MAKING A LOVE FLUTE (NATIVE AMERICAN STYLE FLUTE)
What I’ve Learned So Far
By David Osborn
Introduction: The Art of Making a Native American Style Flute
Recent years have seen a great resurgence of interest in the Native American Style Flute (NASF), also known as the Love Flute. Along with a surging demand for flutes has come a great proliferation of Native Flute makers to cater to their diverse demands, for everything from a cheap or basic beginner’s model flute to a high end work of art. There are instruments for those who are more into the playing or musical end of things all the way to those beautiful works of art that are destined to become collectors’ items. Most people are looking for an instrument that sounds good and plays well on the one hand, but which is also attractive and aesthetically pleasing to look at as well. A maker can either focus primarily on the sound of the flutes they make, or on their looks, or on both. The art of making the Love Flute or Native American Style Flute is an art that has two basic sides to it: the acoustical or musical side of making a flute that sounds good and plays well; and the artistic or artisanal side of crafting a flute of exquisite beauty and good looks. And each of these two sides has its own particular challenges.
My Own Personal Flute Making Quest
I started to make Native American Style Flutes because I could not find any flutes out there that truly lived up to the acoustical ideals that I had for the instrument. Simply stated, my own personal dissatisfaction with the Native American Style Flute was rooted in its biggest limitation or handicap, which is its extremely limited range. Of all the various world flutes that I knew of, the NASF had the smallest range – just a little more than one octave, whereas other world flutes could boast at least two octaves. I had long recognized that the source and cause of the problem lay in the NASF’s extremely wide bore, or air column width in relation to its length. And wider bored flutes seem to be the trend with the top makers nowadays. To extend the instrument’s upper range, the bore diameter had to be made narrower in relation to the air column length. Textbooks on making the NASF recommend a 1 to 18 ratio of bore width to air column length as being ideal, but many top makers are lowering that ratio to 1 to 15 or 16. By contrast, the Indian Bansuri flute has an air column width to length ratio of 1 to 25 or so, and for the modern silver flute, that ratio is 1 to 30 or 31. Why did the NASF, seemingly alone out of all world flutes, have to be so darn wide on the inside?
In so many artistic pursuits, where artistic problems must be solved, it all boils down to a question of balance, to finding that “sweet spot” of harmony and balance between two opposing ends of an artistic spectrum. On the one hand, I wanted to preserve the broad, full tone of the NASF, and keep the lowest note or fundamental strong and easy to play – which requires a sufficient width of the bore in relation to its length. But on the other hand, I wanted to extend the instrument’s upper range, which would inevitably involve narrowing the bore to some degree. In addition, I have learned that the particular sound production mechanism used in the NASF imposed certain limitations on it as to how narrow the bore could be in relation to the air column length before the fundamental note was too weak, and the sound broke into the octave overblow too easily. If you made a NASF with a 1 to 30 air column width to length ratio, for example, the fundamental note would be virtually impossible to produce. The sound production mechanism of the NASF also seems to limit it on the top end as well, as the usual increase of pucker power in the embouchure used to produce the upper notes on a silver or transverse flute, for example, was impossible on the NASF, where embouchure and lip tension have no bearing on sound production. Some NASF makers blame the Slow Air Chamber behind the sound production mechanism for not permitting enough back pressure to play the high notes. Either way, the working reality is a very limited range.
I also realized fairly early on that my new vision for the NASF would probably require some major modifications and adjustments in the positioning of the finger holes – and I was right. In general, I found that having a narrower bore requires that the finger holes be moved downwards considerably from their original positions, for complex acoustical reasons. In short, this artistic quest of mine is ongoing, and although my initial trials and experiments have been encouraging, it will take a while, and probably quite a few more flutes, before I finally “get all the bugs out” and have a narrow bore flute that I can really be satisfied with. Consider this article to be a kind of chronicle of my experiments to date, and what I have learned from them. But this quest to perfect a narrower bore NASF has only been one side of my ongoing learning experience with making flutes of this type. The other side has involved basic flute making skills and procedures that are common to making all kinds of Native Flutes, whether they have a narrow bore or a wide one.
A Word on Wood – And Woodworking Methods
When one sets out to make Native American Style Flutes, one can go by either one of two ways. The first way is to make your flutes by hand, using only hand tools; the second way is to use machine tools, and to automate as much of the work as possible. There is also a third option, which is that of partial automation, doing some things by hand and other things with machine tools. Although I have met NASF makers who claim that they do everything by hand, automation is increasingly the order of the day, especially if one wants to run an efficient commercial operation, and turn flute making into a profit making enterprise. As for me, I have had to do most of the work by hand, with hand tools. It’s not only that I don’t have the money to make costly investments in machine tools; I also don’t have the right living situation or available workspace to do it. So, I have to do most of it by hand. If you are to invest in machine tools, the following ones, in my estimation, are the most valuable as labor saving devices: a router and routing table; a belt sander; a drill press; a lathe; and a Dremel tool with a good assortment of bits and attachments. A band saw and a jig saw can also come in handy.
Now for a word on wood: If you are making a flute by hand, or mostly by hand, it’s usually a very good idea to stick to the softer woods, especially in your early days of learning the craft, since they are much easier to work with hand tools. Not only is working the harder woods by hand painfully slow and difficult, but you can also get overzealous in really “laying into the wood” to get your work done faster to make bold, definitive strides forward towards completion, only to be disappointed that those zealous moments only leave unsightly scars and gouges behind in the finished product that will inevitably hurt its overall appearance and value. By the softer woods I am referring to your various Cedars and other soft, coniferous woods like Pine, Juniper and Redwood, as well as your Betulaceae or Birch family woods like Aspen, Birch, Cottonwood and Poplar. Anything harder than these woods will only invite unnecessary tedium, frustration and the possibility of costly injury to the wood in the name of progress. Not only are machine tools quicker and more efficient as labor saving devices for the harder woods, but they are also more accurate and reliable in the work they do – on any kind of wood.
