Decoratives, Finishing and Totems
Yellow cedar drone with burned accents

Artwork and life-carved blocks are something I seem to be doing on almost every flute these days. The Custom Flutes page is a good gallery of what I have done to date.

If I am going to put decoration (accents) on a flute, it will usually be in one of three ways - pyrography (burning), painting or inlay. Pyrographed artwork can be either in the form of branded patterns and symbols or free-hand illustration and patterning. I use nothing more sophisticated than a basic burning iron with about ten different tips. Recently, I have taken to burning outlines and painting inside.

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Yellow cedar Hummingbird flute accents and block
Fire flute end painted decoration
Painted accents are something I now love doing, but it took a while to get used to making artwork look good on a curved surface! The Hummingbird flute opposite is a good example (click on image to enlarge in new window). Painting decoratives onto flutes is sometimes quite a challenge as the grain of the wood is apt to make the paint bleed, giving fuzzy edges to the work. The traditional way is to put a base primer or white gesso onto the area of wood to be painted, let it dry, and then work the picture onto it as you would a canvas. Many flute artists do this and make the final product look good. I prefer a different route. I use non-toxic acrylic paints, but water-soluble and therefore absorbed and erractically spread by the grain of some (not all) woods. To combat this, I have developed a thinned mix of Danish and Lemon oils which will seal the wood just sufficiently to allow over-painting without colouring the wood noticeably. I have found that the acrylics still bind succesfully to this base oil, and allow me to paint fine lines which stay as fine lines (for example, in the detailed feather work on the Hummingbird flutes), and produce smooth tonal gradients. The Custom Flutes page has many examples of painted accents.

Elf painting on yellow cedar Little Owl flute

Veneer inlay into oak barrelInlays can be either wood veneers, objects (eg shells or stones) or semi-precious stone (eg turquoise, quartz, jet and amber). These can be worked into the flute body in strips, in formed patterns or random placements. However, the 'high end' flutes often have bands of exotic or grained woods (eg purpleheart, kingwood, rippled sycamore, quilted maple) inlayed into the barrel - NOT just glued onto the ends!

Yellow cedar drone nest and yew totem blocks
Eagle totem block in cherry
Wren totem block in cherry
Mouse on cheese totem block carved in oak
Boat totem block in maple and pine
Curly black walnut bird totem
A small selection of totem blocks

Click on images to enlarge them in a new pop-up window.

There is no set way in which I finish a flute. Some flutes I will finish with minimal treatment, just a light protective oil or wax, so that the wood still looks and feels natural. Others I will put a high sheen finish on using anything up to three layers of oil and four or five layers of different waxes to a point where the flute looks almost lacquered. The type of finish also depends on the type of wood. Some woods change colour dramatically when oiled or waxed. This can be very dramatic and desirable, however, as a rule, I prefer to work at keeping the natural colour of the wood wherever possible while still giving the flute a finish that will last and protect it. And on that point, the finishing has to take account of the conditions and demands which are likely to be placed on the flute. The function of the finishing has to be protective as much as anything. Not only does the flute have to withstand environmental conditions, it is also subjected to internal moisture, skin oils from the playing hands, and knocks and bangs. To this end I will sometimes use the hardest of all waxes, Picreator's museum standard Renaissance wax - expensive, but it does give the ultimate wax finish.

Above all else, the finishes applied have to be non-toxic, and for finishing a mouth end, non-tasting. I make a point of using safe finishes, at least to FDA standards. It is worth noting that the manufacturers all have their own patent blends and mixes, and just because it says Danish Oil on it, it doesn't automatically mean that that Danish is non-toxic. I always check the makers' specification sheets before buying and using. Within the finishing armoury I keep Tung, Lemon, Finishing, Danish, Citrus, Pine and 'Salad bowl' oils, and beeswax, Briwax, carnuba wax, Renaissance and Bison fine paste waxes. For the majority of flutes its my own mix of Tung, Citrus, Pine oils and Gum turpentine first, 72 hours on drying racks and then three coats of Renaissance wax. This latter product is fantastic; it originated in the British Museum research department and is now the benchmark standard for waxes around the world. Virtually every museum uses it to protect everything from metal, through to ceramics and wood. It is incredibly long lasting and also spreads moisture out into a thin film; this is very useful where moisture collects in the flue and under the block during playing. Call me if you want more information on the wax. I do use Acrylic lacquers on rare occasions (for instance if I have a very resinous Cedar of Lebanon which remains sticky long after the flute's been made and needs heavy-duty sealing). I'm not a fan of polyurethane-based finishes - it's feels like shrink-wrapping the flute - but there is one product on sale in the US which Guillermo introduced me to call Eze-Do. This is a non-toxic polyurethane wipe-on gel which gives an almost invisible coating to the wood. Unfortunately, it's not available in the UK!

Technically, I can finish a flute in seven days if it's to have just the basic coatings. The length of time reflects the fact that the aroma and taste of the oils needs to go out of the flute, especially the mouthpiece! In practice, I like to leave 2-3 days between each layer, and if there's artwork and accents to do, it can take up to 6 weeks to finish a flute and let it rest before it's ready for sale or playing.

Making a crow head block

The flutes are finally finished by crafting the totem (block, fetish), held in place by elk- or other animal skin tie; hand-woven and painted wraps are added if requested. Totems come in all shapes and sizes, and with all sorts of 'front-ends' to give the voice I want (click on image above for examples). I use mainly hardwoods such as cherry, maple, walnut, yew and oak. They are shaped using a fine bandsaw, power-tool carving and/or hand carving and a lot of sanding. I use a belt sander to give the necessary flat underside to the block. I used to prefer a plain arch front-end to the block as it can easily be varied to give different timbres; however, I now have a range of chimney fronted designs, each of which has its own particular use, be it giving a certain voice to the flute or helping novice players control the airflow to prevent overblowing the fundamental note. Just know: the block front design has a crucial bearing on how the flute sounds!
I also tend to use chimneys when a louder sound is required of the flute or there is a need to protect against air movement, for example if the flute is to be played outside. I have several versions of the traditional stylized bird totems but the range branches out into all sorts of animals and objects, and ends with fully carved and painted representations of birds such as blackcaps, woodpeckers and owls. Click on the image opposite to open a new window and see how I make a Crow head block. As I am crafting a flute, I am almost always given a sense of what totem should go on it. Needless to say commissioned flutes usually come with a request for a particular theme or power animal on the block (especially the childrens flutes), and a good number of these are shown on the Blocks and Artwork page, but I must end this workshop by acknowledging that throughout the whole making process, I am helped every step of the way by my Spirit Guides who give and channel my creative abilities and help me meet the various challenges that come with each new flute.

Wood - choosing, preparing and sectioning
Cutting and routing the blank
Fipples, voice boxes and flues
Sanding, glueing and shaping

The finishing aspect is one which I am still exploring. Getting the right balance of oils, waxes and wipes seems to be one of those things that you are never completely certain about. I've taken advice from many sources, including Jeff Calavan at Laughing Mallard Flutes, and the concensus seems to be 'do what feels right.' But then again, that is something that can be said for any and all aspects of flute making. I hope these pages have some insight into my work. Feel free to contact me for any further details. Happy flute-making!

 The Owlhouse • Milford • Surrey • UK •

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