Care and Maintenance of Hamilton Flutes

Assembling the Flute

Always put the flute together and take it apart with a twisting action. This is much kinder to the cork lapping on the joints. The cork joints on the flute have been greased before it left the workshop but new cork absorbs this quickly, and you will probably need to re-apply it fairly frequently in the first few weeks at least. Commercial cork grease is easily available in music shops, but ordinary Vaseline ( petroleum jelly) will serve very well

Wood as a Material

Most new flute owners are primarily worried about cracks developing in their flute, and a lot of the maintenance advice below is directed towards preventing this eventuality. The player should understand the nature of wood as a material. If this is fully understood then the basic maintenance techniques will make a lot more sense, and the player will understand how necessary they are. For our purposes here it will serve to think of the structure of wood as being similar to a sponge. There is a certain natural level of moisture in the wood, and if it is exposed to damp or wet conditions more will be absorbed, and if conditions are dry, it will lose moisture. The major reason for cracking is the too-rapid movement of moisture in or out of the wood, so it makes sense to protect it from sudden changes in temperature and humidity. Unfortunately, where this occurs most often is when the instrument is actually being played, and is subjected to a stream of warm moist air from the player's breath. Here we can see the reason for "playing in" a new flute. The wood must be introduced to these new conditions slowly, so the first rule of preventative maintenance is:


The amount of time spent playing can actually be increased fairly rapidly, so that you can be playing for up to an hour at a time by the end of the first week or so. What should definitely be avoided is to take a new flute to a session and play it for four or five hours non-stop.


Cleaning the Flute

A considerable amount of moisture condenses on the inside of a flute while playing, and although some of it drips out of the end, the rest remains on the surface of the bore when you stop playing [the bore is the inside surface of the flute].

If this moisture is not removed some of it will be absorbed into the wood - and in an irregular manner as well. The wood will consequently swell where the water is absorbed, thus causing distortion, which in turn can lead to cracking.

The cork lapping on the joints can also absorb enough moisture to cause swelling - and making it impossible to dismantle the flute. This leads to the second rule of maintenance.


The best way to wipe moisture from the bore is to use a pull through of soft absorbent cloth, silk is ideal, which you can push or pull through with the cleaning rod.


Oiling the Flute

One way in which the player can counteract the effect of the moisture in the bore, and in fact protect the flute from dry conditions as well, is to oil the bore when it is dry. Oil penetrates the pores of the wood and prevents the movement of moisture either in or out.
The dense structure of Blackwood means that only a very little oil is absorbed at any one time, and in general players tend to use far too much oil. Following the instructions below should ensure that you don't over-oil your instrument.


There is a lot of debate about the sort of oil that should be used-but if it is understood that its purpose is to penetrate the pores, then it seems only sensible that a fine oil should be used. On the other hand the pores should ideally be blocked permanently, so an oil that will stay in the pores under the conditions pertaining inside a flute would be suitable.
Linseed oil has these properties but has significant drawbacks as well.

Two types of linseed oil are commercially available - boiled and raw.
The boiled oil has drying agents added to it, and it is used as a component of various types of paints and varnishes. Boiled linseed oil even on its own tends to behave like a varnish, and dries very quickly, initially to a sticky consistency, but eventually becoming very hard. If this type of oil is used as bore oil it will build up in the bore and once it starts to dry will be very hard to remove.


Raw linseed oil is a better proposition. This also dries, but not as quickly, and so it gets a chance to enter the pores and block them. The oil which enters the pores does eventually dry, and this gives long term protection against humidity changes. So, if you choose to use linseed oil, be very certain that it is raw linseed you use, and that you apply it in the correct way. One way to ensure that you have the correct sort of linseed oil is to buy it in a healthfood shop ( where it may be called flaxseed oil) which will only sell pure, additive free, oil. (see below)

Other types of oil that can be used are almond oil, and commercially available bore oil ( source: music shops)
Over use of oil will soon reduce the flute to a disgusting sticky object.


How to Oil the Bore

Get some of the recorder or flute cleaning mops which are available in most music shops. Actually, they are useless for cleaning purposes as they have very little absorbency - but they are ideal for oiling the bore [ you will probably need two sizes ]. The idea is to keep the mops damp with oil and then simply push them into the bore and withdraw them, thus leaving a fine film of oil on the bore. The mops can be kept in a sealable plastic bag when not in use in order to prevent them drying out.
A little oil added from time to time means that there will be enough oil on the mop to do the job properly.
If mops are not available then it is possible to use a cloth pull-through which is damp with oil, but this is not quite as efficient as the mops.
A properly oiled bore will have no surplus drops, only a light sheen when you look up the bore against the light.


Oiling Keyed Flutes

When oiling a keyed flute, it is essential to keep the oil off the pads and away from the keys and block or pin mounts. Small pieces of plastic cut from a plastic bag can be placed under the keys when oiling in order to prevent the oil getting onto the pads. If in fact you are getting oil on the pads at all, it is a sure sign you are being too generous with the oil.