Of course, you can indulge yourself in philosophical debates over the relative pros and cons of the cold, mechanical precision of machine tools versus the more natural, organic Zen touch of doing it all by hand, but at the end of the day, machine tools produce results that are not only much quicker and more efficient, but also more accurate and reliable. Also, if you’re working by hand, expect a natural learning curve, and having to work your way through quite a few flutes to practice and hone your carving and woodworking techniques to achieve the kind of reliability and precision necessary for making quality flutes. Practice makes perfect. Certain aspects of the flute making operation are notoriously more difficult and time consuming than others when one is working by hand; these are the phases of flute making that usually require the biggest learning curve as well, especially if you are after the accurate, quality work necessary to produce fine flutes. Why exactly are you making flutes, and for whom? If you are a spare time hobbyist in your overall approach to the craft, or if you are making flutes only for your own playing and enjoyment, then working by hand is acceptable, but if you are looking to start a commercial operation, then by all means, invest in some machine tools.
The Heart of the Matter: Hollowing Out the Bore
Of all the phases of flute making, hollowing out the bore is probably one of the most difficult and challenging, especially if you are working by hand. The traditional method is to make the NASF out of two planks of wood that serve as the front and back of the instrument, mirroring each other exactly, and then to glue those front and back pieces together to make the flute block, which is then carved and thinned down to size after assembly. The down side of the traditional method is that extra care must be taken in the glue-up process to make sure that the two halves of the bore are perfectly in sync with each other, or as much as is humanly possible. A trick to doing this is to insert a dowel stick into the bore as you are applying the clamps to fix the two glued pieces together and pulling it out quickly after the pieces are clamped together, before the glue sets. Then there is the problem of eliminating the glue spillout on the inside after the clamps are in place – you can swab it with a wet cloth attached to a narrow dowel stick, or you can use dowel sticks to which coarse grit sandpaper has been glued to sand down the spillout ridges after the glue has cured. The final drawback of this method is that there will always be a seam, which is not only visible from the outside, but which can also be feelable on the inside, after you glue the two flute blanks together to make a flute.
These drawbacks of the traditional glue-up process have led many NASF makers to drill the bore out of a solid block of wood with a gun drill on a lathe – no seams, no sync-up necessary, and the bore is perfect every time. Hollowing out the bore is probably the phase of flute making that is most prevalently automated, no matter whether you use the traditional glue-up process or go the gun drill route. Most commonly, the two halves of the flute, called the flute blanks, are hollowed out mechanically on a router for optimum precision and uniformity of the bore. That is how I first started out making the NASF – I purchased flute blanks that had been routed out from www.woodwindflutes.comin Missouri, and did everything else by hand. Luckily, I could work with Woodwind Flutes to custom order banks with narrower bores, as per my specifications. I have since started to experiment with hollowing out the two halves of the flute bore by hand, using high quality Japanese carving tools that I acquired from a Japanese hardware store in Japantown, San Francisco. Carving out the two halves of the flute bore by hand, and making the result smooth and accurate enough to produce a fine flute has definitely been a challenge, and my experimentation in this area is still ongoing. First, I rough carve the two halves of the flute bore as accurately as I can; then, I shave the inside with a cylindrical Surform tool, and then sand it smooth with dowel sticks to which coarse grained sandpaper has been glued to make the finished product. And of course I am sticking to the softer woods in my initial practice and experimentation.
Hollowing out the flute blanks with a router is definitely the most accurate and efficient way to hollow out the two halves of the bore, but it is not without its potential drawbacks. Perhaps the main drawback is that it always produces a perfectly uniform and cylindrical bore. I have run across flute making videos on YouTube in which the author / flute maker openly says that he does not use a router, but hollows out the two halves of the bore by hand because he wants to make flutes with tapered bores, and not cylindrical ones. And by tapering the bore, he means tapering it so that it is significantly wider at its top or blowing end that it is at the bottom or foot of the bore, somewhat like a recorder or block flute. Just think about it – making a tapered bore flute with machine tools would indeed involve a lot of costly machinery. Whatever kind of bore you make – glued up or bored out, cylindrical or tapered, the bore is the very heart of the matter when it comes to flute making, and is the heart of the flute’s sound. That’s why you want a bore that is as smooth, uniform and as precision engineered on the inside as possible, and free of the ruts and ridges of poorly executed bore work that can really damage the sound of the finished flute.
Also, the NASF is distinctive among world flutes in that it contains not just one hollowed out chamber in its anatomy, but two. In addition to the main chamber or tube of the instrument, in which the finger holes are drilled, which NASF makers call the Sound Chamber, the NASF also has what makers call the Slow Air Chamber, which is a kind of vestibule or antechamber to the sound producing mechanism of the duct or flue plus the cutting edge and true sound window – and this has to be hollowed out as well. In between the two chambers lies a barrier or partition. The Sound Chamber, as the primary vibrating body in the NASF, must be smooth, uniform and well engineered to produce a clear, solid musical sound, but the Slow Air Chamber, although less crucial, is also important in that it must be engineered in such a way as to promote smooth air flow and reduce turbulence as much as possible in guiding the player’s breath into the duct or flue and towards the Cutting Edge and True Sound Window, which produces the sound.
So – how exactly do you hollow out the bore to produce this distinctive dual chambered structure in the NASF? As I see it, there are basically two ways of doing this, whether you are going the traditional glue-up route or even boring out a solid block with a gun drill. Either the two chambers can be hollowed out separately from the single plank or block, or a barrier separating what then becomes the two chambers can be inserted into the bore of the instrument at the right place – right beneath the duct or flue, which marks the external separation of the two chambers. Most commonly, a section of dowel stick is inserted into the bore during the glue-up process if the traditional method is used and glued in place at the right spot; this has the added advantage of sync-ing up the two halves of the bore and assuring an accurate glue-up. If the gun drill route is taken, then the partition has to be shoved up into the bore until it reaches precisely the right place, which is considerably trickier.
