PAN FLUTE MATERIALS
By David Osborn
A Variety of Materials, But Bamboo Reigns Supreme
Although there are many different materials that are used, or that can be used in making a Pan Flute, without a doubt, Bamboo is the most important of these materials. This seems rather paradoxical to many people, since Romania, the land of the Pan Flute’s origin, is not particularly known for its Bamboo. Nevertheless, there is a kind of River Cane that is available, which grows by the banks of rivers in Romania, and is often used for fishing rods; however, it is not of very high quality. Yet, Bamboo is not the only material that can be used to make the pipes of a Pan Flute; the pipes can also be made from lathed hardwoods as well. This article will introduce you to the various materials used for making the Pan Flute – all parts of it; we will start out with a look at the various materials used to make the Pan Flute’s pipes, and then proceed to the auxiliary materials used to make other parts and supporting structures of the Pan Flute.
Bamboo, the King of Pan Flute Materials
Although the pipes of the Pan Flute can be made out of other materials, like lathed hardwoods, or even from various metals like aluminum, the most preferred material for making them out of is Bamboo. Yes, it’s true that Bamboo is not particularly indigenous to Romania, but in recent years, since the late nineteenth century, when the Pan Flute really came into its own, trade between Romania and East Asian countries like China, where Bamboo is grown and harvested, has blossomed, and Romanian makers and players of the Pan Flute have had access to it in sufficient quantities to make Pan Flutes out of. Although Bamboo could conceivably be grown in the more southern and temperate parts of Romania, most of it, by far, is still imported from the Far East. In the paragraphs below, I will introduce you to the main varieties of Bamboo used to make Pan Flutes, discussing the particular virtues and drawbacks of each when it comes to making a quality Pan Flute. There may be other species or varieties of Bamboo out there, but the following are the main ones used:
Tonkin Bamboo (Arundinaria amabilis McClure) – Tonkin bamboo was once in very high demand for the making of bamboo fishing rods, but since the advent of synthetic fishing rods, it has fallen into disfavor. Tonkin Bamboo, as its name implies, hails from the Tonkin Gulf region of southern China and northern Vietnam. Generally speaking, Pan Flute makers are looking for Bamboo that is very hard, dense, resilient and sonorous, and Tonkin Bamboo has these qualities in abundance. And so, Tonkin Bamboo enjoys a privileged status as being the generally most valued and desirable variety of bamboo for making Pan Flutes. Other virtues of Tonkin Bamboo that also make it suitable for Pan Flutes is its relatively long internode length, or length between the nodes or joints of the bamboo stalk, which enables the maker to make low pipes of considerable length from it, down to the bottom D pipe of a Tenor Pan Flute (the D above middle C). Drawbacks of Tonkin Bamboo include its very hardness and density, which give it a sound that is powerful, brilliant and sonorous, but which may be considered to be too brash and brassy for the lower pitched instruments, where more mellowness may be desired. Also, because of its hardness, Tonkin Bamboo can be brittle; I have seen it crack or split when it is dropped on a hard surface. Wall thicknesses can also vary considerably between one pipe and another in Tonkin Bamboo, necessitating the painstaking thinning of some pipe walls to bring them into uniformity with the others.
Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) – Being an ornamental species of Bamboo, Black Bamboo is noted for its aesthetic beauty, for its rich, dark tones and hues, both with the outer skin on, as well as with it removed. Pan Flutists who have used it for their instruments also admire it for its great tonal beauty and sonority as well. While Tonkin Bamboo can sound too brash and brassy for some tastes, there are none of those drawbacks with the tone of Black Bamboo; while being of high sonority and sound power, Black Bamboo also has an indescribable sweetness of tone, and a rich, full bodied luster as well. It is said that Fanica Luca, the grand daddy of the Pan Flute, and the reviver of its art in the twentieth century, liked the tone of Black Bamboo best of all, and used it for his own Pan Flutes. Nevertheless, with all these sonic virtues, Black Bamboo does have its drawbacks when it comes to using it to make Pan Flutes. Although its internode length, or the distance between its joints, is quite ample, the nodes are often structured internally so that the inner bore diameter of the pipe is often kind of narrow or pinched at its bottom end, which often necessitates rasping or reaming out the bottom ends of the pipes to make the bore diameter at the bottom end of the pipe equal to or greater than the bore diameter at the top end. A positive structural feature of Black Bamboo is that its wall thickness tends to be quite uniform, and rarely, if ever, gets too thick – so at least you don’t have to spend as much time thinning down the pipe walls as you do with other species of Bamboo.
