Tree Tunes –
I mentioned in one of my previous articles that there was nothing quite like eating from a bowl you have carved and using a spoon you have whittled as a great experience – I was wrong there is something better.
From taking a branch of a tree at 9.30am carving and whittling, during the day to blowing your first haunting notes by 3.30 is truly hair raising in its excitement, I was laughing with pleasure and as giddy as a child with those notes.
Making a musical instrument and playing it is really very special and something everyone should experience.
The host for my flute making workshop is Steve Frost of Nightstar Flutes in Northamptonshire. Steve is as excited and committed to his craft as any man who has given up much more lucrative careers in boat building and engineering to pursue the purity of a craft and his passion for the music produced.
He first encountered the Native American flute was in 2002 when he met Raymond Redfeather of Heartwood Flutes. Raymond is an Ojibwa Indian and flute maker, who was giving a series of talks in the UK. From the moment he first heard the haunting, mystical sounds of the earth, stars, trees and wind he was captivated, enthralled and driven to perfect his techniques for making them himself.
Since becoming a full time flute maker in 2004 Steve has established a reputation as a fine craftsman and talented musician often being asked to play at wedding and other spiritual gatherings. He attends many shows and meetings selling his flutes, demonstrating and holding flute playing workshops. More recently Steve has been offering workshops for you to make your own flute which is why I joined him on a sunny Autumnal day.
He explained that there are many theories and stories about the history of these flutes from communicating with the spirits, giving voice to ones prayers and wooing ones hearts desire. They were made by the men of the tribe as a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. Crafted from local trees with respect for nature and capturing their mysticism and spirituality each flute will embrace the four elements of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water.
Earth- From which the tree has grown
Wind – blown through to make the tune
Fire – is used to burn the hole to tune the instrument
Water – from the moisture in your breath
With these elements and a little practice Steve says that I will be playing the tune that is in my heart within a month.
Making the Body
In Steves workshop there are many woods from Pine, Ash , Hazel, Hawthorn and even some bog Oak which is more like Bakelite than wood. Most are at about 18% moisture which is probably the ambient moisture of the workshop as most of the wood has been there a while. There are many branches that people have brought from a favorite tree in their garden as commissions for a flute to be made.
It is recommended that the wood is not freshly cut green but matured for 6-12 months depending on variety.
The basic technique is to split a branch in two, hollow it out, glue it back together, create a voice and tune it. So we started by cleaving a straight length of 50mm diameter Hazel with an axe which ran as true as you could have asked for. A branch of Ash was much less straight with many knots, we felt it was prudent to cut with a frame saw.
With the branch split we need to progress with some speed as it is best to get the two halves glued together within an hour to ensure the integrity of the flute and prevent the halves warping or drying at different rates.
The flute is marked out – the mouth piece will remain solid and needs to be 2-3 inches long, then comes the slow air chamber again of 2-3inches, which will be hollowed out with gouge and spoon knife leaving a wall of 4-5 mm. Next comes the bridge which is the barrier between the two chambers of approx ¾ inch followed by the sound chamber which will run the rest of the length of the blank, again removing the waste with gauges spoon knives. ￼
To add some authenticity to the experience I used a Crook knife styled on a Native American design made by Ben Orford. I found it superb for the task giving a good cut but also acting as a great guide to the shape of the hollow.
Having chosen upper and lower halves, two holes are drilled in the upper half to indicate where the sound holes will go later.
After gluing up we will have no access to the slow air chamber and it will be exposed to the moisture from our breath. We therefore give the chamber a good coverage of beeswax as a barrier. After careful spreading of Evostick exterior waterproof adhesive (much easier than Birch bark glue in the time available) the branch is re assembled and clamped for 1-2 hours depending on the ambient temperature.
For those of you who to spot the differences in some pictures we are working on two flutes at the same time with the Ash and Hazel flutes being pictured at different stages.
Creating the Voice
After a delightful lunch we are ready to create a voice. Firstly I debark the branch, which in the case of the Ash was very necessary due to a few bugs, using a draw knife and spokeshave to a state I would call semi finished. The Hazel is more delicate so we used a potato peeler, a really handy and very safe tool for taking delicate slivers of thin bark off (tip for youngsters with delicate fingers). The mouth piece is drilled with a 6mm bit using a brace and the area reduced and shaped to a comfortable mouthpiece
A flat section is created over the bridge area which spans the two sound holes and the bridge ensuring that a block will fit perfectly flat when fitted later.￼
The sound holes are marked out being no more than 1/2rd of the bore wide and 1/3rd deep ie a fairly small rectangle with the pilot hole in the centre. We heat an old square edge screwdriver (or other suitable metal tool) until cherry red and quickly burn through the top to the dimensions of the hole, cleaning the corners into as sharp a rectangle as possible.
A channel is now carefully chiseled out between the two holes from 2mm at the far end to zero leading into the slow air chamber. A few sloping cuts to the far Sound hole sloping back on top and down underneath completes the shape to create base note of this instrument.
With all of the dust and chippings shaken and dragged from the sound chamber temporary block is put in place with an elastic band for now.
Steve knows from experience that this is a very special moment and with great grace gently asks you to raise your flute to your lips and gentle blow !!! What a thrill to hear a deep, vibrant note with an ethereal quality from something you’ve made, it really is awe inspiring, a spine tingling moment.
From experience Steve said that mine was E – 20% flat and when measured on a tuning device he was spot on. Cutting half an inch off the length brought this to E, the key of my flute.
Tuning the notes
Once you have a flute of a given length you can measure from the sound block to the end which starts your adventure with maths and a hot iron. We are making a 5 note pentatonic flute which will have 5 finger holes for this description we will call 1-5 from the bottom.
Hole 1 is 1/3rd of the way up, hole 3 is half the way up, with hole 2 in the middle of hole 1 & 3
Hole 4 is 2/3rd of the way up, with hole five being (the distance between hole 2 & 3 less 4mm) towards the mouthpiece.
This formula works for any length of flute giving the spacing for a natural minor pentatonic scale. My flute plays E,G,A,B,D.E.
It is good practice to start at the bottom and deal with one hole at a time, firstly drilling a pilot hole, then a 6mm hole ready for burning the exact dimensions to the note required. This is undertaken with a cherry red conical iron. Taking it deeper after testing the sound until the correct is achieved. Only then do you move on to the next hole with its pilot.
When all five holes are complete you can play a full scale and a tune!!
If you wish to locate the sixth hole (as I have on the Hazel flute) this is equidistant between holes 3 & 4. If you don’t want to use this note you simply wrap it in a leather strap or keep it covered with your finger.
Depending on the finish you require it really is your choice of how fine you go. As I was making a rustic branch flute I used a scraper and a fine knife followed by beeswax rubbed in with wire wool. Once dry and polished up this gave a lovely luster.
The sound block is secured with a buffalo hide strap to keep it in the desired position. The idea is that you will now spend many hour at home whittling and carving it into a figure (known as a fetish) mostly of animals such as Buffalo, Bears and Eagles.
Now that’s the tricky part and another story !