The Heart and Soul of the Love Flute: The Sound Production Mechanism
Earlier, I spoke of the Sound Chamber and its bore as the primary vibrating body, as being the real heart of the matter when it comes to Native Flute making. But even behind this, and before the primary vibrating body of the Sound Chamber is set into motion, what sets it into motion is the Sound Production Mechanism, which consists of a “Holy Trinity” of three parts: the “throat” of the instrument, which is the narrowing passageway into the Duct or Flue; the Duct or Flue, which focuses and guides the concentrated air stream into the True Sound Window; and the True Sound Window and its Cutting Edge, which divides the air stream, producing the sound, thereby setting the principal vibrating body of the Sound Chamber into vibration. The overall job or function of these exceedingly sensitive and delicate structures can be described, in a nutshell, as being mechanical replacements in the body of the flute for what is supplied by the delicate and complex structures of the player’s throat, mouth and lips in other flutes. By building these structures into the body of the instrument, the Love Flute becomes one of the easiest flutes in the world to play, dispensing with all considerations of proper embouchure.
The three basic parts of the Sound Production Mechanism are indeed some of the most delicate and sensitive structures of the Love Flute, and even slight adjustments or “tweaking” of these structures can produce major changes and improvements in the quality of the sound. And so, in carving out and fashioning these delicate structures, you want to use precision hand tools like Exacto knives and various needle files – or possibly precision machine tools like Dremel tools. Generally speaking, the neater and cleaner you can make the cut, and your work, in these delicate and sensitive areas the better your flute will sound, as roughness and shoddy work creates undue turbulence, which disturbs the harmonious vibrations of the sound produced. Confucius said that the line between love and hate is paper thin, and likewise, in these delicate and sensitive structures, the line between a sound you hate and a sound you love can also be paper thin, requiring just a few strokes of the needle file or Exacto knife to cross. So be patient, and keep on tweaking!
Now, let’s take a closer look at the delicate structures of the Sound Production Mechanism:
The Throat is what I call the transitional passage between the Slow Air Chamber and the Duct or Flue. Its job is to funnel or concentrate the air stream of the player’s breath into the narrow Duct or Flue, and the more smoothly that it does this, and the less air turbulence that is created, the smoother and clearer the resulting sound will be. And one of the main sources of turbulence in the throat area is usually created if the air stream hits an abrupt, vertical wall at the far end of the Slow Air Chamber before going into the Flue. To remedy this, many makers have used various means and methods to create a “ramp” or gradual incline instead of an abrupt wall. I have created a ramp in the Throats of my flutes with the insertion of epoxy putty. Other makers, who insert a section of dowel stick to create the partition, have cut the dowel stick diagonally at its upper or near end to create the ramp. There can also be other sources of roughness or turbulence occurring in the throat of a Love Flute – to eliminate them, make the passage as smooth as possible, and above all, make it sufficiently open, and not unduly constricted. After all, who can sing properly with a tight or choked throat?
The Duct or Flue is that extremely narrow and flat channel that concentrates and focuses the air stream of the player’s breath right at the Cutting Edge to create the sound. In width, it is usually 10 to 12 millimeters wide, and only about one millimeter, or the thickness of a credit card, deep. Exacto knives and miniature needle files are essential for cutting and fashioning this exceedingly fine and delicate structure. Even the floor of the Flue needs to be smooth, and not rough, to create a clear, serene sound, as do the lateral walls of the Flue. The tighter or smaller the Flue, the tighter and more concentrated the air stream will be, and the less breath will be required to produce the sound. Conversely, the larger, wider or deeper the Flue, the broader and breathier the sound will be, and the more breath will be required to produce the tone. A close auxiliary or “sidekick” to the Flue is the Totem, Fetish or Bird, whose flat lower surface provides the roof of the Flue. Just as you don’t want a roof that leaks, you don’t want a Bird or Totem that leaks air from the Flue, which can significantly injure the sound, leading to bleating or breaking too easily into the octave overblow. Since it opens right out into the True Sound Window and its Cutting Edge, the Flue works in close interface and interaction with these structures.
The True Sound Window and its Cutting Edge is that rectangular window at the top end of the Sound Chamber or main tube of the flute that lets you peer right into its heart, or bore. Its far or lower end is called the Cutting Edge, since it cuts the air stream in half, producing the sound. The Cutting Edge is usually cut away at about a 30 degree angle beyond the vertical or perpendicular to produce the sound; if it is vertical, it creates too much roughness and turbulence. Exacto knives and various triangular or flat needle files are used to cut the Cutting Edge, whose inward surface should be smooth, uniform and flat; if this is not done, and the interior surface of the Cutting Edge is too rough or round, the sound will be rough or muddy, or will break into the octave overblow too easily. The proximal and lateral sides of the True Sound Window also need to be cut away “fair and square” – if there is too much roughness and miscellaneous “junk” protruding into the True Sound Window, this will roughen or muddy up the resulting sound.
As I said before, the Duct or Flue works closely with the True Sound Window and its Cutting Edge to create the sound. And just as with embouchure issues in other kinds of flutes, the main spectrum or polarity here is between excessive tightness and constriction at one end versus excessive openness, airiness and lack of focus at the other end. And where exactly along this spectrum a particular flute falls says a lot about its maker and how he blows and plays flutes, as well as the artistic and musical ideals he tries to realize in his or her flute making. Likewise, in playing the modern silver flute, for example, there are players who play with a looser embouchure, and hence a broader, breathier tone, versus those who play with a very tight and focused embouchure, with more clarity and definition in the sound. Central to the whole tight versus loose dynamic is the distance between the opening of the Flue at the proximal end of the True Sound Window and the Cutting Edge at its far side. In my experience, five millimeters is at the tight end, whereas seven to eight millimeters is at its loose or open end. Beyond this, the tone gets too breathy and unfocused; tighter than five millimeters, and the sound is too pinched. The bottom line is that this is a very personal and intimate aspect of flute making.
