Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

Sign up for our Flute Newsletter


Previous PageNext Page

Flute Makers' Forum

Brent Haines of Woodsounds Flutes Judy Robinson of WrenSong Flutes and Kantele Jon Norris of Jon Norris Music and Arts

Flutemakers in Residence: Brent Haines, Judy Robinson, and Jon Norris.


Flute Makers' Forum

Recorded September 11, 2014.

Download the Audio


This is a slightly “loose” transcript, capturing the essence of the discussion, but not necessarily every word spoken. I have also sprinkled a few diagrams to show some aspects of the flute anatomy that is discussed.

Vera: Welcome to our first flute forum. We have three wonderful flute makers here and this is going to be run like the presidential debate. I am going to be asking the questions and I will address it to one person, who will speak for about three minutes or less on the topic, and then the other two flute makers can respond and add comments. We had a lot of wonderful questions, so I had to order them, and if you have any questions at the end, you can always come up to them and ask. We’ve already heard from Brent and Jon in terms of a little bit about their background, so why don’t I take one minute and introduce Judy … please tell us a little bit about how you got into flute-making.

Judy: I was trying to get a ukulele group together and someone said “go check out a flute circle” and so I went and checked out the flute circle with my ukulele. The idea was that the flute circle was already organized and together … and fell in love with the flute. People let me play the flutes and then I looked at the flutes and said “I could never afford these … I don’t know if I would really play it beyond the flute circle” and two of the men that were at the flute circle said “then make one" … using “urban wood” which as you know is cold-water pipe … PVC pipe from Loews. So I went home and made four. Came back the next month and had them critiqued. After about a hundred PVC flutes (everyone got one for Christmas) I switched to wood. It was ostensibly wood that was going to be ukuleles, but I moved from making ukuleles to flutes.

The goal was: I have very small hands, and I never knew that until I tried to do bar chords on the guitar. And so I made flutes that I really enjoyed playing — that’s a lot of what drives my philosophy. I want women with smaller hands — not all women have small hands but often we do — to enjoy playing the flute, to not have it hurt, and to make it affordable, because that’s what’s changed my life. So I have a chance to do that now.

Vera: Excellent — we welcome all three of you. And I just happen to have the first question for Judy: So a lot of our participants want to know: how would you go about describing how to clean a flute.

Judy: With my flutes — and that’s what I would speak to — they are very finished and sealed on the inside and so you don’t really need to clean it unless you had it for 80 years. You do need to let it dry out. If it wets out, take off the bird and let it sit and dry.

Jon: The biggest thing I do is at flute circles and festivals is to keep the mouthpiece clean, because people are passing flutes around. My buddy Ed [Dougherty] at Tree of Life makes essential oils that are anti-bacterial disinfectant — I use those for wiping the mouthpieces down and keep things clean that way.

Brent: The most important thing to do with your flutes is to keep them dry. We all blow moisture into our flutes and as you play your flutes you’re going to blow moisture into them. So every time you’re done playing your flute you want to remove your totem off the flute and you want to get the moisture out of the flute. A lot of people leave their totem on their flute when they’re done playing, so if you just take your totem off when you’re done, wipe the bottom of the totem, get it dry, set the totem aside, take a micro-fiber cloth — that’s what I like to use — clean the nest area out — just wipe it out and get it nice and clean. Then take the flute, tip it upside down, tap the moisture out — I sometimes like to tap it on my leg — and tap it good and clean and set it aside and let it dry.

Jon: Also — don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. I know of at least one web site where the guy recommends pouring Scope® mouthwash into the mouth hole. Please don’t do that.

Vera: What are some repairs that people can make to their own flute — like if it’s a slightly cracked flute around the mouth or some older weathered flute. What would you recommend.

Jon: It would depend on what needs to be repaired. I would contact the flute maker. For example, Brent’s finish — I wouldn’t attempt to touch myself. If there is a minor crack, you could use some C-A glue [cyanoacrylic glue, brand names Super Glue®, Krazy Glue®, etc.] to seal it up. I had a really old flute that was cedar with knots in it and the knots as they aged opened up and leaked air and the flute just wouldn’t make any noise anymore. So you could seal those or get some beeswax.