Moso Bamboo / Madake (Phyllostachys bambusoides) – Moso Bamboo, also called Madake, which means true or genuine Bamboo in Japanese, definitely has its fans among Pan Flute makers and players. Visually and aesthetically, it doesn’t hold a candle to Black Bamboo, kind of being like the “plain Vanilla” option – a pale yellowish white. Moso / Madake Bamboo is also the kind of Bamboo used to make the Japanese Shakuhachi flute, also featured on this website, with the thick walled root end pieces being preferred for that purpose. Moso Bamboo doesn’t have the hardness, or quite the level of high sonority and sound output that Black Bamboo and Tonkin Bamboo have, but what it does have, tone-wise, is a soft, satin luster to its tone, which is softer and mellower than either Black or Tonkin Bamboo. And that can be quite desirable in many musical settings and situations, especially for lower pitched Pan Flutes. Structurally speaking, the great virtues of Moso Bamboo when it comes to Pan Flute making, is a relatively straight internode, or space between the joints, in most cases, as well as an inner bore profile or camber in which the pipe is almost always equal to or wider in diameter at its bottom end than at its top end. A down side of this Bamboo when it comes to Pan Flute making is a wall thickness that can vary considerably from one pipe to the next, necessitating a lot of laborious wall thinning; also, the pipes can be considerably wider at their bottom ends than at their top ends, both inwardly and outwardly, which can easily lead to what I call “fanning” during pipe assembly, with the pipes fanning outwards at their bottom ends. This fanning has to be corrected during the slatting, fitting and assembly process. There can also be considerable variation in the hardness and density of Moso Bamboo, with the harder, denser and more resilient pieces being preferred, generally being more sonorous and giving off a better tone.
Golden Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) – The best way to approach Golden Bamboo is to think of it as a kind of a cross or intermediary between Black Bamboo and Moso Bamboo in its basic qualities and attributes. While Black Bamboo has very dark pigmentation, and Moso Bamboo quite light or pale pigmentation, Golden Bamboo is in the middle, with moderate pigmentation giving it a rich golden hue. Tonally speaking, Golden Bamboo has a greater sonority than Moso Bamboo, and its tone is actually quite similar to that of Black Bamboo in its sweetness. A big drawback of Golden Bamboo is its relatively short internode length, or distance between the joints or nodes; obviously, this makes Golden Bamboo better for the smaller, higher pitched Pan Flutes. The only way to get Golden Bamboo with longer internodes is to go up the stalk, where the pipe walls are very thin – I personally don’t prefer my pipe walls to be so thin, but there are some makers out there who are OK with that. Larger, lower pitched Pan Flutes can also be made from Golden Bamboo if one is OK with having joints or nodes present in the pipes – which must be reamed out on the inside, of course. Although Golden Bamboo has a sonorous, sweet tone that is quite similar to that of Black Bamboo, it has the more regular and dependable inner bore characteristics of Moso Bamboo – a very happy and fortuitous combination. In other words, there is no problem with the bore diameter being naturally narrower at the bottom end of the pipe internode than at the top. A final consideration when it comes to finding and acquiring Golden Bamboo is that, in many countries, like the United States, its importation is banned due to pest infestation issues. And so, in the United States at least, the best way to acquire Golden Bamboo may just be to find someone who has it growing in their garden.
The above four varieties of Bamboo are the ones that are generally the most used and preferred for making the Pan Flute, and definitely, they are the ones that I know the best. However, other species or varieties of Bamboo may also be used for the making of Pan Flutes; I will briefly introduce those species or varieties below:
Weaver’s Bamboo (Bambusa textilis) – Weaver’s Bamboo is so-called because it is usually split lengthwise into thin strips and used for the weaving of baskets. The chief virtue of Weaver’s Bamboo is its very long internode length, or distance between the joints or nodes, which can even reach up to two feet (60 cm.) or more. And so, Weaver’s Bamboo would be a very desirable species or variety of Bamboo for large, bass Pan Flutes, because, although these large Pan Flutes can be made with the intervening nodes reamed out, the tone and playing response is always much better when there are no intervening nodes.
