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Care and Maintenance    Basic

This page discusses some of the basic maintenance issues with Native American flutes. It discusses some problems you might encounter at various times and how to address them.

Caveat: The primary authority on the care of any particular flute is the person or organization that crafted the instrument. Please consider anything on this page as secondary and subordinate to the advice of the maker. Also, please realize that this advice does not apply to antique flutes or artifacts.

The Basics

Here are some basic good-practices for flute players:

  • Limit your flute playing on one particular instrument to 15-30 minutes per day. This helps prevent over-saturation with moisture from your breath. See also, Breaking In Your Flute.
  • Strictly limit the people who can play your flutes. See Sharing Flutes, below.
  • Store your flute in a cloth flute bag once it has dried after playing. This keeps dust out and discourages critters (like spiders) that like dark, cozy places. Flute bags that do not breathe (such as leather) are not ideal since any residual moisture cannot escape. Likewise, storing your flutes in a hard, sealed case is not recommended unless you are travelling with your flutes.

Here are some basic don't:

  • Don't ever leave a flute in a car unless the temperature is extremely temperate and the sun is not shining directly on the car.
  • Don't place flutes near a heat source.
  • Don't eat or drink while playing the flute! The food particles carried on your breath can be a feast for anything that want to grow in the slow air chamber. And liquids will make your flute wet out faster.

Breaking In Your Flute

You've just purchased a new flute, and the first thing you want to do is … play it! And play it … and play it …

However … and this may be the most difficult thing for flute players … flute makers recommend restraint when playing a new flute. This caution applies to all new flutes, but in particular flutes crafted of bamboo or cane.

Here are some Web resources on this topic suggested by Barry Higgins of White Crow Flutes. They pertain to recorders, and the advice transfers to Native American flutes made of wood. For bamboo and cane flutes, I would significantly reduce the playing time suggested:

Wetting Out

You pick up a flute and start to play. You hit on a great melody and play it over and over to learn it, refine it, and develop it into a song. Just when it's perfect, you hit the Record button on your little portable recorder, put the flute to your lips and … nothing. Maybe a squeak, maybe a burble, but certainly not the sound of a flute.

You've hit the most common problem with Native American flutes: wetting out. Moisture has condensed out from your breath and clogged the flue underneath the block:

Cut-away image of a Native American flute, showing the SAC exit hole, airflow, ramp, flue, and splitting edge

Cut-away image of a Native American flute,
showing the SAC exit hole, airflow, ramp,
flue, and splitting edge Larger image

Cures

You can do several things to cure a flute that has wetted out:

  • Blow the moisture out. Put the flute in playing position, then rotate the entire flute so that the block is on the bottom. Breathe hard into the flute and the moisture should spray out from under the upside-down block. It will also make a loud sound, so you might want to carefully place finger in the area of the splitting edge and sound hole to disturb the normal sound-producing mechanism — causing it to produce a wind sound rather than a tone.
  • Shake the moisture out (not recommended) . This involves enthusiastically swinging the flute so that the moisture exits the breath hole. There are several downsides to this approach, including spraying moisture on people and things around you, hitting the flute against something hard and unfriendly, and having pieces of your flute (like the block) fly off and do some damage.
  • Remove the block. This usually involves untying the lacing that holds the block in place. You can then let the flute dry out naturally.

Now that you've cured the flute, consider what to do next. You might be tempted to simply go on playing. However, consider that a flute that has wetted out is still very moist inside the slow air chamber and in the flue. It will likely wet out much sooner the second time. Also, many flutes are not designed to be exposed to condensed moisture for extended periods. They could, potentially, develop a crack after extended exposure to high-moisture. So consider putting the flute aside until tomorrow and move to one of the other flutes in your collection.

Causes

Some flutes are more prone to wet out than others. Here are some guidelines to general factors that affect the wet-out tendency:

  • Temperature plays a big role in wetting out. Think of your breath on a cold day: it condenses in front of you when you exhale. If your flute is physically cold, the moisture in your warm breath will condense onto the inside of the flute surfaces. So, a flute from a cold room will wet out faster than a warm flute.