Brent: Depending on how handy you are … I think what Jon is saying is right … if you are really handy and you feel you’re qualified to take a little bit of C-A glue — SuperGlue is what C-A glue is — it’s a great tool for woodworkers, but it can really get out of control — really fast — so if you are not handy, don’t do it. But if you are very handy, it can be a great tool, and you can really do some good with sealing up cracks.

Judy: I’m very reluctant to attempt anything myself on a flute that another flute maker made simply because I think you need to talk to the person who made the flute — how it’s made inside. I once told someone they had little “hairies” — what I call the little raised grain wood — inside the sound hole. I said that if you just lightly sand those down you’ll have a smoother sound in your flute. And the person was so eager to do a good job that they sanded the little sound hole bigger and changed the tuning on the flute. They were so zesty in making their own alterations that it actually changed the flute. So I think my advice would be: “Talk with the flute maker”. Every flute maker is happy to talk about their “babies” that are out there — if there’s a crack or whatever that can be addressed.

Vera: How do you think the type of wood affects the sound?

Brent: The type of wood has an incredible effect on the sound of the flute. In fact I built a line of flutes exactly on that principle. The Woodsounds Classics series is built on the type of woods and how they affect the sounds of the flute. As the densities of the woods change, the sounds that the woods create changes. A lighter wood creates a different sound. A cedar, for example, creates a warmer sound in the flute. If you’ve got a denser wood you get more projection. The flute Clint played last night was a Grenadilla Classic. It has a lot of projection and a full, round sound, with incredible projection — it’s very focused. A burl with a chaotic grain structure can have a very complex sound. If it’s a very dense burl it can also have a lot of projection. There’s lots of different woods — I have over a hundred different woods in my inventory and each one of them creates a different sound. Sometimes it’s a subtle effect, sometimes it’s dramatic. The difference between ironwood and cedar is very, very dramatic. You need to listen to them to hear the differences. Thankfully, there’s lots of different flutes you can listen to in order to hear those differences. My advice is to listen to the difference and see what you like.

Judy: Indeed the wood makes a big difference, and I wouldn’t have noticed it until I had made 200 flutes and I had them all in the house. I decided I needed to move them out and make room. Just to give you a contrast, I love cherry flutes. That’s my first love in flute — cherry will give you a very crisp, definite sound as opposed to maple which is a more muted sound — it’s softer. Mulberry: softer, more muted. I think it’s a very subtle thing that you develop an ear for. We have some music teachers here that have that ear. You know, if you had handed me a cherry and a maple and asked “What’s the tonal quality difference” and I hadn’t played 200 different flutes that I had made, I would have said “Oh, they sound the same — they’re in the same key”. It’s very subtle, but it’s there.

Jon: The only I would say on top of what they’ve already said is that the sound mechanism affects things a lot too, so you can manipulate the effect of the wood to an extent. You can make a flute from a wood that generally really bright and crisp sound more mellow. So wood does have a big effect, but there are a lot of other variables that affect tone.

Vera: Why a short primary chamber (or slow air chamber) as opposed to a long slow air chamber.

Cut-away image of a Native American flute, showing the breath hole, airflow, slow air chamber, plug, and resonating chamber

Cut-away image of a Native American flute, showing the breath hole,
airflow, slow air chamber, plug, and resonating chamber Larger image

Judy: My flute teachers taught me to make a 6-inch slow air chamber. So I made a flute like that and it hurt my shoulders. I have little arms and little hands and they were like orangutans. But they taught me much of what I know and I’m very grateful for that. There’s a lot of discussion among flute makers — mine are a range of four inches to three inches … depending on … this is a E flute so it’s going to have a shorter slow air chamber so that you are not stretching your arms and shoulders to get a comfortable play. This goes to the Ergonomics Study. I think it has a lot to do with making it very accessible to people who have smaller digits and shoulders.

