by Lew Paxton Price

First published in Voice of the Wind which is the quarterly publication
of the International Native American Flute Association
Main Menu
In my Creating & Using series of little books, there are various ways to create Native American style flutes. The types of flutes and variations of each of them were tested before I wrote the books. However, I chose my own particular style and methods because, in my opinion, they work best. My flutes have evolved somewhat and have been improved over what it they were initially, and often I am asked what my native style flutes and flutemaking methods are now as compared to those of other flutemakers.

The woods I like to use most are redwood and western cedar - softwoods like the Native Americans used. When I do create a flute of hardwood, it is usually a high-pitched flute. As the sound of the flute is most important in my estimation, I seldom make a very fancy looking flute. I prefer to use the natural grain in the wood as the decoration for the instrument. Most of my flutes do not have direction or tuning holes because they make the flute longer and are unnecessary for a flute designed by computer. Sometimes the appearance of the flute is enhanced with direction holes but my preference is a shorter flute with a good sound.

All my methods are low-cost insofar as is possible. I have no shop to clean up because my work is done outside. I use a hand router rather than a table model because I want to keep my fingers intact. I do not use a plunge router because a router can be tilted at an intermediate point while it is running and then allowed to enter the wood (no plunge necessary). Drilled flutes are difficult to make or require tools that are excessively heavy and expensive unless one drills parts of a flute that will be joined later.

I usually find a plank that is sold as either 6 or 8 feet long, 8 inches wide, and 1 inch thick. This means the plank is actually 6 or 8 feet long, about 7 1/2 inches wide, and about 3/4 inch thick. If the plank is old, weathered, and slightly warped, that is often much better than a new straight plank because a flute from it sounds better. I like knots because they are beautiful, but the knots must be glued or epoxied in place or they will pop out during routing. Of course, most of my flutes are free of knots because most planks are free of them.

My flute designs are done via my computer design program prior to setting up the routing jig. [This technique will not work unless one uses my computer design program because others are not precise enough to accomplish the task. Flute Design Program] I know that the finished blanks will not have exactly the same dimensions given by the flute design program because the router cannot be precise enough, so I try to make the blanks as close as possible to the thousandth of an inch dimensions given in the program, and measure the blanks with a micrometer after they have been created. The actual measurements will be inserted into the saved program and used to tell me precisely where the playing holes must be placed on the completed blank.

I have a platform upon which I clamp a jig that allows me to easily clamp and maneuver the plank that I have chosen. Thus, the plank becomes the "table" for its own shaping. My flutes usually have a bore that is 3/4 inch wide and an oval configuration with a depth of 3/4 inch or more. With a bore width of 3/4 inch, the plank is just the right size for 6 half-flute pieces to be routed between the two edges of the plank. I decide how long I want the flutes to be and then draw with pencil crosswise at the places where the router must start and stop. The plank is much longer than any single flute, so there are several flute lengths to be routed on the same plank. With 3 flute blanks (6 half-flute pieces) for each plank width, and 3 to 4 for each plank length, the number of flutes that can be made from one plank comes to between 9 and 12.

The router has a guide that allows it to cut at the correct distance from the plank edge. First, I set the router guide to cut the flute halves nearest the plank edge. After routing the slow air and sound chambers near one of the edges, I turn the plank around and route the slow air and sound chambers near the other edge. Then, I change the router bit and cut the blowholes (where one's mouth goes), using the same setting for the guide. Last, I change the router bit, turn the plank over, and route the channels near one edge and then - by turning the plank around - cut the channels near the other edge. This procedure has allowed me to do the most routing possible without resetting the guide. By setting the guide for the next flute halves toward the center, the same procedure can be followed except that these halves will not have a channel in them (the channel is only for one half of each finished blank). Lastly, the centermost halves can be routed using the same procedure except that only one them will have a channel. This means that each of the outer halves will be mated to the next halves toward the center, and the centermost halves will be mated with one another. This allows a channel for each blank after the halves have been joined. Thus, The routing has been done to create each hole for blowing into a flute at the proxal end, to create each slow air chamber, to create each sound chamber, and to create each channel. The routing has been stopped where each plug is so that no plug need be inserted later.

I use a sabre saw to cut the plank to correct flute lengths and a small band saw to separate the routed halves. Now I have the separated halves - half with a channel on one side for the tops of the flutes, and the other half without a channel for the bottoms of the flutes. I next drill holes the width of the channels at both ends of each channel.