    Have you ever seen a flute player breathe into the finger holes of their flute before playing? Sometimes they get up close to the microphone and use it as a wind sound during the introduction to a song. Aside from a cool sound, it is also warming up the flute.
  • The materials used in the nest area play a bit part in whether a flute wets out. Dense, heavy woods, metals, and even plastics hold their (cold) temperatures much longer than light woods. This is one of the reasons that Western Red Cedar is a popular wood for flutes — it is light and warms quickly to the temperature of your breath. I've got a flute made of Ebony and I know that I've got about 90 seconds of play before it wets out. For specific woods, check one of the web resources on wood density such as Wood Densities or Physical Properties of Common Woods. Also consider that wood density affects tonal quality — see this article by John Stillwell on How Wood Density Affects Tonal Quality.
  • Your breath. Some players (like myself) are “wet players”. We just wet a flute faster than other players. One thing you can do is to swallow and try to dry your mouth out a bit just before you begin breathing into the flute.

With experience, you will begin to hear the impending wet-out before it seriously disrupts the sound of the flute. Learn to hear that characteristic sound, and switch flutes or take some corrective action before the sound disappears completely.

Travelling With Your Flutes

Taking your flute on the road, whether it's to a performance, a flute circle, or a workshop, can be nerve-wracking. Unlike mass-produced musical instruments or instruments that are made to a common standard, most ethnic flutes are individual, one-of-a-kind instruments. Here are some general tips:

  • Consider using one of the sturdy traveling cases designed for Native American flutes. They are generally constructed of cloth-covered PVC and provide light and strong protection. They are available from various sources such as the Oregon Flute Store and FluteCase.com and are available in a range of types and sizes (or can be custom-made to your needs). It's best to keep each individual flute in a padded cloth flute sock for added protection. These cases are useful for carrying your instruments and for carry-on baggage on airlines, but I would not trust them for airline checked baggage.
  • If you use any closed traveling case, consider placing something to absorb any extra moisture that may be in the flutes (such as a flute that was not quite dried when you put it back into the case). Lorrie Sarafin recommends placing a braid of Sweetgrass into the case, to absorb moisture and provide a pleasant fragrance.
  • If you need to check your flutes as baggage on an airline or use a shipping service, some serious protection is in order. Unlike musicians who travel with standard-sized instruments such as violins and trumpet, we have to improvise. I have had good experience (and good luck) using the cases by Pelican Products, in particular their model 1650 with velcro-edged dividers. This allows me to pack a changing variety of instruments, flutes, and gear, and check it relatively worry-free. For special-case situations, the Calzone Case Company is experienced at creating cases specific to your needs.

Sharing Flutes

Streptococcus bacteria, can linger on musical instruments for days. Photo Bette Jensen/CDC

Share your flute with someone else, and you share their germs. The tiny organisims that cause disease live on the instrument long after the person that donated them has stopped playing your flute. These include the Streptococcus bacteria, pictured at the right (photo by Bette Jensen of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Several recent studies have confirmed that the issue is real, the microbes are long-lasting — see Microbes in the Music by Stephen Ornes. General advice on disinfecting mouthpieces (see, for example, Mouthpiece Hygiene), often cannot be used on Native American flutes because of the closed design and their wood or bamboo construction.

One innovation that has helped is the use of disposable plastic tubes placed into the breath hole of flutes. These are used at some flute festivals and flute circles in an attempt to provide a level of germ-safety. These devices may be useful towards that goal, but I don't know of any authoritative evaluation of their effectiveness.

Disposable plastic breath hole tube

Disposable plastic breath hole tube Larger image

Maintaining the Finish

It's a good idea to keep your flute looking good and free of dirt. Exactly how to do that depends largely on the finish that was applied to the instrument.

Since there are many, many kinds of finishes that flute makers use on their instruments, and since the maintenance for one finish can be a disaster for another finish, your only real choice is to ask the maker about how to maintain the finish or at least find out what the finish is.

Oiling the Bore

Some flutes are designed to have oil applied to the bore at regular intervals. These are typically flutes where the maker has not applied a finish to the inside of the flute. The oil protects the wood from rapid changes in humidity that could stress or crack the flute.

