Baroque Flute Handbook/Care

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Breaking In a Flute[edit]

Baroque flutes are made of wood. When played, moisture condenses out of the breath to settle on the flute's inner bore. The wood inside the bore absorbs this moisture and expands. Wood on the exterior of the flute stays relatively dry and does not expand. That difference of expansion produces stress that (in the worst case) is relieved by cracks. Most at risk are new instruments and instruments that have dried out because of infrequent playing. (It can take as little as a week or two between playing sessions for a flute to return to its original dried-out condition.)

To make a new or unplayed flute's transition from dry to damp as stress-free as possible, the player must follow a break-in routine that gradually increases the amount of moisture absorbed (and retained) by the flute. The key idea is to minimize moisture by playing the flute for only a small amount of time at first, and then gradually increase that time, and thus also the amount of moisture absorbed by the wood, until the instrument reaches a point of equilibrium at which it can be played for extended periods (within reason). There are various schedules recommended for this process, but all follow the same pattern: a gradual increase of moisture to which the instrument is exposed. The following sections outline several representative schedules.[2]

Rod Cameron[edit]

  • Day 1: 10 min
  • Day 2: 20 min
  • Day 3: 30 min
  • Day 4: 40 min
  • Day 5: 50 min
  • Day 6: 60 min
  • Day 7: 80 min
  • Day 8: 120 min

Dockendorff-Boland[3][edit]

  • Day 1: 10 min
  • Day 2: 15 min
  • Day 3: 20 min
  • Day 4: 25 min
  • Day 5: 30 min
  • Day 6: 35 min
  • Day 7: 40 min
  • Day 8: 45 min
  • Day 9: 50 min
  • Day 10+: 60 min

Folkers & Powell[edit]

  • Week 1–2: 10 min twice a day
  • Week 3–4: 30 min/day
  • Week 5 and after: 60 min/day

Oiling[edit]

The inner bore of a flute must be oiled periodically. The thin layer of oil acts as a buffer. It allows some moisture to pass from the breath into the wood, but not too much or too quickly. Some authorities claim that oil alters the sound and playability of the flute for the better, but they provide few specifics as to either the mechanisms or the effects. Oil could make the interior more smooth by filling in between ridges left during the boring process. That could, plausibly, alter sound and playability. In the absence of solid, quantified research, suffice it to say that oil does provide a measure of protection for the instrument and it may even improve sound and playability. Even if the improvements were to be found largely placebo effects, they would be improvements nonetheless. In the final analysis, you should oil your flute. Certainly for the protection. Perhaps for sound and playability. And last, but not least, because it is a regular checkup that turns up unnoticed issues and shines your instruments back to their peak.

What oil to use?[edit]

Two kinds of oils are used on wooden flutes: hardening and non-hardening.

  • Hardening oils (also known as drying oils) dry to a finish and leave a semi-permanent layer on the wood. Linseed oil is a hardening oil.
  • Non-hardening oils (also known as non-drying oils) do not dry.

Most vegetable oils (almond oil, olive oil, peanut oil, etc.) are said to be non-hardening, though in reality they simply are slower to harden. There are many reasons to select a particular oil, including whether or not the oil is prone to going rancid, or even preferences as to the taste of an oil.

When shopping for oils, it's important to know that they are not always sold under the same name commonly used in the traverso world. Linseed oil is often sold as flaxseed oil, while rapeseed oil has been renamed (for marketing reasons) canola oil.

Almond oil[edit]

Almond oil is popular, but some people have problems with it going rancid. Mixing vitamin E with the oil is sometimes advised as a way to prevent this. About one capsule of vitamin E per 8 to 10 oz. is a recommended mix. It's still a good idea to store almond oil in a cool place. Even with the use of vitamin E, some people have reported problems with the oil applied to an instrument later becoming sticky and rancid. One theory (not confirmed to this author's knowledge) is that there are two grades of almond oil, food and pharmaceutical, and that pharmaceutical grade should be used to avoid problems.