The channel in the flute body allows sufficient confinement of the air before it hits the splitting edge. I do not use a nest or three-sided "chimney" and my bird is slanted over the true sound hole rather than having a face perpendicular to the flute body. A bird that is slanted is more easily adjusted for temperature. Usually, the neutral position for one of my birds is when the distal lower edge of the bird is about 1/8 inch back from the proxal edge of the true sound hole. This allows adequate room for the bird to move forward or back when adjusting for temperature. When tuning the flute during its creation, the neutral position is where the bird should set.

The sound mechanism is the most critical part of any flute. I use small rasps and small files to properly configure the channel, the true sound hole, and the splitting edge. The channel must be such as to allow smooth airflow (very little turbulence). The dimension of the true sound hole that is parallel to the length of the flute body is extremely important, and with most sound mechanisms should be precisely 7/32 inch. If this dimension is exceeded, the flute begins to lose its clear sound (begins to become breathy). If this dimension is reduced, the flute begins to lose volume of sound and sometimes suffers from "nodal interference" as explained in my books. If one wants to have a breathy sound from a flute, there are many ways to set a flute to make it so, but there is no way to set a breathy flute to make it clear sounding. It is best to start with the clear sound when the flute is being created.

The splitting edge must be blunt and directly in line with the airflow from the channel. It must be just slightly less thick than the depth of the channel. The inside taper from the splitting edge toward the foot must be 30 degrees or less for the first 1/8 inch and then about 6 degrees until it blends into the inside wall of the bore.

Some of my birds are slanted more at one end than the other. The closer the face of the bird is to the flute body, the less easily the flute will transition to the higher octave. The end of the bird with with the closer face over the true sound hole creates a flute that is louder but with only single-octave performance. The end of the bird with the higher face over the true sound hole creates a flute that is less loud but with an easy transition to the second octave. If one wishes to have a flute that "warbles" with all playing holes closed, the bird should be made so that the shift to the second octave is very easy to accomplish - because the warble is the result of the first note of the second octave interspersed with the fundamental. I prefer to avoid the warble so that the flute will easily do as I wish in regard to using the second octave. The closer bird end will cause the flute to play about a half-tone lower than the higher bird end as long as one is blowing into the flute with the same intensity for both configurations. However, the closer bird end allows for harder blowing and this tends to sharp the sound back upward. When tuning the flute during its creation, the higher bird end should be used with normal breath intensity.

The lungs are for balancing the PH in the bloodstream - most oxygen comes through the skin. Carbonic acid is a product of human metabolism working. The PH balance is achieved by breaking down carbonic acid in the blood. Less breathing causes less breakdown of carbonic acid and the bloodstream becomes more acid. More breathing causes more breakdown of carbonic acid and the bloodstream becomes more basic. A more basic bloodstream is better to prevent viruses from existing within it - which is why playing the flute is a healthy activity. But the carbonic acid breaks down into water vapor and carbon dioxide. The water vapor condenses in the flute and can begin to block the channel at inconvenient times (like during a concert).

After the channel shape is completed in the upper half of a flute blank, a funnel to collect moisture is created in the lower half beneath and at the proxal end of the plug. The funnel neck is about 1/8 inch in diameter and goes through the bottom of the flute. The hole at the bottom of the flute will be blocked by the deerskin tie that helps to hold the bird in place. The tie will absorb accumulated water draining out of the funnel, reducing moisture in the channel and allowing the flute to be played for longer periods without "wetting".

Now the inside of the flute halves can be fine sanded (I use emery paper) and otherwise made ready for the inside finish to be applied. A two-part epoxy is used in a well-ventilated area for the inside finish because moisture on epoxy simply beads up and moves as droplets. I wear rubber gloves and apply the epoxy with a finger when putting it on the bore or in the slow air chamber. I apply the epoxy liberally and let it soak for awhile before wiping off the excess. It will also be the finish in the channel - which allows any moisture that enters the channel to bead up and blow through it. The epoxy must stay away from the outside of the flute body and away from the faces of the joint where the halves will be joined. Once the epoxy has been applied, it should be allowed to cure for about a day.

