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Article from Landscaping Magazine – “Making process”

Making a flute by hand is an extremely complicated process. In the early days, Stephen’s friend and business partner John Webb made the basic tube for the flute body out of a sheet of seamed silver, drawing it by hand in his workshop, but now Stephen works on his own and buys seamless tubing from a firm in Birmingham. Each tube is made as a one-off following tight specifications: they have to be precisely 0.35 mm thick and the bore size has to be exactly 19mm to ensure that all three octaves are balanced and can be played evenly and clearly. 

Once Stephen is happy with the dimensions and smoothness of the silver tube, he marks out the position of the tone holes. It is vital to get this positioning right as it determines the relative pitch of every note. He uses measurements given to him by William Bennett, a top professional flutist and music professor. ‘You are trying to get the flute to play with equal temperament, but you have to make compromises to get all three octaves in tune – an improvement to the lower register might throw out the upper. The idea is to make playing in tune as easy as possible. Bennett has spent a lifetime trying to get the scale better and I use his most recent version.’ 

The next stage is to make the saddles. These are the small, ring-shaped stub tubes that sit at right angles to the flute body and above which the keys will eventually be placed. They are made from small pieces of silver tube cut to the correct size. They are clamped in place around each tone hole and then silver-soldered on to the body tube. Silver-soldering requires bringing the metal up to red heat and then applying flux and a touch of solder (which has a slightly lower melting point) to join the two metals. The process creates a very strong join and means that the saddles become a homogenous part of the body. The heat of the soldering process also anneals the silver. This is important as when silver, a fairly soft metal, is worked it hardens and stiffens. It then has to be brought to red heat to anneal it, a process which re-aligns the crystalline structure of the silver and makes it soft again. 

Unlike Stephen’s flutes with their silver-soldered saddles, most factory-produced flutes have ‘drawn’ tone holes or saddles. This means that the silver is drawn up from the inside of the body tube to create the saddle, but in the process the material around each saddle is thinned and stressed. Stephen believes that the stresses this factory process causes are locked into the flute, as although the silver has been worked on, it has not been annealed. ‘The commercial flute body is full of unrelieved stresses put there for purely constructional not musical reasons so it’s hard and springy’ he says. ‘Mine have had all this silver-soldering done to them which anneals everything in sight, so they go out in the world in a soft, fully annealed state. With time and all the vibrations produced by playing they gradually harden up, but they harden in the way they want – they adjust to the user and the music. I think that’s a better place to start and I think that’s one of the reasons my flutes have a reputation for being very uniform in the sound they produce from bottom to top, very even and very consistent.’

Once the saddles have been fixed to the flute body Stephen then has to cut out the metal inside each one to create the tone hole. ‘This is the most hazardous part of the whole operation’, he says. The silver is cut using a tiny burr with little cutting teeth running at top speed in a hand-held drive unit. Any slips of the hand may result in a gash in the saddle and the whole process has to be re-started. Once the silver disc has dropped out, the inside of what is now the tone hole is smoothed with little sanding drums. 

With the tone holes in place, the next stage is to make the stiffening rings which go on the end of the main tube and also form part of the sockets that connect the different sections of the instrument. (Flutes are made in three parts: the middle and the foot joints carry the tone holes and all the keys while the head joint carries the lip plate or mouthpiece.) These are made from rectangular silver strips formed into rings, turned to the correct section in the lathe and then fitted to the tube. The head joint socket is hand engraved with logo and serial number.

The tube is now finished and is ready for the keywork. This starts off as hundreds of tiny pieces of flat stainless steel. When Stephen first started making flutes he sawed out each individual shape from a flat sheet of stainless steel using a hacksaw. This was highly laborious as although stainless steel is lighter than silver, it is much harder to work and consequently he now outsources them for cutting by waterjet.  He sends the company drawings of the shapes he requires and they then cut them out of sheets of stainless steel of various thicknesses. When they are returned he shapes them into the three dimensional parts he requires, silver-soldering the separate components together where necessary. He gradually combines the individual parts to create an intricate mechanism of tiny posts and rods which will support the circular keys which cover the tone holes. Some of the keys are closed by the player’s fingers while others by a lever or clutch, all of which are individually made and fitted. The tops of the keys are then inlayed with Stephen’s trademark discs of black Perspex. This is to lighten them and improve the feel for the player.

Once the keywork is in place, Stephen needs to do the padding. The pads are the soft cushions that seal each tone hole when the flute is played. They are held in place underneath the key cup using a central screw; when the key is pressed by the player’s finger it rotates about a hinge to close the tone hole. They are made out of circular discs of wool attached to a cardboard washer and covered with two layers of very thin processed intestinal skin; Stephen buys them from a specialist firm in Italy. It is very important to get the padding right as if they do not seal the tone hole completely, it will ‘leak’ and the note will not sound correctly. Although Stephen has experimented with various synthetic pads, he now uses the traditional wool pads as they don’t stick, feel better and make a much better sound. ‘Padding the flute is a vital and difficult task; I will spend a day doing it and then another day going over the pads and adjusting them to make sure they are air tight’, says Stephen.

The next job is to regulate how much each key opens. This is done using a system of wire springs and felt or cork bumpers under the key tails. The aim is to have each key opening equally so the playing is comfortable and the intonation correct. The whole mechanism must work quietly, smoothly and with total reliability. The flute is then ready for final polishing. Stephen does not make head joints. He says, ‘I never got into head joint making as I don’t play the flute well enough to know whether I had got it right or not – this is a task best left to specialists.’

Once the flute is finished, Stephen still has to make the case for the instrument. Each one is of walnut and Stephen uses his knowledge of woodworking learnt during his harpsicord-making days to make them. Inside, the case is lined with velvet, each individual support block being made separately and covered with the material to give adequate cushioning to the flute.