Monday, December 17, 2012

Rachel Baker

Our Repair Technician, Rachel Baker, welcomes us into her shop every week to help us with this blog.  She answers all of our questions, explains everything thoroughly, and is graciously undisturbed when we snap seemingly endless pictures of her at work.  As the year comes to a close, we would like to send out a HUGE thank you to Rachel for helping us with this blog.  However, we are not the only ones who appreciate Rachel's hard work and dedication.  We often times receive thank you posts to her on our Facebook page and via e-mail.  One customer mailed us such a nice letter that we just had to share.  Take a look below, and help us in thanking Rachel for her amazing work!

Rachel finishing a kingwood Custom piccolo.
Rachel explaining the alto flute repadding process to us.

Rachel polishing a headjoint.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Key Engraving - Part II

Last month, we posted on the subject of key engraving -- specifically, that it is best to have it done when you send in your flute for an overhaul.  We recently had the pleasure of meeting with Weiling Zhou, one of our flute finishers and engravers.  He explained the process to us and even engraved part of a key to demonstrate!

Weiling has been engraving for 10 years.  The very first time he engraved s flute, he used a very small screwdriver.  He gave the flute back to the VP of Production here at Powell, Rob Viola, who liked Weiling's work and asked him to do more.  At that point, Weiling felt that he needed to research the engraving process more, so he went straight to the library and checked out several books.  Rob then provided him with an engraving bowl vase (which, by the way, weights 20 pounds!), and he was ready to begin.  He has now acquired about 50 engraving tools, and each tool is used for a different line.

He also has a book of engraving patterns he drew, although he has made many custom designs for people.  Custom patterns can be especially difficult on lip plates due to their complex shape -- on which the pattern must fit!  One of the most popular engraving requests he receives is for bird patterns.  Weiling has several books with photos of birds that he uses for examples and to guide his engraving.  When it comes to birds, Weiling tells us that engraving images of them from the side is easier, and some birds (like the eagle) are very distinctive.  Because engravings do not have color, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a blue jay or cardinal -- so it's best to stick with something simple that looks good in black and white.  Initials are another popular engraving request, which Weiling tells us takes about 10 minutes.  Engraving a key cup takes roughly 40 minutes.

So, how exactly does the process work?  Weiling showed us with the example of a key cup.  He marks lines within the cup to help as guides and then sketches in the shapes or patterns to see, roughly, how they will fit and work best.  The engraving bowl vase can be adjusted to hold headjoints, barrels, and anything he is engraving.  When it comes to a smaller part like a key, the key is first "stuck" to an adapter with a waxy substance known as pitch.  He then takes the appropriate tool for the cut he is going to make and begins.  Because the bowl rotates, it makes it much easier to engrave something round like a key.  Each line is cut with a single stroke, and these lines are engraved in a series to make the pattern.  To engrave texture, he uses more pointed tools and lightly taps them into the metal with a small mallet.

We were quite mesmerized watching Weiling create these patterns and textures all completely by hand.  He did mention that it is best to engrave solid metals because engraving through plating causes rust.  So, if you've wondered whether hand engraving is really done by hand, well, we can see that it is!  If your flute is not plated and you are interested in having engraving done, make sure to contact our Director of Service and Quality, Rebecca Eckles, and she would be happy to help.  She can be reached at or by calling (978) 344-5160.

Weiling prepares to engrave...
The adjustable engraving bowl (seen here with a barrel).
Weiling heats some pitch (wax) to hold the key.
Key is now stuck to an adapter for the engraving bowl.
Adjusting engraving bowl with key in place.
Birds are a popular pattern.
Initials are popular as well.
Guidelines on key -- key is held on a block of pitch.
Patterns sketched on key cup.
Cutting the lines of the pattern.
Close-up of the process...
Sample pattern completed for us!
Different tool tapped with mallet for texture.
Pattern with texture!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The G Disc

It has several different names, but it all serves the same purpose -- the G disc, G donut, or high E facilitator.  Some flutes have a G disc, some have a split-E mechanism, and some flutes have neither.  We recently saw two Powell flutes in the repair shop with G discs that had different shapes.  The "donut" shape is an older style, and the "crescent" shape is the design that Powell switched to about 20 years ago.  The G disc helps facilitate the high E by limiting the amount of air that comes out of the tone hole -- because the key cup is open when you are playing the high E.  If you have a split-E mechanism, when it is engaged, the mechanism lowers the key cup slightly to help limit the amount of air coming out of the tone hole.  Reducing the amount of air coming through the tone hole via a G-disc or split-E mechanism is often times referred to as "venting" the high E.

As mentioned above, some flutes do not have any additional type of device or mechanism to facilitate the high E, because it is really a matter of the player's preference.  However, if one is in place, your flute would either have a G disc or a split-E mechanism -- not both.  If your flute does not have any type of high E facilitator and you are interested in getting a G disc put in, that is not a problem at all.  The repair shop at Powell can add one to your flute for roughly $70.  We realize there is debate on the G disc.  Many people find it very helpful in venting a high E.  In the case of intonation, some people find that it is an improvement, and others have the opposite view -- yet there are so many additional variables in what can effect intonation, so it all depends on the player and his/her equipment.  If you are interested in having a G disc installed, or if you have any additional questions, feel free to contact Rachel Baker in our repair shop at, and she'd be happy to help!

Red arrow points to older G disc design, yellow arrow points to current design.
Yellow arrow points to key that has a G disc in the tone hole.

