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Flute making Apprentices
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Author:  AaronFW [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 6:02 am ]
Post subject:  Flute making Apprentices

While I myself am not able to commit myself to a flute making apprenticeship, I like to keep track of who current flute makers are and I am curious, do you guys know anything about up and coming flute makers? I'm curious because other than Geoffrey Ellis and a few others, a lot of the makers that I am familiar with had started their flute making several years ago and are nearing the point of retiring. I am interested to know who and how many people might be carrying on the art in the next decade.

For example, maybe Casey Burns can comment, but I saw that in his about page (last updated 2010) someone wrote: "[Casey and Nancy's] daughter Lila, who loves music and theater, has begun her training as a flute maker." Is she still making flutes, is she learning how to make keys? Does anyone know?

On a page last updated on 2005, someone wrote that Terry McGee had "...his first trainee flutemaker...". Does anyone know what became of that apprenticeship? Were there any other?

Author:  s1m0n [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 6:14 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

Interesting question. I suspect that, the Sweetheart dynasty aside, the next generation of fluthiers is going to learn as the last did: by striking out on their own. I think it's proven that it's possible to make a living as a flutemaker, but there's little enough excess to finance an apprentice. And maybe the field isn't lucrative enough to make paid apprenticeships economically viable. So people are just going to hack through on their own until they gain enough skill to go pro. Which is how the boomers we revere all started.

Author:  awildman [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 8:31 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

Even an unpaid apprenticeship costs the maker a lot of time and money. As Simon said, the nature of the business doesn't lend itself towards much of that. I would think that most apprenticeships are actually acquaintanceships. A few hours here and there together, that sort of thing.

Author:  Geoffrey Ellis [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 8:38 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

I've had a number of people inquire about apprenticeships over the last 20 years, but it's a pretty rare request. I honestly believe that the age of apprenticeship has passed, for the most part.

The internet plays a part, because information of all kinds is so easy to access. Fifty years ago if you wanted to learn how to be a flute maker you had to find a flute maker to teach you, or you had to be extremely motivated and good at reverse engineering :-) I started making flutes in 1997, so it was post-internet but pre-YouTube. There was some information online, but it was not anything as plentiful as today. So I ended up teaching myself. I scraped together whatever bits of technical info I could find and then just did a lot of trial and error. I reinvented the wheel a LOT along the way but I didn't know how else to proceed.

Personally I find the notion of trying to train someone rather daunting on a couple of levels. It's time consuming, first of all. I had a friend spend a day in my shop at one point, and I was going to teach him how to operate my gun drilling rig so that he might possibly work for me on occasion. It was an eye opener! When you do something every day for years it is easy to loose touch with "beginner's mind" and trying to convey skills that have been acquired over years--many of them intuitive--is surprisingly tricky. It didn't work out.

And then there is the economic aspect. Teaching is time consuming and involves giving away hard-won knowledge. What is the benefit to the flute maker? Unless the apprentice is either paying the flute maker some sort of tuition, or agreeing to work for free for a number of years, there is not much motivation for the artisan to take the trouble. Some makers, such as Terry McGee, are also preservationists of flute making knowledge. Terry is always willing to help (he assisted me very generously when I started making Irish flutes) and he has spent years making his website into an amazing resource for others to enjoy but he is really the exception and not the rule. I don't mind pointing new makers in the right direction in the same way that Terry does, but I've had a startling number of inquirers write to me blatantly asking me to simply e-mail them all of my shop notes, measurements, etc. so that they could make (and sometimes sell) their own flutes. That always leaves me nonplussed. I've spent thousands of hours figuring this stuff out and then someone who clearly wants instant gratification actually asks me to give it all away for free so that they don't have to do the hard work.

Therein lies the difficulty with an apprentice. In days of old, the apprentice spent years with the artisan, exchanging useful labor for knowledge before striking out on their own. How would that work in the modern age? An artisan might spend valuable time teaching an apprentice, who then moves next door and hangs their shingle. It's a dilemma. I think that passing on knowledge is important, but making a living is also a reality. I work alone and teaching would be a massive time-suck with questionable economic benefits, unless I also had a son or daughter who was interested in the business. If there were some sort of contract between the artisan and apprentice it might solve the dilemma, but it's going to be a rare individual who would be willing to actually undertake being an apprentice on terms that were also useful to the artisan.

Author:  Casey Burns [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 9:49 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

My daughter never pursued flute making, instead becoming a musician on her own terms as well as a graphic and motion designer.

I have gotten several requests over the years for apprenticeships. Practicalities and the reality of needing to survive, keep up with my queue and the fact that I have a tiny workshop and only one set of rather idiosyncratic and cranky tools has always resulted in a resounding "no" to these requests. On the other hand I have done a fair bit of demonstration of techniques, or even taught someone the basics over the span of a few days - similar to how I was taught initially. Even these experiences were fraught with logistical problems of having to get a bunch of work out of the way, choreography in workshop and home during, and such.