Linseed oil[edit]

Linseed oil (raw, unboiled) is a hardening oil. It's also a controversial oil. Some swear by it. Others reject its use entirely. It's not entirely clear why this is so. Perhaps it's because some early authors, especially Tromlitz,[4] discouraged its use, saying it left a crust inside the instrument that alters the bore. On the other hand, many players of that time believed almost superstitiously in the ability of oil to improve the playing characteristics of an instrument and were prone to use more than liberal quantities. Were linseed oil to be used in this way, it's not surprising that it might get a bad reputation. However, when used properly, it has much to recommend it because of its hardening qualities. One must simply not use it too often, in too large a quantity, or let the unabsorbed oil sit for too long unswabbed.[5]

Non-vegetable oils[edit]

While not "historically authentic," some people do use non-vegetable oils containing petroleum distillates or other chemicals. These are the sorts of bore oils you are likely to find in music stores. Lacking evidence to the contrary, it seems the vegetable oils do just as good a job (and they won't make you sick or kill you if ingested).

Another opinion: vegetable oils all tend to rancidity (which is not good to consume even in very small doses) and become gummy (harden) and (as Tromlitz observed) build up on the surface of the wood after a time. The vegetable oils sold as tung oil and "boiled" linseed oil (which some flute makers do use) also often have additives that can be quite toxic. On the other hand, mineral oil which is intended to be taken internally as a laxative is sold in pharmacies: the small amounts one might ingest from playing a mineral-oiled flute are unlikely to have any effect at all on the ingestee. Mineral oil is chemically close to inert, and does not oxidize or harden, yet it soaks into the cells of wood and limits the amount of moisture that can be absorbed. In other words, mineral oil seems to provide all the benefits sought from oiling without the drawbacks of rancidity, hardening and surface buildup that are inherent with vegetable oils.

How often to oil?[edit]

Opionions on this topic seem to depend on whether a hardening or non-hardening oil is being advocated, though about once a month is the median point for both camps. For non-hardening oils on instruments played frequently, it may be necessary to oil more often. For hardening oils on instruments played infrequently, oiling less often may be a good idea to minimize any problems with accumulation in the bore.

How to oil?[edit]

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Polishing[edit]

Carnauba wax mixed half-and-half with Vaseline makes a good polish for the outside of the flute. It is also found in car polishes, but they don't say in what proportions. Carnauba wax can be purchased in hard-flake, pure form from wood finishing suppliers. After melting it with Vaseline, rub it on the wood and polish with a soft cloth especially good around the mouth-hole.

A simpler approach: rub some of the bore oil on the outside of the instrument, allow to soak in, then polish with a soft cloth or chamois.

Reaming and Reboring[edit]

Reaming and reboring are the process of sending a flute back to its maker on occasion to have its inner profile restored what it was when it first left the shop and had not yet been altered through the ravages of moisture and playing. There are two schools of thought with regard to this process: most believe it is an essential part of wooden flute maintenance; a few find it to be a highly questionable practice.

this passage is not built on accurate information. it is exactly the opposite: most builders DO NOT suggest re-reaming flutes after playing in. I would like to see the clear evidence that the majority opinion is for re-reaming, since the top builders I know in the EU: Tutz, Tardino, Weemaels and Wenner are all against it - UNLESS there is an issue to be resolved. As far as I know, only Cameron and Folkers & Powell (who have stopped making flutes) are for re-reaming, and therefore the minority view.


Reaming and Reboring: The Majority Opinion[edit]

Most makers hold that the inner bore of a traverso may need to be reamed back to its original profile on occasion. Wood changes shape, especially when it goes through the wet and dry cycles of playing. The inner bore may distort a bit. This can change the pitch of the instrument and the octave spacing between some notes. The distortion may be slight, but it can still alter the instrument's performance. To the player, it can feel like a stiffness or inflexibility in the instrument, either it cannot be pushed to play louder, or it may feel "wooden," with a somewhat coarse tone is difficult to play softly. Because the traverso allows for playing with great variations in pitch, one may not notice the small pitch shifts that have made the instrument inherently out of tune, but will instead find it simply uncomfortable to play. This can be hard to notice since the changes are usually gradual.