Now epoxy can be applied to the appropriate faces of the flute halves to be joined. Let the epoxy remain on the faces where it is applied until it has some time to soak in, then use a dowel the same diameter as the bore to act as a guide to be sure the upper and lower halves of the flute body are joined correctly. The dowel should be inside the entire length of the bore until the two halves are clamped or otherwise squeezed together. When the halves are squeezed together, some of the epoxy will be squeezed out inside the bore. Rotate the dowel and pull it out of the flute bore. This will smooth out the excess epoxy inside the bore. Be sure to wipe off the dowel so it can be re-used. The excess epoxy in the slow air chamber will be of no consequence, and the "blowhole" excess can be removed with a smaller dowel (a Chinese chopstick works well - easily available from a Chinese restaurant).

After the epoxy is cured, the bore can be measured with a micrometer. The actual bore diameter must replace the design bore diameter in the computer flute design. The wall thickness at the playing holes must be computed as smaller than the actual wall thickness because some of the wood will be removed with a lathe or a belt sander (I use a belt sander). The sound chamber length should also be computed as less than the actual because some of the length will be removed when tuning the flute for its lowest note. Bearing all this in mind, the design program will show precisely where each playing hole should go - and if direction holes are used, where each of them should go.

Next, the bird must be created and tried out on the flute because it is an integral part of the sound mechanism and influences the dimension for the K2 (the "invisible" length at the proxal end of the half-wavelength that is the flute's fundamental). The bottom of the bird must be coated with epoxy and the epoxy allowed to cure as the bird is part of the channel. With the bird on the flute, a pitch pipe or electronic tuner can be used to cut back the bore length until it is set for the correct pitch. Once the pitch is set, the holes can be drilled. At this point, the sound of all notes in the flute scale will be flat except for the note set by the bore length. This is because the actual wall thickness is more than the computed wall thickness.

The final step in tuning can be accomplished now by removing material from the outside of the flute until the sound due to each playing hole rises in pitch sufficiently for the finished product. What I do is round off the top of the flute at the playing holes all at once on my belt sander until I get the sound I want. Remember that the flute must be tuned to the tempered scale which is much like an average between the Pythagorean and the just scales. Check out The Oldest Magic to see more about this. The point is that one tune on a flute won't have notes of exactly the same pitch as will the notes of a different tune. Your subconscious will adjust the notes accordingly with breath control, and your electronic tuner or pitch pipe may not exactly agree. There are some tips for tuning in Creating & Using the Native American Concert Flute.

When the tuning is done, the rest of the flute can be shaped and the exterior finish applied to both the flute and the bird. Tung oil from a hardware store has some petroleum derivatives which one should not breathe - so I work outside with the breeze at my back and use rubber gloves. When dried, the petroleum derivatives have evaporated. Many flutemakers use "salad bowl finish" - which is another name for tung oil with petroleum derivatives in it. I hand rub the oil on the flute and make sure that each coat is very, very thin, and that it has dried completely before rubbing on another coat. It takes from six to twelve coats to complete the finish. If I want a dull finish, the last coat or two can be pure tung oil (available from woodworking catalogs). For a shiny finish, I stay with the adulterated tung oil from the hardware store.

There are two reasons I use tung oil on the outside. First, scratches in a tung oil finish can be repaired by hand rubbing with more tung oil - until the scratches are gone. Second, tung oil with petroleum derivatives penetrates deeply and cures in a "brittle" manner. It is used in paint to make the paint harder. The brittleness causes the flute to vibrate more crisply when it is played. However, if a flute is to be given to someone with an extremely sensitive nose, beeswax will provide an exterior finish that smells good.

Recently, I made a flute with a channel that was deep enough to allow a piece of wood on the bottom of the bird to be set into it. A thickness of wood acting as the top of the channel was glued beneath the bird so that it became a part of the bird that fit into the channel. Thus, the channel became a keyway for the bird. The bird then slid back and for forth, but would not twist. The splitting edge was set down into the flute to meet the lower depth of the air coming from the channel. This flute has proven to be superior to the usual type because the non-twist bird makes it easier to for one to take it on and off and to adjust it for temperature.

I have always tried to make my flutes so that they are clear sounding. Although the breathy sound is considered by some to be traditional, in my research it appeared that most old or ancient Native North Americans wanted to have a clear sound from their flutes even though most did not understand how to accomplish this. The Native Americans are known for discovering and adopting the best methods for creating high-quality flutes. In North America they developed a technological marvel and have been deliberately causing it to evolve into something even better.

Main Menu