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 Post subject: Were these guys serious?
PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 12:26 am 
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I seem to be coming across a lot of 19th century flutes recently that, frankly, one can only shake one's head at and wonder "were these guys serious?".

The flutes look good on the outside. They had to look good, or nobody would have bought them. It's only when you lift the bonnet and take a close look at the engine you spot the problems.

I'm currently working on a 19th century piccolo, stamped only "Improved London". It came without a head, and with a totally mangled barrel, so I've had to make those parts new. But it's when I then came to clean up the keys and repad them, I came across the evidence I'm about to show you. Imagine you are flying in an aeroplane above a dormant volcano. You look down. You expect to see a cone with a hole in the top. Not a war-ravaged battlefield....

Image

Now, I'm not just being fussy about appearance. No pad is going to seal well against a surface like that. I tried, and it didn't. Interestingly, the pad really tried. I left it on overnight, and its seating had definitely improved. When I took it off, it looked like the mirror-image of what we see above. But there's a limit to how far we can expect even fine leather to mould itself. And air is very thin and can sneak through any remaining gaps. And did. The Magnehelic flute leakage detector dismissed it as a joke.

The strange thing is that it doesn't take long to fix, and it fixed beautifully. I didn't have a tone-hole cutter small enough for a piccolo, so I had to make one up. Took about 25 minutes to make, and, I'll admit, it looks like it. Rough as guts. But it cut perfectly and left the surface of the seat gleaming. (Cocus wood cuts superbly if asked nicely.) More than that, the pad sealed as soon as I heated the back of the keycup to let it take up its new position.

So, why had they perservered with a clearly blunt cutter that ripped out the grain rather than sliced and polished it? I just shaped my new cutter on the offhand grinder, cleaned it up on a whetstone, and then touched it up with an arkansas hand stone. All by hand - no tool & cutter grinder. To take the cutter they used and resharpen and hone it would have taken 5 minutes tops.

I had to redo all 6 keyseats on this piccolo. It's now playing well, and the tuning is surprisingly good. So there was nothing wrong with the design. It begs the question - did it ever play really well at any time in its entire life? It's hard to imagine that anything other than shoddy workmanship left the seats looking like that. The realities of "made for the trade", I guess.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 2:48 am 
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Very strange. You dont think it was an ornamental item? A decorative piece to sit atop a piano?

Perhaps the makers were hired hands who didnt really know what they were doing except to follow instructions? Or it was someones early attempt at copying an existing flute?

When I first started out making flutes, I didnt want to get into any of the details: I didnt think I would ever need or want to need to have that kind of precision and strict taste. "Millimeters? You gotta be kidding. Im a 1/8th inches kinda guy.." But gradually I realized that if I'm going to go through the trouble of making a flute, and if anyone is going to go through the trouble of learning to play it-- that I might as well invest a bit more effort just to make it more precise. So yeah, if they went through the trouble of making an entire flute, why not add a small amount more effort in order to smooth out errors like this? If only someone had leaned over and whispered, "you know this flute is going to out-live you..."

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 3:03 am 
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Is it possible that there was some sort of gasket covering this rough surface? Or some material or substance that has since worn or washed away? I suppose such practices would be well known...

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 3:25 am 
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adamstjohn wrote:
Very strange. You dont think it was an ornamental item? A decorative piece to sit atop a piano?

No, it's a very workable piccolo (at least now!). When it arrived, I took all the keys off - the pads were completely fossilised - and plugged the keyholes with blutack, just to make sure that it was a viable instrument. No point in making a head and barrel for a rubbish body. I was lucky in that my Rudall Carte original piccolo's head and barrel fitted perfectly, and was thus able to establish it was worth working on without having to risk any serious effort. The tuning and performance as a keyless was good.

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Perhaps the makers were hired hands who didnt really know what they were doing except to follow instructions?

I think this is an example of "flutes for the trade". Flutes made by anonymous workshops, and left unbadged, for sale through retail outlets. I guess their motto was "near enough is good enough"! Or perhaps "almost near enough is all you are going to get"!

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Or it was someones early attempt at copying an existing flute?

I'd be pretty confident that such flutes would be copies of well-known existing instruments. The fact my Rudall Carte head and barrel fitted perfectly is perhaps a clue....