There is, indeed, a fine art to the proper voicing of a Love Flute, which is best learned by experience. Through trial and error, and by constant tweaking and adjustments, the maker gradually learns to troubleshoot any and all voicing problems that may arise. Although some voicing problems may be mysterious and hard to fix, usually, the very quality of the sound itself will give you clues as to what needs to be done. If the sound is tight and constricted, for example, this is usually a sign that there is undue constriction going on in some part of the Sound Production Mechanism. If the sound is too breathy and unfocused, then more tightness and focus are needed. If a flute bleats or breaks into the upper octave too easily, with only slight breath pressure, for example, that can mean that the Totem or Bird is too far forward, and covering some of the True Sound Window; or it can often mean that some air is leaking from underneath the Bird. The Totem or Bird, which provides the roof of the Flue, is an auxiliary to the Sound Production Mechanism, and therefore, adjustments to it, whether they involve the fashioning of the Bird itself or merely just its proper placement, must be considered first and foremost. The beginning Love Flutist soon learns that even seemingly perplexing voicing problems can often be solved by simple adjustments in the position of the Bird.
The Totem, Fetish or Bird
The Totem, Fetish or Bird is another distinctive feature of the Native American Style Flute or Love Flute, and one that has a particularly Native American ring to it culturally, as it is often carved or fashioned into the images of various totem animals that are important in Native American lore and legend. Acoustically, the Bird can also be a very touchy or tricky part of the flute, since it is an auxiliary or accessory to the Sound Production Mechanism, especially the Flue, and secondarily the True Sound Window, and works or interfaces closely with these structures. Simply put, the Totem or Bird provides a flat lower surface that acts as the roof for the Duct or Flue, and just as you wouldn’t want a roof that leaks, you don’t want a Bird that leaks air either. And so, there must be a perfectly flat surface to the flute where it interfaces with the Bird, whose lower surface must also be perfectly flat to properly interface with the Duct or Flue so that no air leaks.
These are the minimum basic requirements for the Bird, and anything beyond this is simply adornment and elaboration, as the Bird can also serve an ornamental or decorative function. The ideal wood for making the Totem, Fetish or Bird should have the following characteristics:
It should be sufficiently hard and durable, to take precision cutting and woodworking, but should also not be too hard, to the point where it is difficult to work properly – but if you are using machine tools, you will be able to use harder woods. Woods that “fill the bill” regarding the right degree of hardness and durability are Alder, Ash, Black Walnut, Cherry and Maple. Even softer woods like Poplar and the various Cedars may be used, but they lack the hardness and durability of the previous woods, and do not take a very high polish.
It should be attractive and aesthetically pleasing, and should preferably be aesthetically versatile as well, being able to fit into a wide variety of color schemes and artistic settings. Selecting the right piece of wood for the Bird is somewhat like putting a dress ensemble together, to have the colors and accents of both the Bird and the body of the flute enhancing and complementing each other. One of the basic aesthetic principles seems to be that a lighter colored Bird works best against a darker colored body, and vice-versa – but not always. One wood that is very attractive and versatile in a wide variety of settings is Black Walnut – just as “basic black” often works well in a wide variety of costume ensembles.
It should be structurally stable, and not prone to excessive warping or skewing. This is to ensure that the Bird will always present a perfectly flat lower surface to interface properly with the Duct or Flue, and provide a roof that doesn’t leak. I was recently quite frustrated by repeated futile attempts to make a Zebrawood Bird that didn’t leak, precisely because, despite its hardness, it warps very easily. What made it all the more upsetting was Zebrawood’s “eye candy” beauty and aesthetic desirability. So don’t use woods that warp easily.
While we’re on the subject of Birds, I must remind you that there are two basic ways of designing Birds and how they interface with the Sound Production Mechanism – the Plains style versus the Woodlands style. Of the two styles of Bird Making, the Woodlands style is definitely the simplest – the Flue is carved into the body of the flute, and all that the Bird needs to provide is a flat lower surface to serve as the ceiling / roof for the Flue. Heck – even a little piece of plywood, or part of an old credit card that is fastened to the Flue with tape or a rubber band will do! The Plains style Bird has the Duct or Flue carved into its lower surface, with the body of the flute where it interfaces with the Bird being the perfectly flat component. The Duct or Flue in the Plains style Bird must terminate or have its top end being right over the hole in the Slow Air Chamber, and be perfectly flat at its back end, again so that no air escapes. In my experience, flutes with a Plains style Bird have a more open, lighter tone quality, probably because their Duct or Flue is more externally located, whereas the sound of the Woodlands style Bird is more veiled and muted, presumably because of the more internal placement of the Duct or Flue.
As I said previously, you can be as elaborate – or as simple and basic – with the Bird as you like. No doubt, the Bird, Totem or Fetish can be one of the most ornamental and elaborate parts of the Native American Style Flute, and Love Flute artistes – by all means, go for it! But my Birds are pretty basic – a flat surface on the bottom, a tapered tail, and a lateral central groove or indentation for tying it to the body of the flute with rawhide strips. The head or anterior / far end of the Bird can either be flat, or it can be indented, with a central recessed part and lateral arms to shelter each side of the True Sound Window. I have experimented with both flat headed Birds as well as those with indented heads, and am currently leaning towards the former as my basic preference. One thing you should know is that Birds with indented heads and sheltering arms have a flattening influence on the pitch when it comes to tuning the flute, due to this sheltering – this should be kept in mind when designing your Bird.
The Glue-Up Process
After you have hollowed out the two halves of the flute, or the flute blanks, and after you have carved the delicate structures of the exit hole from the Slow Air Chamber, the True Sound Window with its Cutting Edge, and the Duct or Flue that connects them both to your satisfaction, then it’s time to glue the two halves of the flute together into one whole, which will become the hollowed out block of wood from which you sculpt your flute. To seal off the bore and the Slow Air Chamber, as well as the delicate structures of the Sound Production Mechanism, from the moisture of the player’s breath, it is highly recommended that you paint these inner structures with a coat of Polyurethane varnish before you glue the two blanks together. Then, applying a moderate coat of aliphatic resin woodworking glue to one of the flute blanks, a coat which is neither too thick nor too thin, you then clamp the two pieces together with wood clamps to set them in place, taking care that, above all, the two halves of the bore of the Sound Chamber are in sync. It doesn’t matter so much if the outside is in sync, because you will be carving and sculpting the outside down into the finished flute – but the inside is where the proper sync up really counts.