Instrument makers all have their own procedures to deal with this. It's usually a matter of re-reaming the instrument once the instrument has been broken in and played regularly for 3 to 6 months. After the re-reaming, the instrument must be broken in again as if it were new. This usually works, though some instruments may need more work, just with the passing of time, or because the wood out of which it was made was not adequately dried in the first place, or because the wood itself is persnickety (boxwood being the most notorious in this regard).

Reaming and Reboring: The Minority Opinion[edit]

The minority opinion, as stated by flutemaker Simon Polak, makes a case against reboring that can't be dismissed out of hand. A full discussion may be found on his webpage.[1] He observes that his flutes improve as they are played in and as their players "play in" on them. In his experience, instruments that return to his workshop after a year play very much better than when they were new: "more open, easier all over (not just the upper octave) and warmer." He reasons that if the instrument is getting better on its own, there's no reason to go around making unnecessary changes.

As for the practice of standard reboring of the new flute after some period of time, he provides an amusing thought experiment in which he imagines the reaction of a famous player of an equally famous original 18th century traverso to the suggestion that his instrument be rebored with reamers that can be proved to be the originals for that instrument. It seems more likely than not that the famous player, having found a comfortable place with the flute on his own, will emphatically reject the proposed surgery. While few players own rare instruments such as this, it does provide a perspective that other flute players might want to consider when they are faced with the decision to ream or not to ream.

Polak's bottom line seems to be that one should rebore only if it seems unequivocably necessary and not as part of standard maintenance and that it should be very much the exception for most flutes. In this he quotes Rachel Brown from The Early Flute: "Many makers understandably want to rebore the instrument ... Obviously this is a very personal matter ... It is my humble opinion that the bore changes according to the way the instrument is played, and if it is working well it is preferable not to tamper with it."

Adjustments[edit]

Adjusting the Cork[edit]

Between the embouchure-hole and the closed end of the traverso is a cork which may be moved to adjust an instrument's intonation.[6] For those of an engineering bent, there are various rules for placing the cork based on parameters such as the diameter of the flute, for example, that the cork should be as far away from the There are several problems with rules such as these:

  • The variations of bore, embouchure dimension, and finger-hole dimensions vary so much from one traverso to another that it is, for all practical purposes, impossible to devise a "one size fits all" rule.
  • The bore of a traverso is conical, larger at the embouchure end than the open end, so there are a lot of diameters from which to choose. The rules never seem to state which is the correct choice.
  • It's actually easier just to place the cork where things "sound right" (which we'll get to shortly) than it is to use measurements and such.

The basic idea behind cork placement is that you want to get octaves on the traverso in tune with themselves.[7]


  • A (sort-of) mnemonic for which way to adjust the cork when you change middle sections:

Push the cork the same direction as the change in flute length. A longer section moves the end of the flute away from the head; the cork moves down the headjoint, towards the embouchure-hole. A shorter section moves the end of the flute toward the head; the cork moves up the headjoint, away from the embouchure-hole. The foot register moves in the same direction as the cork: big section, pull out; smaller section, push in.

  • Fine tuning of the cork: Play G 1 and G 2 .

If they’re too close ( G 1 sharp and G 2 flat), push the cork towards the mouth-hole. If they’re too far apart ( G 1 flat and G 2 sharp), push the cork away from the mouth-hole. Do the same with A 1 and A 2 . Another (sort-of) mnemonic visualization: The two notes come out the end the flute. If they’re too close, they need to be “expanded” by pushing the cork in towards the end, sort of like inflating a balloon. If they’re too far apart, they need to be “collapsed” by pulling the cork away from the end, sort of like sucking the air out of a balloon.

  • Everyone seems to blow a little differently.