Jon: In terms of sound quality and tone, it doesn’t really have any effect at all. I was talking to a guy a month or so ago who said “The slow air chamber has to be at least six inches long” and I’ve got these Ake Bono flutes that once you get past the mouthpiece, you’ve got a one inch long slow air chamber that play just as good as anything else. There’s a lot of myths about flute making floating around on the Internet, and I think this massive sized slow air chamber is one of those.

Brent: I think what people are believing is that they are conditioning the airstream with the slow air chamber. It’s nonsense. There is conditioning that happens in the airstream. That conditioning takes place after it leaves the slow air chamber, and so if you really want to condition the air stream, you need to do it after it leaves the slow air chamber, and you better be thinking about what you’re doing with the airstream there.

Vera: How does a flute maker begin to determine the bore size, the length, finger hole locations, and finger hole size for particular key flutes.

Jon: There’s some decent resources around and Clint’s web site is a great one that has some standard bore sizes for different keys of flutes. If you’re making an F it’s probably around a 7/8” bore. That’s a generally agreed-upon rule. There are some length-to-diameter ratios that people like. Somewhere between 1-to-15 and 1-to-20 depending on tone that you want. So those rules-of-thumb are floating around on the Internet or in a few books here and there.

Length: Bore size affects the length some. A fatter flute in a given key will be shorter; a skinnier flute in the same key will be a little bit longer. You’re basically working length-up until you hit the key that you want.

Finger hole location is a w hole big animal. There are entire series of books written on this stuff, and Lew Paxton Price ([Price 1990], [Price 1991], [Price 1994], [Price 1995], [Price 1995a], [Price 1995b], [Price 1996], [Price 1997], [Price 1998], [Price 1998a], [Price 1998b]) that are nothing but calculus formulas, if you really want to dig into it. There’s some calculators on-line, there’s this Flutomat that Clint has on his web site that people use to calculate finger hole placement. I talked to Michael Graham Allan (Coyote Oldman) one time and asked him, in terms of funky / alternate tunings, how he found hole placement, and he said: “I take a flute, and I drill a hole in it, and I play it, and if it’s not right I tape over it, and I drill another hole until I find it”. So to an extent, some of it is trial and error. There are some different guys with knuckle methods — those work to an extent too.

Finger hole size: Once you’ve got a hole where you want it to be, you’re enlarging the hole to get the note up to the pitch that you want.

Brent: My recommendation is Lew Paxton Price’s books. Read them, study them, learn how to be a flute maker. That’s my recommendation.

Judy: I’m a Russ Wolf fan, but I understand his books are out of print now. He is probably the best in terms of overall guidelines. He’s got charts, for example, if this is an E flute so you should have a bore of one inch. And you say “I’m going to make a flute of what key”. That’s the first thing you decide. You don’t say “How long do I want my flute”. What key do you want it to be — the fundamental is very important. And if you can’t decide that, and you decide while making the flute, then it won’t be anything. So you want to make a very definite decision on what key.

Jon: Or you make firewood, and everybody makes firewood to begin with.

Vera: How can you craft a flute to get the notes above the octave?

Brent: If you want to get more notes above the octave, you need to go with a smaller bore. That’s the bottom line. If somebody really wants to get more notes above the octave than what we currently get with a Native American flute, they have to go with a smaller bore … there is no other way.

Lots of people want to try to do it with a different type of fipple — they think they can get there with a different fipple design — you're just not going to do it. You have to go with a different bore; you have to get your length-to-bore ratio above 20. If you don’t get your length-to-bore ratio above 20, you’re not going to get more notes above the octave. It’s just that simple.

Judy: When the winds are with you, and the gods approve of your flute, you will go there. And when you go to a D flute or lower, you need to pray more.

Jon: Some of it is luck, some of it is design. Hole placement does affect some of those things a little bit. There are some little tricks you can do with undercutting in certain directions to make the second octave do things. But like Brent said, if you’ve got an E with a 1” bore and an E with a 7/8” bore, the 7/8” bore that's a little skinnier is going to play better in the upper octave.

Vera: What are the advantages and disadvantages of tuning holes or direction holes versus cutting off the end of the flute / cut to length.

