Irish Flutes - Materials
One of the (many) great pleasures of being a flute maker is being able to work with the most wonderful materials - exotic timbers, fine metals and rich fabrics.
African Blackwood has become the de-facto standard for Irish flutes, and with good reason. The wood is very stable and water resistant. It is strong and attractive, fine and dense - perfect for flute making. There have been some concerns raised about its continuing availability, not because of use by instrument makers (who only account for a tiny proportion of annual usage) but because of use in charcoal manufacture. The current evidence appears to indicate it is being acceptably managed by the relevant African authorities. Exporters need licences and are issued quotas, and attention is turning to replanting to provide a commercial future for the Blackwood timber industry. It is not listed as an endangered species.
Blackwood is essentially black with some gray and brown highlights when viewed under strong light. Most of the images on this web site illustrate flutes in African Blackwood.
6 key Rudall style flute in African Blackwood
I have vast supplies of excellent blackwood in all the various dimensions needed for my many models. Other timbers are available too, but I can't possibly hope to keep adequate supplies of all timbers pre-prepared for all the flute types! So you can expect additional waiting time for the coloured timbers, as well as slightly higher prices(mentioned in the price list).
Ebony looks pretty much like African Blackwood but without the highlights. It is similar in weight but not as naturally water-resistant. Appropriate though for some early instruments.
During the 19th century, cocus wood became available from the West Indies and quickly became the standard timber for flutes and other woodwinds from that period. Unfortunately supply was small, demand was insatiable and ecological management non-existent, to the extent that the timber came close to extinction. Cocus is once more available, in very small quantities at a very high price. Cocus starts as a yellow-brown and darkens to a medium brown with time.
6 Key Pratten's Perfected model in cocuswood
Cooktown Ironwood is a very dense timber from Northern Queensland in Australia. It is mostly used for rough applications such as fence posts and railway sleepers, being very resistant to rot. Now becoming quite popular as an alternative to blackwood, I believe I was the first to use it for flutemaking, in the mid to late 1970's. Makes a very lively (responsive) flute.
I have found however that it is a difficult material to use for keyed flutes - the very open pores that I think are responsible for its lively performance are a liability when it comes to making airtight pad seats. We can inlay blackwood seats to overcome this, but expect to pay more!
Rudall Perfected model in Cooktown Ironwood
Before Cocuswood became available in the 19th century, flutes were often made of boxwood, a small evergreen tree which grows across Europe. The demand for boxwood for musical and measuring instruments, tool handles and other turned items has made it hard to obtain and expensive. It is not a very stable wood, and not as dense as most other flute timbers. It lends however a very sweet tone and its light weight can be an advantage to some players. Boxwood starts out a lemon-yellow and slowly darkens with time to a rich honey colour.
Boxwood Rudall Refined model with saltspoon keys, Rounded Rectangle embouchure
Gidgee is a native Australian acacia from the dry inland regions of northern New South Wales. It is heavy and fine, starting as a medium reddish-brown and darkening with time to resemble 19th century stained cocus. I'm not aware of any other makers using Gidgee at this time.
Keyless flute in Gidgee (at
bottom), compared to 19th century flute in stained cocus.
6-key Rudall Perfected model in Gidgee (new colour)
Also known as Dead Finish, an abbreviation for Dead Smooth Finish, a tribute to the working qualities of this lovely Australian timber. It is quite silky and innocuous to work, rather reminiscent of cocus.
Rudall model 5088, 6 key, in red lancewood
An African timber, from the same general regions as African Blackwood. A very good timber, making a flute with a satisfying "firm" feel to hands and lip. The feeling of firmness extends to the playing qualities.
Prattens style keyless in fresh Mopane (will darken with time)
Polymers are attractive to players who fear that their climate, camping activities or performance situations are just too harsh for wood. I can make any of my models in polymer if requested. I am not interested in using polymers to make cheap flutes - I follow exactly the same processes as I do in the fine timbers to produce a flute that achieves the same top quality results. Black acetal results in an appearance resembling African blackwood. The Du-Pont trade name Delrin is sometimes used to mean acetal.
Grey Larsen Preferred in acetal polymer, sterling silver rings and tuning slide
Timber and its Treatment
Only the best timber available is used and spends
years seasoning before
use. The timber is turned and drilled when it arrives and is
wire baskets to permit unrestricted airflow for steady seasoning.
After roughing out, the pieces spend some time in an artificial
environment chamber to prepare them perfectly for whichever part of the
they are bound.
The rings (or bands) on flutes are not just decorative - their real job is to support the very thin wood at the sockets against the outward pressure of the tenon lapping. Rings can be of sterling silver or artificial Ivory. Most of the images on this site use the silver rings.
Head with baroque style artificial ivory rings.
Note also the slide cover on this flute is black acetal rather than silver. This flute was purchased by a player who was allergic to silver.
MDT flute with plain artificial ivory rings