A trick of the trade that was revealed to me by Scott Jones of Woodwind Flutes is to insert a dowel stick into the bore that is of the exact same diameter as the bore, which fits snugly into the latter. You can even place the dowel stick inside the lower half or flute blank after applying the glue to it and then clamp the top flute blank onto it from above – the dowel stick will automatically guide the proper sync up – and then you just apply the clamps. Then, with the two halves or flute blanks securely clamped in place, quickly pull the dowel stick out before the glue has time to set or harden. And voila – you have a perfectly synced up and glued pair of flute blanks! It may help to go and buy dowel sticks of the same diameter from different hardware stores, as dowel sticks of the same ostensible diameter bought at different hardware stores can have slight variations in their actual diameters. Because the glue-up of the two halves or flute blanks is a key event in the flute making process that cannot be modified or reversed after the fact, it helps to do a couple of dry rehearsals or run-throughs before “showtime”. It also helps to have a bright light that you can shine in through the True Sound Window to illuminate the inside of the bore when you place the two halves together, to see more precisely exactly how the two halves of the bore sync up before the actual gluing.
After the two halves, or flute blanks, have been securely clamped in place, the excess glue, or glue “squeeze-out” from the clamping needs to be removed from the bore. There are a few different ways of doing this: The first is to tie or wind a long, thin wet piece of cloth around the end of a long, thin dowel stick to swab out the inside of the bore. The second way is to take a long metal rod, to which a burred edge has been hammered into one end, and use it to scrape out the glue squeeze-out from the inside seams of the bore. These first two procedures need to be done while the glue is still wet. The third procedure for dealing with glue squeeze-out is to wait until the glue dries and sand the squeeze-out accretions out from the inside of the bore by using a long dowel stick to which has been glued a piece of coarse grained sandpaper. Once the inside or bore has been properly taken care of, and the excess glue squeeze-out removed, you can then begin work on sculpting the outside of the flute. But before embarking on this next step, I suggest that you wait at least 24 hours, or a full day, for the glue to properly dry and cure.
Sculpting the Flute and Thinning Down the Walls
After finishing up the glue-up process, you have a big block of wood that is waiting to be sculpted down into a flute. Like the master sculptor Michelangelo, you must now free the fine flute that is waiting to be born from the block of wood that imprisons it. This is a very delicate and involved process that must be done in stages, starting from the initial “roughing out” of the flute and going all the way to the final thinning down of the walls to the right thickness they need to be for the finished flute. Of all the steps of the flute making process – with the possible exception of hollowing out the inside, and the bore – this is the one step in which the labor saving devices that are machine tools come in most handy. Let’s face it – with machine tools, the sculpting and wall thinning process will take only a couple of hours, whereas sculpting and thinning by hand can take days, even weeks, to finish. Machine tools are also more precise and dependable in the work they do, especially where harder woods are concerned. Working by hand, there is the big temptation to really “lay into it” when dealing with the harder woods, which can lead to unsightly gouges and deformities in the finished flute.
When using machine tools, there are two basic ways you can go – either by turning the flute block on a lathe, or by using a belt sander – or even both. A lathe also lets you sand with sanding blocks or even rasps. But, since I had neither the financial resources to invest in power tools, nor the living situation and workshop space to accommodate them, I had to do this whole process by hand – which I will now describe to you. The tools I use are: wood carving knives and chisels; Surform planing tools; files and rasps, especially flat and half round ones, of various sizes; and sandpaper and sanding blocks, with sandpaper of assorted grits, from coarse to fine. I have listed these tools in the natural order in which I would use them, from the most rough and preliminary stages of the sculpting and thinning process to the finest stages. Just as important as the tools that actually take the excess wood off are measuring tools, which help to guide me and gauge my progress. These include: a ruler, with both English and metric calibrations, and preferably a clear or transparent one; a good pencil with an eraser; a good set of calipers; and a circles template, preferably metric, with fine calibrations of every millimeter, with the circle diameters from 30 to 35 mm. being the most crucial and useful.
The initial stages of the sculpting and thinning process are those that could be called “roughing it out”; in these stages, the lion’s share of the excess wood is removed. These initial stages could also be called the geometrical stages, because the initial block of wood is progressively cut down into various geometrical shapes or forms – first the diamond, and then the octagon – before rounding off the corners of the octagon to make a round or cylindrical flute. The general rule or piece of advice that I could give you regarding these initial rough or geometrical stages is to perfect each stage before moving on to the next. In other words, when you are “doing the diamond” get the shape into as perfect of a diamond as your final wall thickness parameters will allow before moving on to the next stage, which is activating the octagon. Extra precision and care in making these initial geometric cuts and shapings will save a lot of slow, tedious labor later on, and will also make your work a lot more reliable and precise.
First, mark off an oval area that will serve as the flat surface or “sound plate” which houses and surrounds the structures of the Sound Production Mechanism; this is an “off limits” zone that you will not touch during the sculpting and thinning process. You may even cover these sensitive areas with masking tape to protect them. When you make your geometrical markings with your pencil, you will make them around the oval “off limits” area of the sound plate. The four corners of the initial diamond are to be the midline of the front and back sides of the flute, plus the lateral seams where the two flute blanks were glued together. First, carve and/or chisel the wood off in large chunks or chips, then shave the surfaces down further with a Surform plane and/ or a rough wood rasp until they come as close to the perfect diamond as your final wall thickness parameters, allowing for a margin of one to two millimeters, will allow. Wall thickness is measured at the bottom or foot of the flute, at the midpoints of the four faces or facets of the diamond. To make the octagon from the diamond, each of the four faces or facets of the diamond is roughly subdivided into three equal parts longitudinally, with the corners of the diamond being cut and/or shaved off to make the octagon.
