Wooden flutes are a thing of beauty but my goodness they are temperamental. Irish wooden flute maintenance is vitally important to the life of your flute.
A well cared for flute will continue to produce a beautiful sound for years to come. A poorly maintained flute however will lose its tone and produce a wispy sound even in the hands of the most experienced flute player. Cracks and other damage can make a flute unplayable.
So how do you avoid these problems?
It’s actually very simple. A little TLC will go a long way to improving and even lengthening the life of your flute. Take care of it and it will take care of you, creating beautiful music and allowing your flute playing to excel. Let me tell you how.
I’ve written this blog post as a guide specifically for owners of Irish wooden flutes, to learn how to care for your instrument properly. Learn the dos, and more importantly, the don’ts of wooden flute maintenance.
I’ll teach you to identify the sounds of a damaged flute so you can listen out for cracks or other issues. You’ll learn how to clean and oil your flute – the right way.
Follow this expert guidance and your wooden flute will be in the best shape of its life. Your flute and your flute playing will thank you!
How to Store Your Flute
Let’s start with the basics.
Where and how you store your wooden flute is actually hugely important. Wood reacts to both temperature and humidity. You don’t want to store it anywhere that will be subject to extreme temperatures.
- Store your flute in its case in a cool, dry place.
- Treat your flute with kindness.
- Leave it on top of a radiator as an old friend (who shall remain nameless) once did. The heating was turned on, and the poor flute overheated and cracked from top to bottom. It was the worst flute injury I’ve ever encountered. The second worst damage I’ve ever seen was on a flute that had been left in a car overnight in sub zero temperatures. Are you noticing a trend?
- Carry it around unnecessarily outside of the case. I’ve repaired many a flute that’s had an unfortunate tumble or encounter with a hard surface, chipping the body. These unexpected knocks and bumps can be easily avoided by storing your flute in its case.
Easy. So what’s the next simple task?
How to Clean Your Irish Wooden Flute
Wooden flutes can and will rot if not maintained carefully. Fungi that thrive in damp, humid conditions can grow and feed in the wood. But how?
The condensation that builds up on the inside of your flute when you play it (yes it’s condensation, not spit!) can seep into the wood. This can cause the wood to expand and warp over time. It also provides the perfect tropical environment for fungus growth. This is why it’s important to mop the inside of the flute after playing!
Some flutes come with a cleaning rod included. If not, don’t worry, they’re easily acquired.
At McNeela Instruments we sell a separate Flute Maintenance Kit which includes everything you’ll need to care for your flute.
A typical cleaning rod is a thin wooden stick with a small hole at one end. To clean the inside of the bore, simply get a small piece of clean cloth and insert it through the hole at the end of the rod. You can then use the clothed rod to clean the interior of your flute. Easy.
The cloth should be an absorbent material. My personal suggestion would be cotton, or silk if you’re feeling fancy. Personally, I’ve put many an old cotton shirt to good use as cloth for cleaning my flutes.
You’ll need to be mindful of the conical bore. One end is naturally narrower than the other. Insert the cleaning rod at the wider end and be careful not to get the cloth stuck at the narrower end. (It’s happened to the best of us.) You should also take care to be gentle, so that the rod doesn’t scratch the inside of the flute.
If you find yourself at a session without your cleaning rod, simply cover the embouchure entirely with your mouth and blow into the flute forcefully. This will help to remove some of the condensation that has built up inside.
A word of caution however. Be mindful of fellow musicians’ pints when cleaning out your flute. Trad musicians are notorious for leaving their drinks on the floor at sessions. Alas, many a pint has been lost to its proximity to a flute player.
How to Oil Your Wooden Flute
Oil is the elixir of life for wooden flutes. It’s essential for their upkeep. While there are many types that should be avoided, grapeseed oil and almond oil are both safe to use. If you suffer from a nut allergy I’d advise sticking with grapeseed oil.
Please don’t try to use any other form of oil in their place. This can cause long term damage to your flute. Certain vegetable oils are suitable only for cooking food, not the maintenance of delicate wooden instruments.
Both almond oil and grapeseed oil can be purchased in health food stores or pharmacies. They sometimes contain added vitamin E. This is absolutely fine. It’s good for both your skin and the flute!
