On making an instrument *1

On making an instrument: Adventures in building a flute

January 17, 2009

I have several friends who have taken up building their own instruments – flutes, clarinets, oboes, cornetti…  They’ve been very passionate in their recommendations of a class they all followed, led by Paul Beekhuizen.  After 2 years of their enthusiastic reports, I’ve finally taken them up on the idea that maybe I might find this interesting as well.  I have no plans to be a flute maker, but I’d like to know more about how it works.  I learn by doing, and no matter how many flute builders have described the process to me, it just never sticks.

Today was my first day in an instrument-building class.  Everyone has a different project – we range from the descant Renaissance flute-maker (me) to a double-bass maker (a very dedicated person!)  I figure making a simple stick with holes is a pretty good way to start out, especially since I’ve never done anything involving a workshop with tools (other than sweeping up sawdust in my dad’s shop – does this count?)  I had a little tour of the instruments, with requisite basic instructions and safety warnings, and then we got right down to work.

Paul helped me pick out a nice piece of American maple from the stock to begin my flute.  This piece of wood was long and rectangular, and my first job was to find the middle of each endpoint, mark it with a tiny hole, and set it in the lathe.  We turned the lathe on, and as the wood spun around, I used a gouge to scrape away the edges until it was completely round.

Here’s the lathe I’m working on.  You can also see the variety of gouges hanging there in a nice, orderly Dutch line.


Clean-up involved a whole mess of sawdust and a noisy vacuum cleaner, but I didn’t think of using it on my clothes until I got home and sat on the couch, thus spreading of little bits of maple wood joy beyond the workshop…

That was the end of Day 1.  I made a rectangle into a cylinder, and I’m so proud.