Something, somewhere on the flute will be out of tune, the best thing to do is find the best compromise position with the least out of tune notes. Try and make sure at first with any instrument you are playing for the first time after a restoration or some repair, that the octave Gs, As, and Bs are somewhat in tune. The Ds are often unreliable, being frequently flat in the bottom end, the middle Ds being sharp, flat or in tune with the bottom one. Then try blowing with the mouth-hole covered or open to different degrees and with differing breath pressures to find where the instrument responds, tunes and sounds best. One rule of thumb that I had heard in the past was that the distance of the cork from the center of the embouchure-hole should be the same as the bore size. This does not seem to work on most of the flutes I encounter. Usually they need to be a good bit farther away than their head joint bore size.


  • Most modern players don’t push the cork in far enough because they uncover the embouchure-hole more than 18th century players did.

This makes the high register sharp and the low register flat. To compensate, they position the cork further out, which makes the high register speak less easily. They should push the cork in a bit more and cover more of the mouth-hole (or turn the headjoint in more to accomplish the same thing) in order to narrow the octaves and, at the same time, make the high register easier to play.

Adjusting the Foot Register[edit]

  • First make sure the cork is properly adjusted.

Play the D 3 first fingered -23 456 - and then -23 --- K . If the first is higher than the second, pull the register out. If lower, push the register in.

  • Why it works: The first fingering uses the full length of the flute.

If it's too high, pulling the register out will make the flute longer and pull the pitch for that fingering down. And vice versa.

Adjusting the Bottom Joint[edit]

On some flutes, especially the 3-joint Hotteterre, it can be difficult to adjust the bottom joint so that the key can be reached easily while not at the same time interfering with hole 6. This can happen if the little finger on the right hand is lying on and moving the key while flat, or starting curved and then going flat. If this occurs, the bottom joint may need to be rotated upward for the finger to operate the key, thus getting in the way of the 6 th hole. The solution is to curve the little finger, pressing the key with the tip. It is then possible to roll the bottom joint down out of the way of hole 6. Further, if the little finger remains curved while pressing the key, with the only motion occurring as a pivot of the joint where the finger meets the hand, fingerings that use the key will have less movement and be quicker.

  1. ^ It's possible that one should be more conservative when breaking in a traverso made of a less dense wood. Boxwood, for example, while popular, can be more prone to warping than denser woods.
  1. ^ Janice Dockendorff-Boland. Method for the One-Keyed Flute: Baroque and Classical. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1998.
  1. ^ Johann George Tromlitz (translated by Ardal Powell). The Virtuoso Flute-Player. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  1. ^ Once a month, just enough to coat the inside of the instrument, left for 2 hours or so and then swabbed out are good guidelines for its use.
  1. ^ Intonation with itself, not with other instruments. Assuming the cork is placed correctly, you can pull the headjoint out a little to flatten a traverso that is sharp relative to other instruments in an ensemble. But you can't go too far because this alters the bore profile and the instrument will become increasingly difficult to play. If the instrument is flat, the only choices are to use the embouchure to play sharper, have everyone else tune themselves to you, or, if you're playing on a 4-joint traverso, replace the 2nd joint with one that is slightly shorter. The last is probably not as viable an option as it once was, since most traversos made today offer only a few choices for the 2nd joint (typically one or more of the following: A440, A430, A415, A410 or thereabouts, and A392).
  1. ^ Or, as much as possible. Like the natural horn (or natural "French horn" if you prefer), the traverso is an instrument that requires careful attention and adjustments by the performer if it is to be to played in tune. Furthermore, just as with the natural horn, being "in tune" can be just a little different for some notes than it would be if you were following the modern system of equal temperament. And also, as with the natural horn, many notes, especially those which might be considered most "out of tune" by modern standards, have unique personalities of their own. These variations of quality from one note to another and one key to another were among the reasons why the traverso and natural horns maintained their advocates even "improved" forms were devised. These provided consistency of tone quality and intonation across keys and across the instrument's range. At the same time, much of the individuality of each note and key was lost.

References[edit]