TWO EVERGREEN FLUTES
By David Osborn
Introduction: A Sojourn in San Diego
I spent a couple of months in southern California this summer, in June and July, mainly in San Diego, where I was house sitting for a lady who was away in Costa Rica for a month. It was in Tierra Santa, a small bedroom community nestled among the mesas that lay to the north of downtown. There were a couple of good lumberyards that were only a short drive away, so I availed myself of the opportunity to visit them. I picked up some great pieces of wood from these lumberyards – of Yellow Poplar that was of an incredibly dark shade of olive, of Black Limba with some great marbled figurations running through it, and of Red Alder, which are all fine flute woods indeed. But my prize acquisitions were a plank of beautiful Tennessee Red Cedar, with absolutely no knots or flaws in it – a rare find, indeed – and a few blanks of Douglas Fir, which were so beautifully aged and cured that they had turned a rich golden orange hue. I have since made flutes from two of those woods – the Red Cedar and the Douglas Fir – and would like to share my flute making experiences with you in this article.
The Two Evergreen Woods: Red Cedar and Douglas Fir
Since I am fairly new to the craft of making Love Flutes, and do not have access to machine tools, I try to stick to the softer woods. In addition to soft coniferous woods, or evergreen woods, if you prefer to call them that – the other soft wood I have made flutes from is Poplar. My first Love Flute was made from Alaskan Yellow Cedar, a wood that I still love, and which has a great tone – smooth, full and mellow above all things. And now, I was going to make flutes from two other evergreen woods: Red Cedar and Douglas Fir, which are an interesting study in contrasts – kind of like the big, glitzy superstar wood and the up and coming understudy, if you will. The superstar wood is, of course, Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which is the most famous and iconic of all the woods used to make the Love Flute; it is a wood that indeed needs no introduction for flute makers everywhere – but maybe all the glitz and glamour of this legendary wood is a bit over-hyped. The up and coming understudy, the flute wood that I feel deserves to be much better known and appreciated, is Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which is the state tree of Oregon. Although both are soft, coniferous evergreen woods, Red Cedar is of the larger Cypress family, or Phylum, and is actually a species of Juniper, whereas Douglas Fir is of the larger Pine family, and is quite similar to Pine in many ways.
The honor, and the great challenge, when it came to making the Red Cedar flute for me was to see how good I could get it to be, if I could do justice to this legendary, iconic wood for the Love Flute in the making of my own flute from this wood, doing everything by hand, and starting from scratch. You see, one of the most prized flutes in my Love Flute collection is a Red Cedar flute in F# made by LeRoy Cully, who is one of the Native old timer flute makers I wrote about in my survey of Love Flute makers. I would also make an F# flute from the Red Cedar I had bought at the lumberyard, calling it the LeRoy Cully Model, and hopefully, the results of my flute making efforts would somehow do justice to the shining example set by his fine flute. I was aware that I would be handicapped, working entirely with hand tools from a pair of glued together flute blanks, whereas the original LeRoy Cully flute I had had been drilled out from a solid piece of Red Cedar which, like the piece I had, also had no flaws.
Douglas Fir is an interesting wood. Its botanical name, Pseudotsuga menziesii, indicates that it is not a true Hemlock tree but a pseudo-Hemlock tree, since its genus name, Pseudotsuga, literally means “Pseudo Hemlock”, with Tsuga being the genus name for Hemlock trees. However similar they might be, Hemlock is actually much softer than Douglas Fir. Its species name, menziesii, comes from the fact that Douglas Fir was named in honor of the Scottish physician and naturalist Archibald Menzies. Its common English name honors the American naturalist David Douglas, and also suggests a similarity to the various European varieties of Fir, which are of the Abies genus. Another evergreen tree with which Douglas Fir is often compared, and even confused, is the Spruce tree, and it is sometimes loosely referred to as a kind of Spruce tree. Anyway, Douglas Fir trees are a common sight in the evergreen forests of the west coast, in the states of California, Oregon and Washington. Even a lot of the Fir that is sold in lumberyards in Mexico, which they generically call Abeto, is actually Douglas Fir – I suppose that it grows even down in Mexico as well, perhaps. – 1.