There are also legal requirements for apprenticeships as they are considered employees in many states, and must be paid a minimum wage. There are also insurance considerations which are exacerbated around sharp tools that can injure.

I have gotten the impression that some seeking apprenticeships would prefer to try flute making without having to invest in the machinery and tooling, before they fully commit to it. In many cases they have no experience with tools or flute playing for that matter. Their hazy idea of an apprenticeship may also be a holdover when these were common in the workplace. There are other options, such as schools that teach wind instrument making such as at the London College of Furniture but I haven't heard of anyone pursuing that after I less than enthusiastically mentioned it. Someone who wants to pursue flute making will have to do it out of passion, and pursue avenues on his or her own the way many of us had to. Online resources in some ways make this easier to do than in previous decades - but then there is more information and misinformation to wade through.


Author:  AaronFW [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 11:49 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

Thanks for sharing your perspectives, all of you. (If anyone else has more perspectives on the matter, feel free to continue to share.)

I suppose my thoughts of the apprenticeship idea were tainted by the fact that I had started learning bamboo flute making from someone who did it as a hobby rather than someone who did it as a living. That setting avoided a lot of the legal and financial issues.

Part of my hazy idea of apprenticeship is also just the idea of trying to learn from those who are respected in the field; but as you guys pointed out, this is a logistically difficult and somewhat unrealistic idea.

My current mode of operation is apparently more practical: I'm trying to make sure that I can become a good flute-player; I'm trying to continue to gather information about flute-making; and, I am trying to make sure that I have good flute-specimens. Then, if I myself am able to become a flute-maker in the future, I will have good foundations.

Author:  Geoffrey Ellis [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 12:05 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

AaronFW wrote:
I am trying to make sure that I have good flute-specimens. Then, if I myself am able to become a flute-maker in the future, I will have good foundations.

Possibly the most important part for any would-be flute maker. Learning some of the basic woodworking (or bambooworking) skills is fairly straightforward. You don't need a lot of fancy or expensive tools. For someone who has no background with tools, a basic woodworking class at a local community college will probably get you there. Then it is just a matter of studying good examples of flute craft. When I wanted to learn to make xiao (Chinese end blown flutes) I started with buying a really high quality xiao and trying to copy it. Understanding flowed from there.

One of the most educational phases of my career took place when a customer gifted me one of Patrick Olwell's bamboo flutes in D. Pat's flutes are consistently excellent, but this particular specimen is a gem. I still can't believe how good it is for a simple bamboo flute (though in truth there is nothing "simple" about it--it is an organic mystery with a bore that defies measurement). Figuring out why it was so good took a long time and I made dozens (possibly hundreds) of similar flutes along the way to figuring it out. I'm still in awe of his skill in selecting and utilizing bamboo so effectively. So a lot of great flute making involves standing on the shoulders of giants. It's how human beings pass along knowledge. Ask any master artisan how they learned and they are going to say "by copying!"

And don't overlook collaborating with highly skilled players. I'm only a so-so flute player, but I'm lucky to be acquainted with some top-tier pro players who have given me valuable feedback. If you can cultivate a relationship like that it's very helpful and will speed your process.

Author:  Casey Burns [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 3:30 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

Pat's secret and mine for that matter is simply to make as many flutes as possible. Like anything musical, one gets better when one practices a lot.


Author:  Geoffrey Ellis [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 4:16 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

Casey Burns wrote:
Pat's secret and mine for that matter is simply to make as many flutes as possible. Like anything musical, one gets better when one practices a lot.


Amen! Nothing like practice.

Author:  chas [ Mon Dec 04, 2017 8:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

It may depend on what you consider an apprentice, but the first time I visited the Olwell shop, Kara Lochridge was working there. I'm sure she wasn't an apprentice in the sense of being daily instructed in all aspects of flute making, but I'm also sure that she was learning an awful lot.

Author:  Dan A. [ Tue Dec 05, 2017 6:56 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

My chances of succeeding as a professional flutemaker are comparable to those a snowball has of long-term survival in Hell. Were that not the case, here's what I'd do:

I would refer to this thread often, as lots of good advice has been given. I would find out what tools I needed, and ensure I had the funds and space they'd require. Though I am not completely new to woodworking, I am very rusty, so I'd look into a refresher course. After I had the basics down, I'd study flutes extensively and acquire my tools. In my case, I'd have to at least consult with someone eho has a head for business, which I am lacking. Then (and I'm probably oversimplifying this point) I would find a source for the raw materials and, using inexpensive wood, start making flutes. As Geoffrey said, it would be a lot of trial and error and reinventing the wheel. I wouldn't think of using the woods a quality instrument is constructed of until I had a degree of competency.

