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||Europe|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||C19th|
|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.
- Cambridge Woodwind Makers – run courses in making flutes, oboes, clarinets and natural trumpets
- National Association of Musical Instrument Repairers
- Fellowship of Makers and Restorers of Historical Musical Instruments
- The School of Musical Instrument Crafts (Newark)
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:
- Ian McLauchlan
- Andrew Oxley
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.
- British History Online, Industries: Musical Instruments
- Phelan, Jim, (2007) ‘How flutes are made: the headjoint’ in PAN: The Flute Magazine.