The perfection of the octagon concludes the initial rough or geometrical stages of the sculpting and thinning process. From here on out, the work proceeds at a much slower and more gradual pace until the sculpting and thinning process is completed. Needless to say, patience is a particular virtue here, as haste can indeed make waste. I initially relied heavily on rasps in the initial stages of this phase of the sculpting and thinning process, but I have since abandoned this reliance, primarily due to two reasons: First, it encourages gouging; and secondly, it can leave fine cuts or scratches in the wood, which may escape undetected through the final finishing process. What I have increasingly come to prefer is the use of sandpaper and large or long sanding blocks, sanding lengthwise down the tube walls, to ensure an even and uniform thinning of the walls. This is as close as I can get to the evenness and consistency of a belt sander – albeit in slow motion, of course. First, the corners of the octagon are rounded off, then wood is uniformly taken off, bit by bit, in stages, with the sandpaper and sanding blocks. Coarse grade sandpaper is used for the initial wall thinning, with medium and finer grades used later on.
To guide and gauge your progress, you have the various measuring tools that I enumerated earlier. All wall thinning proceeds from the foot or bottom of the instrument, because it is here that wall thickness can be most easily and precisely measured, with calipers, and with a clear or transparent ruler. From there, each successive stage of the wall thinning process proceeds upwards along the main tube until it reaches “the hilt”, or where the main tube interfaces with the oval sound plate, which protrudes further and further as the walls are progressively thinned. Calipers, as well as a metric circles template, are used to ascertain that wall thickness goals and specifications are met as one proceeds further and further upwards towards the hilt. When the wall thickness has finally come down “into the ballpark”, or within a half a millimeter or so from your final goal, both down at the foot as well as up at the hilt, the wall thinning process is completed. Then the finishing process will take off the final half millimeter or so. Needless to say, the “head” of the instrument, or the part up above the oval sound plate, also needs to be thinned down to an outside diameter that is roughly commensurate with that of the main tube, but this does not need to be so exacting, as it is not as important acoustically.
To have thin walls or thick walls? That is all too often the question when it comes to making the Native American Style Flute. Indeed many makers seem to have a mania for getting the walls “paper thin”, thinking that the thinner the better. Because thinning down the walls is so slow and tedious when it is done by hand, those making a flute by hand are often tempted to abandon the whole wall thinning process when the walls are still quite thick. The main dimensions of this question or dilemma are acoustical and ergonomic, as I shall explain below:
Acoustical: Simply put, thinner walls tend to produce a lighter, brighter sound that is more vibrant and brilliant, whereas thicker walls tend to produce a sound that is heavier, richer and darker. If the walls are too thick, the pitch may sag unless the flute is blown forcefully, and at full strength; conversely, if the walls are too thin, the pitch can rise noticeably when the instrument is blown forcefully. If the walls are too thick, the higher notes may be difficult to produce; if the walls are too thin, the tone may break or bleat too easily with forceful tongueing and articulation. With thicker walls, the fingerholes, being deeply cut into the wood, produce larger air pockets which add to the total volume of vibrating enclosed air, having a noticeable flattening influence on the pitch – the fundamental note may be right in tune before the finger holes are drilled and tuned, but afterwards, the pitch of the fundamental note tends to sag.
Ergonomic: With thicker walls, you get a thicker or wider outer diameter of the flute tube, which can make proper grasping and fingering of the instrument more difficult if this outer diameter is too wide. With thinner walls, the tube’s outer diameter is thinner, and therefore easier to grasp and finger. Thick walled flutes also tend to be heavier in weight, making them more difficult and exhausting to hold up, especially if the wood used is a particularly heavy and dense one. The less wood, the lighter the flute. Flutes with thicker walls tend to need to have the finger holes made wider to produce the same pitch, and finger holes that are too wide may be difficult to finger or cover completely with the pads of the fingers.
How thick is thick, and how thin is thin? Opinions and perspectives on this can vary among different flute makers. My own take on this question is that wall thicknesses of 5 mm. or less are on the thin side, whereas those that are 7 mm. or more are definitely on the thick side, with anything between 5 and 7 mm. in thickness, or about a quarter inch or so, constituting a happy medium between these two extremes. Of course, wall thickness tends to be seen as something that is relative to the bore diameter. The underlying question is: What is the relative proportion of wood (wall thickness) to air (bore diameter)? Keep in mind that, to have a cross-sectional ratio of perfect equality between wood and air, the wall thickness would have to be one half the diameter of the bore – which is, by most makers’ standards, “thick as a brick”. So, air predominates, even in the thicker walled flutes. In a flute whose bore diameter is 20 mm. and whose wall thickness is only 5 mm., for example, there is twice as much air (20 mm.) as wood (wall thickness of 5 mm. x 2 = 10 mm.) See how that works? The goal that you are after is to get that optimum, synergistic mix or blending of air and wood to produce the sound you want, and to have an instrument that handles well and easily.
Sculpting the Head of Your Love Flute
The head of the Love Flute, where it interfaces with the player’s mouth and lips, is one of the most stylistically distinctive parts of the instrument, in addition to the Totem / Fetish or Bird. And certain makers have developed their own distinctive stylings, which can also serve as a visual trademark or calling card for their flutes. In one way or another, the head of the Love Flute serves to taper down the outer diameter of the flute tube down to something that can easily fit in the player’s mouth. Like other aspects of the Love Flute, the head and how it is designed and sculpted serves a dual purpose, which is both aesthetic and ergonomic in nature. Aesthetically, is the overall shape and sculpting of the head attractive and pleasing to the eye? And ergonomically, is the exact shape and size of the head end of the flute and its air duct, where it interfaces with the player’s mouth and lips, comfortable and secure, allowing the player to blow easily and effortlessly into the instrument, as well as allowing for easy breathing, while maintaining a stabilizing contact with the flute?
