which carries the lip plate and embouchure hole where the sound is initiated; the middle section; and the foot joint. The latter two comprise the ‘body’ of the flute and have the most effect on timbre, tuning, resonance and playablility. 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 ten people making complete flutes or parts of flutes.
Modern makers build either modern Boehm concert flutes usually made of metal (Wessel, Allen) but sometimes wood (Bigio, Roberts), or Baroque or Simple System flutes requiring less or very little keywork (Raven).
- Metal flutes: silversmithing (including other precious metals such as gold and platinum).
- Key making: depending on the materials, forging, casting, waterjet cutting, machine shop work of various kinds, precision hand work using specialist, often homemade tools, silver soldering.
- Case making: fine cabinetmaking skills
In order to remain competitive on the world stage many ‘craft’ makers such as Allen, Wessel and others have chosen unconventional materials and processes.
- Flute padding – the art of making each key 100 per cent airtight for the flute to produce its maximum power and resonance. This is a skill that can greatly improve the performance of factory made instruments and is vital to the success and stability of any flute.
- Case making – every flute needs proper protection. Some modern makers buy in cases from elsewhere, others such as Wessel make their own mainly from wood.
- Tool making – the ability to make or adapt hand tools, jigs and fixtures as required.
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.
- 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.
- Manufacturing issues: Flute making has traditionally not been a ‘craft’ activity carried out by a single artisan. Until quite recently instruments were made in workshops large enough to allow a division of labour, often accompanied by a degree of sub-contracting. It is a relatively modern idea that a lone craftsperson would make an instrument from start to finish and market it himself or herself. It does happen, but difficult to make it efficient, and any better-organised workshop can probably do a better job, faster and cheaper.
- 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.
Craftspeople currently known
Concert flute body and head joint makers:
- Stephen Wessel– Stephen has now retired but the Wessel brand will continue under the new ownership of Just Flutes with makers trained by Stephen Wessel. Stephen continues to do repair and servicing work.
- Robert Bigio
- William Simmons
- Michael Allen – mainly makes head joints, but also makes a treble flute body in the key of G. (this may have been a one-off)
- Peter Worrell makes very specialist woodwind instruments with one-handed mechanisms. Maker of Marching Flutes for bands in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Teaches courses for One Keyed Flutemaking and Metal Headjoint making at Cambridge Woodwind Makers. Maker of Simple system modern flutes and Eb clarinets.
Concert flute head joint only makers:
In summary, there is no definitive, published information on how to make a flute. The British Flute Society’s journal ‘PAN’ has published short articles in the past written by makers.