The over use of oil also has the effect, apart from sticking down the keys, of dissolving the cement that is used to hold the pads in the pad cups. This leads to the very common situation where the key lifts, but the pad remains firmly attached to the flute.
The third rule of preventative maintenance therefore is:



The Joints

Each joint of the flute carries either a tenon or a socket which together form the joints by which the flute is assembled.

The tenon is that part of the joint which carries the cork lapping and which fits into the socket. Because the wood here is very thin, the tenon can be subject to damage. The middle joint [the one with the finger holes] has tenons at each end and if it is dropped is very likely to fall on one or other of them.
The flutes is reinforced here with metal bands which help to a great extent, but not dropping this piece of the flute is the best way to avoid problems!
The tenon, in order to make an airtight fit into the socket is lapped with cork, and this must be kept greased in order to make the flute easy to assemble and dismantle. The flute comes to you with the tenons well greased, but new cork can absorb grease quite quickly, and the player is advised to regularly apply cork grease to the cork on each of the tenons.
The type of grease used for cork lapping can be easily obtained in music shops, or Vaseline ( petroleum jelly) can be used.
Care and maintenance of the socket is relatively simple.
The main danger - cracking - can be avoided by always dismantling the instrument after use. This prevents moisture accumulating in the socket where it would swell the lapping - and in fact the tenon itself which can absorb water through the end grain. If you must set down your flute during an extended period of playing, always try and prop it upright...this ensures that any moisture in the bore runs out, and does not accumulate in the joints.

A joint may jam, if a flute is left wet and assembled. If you find a joint is hard to take apart after playing then the best plan is to leave it alone for a day or so in a relatively warm, dry place. A normal living room temperature is ideal but do not place the flute near a fire or radiator. You will find that the joint will come loose as it dries out.

If your flute has developed a crack, on no account should you attempt to fill it with anything. This actually has the effect of pushing the crack open further, and if the substance used is something like epoxy resin, then it makes the proper repair afterwards much more difficult. Wrap the cracked area with tape, (electrical/insulating tape is best) and get it back to me as soon as possible.

The Pads

Pads are no doubt the most common cause of leaks - yet the majority of players are ignorant of their proper care and maintenance. Pads may need replacing every now and again, but they will last for a considerable time if looked after.

A pad will only function as long as it is soft. In this condition it takes up the impression of the seating, and thus prevents air escaping. The reason old pads must be discarded is that they become hard with exposure to moisture, from keys being constantly opened and closed, and from oil which the player may use in the bore.Thus two points which have already been mentioned are of significance here.
One is the necessity to dry out the flute each time after playing, for moisture tends to collect in the keyholes, up against the pad, if the instrument is left down wet.
The other point to remember is to protect the pads during the oiling procedure. With a keyed flute it also pays to draw the cloth of the pull-through under each key after playing, as this removes any excess moisture of the pad.

The way in which the flute is held can also help preserve the pads.
You will note that the side of the flute opposite the finger holes [ the "back" it might be called ], carries no key holes. If the flute is held with this section underneath, it acts as a kind of drain down which condensed moisture may flow without entering the holes and getting onto the pads.The term waterline is sometimes used in connection with this.
Attention to the above will double or triple the life of the pads.


The Head Joint

The head joint or headpiece can be for the moment taken to mean the head and the barrel. Because both these pieces of the flute are lined with metal tubing, they can be more prone to cracking than the other joints if subjected to extreme conditions. Preventing such cracks is simply a matter of avoiding the conditions which put the wood under stress, i.e. extremes of temperature and humidity. It is not recommended for example, to pick up a very cold flute [ which may have been traveling in the boot of a car ] and begin to play it without first gently warming it by breathing through it or allowing it to naturally warm up in the room where it will be played. Be wary of any circumstances where the instrument goes from one extreme of temperature to the other.

The Tuning Slide

The tuning slide is where the head is joined to the barrel, and allows the player to adjust the overall pitch of the flute. In general the flute should not be taken apart here, except very occasionally for cleaning and lubricating. The danger of separating the flute at this point is that grit or dirt can easily be introduced into the slide, which can then become stiff or even jam completely. Secondly if the tubing becomes dented, by dropping it for example, it may be impossible to re-assemble the headpiece. Only use a pure fine mineral grease such as Vaseline to grease the slide.

The Cork

The basic functions of the cork, which blocks the bore of the flute just behind the embouchure [the hole you blow across] is unknown to many players, and indeed many labour under the misapprehension that it can alter the pitch of the instrument in some way when moved. In fact, though it does this in a minor way, its main role is to alter the tuning between the octaves and the tone and response of the flute. The position of the cork is set before leaving the workshop and you shouldn't have to adjust it. If for any reason, it gets out of place, it should be reset so that the face of the cork is 19mm from the centre of the embouchure.

If you find yourself in a situation where you must tune the flute much higher or much lower, than normal, it will help to correct the internal tuning if the cork is moved closer to the embouchure the flatter you go, and conversely further away from the embouchure the sharper you go. The proper position can be checked by playing low D, middleD and high D, and adjusting the cork until all three are in tune with each other.




Further information about looking after your flute, and on the flute in Irish traditional music, including sections on, The history and development of the flute, The flute in Ireland, A list of flutemakers, and a comprehensive discography of traditional flute music can be found in: The Irish Fluteplayer's Handbook