The best place to start, the best point of departure for sculpting the head of the flute is that of the round cylinder, which is roughly the same outer diameter at the flute’s top end as it is at the base or foot of the main tube or Sound Chamber for a sleek, efficient consistency of overall size and width throughout the instrument’s length. From there, there are several options or ways that the maker can thin or taper down the outer diameter of the flute into the mouthpiece, where the air duct meets the player’s lips. You have the nipple cap, the dome and the ellipse, as well as other more individual and distinctive stylings that various makers have developed. As with sculpting the body of the instrument, it helps to start out with rough, geometrical cuts and shapings, which are then rounded out and smoothed off to make the final form or shape. The head of the Love Flute is also a favorite part of the instrument for various types of end caps, inlays and other forms of ornamentation and embellishment. Now, let’s take a closer look at the various basic head styles I listed above, and define them further:
The Nipple Cap is a fairly abrupt tapering of the head’s outer diameter, within the top inch (about 2.5 cm.) of the instrument or so, which has the overall appearance and form of the nipple on a baby’s milk or formula bottle. The outer diameter of the flute contracts very quickly, sloping inwards concavely to taper rapidly down into a narrow tube, which is paced in the player’s mouth. The Nipple Cap is fairly easy to sculpt – just mark off a narrow circle at the top, about 2 to 3 mm. wider on each side than the air duct. Then, about an inch (2.5 cm.) below the flute’s top end, draw a ring around the flute’s outer circumference. Next, using an Exacto knife or saw, cut a shallow cut or groove around the head’s entire circumference, tracing the ring that you have just marked. These initial cuts and markings will define the field of the final sculpting operation, which is done with a wood carving knife, a half round rasp, and finally smoothed off with sandpaper. Various makers have their own variations on this basic nipple cap design; some make their field of tapering or contraction significantly shorter than one inch, and others make the slope of tapering or contraction much more abrupt than a smooth concave curve.
The Dome is just that – a dome. The dome may be either exactly hemispherical, or it may be slightly more oblong, depending on the maker’s styling preference, as well as his ideas of the best ergonomic fit to the player’s mouth and lips. It is also fairly easy to sculpt, but where the Nipple Cap has a concave tapering or contraction towards the beak, the Dome’s contraction is decidedly rounded and convex. To sculpt the Dome, first make 45 degree cuts around the top edge of the instrument’s circumference, then progressively round off the more obtuse edges with a file or rasp before sanding the finished product smooth. It may be possible – for a Russian maker of Native American Style Flutes, for example – to sculpt the heads of their flutes into a Kremlin style Onion Dome, thereby combining the concave contraction of the Nipple Cap with the convex curving of the Dome – the best of both worlds, comrade!
The Ellipse is probably the most common and preferred form or styling of the head for the Love Flute. The basic shape here is that of the end of a football as it gradually tapers down into a size that fits comfortably into the player’s mouth, curving outwards from the straight contraction ever so slightly in the form of an ellipse. The zone of interface or contact with the player’s mouth can be either strictly round or slightly squared off, with the latter facilitating ergonomic contact with the player’s mouth and lips, even while taking a breath.
The fancy embellishments and ornamentations that are so often done to the head area of a Love Flute may not be just for show. The head caps that are so often placed onto the head end of a Native Flute are often made out of a tropical hardwood that is not only beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, but also which is a lot harder, and less absorbent, than the softer acoustical wood that might be used for the body, for example. And because the end cap is made from a harder and less absorbent wood, it can better withstand contact with the player’s teeth and saliva.
In this brief and introductory discussion of sculpting the head of the Love Flute, I have barely scratched the surface of all the beautiful and intricate head stylings that are out there. From here, the best advice I can give to you, dear reader, is to study and browse the websites of various Native Flute makers, where they hawk their wares. This may very well give you all kinds of creative, artistic ideas and inspiration.
Placing and Tuning the Finger Holes
In figuring out exactly where to place the finger holes on your Love Flute, the best advice I can give you, which applies equally well to any and all flutes that have finger holes, is to have a good model – usually the favorite flute in your whole collection, the one you like the best, and definitely the one that plays the most in tune. Then, take a detailed measurement of exactly where the finger holes fall on the main tube, the Sound Chamber or vibrating air column of the flute. For example, the first finger hole, producing the initial minor third of the Love Flute’s Minor Pentatonic Scale, falls a certain number of centimeters and millimeters above the foot or base. Then, from the center of the first hole to the center of the second hole, the distance is a certain number of centimeters and millimeters, and so on. Always measure distances to and from the centers of the finger holes. To these finger hole-related dimensions you will take yet another measurement, which is probably more basic and fundamental than all the others – the total length of the enclosed air column, from the foot or lower rim of the Sound Chamber all the way to its top end. This final measurement is of critical importance if you wish to scale your model up or down for building larger / lower pitched versus shorter / higher pitched flutes. Otherwise, if you are building a flute whose enclosed air column is exactly the same length, you simply copy and transfer the dimensions of the old flute onto the new flute you are making.
For a regular wide bored flute, I can do no better than to give you the basic dimensions and proportions of one of the favorite Native American Flutes in my collection, which is a Red Cedar F# flute by LeRoy Cully of Oklahoma. The total air column length of this flute, whose bore diameter is 22 mm., is 39.5 cm. From the bottom rim up to the center of the first hole is 11.75 cm. The distance from the top of the air column / True Sound Window to the center of the top or sixth hole is also, interestingly enough, about the same length – 11.85 cm., just a millimeter longer. The distance between the center of the bottom or first hole to the center of the top or sixth hole is exactly 16 cm., and the intervening space is divided pretty evenly, but not exactly, into five more or less equal parts – 3.5 cm. between the central third and fourth holes, and 3.1 or 3.2 cm. between all the others. Overall, this flute, and all its notes, tends to play slightly sharp of a true F# (A = 440 Hz.) by about 10 to 20 cents or so according to my electronic tuner, but otherwise it plays very much in tune with itself. So, if you wanted to make a slight tuning adjustment to bring it down to an exact F# fundamental, you would increase the total air column length to 40.0 cm., and lengthen the other measurements between the centers of the finger holes by just an infinitesimal amount to scale everything proportionately larger. Or, the elongation of the total air column length is slight enough to pretty much keep all the finger hole measurements just as they are, with the holes being precision tuned with an electronic tuner. “Close enough for rock ‘n’ roll”, as they say.