My attention was drawn to the acoustical virtues of Douglas Fir as a flute wood by videos I ran across on YouTube. What a great resource YouTube is for the flute maker! If you are curious as to what a flute made from any given wood would sound like, all you need to do is to google search for a flute made from that wood on YouTube – and then go out to the lumberyard to get some of that wood if you like what you hear – the YouTube video acts as a kind of sneak preview. I actually googled up “Douglas Fir flute” multiple times on YouTube, because I was so drawn to the sound. And each time I googled it up, videos put out by Stellar Flutes, a flute making company that is headquartered in the boreal rain forests of western Washington state, where Douglas Fir trees grow in abundance, came up prominently in the search results. Being so similar to Pine, and of the same botanical phylum, the Douglas Fir flute sounded the most like Pine, as exemplified by the Pine flutes made by Jonah Thompson, which are commonly available at the Indian trading posts along the interstate highways of Arizona and New Mexico. The sound of the Douglas Fir flute had all the sweetness, warmth and vibrancy of Pine, but it definitely had more character and quality to it, almost like a fusion of Pine and Cedar. The tone of that Douglas Fir flute also had incredible depth, fluidity, sensitivity and expressiveness as well.
So far, I have made flutes from three different kinds of soft, coniferous evergreen woods – Alaskan Yellow Cedar, Douglas Fir and Red Cedar – so it might be a good idea at this point to compare and contrast the respective tone qualities of these three woods. Of all the three woods, Alaskan Yellow Cedar is, in my opinion, the most soft and mellow in its tone; it is also, incidentally, the softest of the three woods, having a Janka hardness index of only 590. Like the other Cedar, Red Cedar, Alaskan Yellow Cedar also has a certain kind of edge or sheen to its sound, but this edge or sheen is much softer and mellower than that of Red Cedar, being somewhat like a soft satin sheen. Red Cedar is considerably harder than AYC (around 900 on the Janka Hardness scale), and consequently, the edge to its tone is also considerably harder and more defined, having just a hint of brittleness to it. And the most distinguishing qualities of the tone of a Douglas Fir flute are sweetness, warmth and vibrancy, which it shares with Pine, while having much more depth, quality and character than the latter, as well as great fluidity and expressiveness; think of it as a kind of “high class Pine”, if you will. At 620 on the Janka hardness scale, Douglas Fir is only a little bit harder than Alaskan Yellow Cedar.
In a recent phone conversation with Daniel Bigay, who I bought a great Osage Orange flute from, the veteran Native flute maker said something that gave me a unique and profound insight into flute woods and their differing acoustical natures. He said that, in his experience, the harder hardwoods, like Osage Orange and Black Locust, were better suited for the higher pitched flutes; the softer hardwoods, on the other hand, were usually best suited for the lower pitched flutes. But the soft, coniferous evergreen woods were equally suited for both the high pitched flutes as well as the low pitched flutes. This gives the soft, coniferous evergreen woods a great versatility of sonic expression – soft and mellow for the lower pitched flutes, but having great clarity and vibrancy for the higher pitched flutes as well. This means that a flute maker could stick to just the soft, coniferous evergreen woods for all the flutes he makes, both low and high, and make great flutes each and every time. Or, he could stick to just one of these soft, coniferous evergreen woods, like Douglas Fir, without ever having to use another wood.
Making the Douglas Fir Flute in A
I obtained a few sets of flute blanks of Douglas Fir from the lumberyard, in strips that were 1 ½ inches wide. Two of the pairs of flute blanks were a full two feet long, but one pair of flute blanks was a couple of inches shorter – and so I decided to make an A flute out of them. The set of flute blanks was impeccably cured and aged, to the point where the wood had turned a good golden orange hue. One of the blanks had a knot in it, which I put down towards the bottom end of the flute on the back side; this knot would prove to be a little of an inconvenience in carving and working the wood, but not as much as I had anticipated. The thickness of the wood strips was a full ¾ inch, but because I was making a smaller flute, I carved or shaved 1/8 inch off of the top face of the anterior blank, so that I would not have to cut the True Sound Window and the Exit Hole too deeply into the wood; I also had the feeling that a shallower True Sound Window would be better acoustically speaking. I then marked off the interior surfaces of the flute blanks to guide my carving and hollowing out of the blanks by hand. I decided to mark off a bore that was 18 mm. wide, and a Slow Air Chamber that was also of the same basic width.
