Breaking in a New Flute

Some thoughts on how best to break in a new wooden flute...

The Issues

All timbers absorb water - that goes without saying, since water in the form of sap was what kept the tree alive.  But as wood absorbs water, it swells, often enough to cause splitting.  And water condensation is inevitable in a woodwind instrument.  So our challenge is to manage the water to minimise the likelihood of damage.

Can't We Stop the Water?

No.  Even a heavy coat of lacquer on the bore of an instrument will not prevent water from seeping into the wood.  And the heavy coat of lacquer does nothing for the tone which brought us to the wooden flute in the first place.

What Can We Do?

Two things.  We can slow down the rate of absorbtion by using an appropriately formulated bore oil, and we can manage the water content of the wood by breaking in the instrument carefully, and keeping it in a "broken-in" condition.

Choice of bore oils

All sorts of oils have been tried for woodwinds.  Linseed oil was used in the old days.  It tends to go sticky if applied too thickly, it dries rather slowly and it has a strong smell.  Museum conservators suggest peanut oil, because it is unlikely to damage museum specimens.  I find it washes away too quickly and doesn't provide enough protection for the sessioning musician.  Almond oil, sometimes mixed with vitamin E, has been recommended.  I can't comment on that one as I haven't tried it.

I recommend one of the new oils specially formulated by the big woodwind companies like Le Blanc.  These are clear and dry quickly without odour or stickyness.  I've had no problems with cracking when these oils are used properly.

Applying Oils

I dribble a bit of the oil into the bore and use a small scrap of rag on the end of the cleaning stick to distribute it all over the bore.  The bore should glisten with the oil, but there shouldn't be any runs of the oil left.  I like to ensure that places where one can imagine moisture will gather, such as where the top of the body tenon goes in the head joint socket, are well oiled on the end grain of both socket and tenon.

If your flute has keys, you must be careful not to get oil on the pads.  It hardens them and will reduce their life considerably.  Take the keys off, or use little scraps of plastic (eg cling wrap) or greaseproof paper to protect them.

A Breaking-In Regime

Imagine that our flute is perfectly dry - never having been played before - and has a good coat of oil on the inside of the bore.  We are delighted with it and play it all day.  Lots of moisture condenses and starts to run out the end.  Some of the moisture gets through the oil and swells the inside of the flute.  The wood on the outside is dry.  Phenomenal forces build up and the wood cracks on the outside.

What should we have done?  Supposing we had played it for 10 minutes, then dried it and put it back in its case.  Not too much moisture would have got past the oil, but that which did will now start to diffuse throughout the instrument.  In a few hours, we take it out, play for 10 minutes, dry and put away.  Again some moisture gets through, but has time to diffuse before the pressures get too high. This is the principle behind breaking in a woodwind instrument.

Rough Bore Walls

If you notice that the inside of the instrument has got rough, this is worth fixing up.  It's caused by moisture raising the grain and can be part of a spiral:  Flute starts off smooth.  Condensation gets past oil and raises grain.  Corrugated surface holds water better so more water gets past oil, etc.

What we have to be careful of is not altering the dimensions of the bore more than we have to, so don't run amuck with a long file!  Rather, get a length of dowel and some fine steel wool.  Wrap the steel wool tightly around one end of the dowel and use it to smooth the bore.  This is made easier if you have some way of spinning the dowel, eg in a lathe or drill.

Don't try to iron out every corrugation - you will end up altering the bore.  Just use it long enough to render the whole inside smooth looking and shiny.  Clean out any dust and debris with a rag, then oil the instrument thoroughly.  Remember you will have polished away much or all of the protective coat, so treat the instrument as new again and break it in slowly.

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