Quena Bamboo (Aulonemia quecko) – This is the species of Bamboo used to make Andean Quenas and Quenachos, the vertical or end blown flutes of the Andes. It has a good tone, and it has a great distance between the joints or nodes, up to two feet (60 cm,) or longer. Although this species of Bamboo is indigenous to South America and the Andes mountains, it does grow as far north as the Baja California peninsula of Mexico. And I have seen some pretty good Pan Flutes made from it by players of other Andean flutes. Nevertheless, when I talk to Ecuadorian Pan Flutists, they tell me that Quena Bamboo does not make good Pan Flutes; they all seem to play Pan Flutes made from a certain kind of lathed hardwood that grows in the Ecuadorian rain forest, which has an absolutely amazing sound. If you can get a good supply of Quena Bamboo, I suggest that you try making a Pan Flute from it, and see whether or not it will make a good Pan Flute.
Italian Cane (Arundinaria sativa) – Italian Cane, as its name implies, is indigenous to Italy and the lands of the Mediterranean basin. It is most famous as the material of choice for making oboe, clarinet and saxophone reeds. The great virtue of Italian Cane when it comes to making Pan Flutes is its softness and great ease of working; you can make a Pan Flute from it in no time. And just because it is not that hard or dense doesn’ t mean that it doesn’t sound good; it has a very sweet, sonorous tone. Although Italian Cane is of the same Arundinaria genus as Tonkin Bamboo, it is not anywhere near as hard or dense as the latter; therefore, it is in a totally different musical world than Tonkin Bamboo.
I must emphasize here that this listing of Bamboo species used for making Pan Flutes is by no means exhaustive or complete; I’m sure that there are other species that can be used for making Pan Flutes, and pretty good ones, too. For example, Professor Georgescu, a Pan Flute maker from Romania, went to Ireland to tour with the band he played in, and while in Ireland, was able to acquire supplies of other Bamboo species that were new and foreign to me. But, whatever the particular species or variety may be, the qualities to look for in a good species of Bamboo for making Pan Flutes is straightness, cylindricalness, a good and consistent inner bore diameter, as well as hardness, density, and good sonority or tone quality.
After Bamboo, the next most natural and desirable material to make the pipes of a Pan Flute from are hardwoods that have been turned or lathed down into pipes, which are then assembled into a Pan Flute. Although, in many ways, the quality and specifications of pipes turned down on a lathe from acoustical hardwoods is more consistent, reliable and dependable, drill bits for hollowing out the interior of these hardwood pipes come in only certain increments when it comes to their bore diameters, whereas Mother Nature grows the Bamboo pipes in all dimensional increments conceivable. Also, a Bamboo pipe, no matter what its level of quality, can never come in an absolutely perfect geometrical cylinder; Nature builds slight imperfections into the Bamboo pipes, which become the basis of a Bamboo instrument’s individuality and character, as no two Bamboo Pan Flutes can be made exactly alike. With these realities in mind, let us now turn our attention towards making the pipes of a Pan Flute from lathed hardwoods.
Perhaps the most esteemed hardwood for making the pipes of a Pan Flute from in Romania is what the Romanians call Acacia Wood; this is not the true Acacia of the Arabian peninsula (Acacia senegal), from which Acacia Gum or Gum Arabic is harvested, but rather a pseudo-Acacia that grows in Romania’s temperate climate (Robinia pseudacacia). American woodworkers know this wood as Black Locust. Anyway, this sonorous hardwood is a member of the Fabaceae or Pea / Legume family of pod bearing trees, which is a botanical family that produces a number of acoustical hardwoods, most notably the various varieties of Rosewood. The Acacia tree, or Salcam, as the Romanians call it, produces a particularly delicious and distinctive honey from its white blossoms.
Aside from this Acacia Wood, or Black Locust, other acoustical hardwoods that seem to have a tradition behind them in the making of Romanian Pan Flutes are various fruit woods of the Rose family, like Apple or Plum wood. Of course, other acoustical woods can also be used, with the various varieties of Rosewood being common choices. Any acoustical wood that is relatively hard, dense and sonorous may be used. If you would like to build a Pan Flute from acoustical hardwoods, I highly recommend that you check out my article on Acoustical Woods for Making Flutes, which can be found in the Materials section of this website. Although other flutes, like the Native American Love Flute, can be made from softer woods, I recommend that you choose a harder, denser wood for making the pipes of your Pan Flute.