The wood was quite easy to work once I found the right carving tools. The great thing about Douglas Fir is that it emits an incredibly robust, full-bodied evergreen or Pine-like aroma when you’re working on it, which is quite stimulating and invigorating. From the sheer intensity of the aroma, I got the impression that the wood must be quite resinous. I felt that there must be some medicinal uses for Douglas Fir, if only the right preparation and dosage could be found. Although the wood was generally quite easy to work, it wasn’t without problems, however; tearout is definitely possible if you aren’t careful, and the grain can be quite tricky in places.
After I had done the initial rough carving of the bore, I then started shaving it out with a cylindrical Surform planer, and then sanded the inner bore as smooth and level as I could with a dowel stick that had strips of coarse grained sandpaper glued to it. A little eyeballing down the halves of the bore, as well as checking its uniformity and regularity with straight edges and coins, and the bore was pretty much finished off. I then shaved off about 3 mm. (1/8 inch) off of the top of the anterior blank before marking off and carving the Sound Production Mechanism, which included the Blow Hole, the Exit Hole and the True Sound Window. I also put about 5 cm. (2 inches) between the Sound Chamber and the Slow Air Chamber, and made the upper end of the Track or Flue into a long slanting ramp to funnel the player’s air stream smoothly from the Slow Air Chamber into the Flue.
After the Sound Production Mechanism had been duly carved in, the flute was now ready for assembly. I used a 5/8 inch dowel stick to be my guide in order to assure a proper lining up of the flute blanks – it also doubled as a guide to showing me how completely I had hollowed out the bore, and which places, if any, were still too shallow, and needed further hollowing out. The main problem with the flute blanks was that they had bended or warped with their interior surfaces curved convexly away from each other – so extra clamps were needed to hold them in place properly. Nevertheless, the assembly went quite well; after I removed the dowel stick guide, I then swabbed out the lateral seams of the bore.
Carving the outside of the flute and thinning down the walls was a greater challenge than I had anticipated. Although the wood was generally quite soft and easily workable, the grain was wavy in places, and I had to guard against gouging too much out of the wood if I wasn’t careful. Actually, I did gouge out a bit too much wood at the upper hilt of the main tube, on the left hand side, right below the Sound Plate or Nest – that flaw remains in the finished flute. My patience for thinning down the walls wore a little thin, however, and I wound up with walls that were 6 to 7 mm. thick, or slightly over ¼ inch. The next Douglas Fir flute I make, I will try to get the walls a little thinner. The walls were a bit thinner on the front side of the instrument, where the finger holes are placed, and a bit thicker on the backside.
Next, I carved the Bird and put it over the Sound Production Mechanism; to my great surprise, the Sound Plate was perfectly flat, in spite of being carved and shaved by hand, and no air leaked. Probably the most problematic phase of making this flute came in the basic voicing of the flute tube, before the installation of the finger holes. The flute squeaked, whined, barked, growled, and did everything but emit a harmonious musical tone! Alas – such is the lot of those who make flutes with bores that are hollowed out by hand – you never know what you’ll get, and what kind of acoustical tweaking may be necessary in order to get the basic tone in line. I tried tinkering around with the Sound Production Mechanism for a bit, cleaning things up in that department, but the terrible noises did not diminish significantly. But when I started to sand out the inner bore with a long dowel stick with coarse grained sandpaper on the end, using my musical ear and eyeballs to listen and look for where the greatest problem areas were, and targeting those areas as I went, I developed a sound voicing strategy that eventually led to a clear, harmonious musical sound. Then I was ready to put in the finger holes.
An initial check on the tuning of the fundamental with an electronic tuner revealed that it was right on the money, at a perfect A 440 – great! But as I put in the finger holes, the basic pitch of the fundamental, and the flute as a whole, started to sag, until, once the holes were all put in and tuned, the flute was about 20 cents or so flat. This was due to the thickness of the flute’s walls, which generated sizeable air pockets at the finger holes, which added to the total volume of the enclosed air, bringing down the overall pitch of the flute. There were still a few rough or tight places in the overall lineup of musical pitches in the scale which necessitated fine tuning the bore, sanding it away carefully in the places that needed it, to bring the whole scale into line. The finished flute has a great lineup, with all notes of the scale in a great balance and harmony, with the possible exception of a slight instability or disconnect between the minor third and the fundamental. But as a whole, the flute plays extremely well.
