Wooden Flute Maintenance and Repair
Left to right: Gerald Haugh, Peadar Crotty, and the late P.J. Crotty. Photo copyright Peter Laban, Miltown Malbay
Wooden flutes require much more care than metal ones. A few tips:
Swab out the inside of your flute with a soft, dry cloth after you play. Occasional applications of cork grease on the joints will help your fittings last longer.
If you have thread windings instead of cork, be careful not to use cotton, unwaxed hemp, or any other fabric that is likely to absorb water. One flute maker recommends 100% polyester thread made by Gütermann, available in most fabric stores. This is good for the base winding, though you may want to use a thinner thread (silk is ideal, though harder to find) for the outermost strands of thread that you use to fine-tune the fit. Use a different color thread for the outermost strands so you can see it more easily if the joint gets tight and you need to remove thread.
The conventional wisdom handed down from many years of tradition is that you must oil your wooden flute to keep it from cracking. This seems to be based more on word of mouth and logic than scientific evidence. Still, oiling does no harm unless you slobber oil on the keypads (which makes them sticky), so the best advice is to play it safe and oil the inside and outside of your instrument periodically, especially when it's new and also during the drier months of the year. There's a wide range of advice from flute makers: some say oiling is unnecessary, others advise you to oil your flute frequently.
People have used a variety of oils for this purpose, including raw linseed oil, almond oil, mineral oil, orange oil, and commercial bore oil. Larry Mallette informs us of a recent article in Woodwind Quarterly (vol 6 pp.44-59) which imples that mineral and petroleum-based oils should be avoided, and recommends almond oil with 1% vitamin E oil added as antioxidant. Larry has had good results with this oil. Another flute player, Peter Heinlein, recommends buying cosmetic-grade almond oil rather than food-grade, which tends to oxidize faster and may gum up the bore of the flute.
Linseed oil is commonly used on wooden flutes. If you use it, be very careful to use raw linseed oil, not boiled. Boiled linseed oil will gum up the bore of your flute and may permanently ruin its tone. Linseed oil is made from flax; the residue left on your flute after oiling isn't toxic, and it's safe to use. In fact, flaxseed oil from the health-food store is good for oiling flutes; keep it in the refrigerator so it doesn't go rancid.
When oiling your flute, cover the thread or cork on the joints with tape, cover the keypads with small squares of kitchen plastic wrap, swab the tone holes with a Q-tip dipped in oil, and then run a lightly oiled cloth inside the bore. (If you have a lined headjoint, obviously you shouldn't oil the metal lining!) You can oil the outside with a few drops of oil as well, being careful to avoid getting oil on the keypads. Let the oil soak in for a couple of hours, and then wipe it off with a dry cloth, being very careful to leave no traces of oil in the bore or the joints. The flute will have a nice sheen but should not look or feel oily. Your flute will probably sound a bit different after you oil it, but will quickly regain its normal tone.
Patrick Olwell and several other flutemakers maintain that oiling the bore (the inside) of a newly made flute can improve its tone, by filling up the pores in the wood. Again, this makes sense intuitively and is unlikely to cause any harm, so give it a try. Patrick recommends oiling a new flute at least once a week.
Legend notwithstanding, it is not a good idea to pour Guinness down the bore of your flute or leave it to soak it in a barrel of water. Don't do these things if you value your instrument.
Cracks can occur with sudden temperature or humidity changes, as metal and wood expand differentially. Wrap up your flute if you have to take it into the cold and leave it wrapped for a while at room temperature to warm up if it has been outside for long. A good, padded flute case should help protect your flute from temperature changes and other potential dangers. See the flute cases page for more info.
When you're not playing, it's a good idea to keep your flute broken down and stored in its case, rather than leaving it fully assembled. If you have cork fittings, the cork may lose some of its springiness if it's kept constantly compressed, eventually leading to looseness in your flute's joints.
Flute-makers Terry's McGee and Rod Cameron have additional information on flute maintenance and repair. In late 2008, Hammy Hamilton released an instructional DVD on flute maintenance and repair that should be very useful. For now the DVD is available directly from him; once it's more widely available I'll post information here. To contact Hammy and place an order, send an email to email@example.com. Price is €35, which includes postage worldwide.
Any shop that repairs woodwinds such as clarinets or oboes should be able to fix a wooden flute. Here are names of some people who specialize in repairing and restoring old or cracked wooden flutes. Many flute makers also repair flutes; it's worth checking with any of the makers listed above.
2607 Clement Street
San Francisco, CA 94121
Tel: +353 (0) 657079795
Mobile: +353 (0) 861223249
Linda Marie Doran
2410 Lincoln St. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
Tel: +1 612 706 0106
David Migoya, Denver, Colorado.
13341 Estate Dr.
Booonville, CA 95415
Tel: +1 707 895 2155
Fax: +1 707 895 9340
Tel: +1 607 273 5256
50 Rice Road
Wayland, MA 01778
Tel: +1 508 653 6139
815 Old Turner Mountain Lane
Charlottesville, VA 22901
Tel: +1 605 431 4834
Roxanne van Schayk
Roxanne's Woodwind Repair and Restoration
Orkney KW15 1SX
Tel: +44 1856 871574
David and Nina Shorey
4135 Center St.
Culver City, CA 90232
Windward Flutes (Forbes Christie)
11 Charlotte Lane
Shelburne, Nova Scotia BOT 1W0
Rodger Young Repair Service
P.O. Box 279
Edgewater, MD 21037
Tel: +1 410 269 6647