Woods for the Frame or Boot of the Pan Flute
At the bottom of the Pan Flute, its pipes are bound and fortified with a lower frame or border that holds the pipes in place, and which reinforces it structurally. Here again, there is a traditional wood that is most commonly used for this purpose in Romanian Pan Flute making tradition, and that wood is Basswood or Linden Wood, which Romanians call Lemn de Tei. (Tilia europaea). The reason that Basswood is so preferred is that it is a soft and easily workable wood, with considerable stiffness and structural stability when it is dry; however, when it is steamed or wetted in hot water, it becomes easily bendable and malleable, to fit the curve or arch of the instrument. You don’t have to go traipsing off to Romania to acquire this Basswood; it can be found in hobby stores even in the United States, since it is a popular wood for making model airplanes out of. Another kind of wood I have used in making the lower border or frame of the Pan Flute is super thin plywood, which is also available from hobby stores, and which is also used in model airplane making. It is even more flexible than Basswood, and can be applied to the bottom of the Pan Flute in layers, and glued on; I usually use three laminations, four at the most.
Yet these are not conceivably the only materials from which the lower frame or border of the Pan Flute could be made. I have also used a flexible, green tree branch instead of the more usual Basswood; this makes for a particularly natural touch and feel. I suppose that basket making materials from reed, cane or bamboo could also be used, and even woven together to make the lower frame. Get creative and artistic! As long as the material you choose is lightweight and also provides sufficient structural support for the instrument, it will be good; the rest is merely a matter of aesthetics.
Materials for Stopping or Plugging the Pipe Bottoms
The pipes of the Pan Flute are open at their tops, or blowing ends, but closed at their bottom ends; this naturally raises the question of which materials are best for stopping or plugging the bottoms of the pipes. Perhaps the material that first comes to mind for this purpose is the cork that is used to stop wine bottles; however, this is not a good choice, as cork is too soft and sound absorbent, and not resilient enough to reflect the sound back out the top of the pipe. You can try using cork to stop the pipes, but you will find that the crispness and responsiveness of the playing response on fast, staccato notes suffers. Instead of cork, the most common material used for stopping or plugging the bottoms of the pipes is a soft, easily carvable or workable wood like Pine; I have even used dowel sticks filed or rasped down to the right bore diameter of the pipe. These sections of dowel stick enable the rough tuning of the pipes as well; using epoxy glue mixed with powdered putty, a moderately viscous glue can be created that will seal the bottom air tight, but allow the rough tuning of the pipe, by moving the dowel section up or down before the glue sets – up to raise the pitch, and down to lower it. To rough tune the pipes, tune the lower pipes a quarter step below the desired pitch, and the higher pipes a half step below the desired pitch.
Materials for Tuning the Pipes
The traditional material for tuning the pipes of a Pan Flute is beeswax. Beeswax is sufficiently malleable to soften it, mold it, and stick it down into the bottoms of the pipes to tune them, and will also stick to the bottom floors of the pipes. Tuning with beeswax also allows for flexibility and adjustability as well; to raise the pitch, simply pack more beeswax into the bottom of the pipe, and to lower the pitch, take beeswax out. How do you take packed beeswax out of the bottom of a pipe? You can use a dowel stick to both pack the beeswax in as well as to take it out. One end you keep flat, for packing in the beeswax; in the other end, you cut a deep notch. To remove beeswax, simply jam the notch hard into the beeswax and twist it around; then pull the dowel stick out, and you will find beeswax stuck into the deep notch or groove. Repeat this process as many times as you need to in order to remove the right amount of wax.
Glues, Oils and Finishes
To assemble the pipes of a Pan Flute, use a good furniture or woodworking glue. To protect the insides of the pipes from mold and bacterial infestation, their inner bores can be painted with Propolis Tincture, which can be purchased at herb or health food stores. Many players also protect the inner bores of their pipes with oil, to preserve and protect the bamboo, and to repel moisture. Gheorghe Zamfir, the King of the Pan Flute, recommends Almond Oil. Linseed Oil from a hardware store can also be used, but it leaves a bit of a coat or residue. I like Grapeseed Oil. To finish a Pan Flute, Shellac or Varnish is usually used; I have even used acoustical violin varnish, which I recommend very highly; it does seem to improve the overall tone and sonority of the instrument.