For flutes where the bore is oiled, the trick is finding the right oil. My personal requirements are that the oil is:

  1. Non-toxic. My standard is that the oil is safe to eat. This eliminates most petroleum products
  2. Retards fungus, mold, mildew, and bacteria growth
  3. Does not go rancid. Oils go rancid when they chemically decompose, often as a result of bacterial growth or from simple oxidation. They may then put out foul odors
  4. Is non-drying, and
  5. Is rather light (low viscosity) (don't want to “muck up” the flute).

I find it interesting that the “bore oil”, sold for oiling the bore of recorders, appears to be unsuitable on several of the counts above. From Oiling Your Recorder ([Wisniewski 2011]):

Bore oil … is often mineral oil or petroleum oil and has a number of interesting characteristics. First, it's biologically incompatible (except for special bacteria genetically engineered to clean up oil spills) so it does not go rancid. Second, it dries much slower [than other oils], and is much more immune to natural and man-made detergents, so it stays in the bore much longer. Third, it's a very effective vapor barrier. But it's not as compatible with wood as the nut oils, and it's difficult to clean out of the bore (keeps building up in waxy layers). Personally, I avoid it.

One useful resource I've found is the Pesticide Database of the Pesticide Action Network of North America. I used it, for example, to rule out the use of paraffin oil that had been recommended to me. It provided this description (which I later found sourced in a number of documents of the Environmental Protection Agency, another good source of information):

Paraffin oil: A complex combination of hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum fractions by solvent crystallization (solvent deoiling) or by the sweating process. It consists of straight chain hydrocarbons having carbon numbers predominantly greater than C_2_0.

There is not much detail on toxicity, but I would not consider using any petroleum distillate.

I chose not to use linseed oil, since it dries after a while.

The ideal combination seemed to be some edible variety of pure tree nut oil.

There are various metrics to predict the resistance that a type of oil has to going rancid. One common measure is the Oil Stability Index (OSI) ([Shahidi 2005], pages 370–371), which is often measured by an automated system (Rancimat by Metrohm Ltd.) that directly measures the tendency to go rancid using a flow of air is bubbled through a heated oil, usually at 100°C (212°F) or above. However, for use in flutes, this is a poor measure, as noted by [Shahidi 2005], page 371:

Although the OSI method is useful for quality control of oils, it is not recommended for measurement of antioxidant activity for certain reasons. The high temperatures used do not allow reliable predictions of antioxidant effectiveness at lower temperatures. Volatile antioxidants may be swept out of the oil by the air flow under test conditions …

One class of the “volatile antioxidants” mentioned are tocopherols - antioxidants in various forms that are all classified as “vitamin E”. In looking at nut tree oils, an alternate measure of oil stability used by Ozdemir in 2001 (as cited in [Shahidi 2005a], page 180) involved the amount of alpha-tocopherol as well as the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids contained in the oil. However, although alpha-tocopherol is the form that we best absorb ([Rigotti 2007]), all forms of tocopherol (alpha-tocopherol, beta-tocopherol, delta-tocopherol, and gamma-tocopherol) have antioxidant properties.

Here is a chart of alpha-tocopherol content (from [Shahidi 2005a]) and total tocopherol content (from [Miraliakbari 2008], all values using hexane extraction) for some common tree nut oils:

alpha-tocopherol Content for Tree Nut Oils
Tree Nut Oil Concentration (mg/kg)
alpha-
tocopherol
alpha-
tocopherol
total
tocopherol
[Shahidi 2005a] [Miraliakbari 2008]
Almond oil (Prunus delcis and Prunus amara)   231 244
Brazil nut oil   13 168
Cashew oil (Anacardium occidentale L.) 280 – 820    
Hazelnut (filbert) oil (Corylus sp.) 382 – 472 365 462
Pecan oil (Carya illinoinensis) 10 14 454
Pine nut oil   115 399
Pistachio oil (Pistacia vera) 270 287 334
Walnut oil   33 402

Based on these measurements, and my like of the taste of Hazelnut oil, that's what I use as my bore oil. If you prefer the taste of another oil on the chart consider the total tocopherol content of the oil. Alternately, you can add you own tocopherol, using vitamin E gel-caps. Some things to note:

  • The values for tocopherol contents when the chloroform/methanol extraction process is used are higher than the hexane extraction process, as noted in [Miraliakbari 2008].
  • The levels of tocopherol is depleted rather rapidly. Even when stored at 4°C (37°F) the level of total tocopherol fell in one kind of almond oil by 46% after one year, and was totally depleted after three years. The degradation rate was higher at room temperature ([Shahidi 2005a], page 177).

