Irish Flutes - The Head End


The traditional head and crude elliptical embouchure combination you find on original 19th century flutes and straight copies thereof is definitely not to be recommended. It is noisy, unresponsive and uncomfortable.  I've put a lot of work into understanding the issues involved and developing solutions.  There are two separate matters we need to consider - the shape of the head itself, and the shape of the embouchure hole in the head.

The Shape of the Head

The heads on 19th century flutes couldn't have been simpler - they were generally straight cylinders.  Some very remarkable makers (notably Nicholson and Boehm) knew that this was not ideal and tried to do something about it; they made some gains but probably didn't have the science to guide them to complete solutions.  More work was done in the twentieth century but only in the context of Boehm flutes.  These benefits are now available to the Irish flute.  

The issue is this. In the traditional cylindrical head, the diameter of the head was limited to what was comfortable.  Because the bore diameter was set, the wall thickness and therefore the embouchure chimney depth was defined automatically at one half the difference.  Not quite enough for best tone development unfortunately.  Still, it's the shape we know and love...

The Classical Cylindrical Head.  The outside diameter 
and the embouchure chimney depth are intrinsically linked.

So, how can we dissociate the outer and inner diameters from the wall thickness?  My first solution followed the path of the 20th century makers (although not their methods).  The head in general was "thinned" but an eccentric bulge was created at the embouchure.  This enabled the chimney depth to be increased, but the overall diameter to be kept down at this point.

The Thinned Head, permitting smaller diameter at the embouchure 
but increased embouchure chimney depth.  This is the lightest head.

But not everyone likes the radical new appearance. Could I keep to these dimensions, but retain or approximate the old appearance?  This took a bit of thinking.  In the middle of the night, the answer came.  "Why does the hole have to be in the middle of the stick?"  So option three is the Eccentric Bore Head.  Acoustically, it presents exactly the same dimensions as the Thinned Head.  Visually, it looks like the Traditional Cylindrical Head...

The Eccentric Bore Head offering the same effective dimensions as 
the Thinned Head but with the appearance of the Traditional Head.

This, I believe, is a pretty serious breakthrough.  We can have a head which looks like the good old head, while permitting the important parameters to be individually adjusted.  The only clue that something is seriously unusual comes when you remove the cap and look inside.  Then you notice that the wood at the embouchure side of the head is much thicker than the wood on the back side.

Finally we can dispense with most of the wood altogether and have a sterling silver head and barrel with only a minimum amount of wood at the embouchure hole.  Because it's shape not materials that is the most important, such a head and barrel still sounds exactly like a wooden flute.

The Silver Head and Barrel can offer the same 
acoustic dimensions as any of the heads above.

An obvious benefit of such a head is that, no matter the climate or degree of carelessness, it cannot crack.  To ensure that shrinkage of the wooden embouchure plate cannot induce it to split in a dry climate, the plate does not extend all the way around the head and is bonded to the head only in the region of the embouchure.  Because silver is such a good conductor of heat, air temperature in the head cannot rise anywhere near as high as in a wooden head, reducing the "warming up" pitch change.  The thin socket wall of the barrel also permits the body at the top of the flute to be thinner, reducing stress on the left hand.  The avoidance of losses into the material of the head ensures the most vibrant response right across the range.  The weight works out slightly less than my wooden heads and about 70% of the weight of a 19th century head and barrel.  It does cost a little more though.

So, summarising all the above; there are four head options:

  • the Classical Cylindrical Head
  • the Thinned Head
  • the Eccentric Bore Head
  • The Silver Head and Barrel.

It's important to remember that any of the heads can be allied with any of the embouchure shapes.

About Embouchures

As mentioned above, I do not recommend the classical elliptical embouchure found on 19th century flutes.  It is too noisy and unresponsive.  It does have one attractive aspect though - the very dark sound available when played in the Irish manner - turned well in towards the player, and with an intense air-stream.  This is a skill which requires a naturally good lip and plentiful air supply.  It takes some time to acquire, some effort to maintain and plenty of stamina for long sessions, and is therefore not suited to everyone.  This style of playing also tends to increase the rushing sound of air.  

For those wishing to perfect that style, I prefer to make an Improved Elliptical embouchure which retains the traditional shape but reduces the attendant noise.

But for those wanting (or needing!) easier playing, my "modern cut" embouchures bring all the benefits of late 20th century embouchure development to the Irish flute, especially if used in conjunction with my Thinned, Eccentric Bore or Silver Head.

The elliptical embouchure blended the sides and the all-important edge into each other, making it harder for the maker to provide each with the treatment it requires.  My modern cut embouchures permit the edge and sides to be given the shapes they need to produce the best results.  The differences are very noticeable - a bit louder, much easier to play, more responsive, faster articulation. 

The Two Semicircles embouchure hole provides a useful increase in area over the elliptical hole, increased width of the "edge" and better dissociation between edge and sides. 
The Rounded Rectangle embouchure hole provides a further increase in area, a yet wider "edge" and even better dissociation between edge and sides. 