Judy: My theory is that generally, and this is a generalization, men like longer flutes and women like myself are just happy with whatever: This is an E flute and there is where the fundamental is and I cut it off. I’ve had people ask me: “Can you make me an E that’s this long” so I would put direction holes here to make it this long. But I won’t do direction holes because I just really like the fundamental and … it is what it is.

Jon: When I’m making just a simple straight flute, it’s efficiency. Putting in tuning holes is a lot more work for me than just chopping off the end. When you’re doing bird heads or Brent’s natural end to a burl flute, you have to [add direction holes] to keep that end. So, it takes a little bit more work, but tuning holes are the only option at that point.

Brent: I actually like tuning holes because they allow me to give a little more length to the flute. I do like the length because I do like to show off the wood. It allows me to give a little bit more decoration; it allows me to do some inlays down there. But to do a backpacking flute, cutting them off is a little bit nicer.

Vera: What affects whether a flute is breathy or has a clear sound and what do you do to get a full body sound that the player can get into and wail on it.

Jon: That to me is almost entirely due to this little window here. The size and shape of your true sound hole, the angles of your ramp … when you’re making a flute you generally start with a smaller hole and enlarge it up to size and it’s jumping the octave too easy, and then it gets down to where it gets a nice clean tone, and then you extend it a little too far and it starts to get breathy and raspy and not sound quite as good. The width and the depth of the flue affect that a lot, the way the air is hitting the cutting edge. In terms of getting a loud flute that someone can wail on, I like wider flues (the little channel that’s underneath the bird) you get more volume that way. I’ve played flutes with really narrow flues and they are generally quieter. So if you go wide and get enough air in there, you get a nice loud flute that you can wail on.

Brent: When I first started making flutes, one of the first experiences I had selling flutes to somebody commercially, the guy told me that nobody wanted a loud flute, they only wanted quiet flutes. And he was so adamant about it, I almost changed what I was doing. Because that’s what was driving me: most of the flutes that were on the market were really quiet and what I was doing was making really loud flutes. In fact, you couldn’t really play my flutes quietly back in those days. I sent him one of my flutes, and it was really loud, and it was the first flute he sold at this festival, and he sold it because it was so loud. And he still was on me about making my flutes quieter. I had an internal battle for a couple of months about how to make these flutes quieter. And finally I said, the hell with it.

Location of the SAC Exit Hole

Location of the SAC Exit Hole Larger image

Judy: This hole here … where the air comes out and then it's going to go down into the second hole we call the true sound hole, the TSH. When I first started making flutes I had two flute teachers, both men, one Cherokee, one Seminole. And they didn’t agree: one said you need to make the SAC exit hole huge. And so I would make it huge and then I’d blow it and I’d nearly pass out because it took so much air to get a decent sound.

And then he’d play it and say “Now you’re talking!” and he’d just barrel it out and he had a very loud sound and he had a lot of wind. Generally again, men have a little more air to give to the flute. Women are a little more gentle in their approach. They may pick up the flute more like this and I’ve never seen them take a deep breath and blow hard, right? And so I’ve built my flutes with a smaller SAC exit hole. It’s not so much smaller than another flute, but it’s not huge. Because I don’t want to pass out playing my own flutes. That contributes to volume and I think it was Painted Raven when it was a guy / gal duo. He had to make his own flute because he wanted to put a lot of air into it and she would make a flute for her that didn’t take as much air to get the same quality of sound … not necessarily the same volume.

Vera: How do you, the flute maker, control back-pressure

Brent: Volume and back-pressure … these are all related. Big volume is not the end-all in a flute, for me. What drives me now in flute making is dynamics. I love dynamics. I love to be able to play a flute really quietly, and I love to be able to play a flute really loudly. I like to be able to play it really quietly all the way from the top note — the octave note — I like to be able to play it as softly as I possibly can with just a whisper of a voice. Then I want to be able to play on it really loud. Then I want to be able to do the same thing with all fingers close. All the way through the flute I want to be able to play that flute with maximum dynamic capability. That’s what I want out of a flute. And that’s what drives me as a flute maker. Now that’s not easy to do. That’s a difficult thing to do, as a flute maker.