With the G disc in place, the yellow arrow points to the open area of the tone hole. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Alto Repadding

We stopped by Rachel's repair office here at Powell and were pretty excited to see something different -- an alto flute!  It's not every day that this instrument crosses her bench, but we lucked out, because she was in the midst of repadding the instrument.  Straubinger pads are not an option on the alto, so the Powell SonarĂ© alto uses felt pads.  Brand new felt pads have never been in the key cup, so once they are screwed into place, the skin can wrinkle a bit from the new amount of tension.  How does one solve this problem?  Well, oddly enough, it is quite similar to a wrinkled piece of clothing -- it gets ironed!  Rachel has a special "pad iron" to iron the pads.  She takes it, dips it in water, and then uses it to wet the pad skin.  She then heats the pad iron with an alcohol lamp and irons the wet pad with the heated iron.  This is repeated on every pad.  Since the pads are already wet, Rachel then clamps them to get an impression of the tone hole crown on the pad.  She lets it dry overnight with the clamps in place, and then in the morning, the impressions will be set.  The impressions help Rachel seat the pads, because she can see where they may be a little closing too lightly or too heavily on the tone hole -- and then she can shim the pads accordingly.

As usual, if your flute needs repadding, it is best to take it to a professional.  Obviously, there are many steps in the process from taking a brand new pad out of the bag to making it fit and function perfectly in the cup!

Getting ready -- pad iron is the metal device to the left of the flute.

Dipping the iron in water.

Going to wet the pad.
Heating the iron after wetting the pad.
Ironing out wrinkled pad skin with heated iron.
Clamping pads to get impressions.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Key Engraving

Have you been thinking about having the keys on your flute engraved?  If so, you might be wondering how much that would cost -- and when the best time to do this would be.  We recently caught up with Rachel Baker, our Powell Repair Technician, to discuss this topic.

Rachel sees many flutes cross her bench for overhauls.  She said that sending in your flute for an overhaul would be the perfect time to have keys engraved.  During the overhaul, "everything is apart," so the keys are off the flute and easily accessible individually.  She also told us that key engraving is perfectly safe -- it only involves the surface of the keys, so the keys would not be damaged in any way.  Why would one choose the engraving option?  Well, in addition to aesthetics, Rachel told us that sometimes it's helpful for flute players whose fingers tend to slip on the keys.

We've featured photos of one of our engraver's work here in this post.  He has a standard set of patterns, although Rachel says it might be possible to have a custom design if you have something special in mind.  Our engraver is flexible!  How much would this cost?  Well, engraving a full set of silver keys would cost around $1500, and engraving a full set of gold keys would cost around $2200.  So, if you are thinking about this option, it is certainly possible -- and easiest to do when you send your flute in for an overhaul.  As always, feel free to contact our repair shop if you have any questions!

Keys are removed for an overhaul -- perfect time for engraving.
Close-up on a 14K engraved key.
Close-up on a key section.
Another view of a 14K engraved key set.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Retrofit C#

Here at Powell, we're often asked if it is possible to retrofit a C# trill to a flute that did not originally have this option.  It is possible, although it requires work to the body of the flute -- which can certainly take longer than an ordinary C.O.A. or overhaul.  So, if the body requires work, and a new tone hole is added, will it affect the scale?  Will there be any changes to response and weight?

We asked our Vice President of Production, Rob Viola, and he answered these questions for us.  Rob shared the following:

The scale of the instrument is determined by the placement of the tone holes on the tubing, so the addition of a tone hole does not change the scale unless it requires other tone holes to move.  In the case of a C# trill key, the position of the C# tone hole does not require making any adjustments to the scale.  The addition of a tone hole does change the response of the instrument by adding more resistance inside the tube and weight to the outside. 

So, although it is a complex operation that could leave you without your flute for a longer period of time, it is possible.  However, any change to the body of a flute will change it's response -- as Rob mentioned above.  Understanding the changes ahead of time certainly helps -- and if you are interested in the C# trill but want to go a different route, you can always upgrade to a new flute...

*Note, the C# trill in these photos was not retrofit (we didn't have a flute with a retrofit C# in the shop to photograph...)

Thursday, November 1, 2012


We were in the flute finishing area, and the topic of "spuds" came up.  Although it may seem as if we were talking about potatoes, we were actually talking about a part of the key cup.  The "pad spud" is the part of the key cup where you secure the screw that holds the pad -- because obviously, the screw has to go into something!  This spud is a very small piece of metal as you can see from the photos below.  The spud can come loose after a while, especially on a key cup with an older solder joint.  There's actually quite a bit of tension on the spud from the screw and pad pulling against it when the flute is assembled.  If the spud comes unsoldered, the pad could then fall out.

When you send your flute to Powell for an overhaul, all pad spuds are resoldered as a precaution.  It's not good to wait until the spud is loose to have it resoldered.  With all the work that goes into an overhaul, it seems logical to make sure that these spuds are solidly in place as well.

Currently, pad spuds are part of the key cup with Powell flutes.  This started in the early 2000s -- toward the end of the 2100 series.  Powells with serial numbers 11,000 and above will have pad spuds that are part of the cup.  Our repair technician reminded us that this is a good thing because it is "one less thing to worry about!"  However, if your flute has separate spuds, and they come loose -- do not worry.  Send your flute in, and our repair technician will take apart the key and resolder the old spud (if you still have it) or replace it with a new one.  As she says, "Don't worry -- it's definitely not the end of the world!"  We were happy to hear that!

Pad spud (upside down).
Blue arrows point to pad spuds soldered in place in key cups.
New key cup with built-in pad spud