In cases where I want to guard against microbes growing in the slow air chamber (or to fight ones that have already gotten a foothold — see Growths in the Slow Air Chamber below), I add Tea Tree oil, in this combination:

Five drops of Tea Tree Oil per ½ fluid ounce of pure Hazelnut Oil.

However, please see the cautions regarding the use of Tea Tree oil in the section below.

On the fujara, which needs regular oiling, most times I play, I use one drop in the top of the side air tube (the equivalent of the slow air chamber on a Native American flute). Occasionally I pull the leather plug and put one drop into the air channel.

Cracks

A flute that develops a crack is a shocking experience. You might notice the crack on the bore, or your find that your flute requires more air (a crack in the slow air chamber). You might even discover a crack in the sound chamber when your flute starts to overblow uncontrollably.

Your first impulse might be to glue the crack. This might work for a while, but I have been advised by at least one flute maker that this can create more problems in the long run. Wood periodically expands and contracts, and the hard glue will act as a wedge, tending to cause more cracks in other places along the bore of the instrument.

The best approach is to apply bindings to the bore of the flute. See Binding a Flute to Repair or Prevent Cracking.

Growths in the Slow Air Chamber

The moist, dark interior of the slow air chamber can be an ideal place for all sorts of nasty things — mold, mildew, bacteria, fungus — to grow. And discovering a growth inside your flute is a memorable experience. Are these growths dangerous? I have no idea, but in my mind, they can't be good!

There are several goals when dealing with growths:

  • Suppressing growths in a flute where the slow air chamber has been sealed.
  • Suppressing growths in an unsealed flute that needs periodic oiling.
  • Avoiding growth related to oil that goes rancid.

The suppression of growth and the selection of an oil are somewhat related.

To suppress or eradicate growths, I have had recommendations for witch hazel, antibiotics, mouthwash (Listerine), alcohol, UV Light, and a few other things.

The usual problem cited is that alcohol degrades sealants and glue (and most commercial Witch Hazel contains alcohol). But the real issue for me is that flooding the slow air chamber with any liquid is probably a bad idea. Unless the slow air chamber is sealed by extraordinary means (like epoxy), the wood still absorbs moisture through the sealant, although at a reduced rate. Adding liquid to the slow air chamber is likely to severely strain the structure of the flute and induce cracking. I've experienced cracking situations I'd rather not repeat.

Just when all seemed lost, I stumbled across Tea Tree oil. I have a small bottle of 100% oil, which has a very strong scent, but it is not offensive (to me). Reminds me of the scent of Oil of Cloves.

Caution: Tea Tree Oil is toxic in sufficient quantity. Cats are particularly susceptible. I have been advised by a nutritionist that it is unlikely that you could ingest enough from the normal use of a flute to be toxic, but you need to determine if you are sensitive or allergic to tea tree oil.

Further Caution: A small percentage of people experience an allergic reaction to tea tree oil ([Stonehouse 2007] Allergic Contact Dermatitis from Tea Tree Oil). You might consider applying a small amount of the tea tree oil product you intend to use to your skin and wait 24 hours to see if itching or rash results.

Tea tree oil is an ingredient in some specialty toothpastes. See The Side Effects of Tea Tree Oil Toothpaste if Swallowed for an overview and some cautions. (Thanks to John Hnath for this reference.)

A single drop of Tea Tree Oil in the vicinity of the growth causes it to retreat within 24 hours and be gone in a few days, and there is no sign of reoccurrence. I have used maybe 4-6 drops total on a Q-tip swab to completely clean out the two affected flutes. The oil did not need to be on the growths, just in the vicinity.

The smell takes a month or two to dissipate.

I've gotten a verbal “OK” regarding using a few drops of tea tree oil from several flute makers who treat their slow air chamber with shellac and polyurethane. Have not checked it with lacquer yet.

As a preventative measure, for flutes where you oil the bore, you could add a few drops of Tea Tree oil to the oil that you use. See Oiling the Bore.

 
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