Location of the SAC Exit Hole

Location of the SAC Exit Hole Larger image

To do that takes a lot of time, on each flute. So you have to spend a lot of time voicing each instrument and getting each instrument with the voice box just right. The back-pressure is critical — you’ve got to have the back-pressure right. In fact, this year I made a change in my back-pressure. I was at RNAFF and I heard someone making some comments about back-pressure and I thought “I wonder … for years I have been fighting not putting back-pressure on my flutes. I wonder if I could add a little bit of back-pressure on my flutes and not lose quality of sound.” Now the reason I didn’t want to put back-pressure on my flutes is because I knew if I put back-pressure on my flutes I would add a reedy quality to the voice, and I didn’t want that reedy quality. But I thought, maybe if I just added a little bit, I won’t get it too reedy. And so, I did some adjusting to my numbers and added a little bit of back-pressure and it didn’t get too reedy. And the back-pressure was awesome. They were so much more responsive. I just loved them, and they played so much better, for me. I know these things are subtleties. We musicians get off on crazy little subtle things.

Judy: Back pressure — it’s how hard you have to blow into the flute.

Jon: Everything you have to do to manipulate it. It has to do with the size of the mouth hole, the size of the SAC exit hole, the width and depth of the flue. It’s how much air is passing through, so if you want more back-pressure, you can close it up a little bit and make the flute a little shallower if you want. For less back-pressure, you open it up some more. It takes more air to play the flute, but you get some more volume. Finding that sweet spot and being consistent on your work.

Judy: I think I’m different than Brent and Jon in that I make my flutes in two halves. And this section right here [the nest area], when it’s in two halves, I will spend about an hour on getting the underside of the nest, filing it, measuring it, sealing it and so forth. So this little part right here takes a big chunk of time. And that’s what Jon is saying — it controls how much you have to blow, what kind of sound you’re going to get, whether it’s reedy or airy.

Vera: Is your goal as a flute maker to have the flute in zero cents tuning and in the order GABCD, versus no plus or minus cents.

Judy: I live in Florida; I work outside, except when I’m tuning the flute. So the routing of the flute, the turning, is inside the laundry room. But when it comes to tuning it, I’ll leave it sitting in the air conditioned room, 72 degrees, and then I know because I’ve made trips to verify this and worked with some of the people in this room, if I’m in Florida and I tune a flute and I want it to be concert pitched — that is play well with other instruments — in Pennsylvania, I will need to tune it 15 cents sharp. And if I don’t, when I get to Pennsylvania, when I play that very same flute that was right in tune — zero cents — in Florida, it will be flat up here [in Pennsylvania].

So I actually drove with a bunch of flutes, came up to Pennsylvania, measured some things here, measured things in Florida, went back to Florida with the same flute, and took a mini-research project. So the answer is: “it depends on where I’m shipping my flutes”. And no, zero cents is never really a goal, because it depends on where your flute is destined to play. Where is it made? Dry? Heat? Humid? It’s really rainforest dripping hot wet in Florida right now and will be for another month until the hurricanes clear it out.

Jon: I spend a good bit of time tuning things and in general for flute makers, the standard is to tune something that, at 72 degrees, or as close as you can, or you can compensate for temperature if you’re hot or cool, and set your tuner to 440 [Hertz] and all this fun stuff. I tune a flute to where it’s as close as it can be, based on the way I play. Take somebody else, like Marsha Harris from Painted Raven lives pretty close to me and came over that, when I play it, it’s dead on. When she plays it — it’s different. So we tuned things for the way she plays. So it’s almost impossible for somebody to make a perfect flute that’s going to work perfectly for everybody in different temperatures, different climates. The thing that drives me nuts at festival, and I know that Brent has said the same thing before, is that when it 95 degrees and somebody breaks out a tune and says “this flute is sharp”. Well yes, it’s 95 degrees and it’s going to be 35 cents sharp. That’s physics and you can’t change that. But people don’t understand some of this stuff and there’s lots of fun little variables there.