Oiling your flute will prevent your flute from drying out. This reduces the likelihood of cracks caused by the wood warping or splitting due to overly dry conditions. Please note, no amount of oil can repair a damaged flute. Prevention is easier than the cure!
Using either a cloth or your hands (almond and grapeseed oil are excellent moisturisers for dry skin) rub a few drops of oil into the body of the flute. Leave the small amount of oil to soak in and then wipe the flute with a dry cloth.
There are a few important things to keep in mind when oiling your flute:
- A little goes a long way. Use the almond or grapeseed oil sparingly. A small amount will do. Don’t oversaturate the flute. One or two drops is plenty!
- If you have a keyed wooden flute, be careful of the keys. They can be incredibly delicate. Make sure not to get oil on the key pads.
- Don’t oil the cork or joints as this can cause them to warp. (Cork grease can be used to safely lubricate tight joints.)
- Don’t oil your flute too often. Once a month max. The more frequently you play it, the less you’ll find it needs to be oiled.
You can however oil the inside of the bore. Almond and grapeseed oil are great for both the exterior and interior of your flute.
Simply attach another cloth to your cleaning rod (or have two separate cleaning rods for the different tasks), dampened with a little oil and run it through the inside of the flute.
Sometimes even the best cared for instruments can still need minor repairs. So what should you do if you find yourself in that situation?
How to Repair a Damaged Flute
Don’t. At least not yourself. Always seek professional advice before attempting to fix any damage to your flute.
You might encounter old battered and bruised flutes at a session, played by well worn veterans of traditional Irish music, with pieces of tape and string attached to prevent the flute from falling apart. Please don’t feel inspired to follow in their footsteps.
With so many talented flute makers and Irish wooden flute repair specialists available worldwide these days, there’s really no excuse for not having a damaged flute repaired responsibly. It’s quick and easy to contact an expert online and seek their advice.
Leave it to the Experts
You wouldn’t try to glue a broken arm back together, so treat your flute with the same level of care and kindness. Please don’t attempt to glue your own flute. Especially not with superglue. (I’m having flashbacks as I write this.)
At McNeela Instruments we’re always happy to answer any questions you may have and I promise we won’t judge! There’s no repair too daft. (See the tale of Radiator Rory above.)
But how do you know when to seek help?
Signs of Damage in Irish Wooden Flutes
Cracks can occur in even the best maintained instruments. Don’t worry if they do. They’re usually an easy fix.
Sometimes these hairline cracks are so small that you might hear them before you see them.
If your flute suddenly starts to produce an airy, breathy or fuzzy tone, chances are there’s a crack somewhere in the wood and air is leaking through it.
Occasionally wooden flutes can lose their tone as a result of being overly dry. Try oiling your flute first, and see if that improves the sound. Give it a few days to adjust to its slick, shiny new self.
If not, inspect your flute and see if you can find the damage. This can be difficult due to the natural grain and texture of the wood.
A likely spot is either at the bottom of the headjoint or the top of the body, where the two pieces meet. Look for a crack in the cork or joint. A lot of natural wear and tear occurs here when assembling and dismantling the flute. Using cork grease on the joints will help to prevent this.
On keyed wooden flutes, a change in tone can also be an indication that one of your keys is sticking. You should check your keys on a regular basis to make sure all the pins are working correctly.
Whatever the damage, an expert should be able to repair it. I’ve brought many a flute back from the brink.
A New Lease of Life
Follow these steps for expert flute maintenance and I promise your Irish wooden flute will be in the best condition you’ve ever seen or heard it.
Sometimes however, an old wooden flute might well have come to the end of its life. Too much wear and tear can affect the sound an old flute produces and it can’t always be fixed.
If this is the case then don’t despair. There are countless other flutes out there waiting to be played. After all, your old flute would want you to move on and be happy with another!
Here at McNeela Instruments we stock a range of house-made flutes crafted in our own workshop, as well as flutes by other master Irish flute makers. Why not check out my online flute store and see if one catches your eye?
We’ve been making and selling flutes for over 40 years. So whether it’s repairs or a replacement you’re after, you’ve come to the right Irish flute specialists.