Two of the best points are about studying flutes and collaborating with skilled musicians. I can provide two analogs, even if they are apples-to-oranges. When I was going through Aviation Maintenance Technician school, I was told that I was unlikely to weld an aircraft component. However, I had to be able to recognize characteristics of good, bad, and compromised welds. As for collaborations, Leo Fender was not a guitar player, but his instruments have had a lasting and undeniable impact on the guitar world.

I hope I've been at least somewhat insightful and did not just ramble excessively.

Author:  Geoffrey Ellis [ Tue Dec 05, 2017 8:50 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

I think that anyone's chance at succeeding as a professional flute maker are pretty good if they are driven to succeed. As Casey pointed out in an earlier post, you need to have a passion for it. Like most art forms, you don't get into it for the money, so even the most successful flute makers are only likely to have a decent living doing something that they enjoy (and who can ask for more?). But if you enjoy it, stick with it, and you never loose the impulse to want to improve you likely succeed.

My friend and collaborator Jon Walpole (paddler on these forums) does flute making as a "hobby" (though he manages to spend a goodish amount of time at it despite having a full time teaching career) and he is totally passionate about it. As a result he has acquired knowledge and skills that will rival most professional makers, and he achieved this over the course of years working the odd evenings and weekends. The passion was the key. At this point he could set up as a pro maker anytime that he chooses--his stuff is amazing.

So if you have a real drive to learn about something, you'll figure it out. An apprenticeship would be a cool way to compress time--it might save you some years of trial and error--but I'm not sure that the trial and error part is not important in itself. I believe that the nature of how we learn something is different based upon whether someone just tells us how to do it versus us figuring it out for ourselves by trying different approaches.

Author:  paddler [ Tue Dec 05, 2017 11:53 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

Well, one thing I have learned so far is that making good flutes from scratch requires a huge investment of time, energy, money, and space -- much more so than you might expect at the outset! There is no turn-key solution. Its not just a matter of buying a lathe and a few tools. Many small, specialized tools, such as reamers and work-holding gadgets, need to be made yourself, and some of these need quite high precision. So metal working skills are a major hurdle to overcome in addition to the normally anticipated wood turning skills. I have found that I use my metal lathe much more than my wood lathe. I've also put in many hours on my milling machine. Fortunately, there is a lot of information readily available on the Internet nowadays for basic machinist and wood turning skills, if you spend enough time researching it. And there are classes available in most localities.

There are also flute makers email lists, and sites like this, that are frequented by some of the best flute makers in the world. Some are very generous in sharing their hard earned knowledge, which is priceless. Nevertheless, it is intimidating establishing a flute-making workshop and getting started learning how to do everything safely. Safety is definitely an area where its best to learn from the mistakes of others, rather than your own! Being able to serve an apprenticeship would definitely help in this respect, but it would be a major pain (and risk) for an established maker to train someone new, and I find it difficult to imagine a scenario in which it would be worthwhile for them.

Acquiring a good stock of well-seasoned wood also takes many years, unless you are particularly fortunate. Then its especially painful when you make the inevitable mistakes that cause you to throw flutes away. The pain can help you learn from these mistakes, but the material cost for wood, even expensive woods like cocuswood, is relatively insignificant compared to the capital investments and the labor that goes into making your first few flutes. I've put a lot of time and effort into harvesting, milling, and seasoning wood for flute making. This can save money compared to buying instrument-grade wood, but I'd hardly argue that it is cost-effective when counting the labor costs and time requirements.

I've learned a lot by working with damaged antique instruments. You can start out with inexpensive instruments that have no collector's value (think Nach Meyer etc), and try to improve their performance. You can experiment without worrying too much about damaging something rare or valuable. As your skills, tools and knowledge improve you can take on more challenging projects, working on flutes that are seemingly hopelessly destroyed, and trying to restore them to their former glory. The more you aim for perfection, the more you will learn about the little details that make all the difference. As you work with more instruments and learn to reverse engineer their secrets you can begin to copy them and incorporate features you like into your own instruments. By this stage you will be doing a lot of bore profiling and making a lot of reamers. Working this way, with respect and a careful eye for detail, is like serving an apprenticeship with some of the best 19th Century makers, long after they are dead and gone.

Author:  AaronFW [ Thu Dec 07, 2017 5:53 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices


Thanks for your contribution. I had not given much thought to the metal-working aspects. As a small favor, would you (or one of the other flute makers) post a picture of a reamer? For me, since I have made bamboo flutes, the idea of making a conical bore is somewhat an enigma. I haven't had much success finding more information about reamers in the past so it would help to know directly from one of you guys.

Also... Are any of the email lists currently active? I've looked at a few that Terry McGee mentioned on his website and they looked rather... inactive. Or, at least it looked as though not much had talked about in the email lists over the last few years. If some are active, what ones are more active than others?

Author:  mvidal01 [ Thu Dec 07, 2017 7:43 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Flute making Apprentices

>There are also flute makers email lists, and sites like this, that are frequented by some of the best flute makers in the world.

What lists and sites are good for people wanting to learn about flute making?

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