Brent: Tuning is one of the big problems that people worry about with the flutes. One of the things that I think would be really helpful for people to understand is that tuning is very easy to change. As a flute maker, it is very easy for us to make those adjustments for you. So, if you have a problem with tuning on your flute, and I just made some adjustments today for Margie on her flute. She had a note that she wanted adjusted one way in one particular direction on a flute that she purchased today and we adjusted it today — spot on for her. On just one particular note that was a cross-fingered note for her. Easy to make adjustments. It is not a big deal. The way that I actually tune: I tune them sharp, because my experience has proven that most people play their flutes flat of where I would expect them to play them.

Vera: How do you determine the distance space between two holes?

Jon: Going back to what we talked about earlier, you can use some of the calculators that are on-line, you can use this knuckle method that Dusty Moore used to teach, you can use charts in any number of books, or like Michael said, he just drills holes to see what works and then plugs them back and starts over and uses trial and error. There’s a lot of math and our engineer has written his own software to figure out hole placement.

Brent: My database. I’ll tell you the truth — I’ve got a Mayan-tune flute over here — I’m making a double flute for a really great client and it’s the first time I’ve made this particular tuning. The first time I made that tuning, I made up a flute to test it out and I used the duct-tape method. We made a flute, put some holes in it, the ones that didn’t work we put some duct tape over it and drilled new holes and I don’t bother with a calculator any more — I just don’t even mess with it — I just put holes in a flute. And I’ve got one flute that’s a throw-away — so what? The next time, I’ve got the right numbers. I used to screw around with a calculator — I don’t any more — it’s just not worth it. Duct tape works awesome.

Judy: No holes will be farther apart than what my fingers can do, because I have to tune the flute and test. There is a calculator on-line called Flutomat and it can tell you to drill a hole here and then a hole here and I could never play it without being in pain. So, they are this distance apart, but generally you’re going to take a couple of hands on your flute and then you’re going to have your flute holes centered in there and then they’re not going to be much farther than an inch apart. They will be different sizes to compensate, but they will be only an inch apart at the most, typically.

Vera: Please discuss the differences between the typically well-crafted flute and the one that is “concert quality”.

Brent: I’ve seen some incredible flutes over the years as I go to flute circles. A lot of people bring me their flutes to show me what they’ve made. I always treat each flute that’s brought to me with respect, and try to let it play the best that it can, because someone will bring me their flute wanting to show off what they’ve made. Maybe it’s the first flute they’ve ever made and I want to make it sound the best that I can. Often, they’re not really that wonderful, but I try and play them the best that I can. A concert flute is a different thing altogether. I try to make every flute, even my student flute, a concert flute — an instrument that can be played on any stage in the world and played with pride by any musician in the world. So I tune them that way, and I put all the energy that I can into them so that they can be played without fail and without any hesitation by musician.

Judy: I think that if it is tuned, so that it plays well with other instruments, it could be made out of a sunflower stalk, and it could maybe not look the way you would think a glitzy flute would look — it might not have bling on it, but if it is producing a good tone and it is in tune with whatever else it is playing with — it’s ready. Because I love nature so much, I love the rugged. I’ve made flutes where I’ve done no finish, and I want to see what they look like in a year. So the unfinished, the raw nature, if I can capture it, and it’s got a good tone, it could well be a concert flute.

Jon: I agree a lot with what Brent said. There are makers out there that have an inexpensive line and their “concert series”, and I think that some of that is marketing spin. As he said, he puts all his energy into every flute that he makes, and I do the same thing. I’m not going to make a mediocre flute, and then make a really nice flute. I try to make the best flute I can every time I make one. Back to the question: concert quality. I think a flute that is tune well, crafted well, finished well, that is going to hold up over time. That’s what the recording artists are after.

Previous PageNext Page


To cite this page on Wikipedia: <ref name="Goss_2022_fmforum"> {{cite web |last=Goss |first=Clint |title=Flute Makers' Forum |url=http://www.Flutopedia.com/fmforum.htm |date=7 June 2022 |website=Flutopedia |access-date=<YOUR RETRIEVAL DATE> }}</ref>