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When I first started out making flutes, I didnt want to get into any of the details: I didnt think I would ever need or want to need to have that kind of precision and strict taste. "Millimeters? You gotta be kidding. Im a 1/8th inches kinda guy.." But gradually I realized that if I'm going to go through the trouble of making a flute, and if anyone is going to go through the trouble of learning to play it-- that I might as well invest a bit more effort just to make it more precise. So yeah, if they went through the trouble of making an entire flute, why not add a small amount more effort in order to smooth out errors like this? If only someone had leaned over and whispered, "you know this flute is going to out-live you..."

Heh heh, exactly. And if you put your name on it, you certainly would want to be remembered kindly. But nobody's going to remember these guys, because there's no way to trace them. So I guess that leads to a cavalier attitude - do only what's necessary (make the outside look good), but no more.

It is interesting that they seemed to have got the bore taper right - I can imagine that would be another area where they might have not put in much effort. But just as easy to get it right as to get it wrong, I guess.

I guess there's a message to our flute repairers and restorers here. If you can't get the pads to seal, look closely at the seats. There might be a very good reason why. They never sealed! The good news is, it's not that hard to make a remedial cutter.

I should mention that the zoom microscope comes in mighty handy here. (That's where the image above comes from.) Remember always McGee's Razor: "If you can't see it, you can't do it!" (I might mention that this is the only razor I own...)

Going back to your: "Im a 1/8th inches kinda guy..", if you think flutes is pernickety, try a piccolo, especially these 19th century narrow-bore jobs. The bits are just so tiny! I guess half the length, and half the diameter, makes the volume and the mass about 1/8th!


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 3:31 am 
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adamstjohn wrote:
Is it possible that there was some sort of gasket covering this rough surface? Or some material or substance that has since worn or washed away? I suppose such practices would be well known...

No sign of such things, and I've never seen such a thing. If you were going to do that, you probably wouldn't bother "approximating" the volcano-style cone.

I was tempted to just flatten the bottom of the seat - I did have a router cutter of about the right diameter - and I figured a smooth flat bottom would be much better than a jagged volcano. And remembering the earlier "elastic balls" (purse pad) seats were hemispherical depressions, concave rather than convex. Get thee behind me Satan!


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 5:55 am 
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adamstjohn wrote:
"Millimeters? You gotta be kidding. Im a 1/8th inches kinda guy.."


Heh heh, your remark brought me in mind of the old Cornish tin worker. When asked "what tolerances do you work to?", he responded "Nah, we don't work to no tolerances. We gets it right, and then it's near enough..."


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 5:38 pm 
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OK, morning here now, and the pads are seating nicely, having had to relearn overnight what shape they were intended to fit. With the help of the trusty Magnahelic flute leakage detector we can put some figures on it:

1. Open to atmosphere (i.e. fully leaking): 8
2. Fresh pads on old seats: 7.5 (Sad, eh?)
3. Press all the pads onto the old seats: 2.5 (almost good enough but who's going to play like that?)
4. Regarded as good enough for a flute: 2
5. Same pads on new seats: 0.8
6. Keys removed and all holes plugged: 0.4

If we represent a reading of 0.5 as one asterisk, we can display that graphically:

1. **************** (Full leak)
2. *************** (New pads, old seats)
3. ***** (New pads pressed onto old seats)
4. **** ("Good enough")
5. ** (Same pads, new seats)
6. * (All holes plugged)

Almost a 10 times improvement since recutting the seats. I reckon I'm happy with that.

The "all holes plugged" 0.4 is interesting, as it shows some minor drift of air through either a crack I haven't found or perhaps just the thin dry wood of the body. I haven't oiled the body yet.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 7:11 pm 
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Terry, I really want one of those Magnahelic flute leakage detectors you keep mentioning. :D

I have no way to justify it to my Other Half for the cost, because I'm not a flute repair tech. But I would just like it to know on some quantifiable basis how well my flute keys are sealing. My current flute -- a secondhand Aebi 8-key - doesn't have any problems other than those pesky low C# and C keys that I don't think I'll ever master. I'm able to get a nice hard D at the bottom and a decent keyed Eb.

