A Word Or Two On Flute Overhaul

Introduction

It all started over 30 years ago when I took apart my Yamaha flute to clean the hard to reach places under the mechanism. As luck would have it, the keys went back together and the flute played fine. Since then, I have "put back together" several hundred flutes and made them play at their highest potential. These were mostly professional flutes: Haynes, Powells, Brannens, Rudall Cartes, Louis Lots and Bonnevilles, some of these flutes had famous owners such as William Kincaid and Elaine Shaffer, others were over a hundred years old, and still many were one of a kind; I even had the pleasure of overhauling Rampal's gold Haynes. Each flute presents a unique challenge and learning experience that could only be appreciated by handling and playing the instrument.

The main goal of an overhaul is to make a flute play better, more reliable, and look “younger”. Over time, the pads start to dry out and leak, adjustments change, the mechanism slowly wears down, and silver gets tarnished and dirty. More often than not, the flute was not 100 percent perfect when it came out of the factory or returned from its last overhaul. Flute repair and flute playing have much in common; the same flute put into different hands could often produce drastically different results.

When does a flute need an overhaul?

It all depends on the desire and intention of the flute owner. Most people, both amateurs and professionals, keep playing their flutes long after an overhaul is due. They are familiar with what their flutes could do and continue to adjust their playing to their instruments. I have seen a flute that had not been touched by a repairman in 30 years and still performed relatively well in every aspect. But usually, 3-8 years of daily practicing will wear out any flute. A well maintained flute would go for longer period between overhauls.

Many flutes I received for overhaul were in unplayable condition. These flutes had been neglected for a very long time. The owners might have just bought the flute and wanted a fresh start. I have seen many gems revealed through restoration. It’s particularly satisfying for me to see a good old flute put back into service.

Overhaul, COA, repad

Overhaul sounds like a serious word and an expensive undertaking, especially when the word "complete" is added in front of it. The standard procedures begin by taking apart the instrument, clean and polish, tighten the mechanism, fit the keys, and put in new pads. Usually, there are always extra and unexpected repairs that would need attention, such as loose pins, dents, bent steels, up tone holes, stripped threads and any number of things that can easily go wrong on a flute.

A COA (Clean, Oil and Adjust) is more simple. It is difficult to clean under the keys without removing the mechanism. Once the keys are off the flute, pad shimming and key adjustments could be made. Oiling is really not necessary unless the keys become noisy and sluggish. More likely, a bigger problem is the underlying cause of the issue. Adding oil would only be a temporary fix. In my opinion, COA is a misnomer. It really means a regular check up; and while the flute is apart, it might as well get clean and oiled. This process should take no more than one to two hours unless something else needs correcting.

A flute has many moving parts that require precise synchronization for it to function well. Each of the 16 to 18 keys is attached to a pad which needs to instantly make a perfect seal with the tone hole when depressed with the slightest finger pressure. The pads will wear out long before the metal parts. They may rip, warp, shift, wrinkle, shrink, swell, or fall out. Synthetic pads would do better than traditional felt pads in some of these areas. Pads need to be replaced periodically. Since the keys work together as a system, replacing a single pads may affect other pads and adjustments. A repad may be more economical than an overhaul if the mechanism is in decent shape.

Pads

There are many kinds of pads available: synthetic pads of various designs and traditional woven or compressed felt pads. Repairmen don’t always stock or use factory pads fashioned specifically for your flute. It’s difficult to compare pads in a side-by-side test because no two flutes are identical. Installing different pads on the same flute will no doubt change its acoustics. I find the most subjective difference between felt pads and synthetic pads is the sound. It’s subtle but noticeable at least by the player. There are also variants between compressed and woven felt pads. A flute with firmer and thinner compressed felt pads will produce a faster response and brighter sound than the softer varieties.

It is not unusual to convert a flute with traditional felt pads to a synthetic pad system. A solid mechanism with the correct geometry, round key cups and leveled tone holes are prerequisite to a successful changeover. To achieve desirable results, the player and installer must have a thorough understanding of the conversion process and its reasons.

Polishing

It always saddens me to see a wonderful flute like a Louis Lot or an old Powell that has been buffed too many times. Corners were rounded, bevels lost their definition and the tubing became thin. It’s ironic that the reason to polish a flute is to make it beautiful. In fact, it only takes one poor buff in the wrong hands to erase the details that a flutemaker crafted with the utmost care. Hand polishing is probably the least invasive method to remove light scratches and tarnish from a flute.

Headjoint and Footjoint Fitting

It is a simple fact that the two pairs of tenon/socket joints of the flute combine the three pieces into one whole flute. What is not so obvious is that if this combination were not done “correctly”, the flute would not function as an acoustic whole. When the joints are too tight or too loose in certain places, the flute would sound uneven from note to note. It would be difficult to match the timbre from one octave to the next. There are other factors that affect the eveness of a flute. Most players accept the fact that it is up to them to produce a seamless sound within the three-octave range. A flute that plays evenly would help this pursuit a great deal.   

More to come...


For more information please e-mail david@sideblown.com