Sanding with increasingly finer grades of sandpaper to get the surface of the flute very smooth is very important with Douglas fir, since it is a very soft wood. As the finish, I chose to use amber colored shellac, which proved to be a very good choice for bringing out the beauty of the grain patterns. In addition, the amber finish made the flute look something like a fine violin. I even felt that the shellac actually improved the overall tone and sonority of the flute. A week or two after putting the final finishing touches on the flute, I had an unexpected problem. Because the original flute blanks were convexly curved away from each other on their interior surfaces, the two halves of the flute started to separate from each other towards the head of the flute. I handled this problem by stuffing more woodworking glue into the cracks, and now the flute appears to have stabilized. It’s occasional problems like these that have led many flute makers to abandon flute blanks and make their flutes from solid blocks of wood that have been drilled out.
This is the YouTube video that got me interested in making flutes from Douglas Fir - courtesy of Stellar Flutes.
Making the Red Cedar Flute in F#
The Red Cedar Flute started out as a plank of Tennessee Red Cedar, which was some two feet long and about eight inches wide, with a thickness of ¾ of an inch. As I said previously, the piece was a great specimen, and had absolutely no knots or flaws at all. And so, I just had to get it. I used a hand saw to cut two 1 ½ inch strips from the board; as a result, the edges of the two strips were a bit uneven, and did not line up with each other perfectly. But, not to worry – I first marked the midline of each of the two strips, from the midpoint of one end of the strip to the midpoint of the other end, and used a yardstick to connect the two midpoints with a straight line on each strip. I used this basic midline as a central reference point for making all my subsequent markings; if I lined up the midpoints on either end in the glue up process, I would be fine.
My immediate first impression as I started to carve out the two blanks was WOW – no wonder this is the flute makers’ dream wood! The flesh of the Red Cedar was smooth as silk, and my carving tools went through it like the proverbial knife through butter. This led me to become a bit too cocky and overconfident; it was then that I discovered a nasty drawback of this wood: stray pieces of it can flake off superficially if you’re not careful, which happened to me as I was carving the blowhole on the posterior flute blank. But – never to worry – I could just lop off the final top centimeter, which contained this boo-boo, after I had glued the flute blanks together. Of course the heady aroma of Red Cedar was as powerful as it is legendary – and on me it had some adverse effects, making me a bit woozy and giddy, and giving me a bit of gastric distress. Most people are OK with Red Cedar, but it just goes to show you that individual reactions to a wood as a sensitizer can vary considerably, just like food allergies and sensitivities. The smooth and uniform texture of the wood really came in handy when I was smoothing off the two halves of the bore with a cylindrical Surform planer and the dowel stick with sandpaper.
In making my initial markings on the interior surfaces of the flute blanks to guide my carving, I marked off 20 mm. for the bore diameter, with 10 mm. on either side of the midline, figuring that the final hollowed out interior would wind up being one millimeter shy of that full width, for a final bore diameter of 19 mm., or ¾ inch, which usually gives me a bit of an extended upper range on a standard size F# flute – up to the fourth, or even the fifth, of the upper register. But as it worked out, the final bore diameter was a bit wider than I had expected – like 19.5 to 20.0 mm. I used a ¾ inch dowel stick as my guide, both for the final finishing off of the bore halves as well as for the glue up, and it took a considerable amount of smoothing and fine carving the bore in order to get the two blanks to fit perfectly over the dowel stick, with the dowel stick still being removable by hand, even after the clamps were put in place. It took a few “dry runs” before I was finally ready to do the glue up of the flute blanks, being satisfied that I had gotten the bore as smooth and even as possible beforehand.