The improved venting produced by these embouchures and the more relaxed playing style does have the effect of producing a slightly brighter sound than the elliptical embouchure played in the "half-covered" manner.  The Two Semicircles being only a slight increase over the ellipse is a good compromise if compromise is sought.  For those looking for the easiest and/or loudest playing flute anywhere, the Rounded Rectangle is the way to go.

Those needing to move easily between wooden flute and metal flute will find the Rounded Rectangle with either the thinned or eccentric bore the most convenient.

For more information on the development of these new head and embouchure shapes

About Caps and Stoppers

Nineteenth century flutes always had some form of screw stopper to permit setting the stopper distance.  Unfortunately, they usually relied on a wooden screw thread which is easy to strip out.  

Many modern flutes are made with just a cork for a stopper and with a cap secured in place with thread.  This makes removing and resetting the stopper tedious.  I have developed a sturdy but lightweight stopper with a screw mechanism linking it to the cap. Turning the cap clockwise moves the stopper away from the embouchure.

Delrin-faced cork stopper 
with  metal screw mechanism.

The brass threaded shaft is secured inside the stopper, which is Delrin (acetal), a strong and stable polymer unaffected by moisture.  A layer of tenon cork in a groove around the outside seals the gap between bore and stopper.  The threaded rod runs in a Delrin threaded insert inside the cap.  The natural springiness of the Delrin prevents the cap unscrewing itself or rattling.

To make re-installing the stopper much easier, the bore behind the stopper is made a larger diameter, with a ramp joining it to the bore.  The stopper drops readily into the cap cavity, and then pushes easily and smoothly to the final location.  

In case you were wondering, even the Eccentric Bore Head features a screw stopper.  Took a while to work out how ...

About Tuning Slides

Why do we need a tuning slide?  After all, the predecessors to our flute - recorders and baroque flutes - didn't have them.  There are a number of advantages.  The tuning slide:

  • allows easier tuning (a metal slide runs much more freely than a lapped tenon and socket joint, and is capable of finer and easier adjustment)

  • allows a wider range of tuning, to deal with hot or cold venues, sharp pipes and flat pianos.  (Opening a tenon and socket joint introduces a large disruption in the bore, affecting tuning accuracy and the flute's playing efficiency)

  • overcomes the problem of predicting how sharp or flat a particular player is.  (Many things influence what pitch you get when you play a flute - how hard you blow, what proportion of the embouchure hole your lip covers, the angle you have the head turned in or out.  There is about a semitone difference between the sharpest and flattest players.)

So my advice is that, if can possibly afford it, go with the tuning slide.  But not just any tuning slide ....

The old flutes (and many modern copies) had tuning slides taking the form of nickel-plated brass sleeves lining the full length of head and barrel.  These work fine at first, but inevitably, as the wood shrinks with time and the seasons but the metal doesn't, the wood cracks.  It's possible that the build up of corrosion on the surface of the brass also plays a role in this.

The presence of metal in and around the embouchure chimney also has a bad effect on tone, especially after the inevitable relative movement of wood and metal permits the metal to protrude into the chimney.  The accumulated weight of all that metal also tends to make the flute heavier, particularly in the head which is exactly where you don't want it.  I have developed a "New Improved Tuning Slide Mk IV" to get around all these problems.

The New Improved Tuning Slide Mk IV:

  • doesn't promote splitting of the head or barrel timber

  • can be easily removed for repair or replacement if damaged

  • looks identical to the slide on the traditional instrument

  • doesn't degrade the tone of the instrument

  • is made from corrosion-resistant hard-drawn sterling silver for smooth operation and long life

  • is much lighter than the traditional full length slide.

For more details see the: "new  improved tuning slide".

Classical Cylindrical Head with Mk IV New Improved Tuning Slide

Can't afford the tuning slide?  Well here's a way forward for those looking for a lowest-price but highest quality flute:

The Minimal Disruption Tenon

The Minimum Disruption Tenon enables you to get greater tuning variation by pulling out the head from the body that the normal tenon & socket arrangement permits.  Looks better too, as no cork is visible when extended.  Click on the link for the full story.

Business end of a "Grey Larsen Preferred" model in Mopane,
with the head withdrawn to reveal the Minimum Disruption Tenon.

Does the MDT make tuning slides a thing of the past?  I think not.  Weigh up the advantages I listed under "About Tuning Slides" above.  But if you're up against a tight budget, and particularly if this is not your everyday flute, it's a great improvement over just pulling out the normal tenon and socket, especially when it enables you to buy a better quality flute than you might otherwise have been able.  Or add a couple of keys you couldn't otherwise afford.  Available on all models, including Eb and Bb flutes, and all materials, including polymer.

Is an MDT flute a "down-graded model", devoid of other important features?  No, an MDT equipped flute is otherwise exactly the same as all my other flutes, with the same excruciating attention to detail. 

And if you suddenly come into the money or you find what wasn't supposed to be your everyday flute has wheedled its way into your affections, we can easily install a tuning slide and revert your tenon arrangement to normal at any time.

Next, let's talk about keys

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