But you know how it is. We're always searching for improvement with the instrument, when it's probably the player that needs improvement. And the idea of an old-school gadget with a wooden box, analog dial, and a name like "Magnahelic" is something that appeals to my Steampunk sensibilities. It would look great on my desk. I just have to figure out how to sneak it past my Other Half. She's a gadget nerd too (why we're together), but more financially responsible than I am.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 9:51 pm 
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Hmmm. J.L. Smith only wants 616 USD! You are right, Conical, it definitely does have a SteamPunk vibe. MusicMedic offers one for 425 USD, but not nearly so much SteamPunk. No surprise, the MusicMedic is out of stock. The UP pipers would have a field day with something like this when they are striving to balance their regs and drones. :D

Bob

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2019 11:33 pm 
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Conical bore wrote:
Terry, I really want one of those Magnahelic flute leakage detectors you keep mentioning. :D

Heh heh, I certainly wouldn't be without one now. Not so important for my own flutes, although still convenient. It's nice to be able to hold the body of the flute in front of you, with the holes plugged up and the leakage detector working, and be able to rock the keys around to make sure they really are well seated. But really valuable with old flutes, as you don't necessarily know what to expect in terms of performance. Good to be able to absolutely rule out leakage, from pads, cracks or anywhere else.

Quote:
I have no way to justify it to my Other Half for the cost, because I'm not a flute repair tech. But I would just like it to know on some quantifiable basis how well my flute keys are sealing. My current flute -- a secondhand Aebi 8-key - doesn't have any problems other than those pesky low C# and C keys that I don't think I'll ever master. I'm able to get a nice hard D at the bottom and a decent keyed Eb.

Well, that's surely encouraging, as it presumably means everything upstream is going well. Certainly convincing low C and low C# to close together is a trial. Imagine the whole flute relied on the closing of "normally-open" keys, as does the Boehm. You can see how important the Magnahelic is to those techs.

Quote:
But you know how it is. We're always searching for improvement with the instrument, when it's probably the player that needs improvement. And the idea of an old-school gadget with a wooden box, analog dial, and a name like "Magnahelic" is something that appeals to my Steampunk sensibilities. It would look great on my desk. I just have to figure out how to sneak it past my Other Half. She's a gadget nerd too (why we're together), but more financially responsible than I am.

Hmmm, with all the brains available to us on this site, we should be able to work out a cheap version for flute enthusiasts....


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 12, 2019 12:30 am 
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an seanduine wrote:
Hmmm. J.L. Smith only wants 616 USD! You are right, Conical, it definitely does have a SteamPunk vibe. MusicMedic offers one for 425 USD, but not nearly so much SteamPunk. No surprise, the MusicMedic is out of stock. The UP pipers would have a field day with something like this when they are striving to balance their regs and drones. :D

Bob

Mine was more like the MusicMedic style, although not wood-grain. It was originally in a grey plastic electrical equipment box, but I've repackaged it to be able to add more things. Interesting that there are now two variants.

Essentially the box contains:
- a source of air (an aquarium pump)
- a pressure regulator (controlled by the knob)
- a combined flow gauge and needle valve (the perspex Dwyer floating ball flowmeter)
- the Magnehelic gauge.

The Magnehelic gauge is actually a bit of a luxury, as it largely parrots the reading on the Dwyer flowmeter. Essentially you set up enough pressure (the knob) and resistance (the needle valve) to set the open-ended flow to 1 SCFH and the Magnahelic to read 8" of water. Then plug it into the flute and it should drop to zero or at least less than 2 on the Magnahelic. You could make a really old-lab version using a manometer....


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 15, 2019 2:50 am 
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Now here's something interesting about this piccolo. Most flutes have some kind of metal plate or spring attached to the body underneath the tip of the key spring to allow the spring to work smoothly. Some cheaper 19th century flutes didn't have them, and you can see how the tip of the spring digs into the wood, sometimes enough to prevent the spring tip moving, keeping the key from closing. I've often had to excavate the depressions cut by the spring tip to give me room to install a plate. The spring inevitably works far better after the intervention.

Occasionally you'll find a flute that has only some of the key slots fitted with such plates. I've often wondered why not all or nothing? This might be a clue....

This piccolo is a bit different in having more "over the top" keys than our usual flutes. Normally only Short F goes "over the top", all the other keys are straight and run "down the sides". But because of the severely restricted real estate available on this tiny instrument, the Eb key and the G# key also run "over the top". So we have three of each type.

Interestingly, the three straight keys (Bb, C and Long F) do not have plates, whereas the three "over the top" keys all do. So now we have to be vigilant with other 19th century instruments to see if this applied to other flutes. If so, only the Short F is likely to have the plate.

But it's possible too that it's the shorter keys that are fitted with plates, as their shorter springs are going to be more likely to dig into than ride over the wood. In which case, we'd expect to see plates in probably this order, starting at most likely: Short F, then G#, Bb, Eb, C and, least likely, Long F.

Always good to lubricate the tips of your key springs regularly. Cork grease or any lubricant will help.
All the more so if your flute isn't fitted with plates!


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