Although I had cut both the Exit Hole and the True Sound Window to pretty much their final form before the glue up of the two flute blanks, I saved the carving of the Track or Flue between them, as well as the “ramp” from out of the Exit Hole, for later; that would come after I had sculpted the outside of the flute down to where I wanted it. As with the A flute, I carved or shaved about 3 mm., or 1/8 of an inch, off the exterior surface of the anterior flute blank prior to cutting the Exit Hole and True Sound Window. I would shave 3 mm. off the exterior of the posterior flute blank after glue up. The glue up process was a bit tense and touchy, but with the dowel stick as my guide, it went pretty well, and without a hitch. I swabbed and scraped the glue spill out from the interior of the lateral seams after removing the dowel stick, and when I shone a light in through the True Sound Window to illuminate the inner bore, everything looked perfect. Luckily, the two Red Cedar flute blanks curved concavely towards each other, which always presents an easier situation when it comes to clamping. I waited a full 24 hours before beginning to work on the glued up flute.
In sculpting the exterior of the flute, my first task was to shave off 3 mm. or so from the back side of the flute, as I had from the front side before I put in the Exit Hole and the True Sound Window. Then, I basically did the same thing for the two sides of the flute, shaving off about 3 mm. from each side. This evened out the previously uneven sides, since I could not cut them perfectly straight and uniform with a hand saw. If you work from the midline in making your initial markings for hand carving the interior of the flute, and use a dowel stick as your guide to finishing off the inner bore and gluing up the two halves of the flute, then you have the crucial inside of the flute perfectly aligned and in sync, and you can then do whatever you need to do to sculpt the exterior down to size. From the lopped off square or cube, I then cut off the four corners to make an octagon before using Surform planers and rough rasps to rough out and round off the octagon. I used a sanding block with coarse grained sandpaper for doing the final stages of wall thinning, since this approach, in my experience, is the best for assuring that the walls are thinned smoothly and uniformly. I wound up with the walls of the main tube being between 5 and 6 mm., or a little less than ¼ inch, in thickness, which is what I wanted.
I then turned to finishing off the Sound Plate or Nest and carving its Track or Flue, using an Exacto knife and some small flat needle files. I made the Bird out of a strip of White Oak that was 1 inch wide and ¾ of an inch thick; it was quite tough to carve, a lot harder than the Red Cedar, to be sure, because White Oak is a pretty hard wood. But when I got the Bird done, it provided a nice aesthetic contrast with the body of the instrument – white against red. Because I had carved the upper surface of the anterior flute blank, cutting 3 mm. off of it by hand, and then sanding it flat with a sanding block, the surface of the Nest or Sound Plate was not perfectly flat. To flatten it and make sure that the Bird sat flush on top of it, I used some carbon paper to highlight the high points, which I then scraped off using a scraping blade. This worked quite well.
Using rubber bands to hold the Bird in place, I then started to tweak or adjust the Sound Production Mechanism. An initially tight or pinched sound indicated that I needed to make the Track or Flue a little deeper, so I did. I also inserted some Epoxy Putty to fill in a crack between the funnel of the Slow Air Chamber, which had been carved into the posterior flute blank, and the ramp I had carved into the anterior flute blank as the upper end of the Track or Flue, and this did quite a bit to smooth out the sound and the air flow. At first, I had trouble overblowing to the octave or upper register smoothly, but this was largely remedied by filing away on the upper surface of the Cutting Edge with a small flat needle file, until the edge was right in the middle of the air stream – it’s really amazing what a difference that little adjustment makes. As for the tuning of the fundamental, I found that, with an air column length of 41 cm., and a bore diameter of 19.5 to 20.0 mm., the flute produced an F# that was right where I wanted it to be – slightly sharp of the perfect F# - since in my experience, putting in the finger holes flattens the pitch slightly. Yet in this flute, the flattening effect of putting in the finger holes was not as great as I had anticipated – maybe that’s because the walls were a little thinner than is my usual wall thickness, and the auxiliary air pockets created by the finger holes were not as big.