Say you are making a flute that is significantly longer or shorter in its total air column length than your model. Then, what do you do – how do you scale its finger hole pattern and proportions upwards or downwards to adjust it to the flute you are making? For this you need to do a little math, and a pocket calculator definitely helps. The answer lies in coming up with a decimal ratio, which is arrived at by dividing the total air column length of your model into the total air column length of the flute you are making – and do it in the metric system, since it is decimal based. If the flute you are making has a longer total air column length than your model, then this decimal ratio will be larger than 1.0; conversely, if its total air column length is shorter than that of your model, this decimal ratio will be smaller than 1.0. For example, a flute you are making that has exactly nine tenths of the total air column length of your model will have a basic decimal ratio of 0.9, whereas one whose total air column length is one and one tenth times that of your model will have a basic decimal ratio of 1.1. Got it? Then, to convert each of the finger hole dimensions of the model into the target dimensions of the flute you are making, simply multiply each of the model’s metric dimensions by the basic working decimal ratio you have, and you will get the target dimensions for the new flute. Use your pocket calculator!
Various makers of the Native American Style Flute employ various methods and procedures to put in the finger holes. This is an operation that occurs in three basic stages: marking, piloting and tuning. The first step, or stage, is that of precision marking the positions of the finger holes – I mark the finger hole positions in with a pencil in a cross-hair format, with the vertical axis of the cross-hairs being the front midline of the flute, and the lateral axis being the exact “latitude” or distance up or down along this central midline, that the hole is to be placed. Once I get the cross-hairs marked, then I mark the spot – where the cross-hairs meet – with the tip of an Exacto knife. Then, the holes are piloted – which means that a small pilot hole, of anywhere from an eighth inch in diameter to a quarter inch, is drilled into the exact spot marked by the Exacto knife. And then, an electronic tuner is used to gradually enlarge these pilot holes and bring them up to the desired pitch. Some makers like to burn the edges of the holes with a hot poker or sautering iron to get the holes perfectly round and smooth. To precision tune your instrument, you must enlarge the holes slowly and gradually, with a rat tailed file, checking frequently with an electronic tuner. But, don’t be a slave to the tuner – also use your ear and your innate musical sensibilities as you play and test the instrument to see if it’s in tune.
Tuning is a holistic process, in which the size and location of each finger hole has an effect on all the others. Above all, it is like building a house or a multi-storied building, with each hole / floor resting upon the shoulders of the one below it. The bottom three holes of the Love Flute thus serve as the foundation, and their tuning is primary. The top three holes are secondary, and should only be opened up and tuned after the tuning of the bottom three holes has been properly established. With the top three holes and their tunings, cross fingering considerations come more into play. In the end, perfect tuning is achieved when the tunings and cross fingerings of all the holes come into a state of perfect harmony, balance and synergistic cooperation. Sometimes, it might be necessary to stop a bit below or shy of the true pitch on the tuner to play the flute and test it for a while to see and hear what really needs adjusting from a holistic standpoint.
Polishing the Instrument and Applying the Finish
Finishing up your new Love Flute is probably the most totally aesthetically oriented part of the flute making process. It is also the part in which various makers have their closely guarded secrets – their “secret sauce”, as flute maker Brent Haines put it. A “secret sauce” or finish recipe is only part of the process of finishing up and beautifying a Native American Style Flute. Before the finish can be applied, the underlying wood needs to be properly sanded and polished as finely as possible, with finer and finer grades of sandpaper. Hopefully, each finer grade of sanding and polishing will remove all the various nicks and scratches left behind by previous steps of the flute making process, until only the smoothest wooden surface remains. If this is not done, applying a paint or finish will only serve to bring out these scratches, nicks and imperfections. In the first flute I made, I relied too heavily on filing and rasping the wood, to the point where my subsequent sanding failed to remove all the residual nicks and scratches it left behind. Now, I’m older and wiser, and rely on sanding more. In the finishing process, you can see the finish line right up ahead, so there’s the big temptation to hurry through with it, so you can finally begin to play your new flute. That may all be just fine and dandy if the flute is just for your own playing and enjoyment, but if you are readying it for market, any hasty oversights in the finishing process will cost you dearly at the cash register. Let’s face it – nobody wants to buy a “quick and dirty” Love Flute that is hastily made and half-baked.
In the polishing and buffing process, machine tools, especially buffing wheels, can come in mighty handy, and take the wood, and the finish, to a higher level of polish than is often possible by hand. After the wood has been thoroughly sanded and polished, it can then be colored and stained to the desired tint or hue. Acetone rubbed into the wood will often bring out the latent beauty of a wood’s grain. Wood stains, in various shades, are available at your local hardware store. Generally, the final finish is clear and transparent – and these can range from a Tung Oil finish all the way to various kinds of lacquers, be they acrylic based or polyurethane. Acoustical violin varnish also works very well, and can also enhance the sound of the finished instrument. Or you can surf the internet, looking to put together the magic ingredients for your “secret sauce” recipe.
A general word of caution is in order here regarding protective gear for woodworking, and the sensitizing potential of various woods for those woodworkers who are in constant and intimate contact with them. In the finishing process, and in all the stages of flute making in which you are exposed to a lot of fine wood dust, wearing a face mask is an important protective measure. Eye goggles are also a very good idea, especially in stages of the flute making process in which wood chips fly to and fro. If allergic sensitivities are an issue for you, or you would like to know more about the allergenic or sensitizing potentials of various woods, the best online data resource I know of is www.wood-database.com . Allergic, anomalous or idiosyncratic reactions to any particular kind of wood are always a distinct possibility, and even though the vast majority of people have no allergic sensitivities to a particular kind of wood, that does not necessarily mean that you won’t be sensitive to it. If an allergic or negative reaction develops, or if you should develop any negative signs or symptoms in your health after working with a particular wood, please consult a physician and/or discontinue working with that wood.
Acknowledgements and Internet Resources
The internet is a veritable treasure trove of valuable resources when it comes to making the Native American Style Flute, or Love Flute. Most particularly, there are a lot of fine educational videos on Native American Style Flute making on YouTube from channels like Woodwind Flutes, Blue Bear Flutes and Woodsound Flutes. They cover all the various aspects of flute making that I discuss here – and even more. You can also study the websites of various Native American Style Flute makers for miscellaneous hints and clues as to how to improve your own flute making.