Wood
Flute woods
To me, choosing wood is probably the most important part of the whole process. It's also a very joyous part. I also make sure I know where all my wood has come from. Over the time I've been making flutes, I've moved from the prepared, sanitized 50x50mm red cedar lengths of timber merchants to collecting and receiving donations of wood, often straight off the tree, from all sorts of sources. While I collect and prepare much of my own wood, I still have a very trustworthy merchant supplying imported timbers such as western red and yellow cedars, the wonderfully fragrant eastern red (pencil) cedar, rosewoods, maple, black walnut and other exotics, plus one in Sussex supplying Port Orford cedar and Cedar of Lebanon, one in Surrey who has a good range of timbers such as alder, oak, redwood, sycamore, yew and cherry from the Goodwood and Cowdray Park estates, one in Wales who stocks from local woodlands, and one in Dartmoor who has the most wonderful barns full of all the English timbers you could imagine, all air dried over many years. I also know several managers and owners of Ancient Woodlands who hold FSC certification and who really 'know their wood'; their help in supplying special pieces of wood is invaluable.


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While I do make traditional cedar flutes, much of my work is in the wood of Our Land. For me, it has a resonance that I find runs deep within me. It's true that in this country we do not have the diversity of unusual woods that exists for makers in the US and Canada; we cannot easily get the likes of quilted Maple or Pommele Sapele. However, we have some fantastic, indigenous, beautiful woods to work with in the UK, and I've learned that the 'difficult' woods (cross-grained, knotted, spalted etc.) usually make the most beautiful and best sounding flutes and are worth the extra struggle!
Oak, ash, elm, beech, lime, birch, scots pine, yew, walnut, cherry, lacewood, alder, sycamore, chestnut, hornbeam, pear and local grown redwood all make distinctly different looking, sounding and feeling flutes, and the harder the wood to work, the more satisfying the end result. I've also found that the harder the wood, the easier it usually is to do fine detailed work on it; too many times the softness of red or yellow cedar has led to chipping or splitting at critical points such as the shaping of two-bevel fipple edges.

English walnut for flutes

Much of the wood I now use, I collect and cut 'from the round' myself, and air dry it using traditional methods - this can take over two years for some pieces. I also spalt my own woods as required (being a trained microbiologist has its uses!). Having realised that being able to prepare and square-section my own wood was key to producing original flutes, I invested in an industrial strength bandsaw, capable of taking both very fine and heavy duty blades, and a strong circular saw. However, regardless of what cutting tools you have, sectioning and squaring the wood to get its best qualities shown in the right places on a flute is an art form in itself, and picking good grain patterns also comes with experience. Once I have a blank cut, I will often take a few hours looking at it from all directions to work out which way round to work the wood for the best effect (or to avoid the trouble spots!).

Of course one of the key considerations in choosing wood is the density and tonal quality that it will impart to the flute's voice. However, I must say from the outset that the type of wood is not the most important issue in a flute's timbre. Cedars and other soft woods absorb high frequencies and are considered to give a mellow tone to a flute. Woods like Cherry and Walnut are good all-round mid-range woods. Hardwoods like Holly and Ash do give a very 'bright' voice, full of high frequencies. This is mainly because these frequencies are not absorbed by the dense wood fibres but are reflected off the walls of the bore and upper chamber and out to the ear. However, such woods can give too shrill a voice so care is needed in using the other parameters such as flue dimensions and shape, TSH, fipple edge and block dimensions and design, to offset this. Even normal Beech and Oak can be too hard for a mellow flute, which is why I have a love of using spalted woods. These have had fungal growth through them (either while the tree was standing of after it was felled); as the fungi grow in the wood they release chemicals (enzymes) which soften the wood so the fungus can take up the nutrients released. However, this process also increases the pitting in the wood and reduces its density. If you leave a piece of spalted wood too long the process goes too far and the wood becomes powdery; catch the process at the right point however and you have a piece of wood that will make a wonderfully resonant flute. That is not to say the tone will be dull; it is easy to engineer the flute to produce a high frequency-rich voice, but the bass tones are accentuated. Being trained as microbiologist has had its uses.... I now hand-spalt my woods when required using my own cultures of cellulolytic fungi, and can therefore be precise in how much spalting occurs. It can take 6 months to two years to spalt a piece correctly and then dry it (this kills the fungal growth). Anyway, back to technicalities....

I usually square section wood to between 40x40mm and 60x60mm, and stop cut to a length of between 550-800mm. This depends on what key flute I want, whether it's to be 5, 6 or 7 hole, and whether it's to have tuning holes and how many. The commonest starting point is 45x45mm at 650mm for a basic middle G flute with a 3/4" (19mm) bore and 1/4" (6mm) wall thickness.



Working wood 'from the round'
Working beech out of the round


Related sections:


Cutting and routing the blank
Fipples, voice boxes and flues
Glueing and shaping
Tuning
Finishing, Artwork and Blocks


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


Square-sectioned cedars ready to cut for flute blanks
Cedars and oaks sectioned and ready to split

Timber merchants in the UK are getting fewer. If you are going for imported timber, please be careful about choosing your wood, particularly with regard to the sustainablity or otherwise of its origins. Also, be wary of ready-sized, kiln-dried imported cedars; in my experience they have often been rushed into shipment and are still either 'wet' inside or they have been dried too fast and have cracks (shakes and rokes) on the heartwood/sapwood junctions.

 The Owlhouse • Milford • Surrey • UK • dc@secondvoiceflutes.co.uk

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