Numerical Key Marks




In a previous page we looked at the initials and names found under the keys of some flutes.  In this page we look at numerical markings.  Our aim is to work out how the various makers used numerical markings.

Keys with Numerical Marks

Many flutes have under-key marks which may at times appear to be Roman Numerals, at other times perhaps emblems.  We may be able to deduce the meaning of these marks once we see the range of marks in use.

(Image Terry McGee)

Flute Brand Key Mark if any Numerical mark Wood Mark Owned/Reported by:
William Hall   \/III - Michael Stone / Terry McGee
Butler A.L III - Marc Löfgren 
Eastes Fentum H&L II   Jem Hammond
Fentum F, H&L, I.N ///   Jem Hammond
German Flute   IIIV IIIV Terry McGee
German Flute   \\\/ \/// & \\\/ Madeleine Rowles / Terry McGee
German Flute   \/III \/III Chris Caton
German Flute   V/// - William Porter
Rudall Carte & Co.   V V Terry McGee
Unmarked   X   Pauline Allen
Unmarked   XI or IX?   Pauline Allen
  //// - Private UK Collector
Wylde   XI or IX? - Jem Hammond

Roman or just scratches?

I think it's been assumed in the past that these marks were Roman numerals, but several already noted are not legitimate Roman numbers (\\V, IIIV & ////)* .   But if they are just scratches, what's the numbering scheme?  Let's attempt to put them into numerical order to find out:

Number in batch If Roman If scratches (but assuming V = 5 & X = 10)
3 III or /// III or ///
4   ////
5 V V
7   IIV or VII
8 VIII or V/// VIII, V/// or IIIV
9 IX (?)  
10 X X
11 XI (?) XI
15 XV XV

A bit to early to see where we're going here, so more data needed.

*One reasonable explanation for illegitimate Roman numbers might be that poorly educated 19th century flute-makers might not be expected to be numerate in Latin.

Matching marks

Some flutes with keys bearing these marks also have a mark applied to the wood of one or more pieces, leading to the suggestion that they are batch marks, intended to ensure the right keys end up on the right flute at final assembly.  If this is so, we might expect to see a correlation build up as more data comes in.


This is also an example of a mark that doesn't appear to be a legitimate Roman numeral.  Taken from a German 1-key flute.  The same mark appears on the ends of each joint.  (Images by Terry McGee)

Non-matching marks

Hmmm, slip-up or what?  The Rowles German flute above has:

  • \\\/ on all the keys
  • \/// on the wood under two of the keys, and
  • \/// on the end of the barrel section.

(Image by Madeleine Rowles)

This seems to cast doubt on the Roman numeral theory as \\V is not a valid number in Latin.  But is \\\/ the same as \///, or were these keys fitted to the wrong flute?  Or is it significant that the markings are mirror images of each other?


Rudall Carte 7120 has the mark V under all the keys and on the three body parts, apart from the Eb key, which has the mark VI both under the keytouch and repeated on the spring.  The other foot-keys and the foot are marked V.  It seems safe to assume that an error occurred and the wrong Eb key was fitted.  But wouldn't that make for a poor fit?  A small blob of soft solder applied to the side of the key seems to have been added at some stage to correct unwanted lateral movement.  The blob is about 0.2mm thick.  Soft solder would be preferred here as applying it does not affect the hardness of the key metal or spring. 

Locations of wood markings

In the images above, the wood markings are bold and easy to find; that's not always the case.  The markings may in other cases be nothing more than a light scratch, making them much harder to see.  Locations of wood markings so far include:

  • on top or bottom end of section

  • under a key, hidden by the shaft

  • beside the Bb hole

  • above the Long F key hinge block

  • on the top end of the Eb hinge block

Observations in regard to numerical markings

I've seen plenty of observations in regard to the use and logic behind these numerical markings, and most of them have a degree of consistency.  But I wouldn't go so far as saying I believe we have reached a perfect consensus.  That is possibly logical - we can't necessarily assume that all makers who used numerical markings used them for the same reason or in the same way, especially as we are dealing with a range of countries over a long period.  I thought that before we attempt to expound an overarching thesis, it would serve us well to note some of these observations against which we can test our theories. 

Boaz Berney:

As for Roman numerals, some of them are some kind of bench mark. I have seen them used in two ways: One is numbering a flute in a series - say you are making twelve flutes, and want to know which one that long F key belongs to.

Another way is on the flaps of open-standing keys (low c#, c and B) which are marked "I", "II" or "III" to let help you place the right flap on the right hole without trying it out too much.

Dominic Allan

I started out working for oboe makers TW Howarth. When we made keys for an instrument we would keep them in a tray with the tip rings that would eventually be fitted to it. The tip rings would be marked with a number (usually done by scratching notches on the inside), these numbers corresponded to a number stamped somewhere out of sight on the body. The keys could then be polished and sent off for plating and re-united with their instrument for final assembly. We marked the tip rings rather than the keys because of the number of keys on each instrument made key marking impractical.  I suspect that some of the numbers found on keys and bodies of old flutes are evidence of similar practices.

Under cross-examination, Dominic added:

I spent most of my time in the relatively short-lived clarinet dept (we made a great instrument that eventually failed due to lack of marketing support). The numbers were put on the body by the guy who drilled holes and put the pillars on, as our output was relatively small (about 15-20 clarinets a month) we used a simple two digit number 00-50 (? it was a long time ago) then start at the beginning again. The numbers were filed into the rings with a needle file eg 35 would be 3 notches, then a space then five notches. The exact details are a bit hazy , it's been over ten years since I had much to do with them.
Because the oboe dept had a much higher output they used a two-digit one-letter code (I think) to prevent two identical numbers being in the workshop at the same time. I think the oboe dept scratched the numbers into the rings.


Thanks to Dominic and Boaz for their observations.  Thanks also to all who have supplied data and images.

Related pages

Flute key marks and makers
Alexander Liddle

or Back to McGee-flutes Index page...

  Created: 20 March 2012