I didn’t have to do as much tweaking of the bore to get the tone, dynamic balance and melodic line of the flute into proper alignment as I did with the Douglas Fir flute, but still, it was not exactly a simple affair. Using my excellent musical ear and my keen eye, as well as the principles of bore acoustics that I had distilled from all my practical experience to date, I was nevertheless able to be quite effective. During the bore adjustment process, I said to myself, “damn, I’m good!” more than once, after I was able to zero in on precisely the right spot to work on, and my adjustment had precisely the desired effect. A big part of the bore tweaking process is knowing when to stop and leave well enough alone, and I did pass that point, I feel, where I made some adjustments that were counterproductive, but still, in the end, I was able to bring the whole scale into line. However, I was not able to get a pleasant musical note beyond the standard minor third of the second octave or upper register, unlike the Douglas Fir flute, which could go a little higher.
The reason I wasn’t able to go higher, I concluded, was that the bore diameter was just a tad wide of an exact 19 mm. / ¾ inch, and the air column width to length ratio was basically 1 to 20, whereas the Douglas Fir flute was about 1 to 21. Yes – even minor differences in the bore specifications can make a major impact on the final flute. A major part of flute making wisdom is to know when the flute is as good as it can reasonably be, all things considered – and the bore was a just a tad too wide to get an extended upper range that was harmonious and musical in nature. I had set out to make a flute that would somehow do justice to the LeRoy Cully Red Cedar F# flute that I had in my collection, and by all objective standards, I feel that I succeeded. And what makes my success all the more remarkable is that I was handicapped, because I was working with hand tools only, and doing everything by hand. In flute making as well as with everything else in life, there are trade-offs, and even though I lost a couple of notes that I hoped to get up top, the flute has a wonderful, full sounding fundamental, and a great tone throughout the full range of the standard bore Love Flute.
Finishing the flute was a new experience, since this was my first time working with Red Cedar. Because Red Cedar is quite a soft wood, even the medium grades of sandpaper left the surface kind of rough and fuzzy – I had to really get out the finer grades of sandpaper to get a smooth surface. In order to bring out the true color of all the subtle shades of red, purple and orange in the Red Cedar, I decided to use clear shellac, which I feel was a good choice. Besides being a rather soft wood, Red Cedar is also a very absorbent wood, and it took three coats to finally achieve the level of shine and luster that I wanted. To ornament the flute, I took a mini hack saw and sawed three rings into the bottom end of the flute, and three rings into the top end, right below the nipple cap mouthpiece. The result was a good looking flute, albeit on the simple yet elegant side. LeRoy Cully would be proud!
Conclusion: Douglas Fir, the Hidden Gem of Flute Woods
In conclusion, I would just like to recap and restate the virtues of Douglas Fir as a flute wood – it definitely deserves to be much better known and appreciated. Visually and aesthetically, Douglas Fir is definitely not among the super spectacular “eye candy” woods, nevertheless, it does have some attractive features. Its main aesthetic virtues come from the grain lines, or its growth rings, which are quite prominent and visible; the trick is to find the right paint or finish to bring these lines out and accentuate them, and I feel that amber shellac was a good choice for this. Being a soft, coniferous wood, Douglas Fir was basically very easy to work with, so I would give it excellent marks in that category. And Douglas Fir seems to be very rich in resinous and aromatic principles to protect it against moisture and rot – high marks there, as well. But by far the single most important and compelling reason to use Douglas Fir as a flute wood lies in its acoustical virtues, and the wonderfully smooth, fluid, sweet and expressive tone you can get from a Douglas Fir flute. I believe Douglas Fir to be a primo, world class, five star, phenomenal acoustical wood for making flutes, and definitely one that is greatly unappreciated, being largely undiscovered – the hidden gem of flute woods.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison between the two evergreen woods that I used for the making of these two flutes is that, while Red Cedar is, according to its Janka hardness rating, almost 50% harder than Douglas Fir, the Red Cedar was the easier wood to work by far. I attribute this mainly to the very fine grain and smooth and even texture of the Red Cedar, in contrast to the Douglas Fir, which has a wavy, irregular grain that is a lot trickier to work with. These two woods amply demonstrated that a wood’s overall ease of workability is not always directly correlated to its softness – other factors inevitably enter the equation as well. You can take the Janka hardness ratings with a grain of salt – in the end, there is no substitute for actually working with the wood to see exactly how easy or difficult it is to work with. Because of the trickiness of its grain patterns, it might be a better idea to use machine tools to make flutes from Douglas Fir, all things considered.
1. wikipedia: Douglas fir