Thursday, December 12, 2013

What's in the Drawer, Part II - Steels, Etc.

Last week, we visited the repair shop and were mesmerized by the terrific multi-drawer organizing unit our repair technician, Rachel Baker, has for many of her supplies.  We wanted to know what else might be in there, and what all the supplies are used for -- so we picked another drawer this week to investigate...

We found a drawer full of steels and cork assembly parts (washers and nuts, specifically).  What are all these for?  Well, it turns out that they have many uses and have been collected over time.  The steels may be used to replace steels on older flutes, because new steels would not fit.  As the steels wear with use inside the mechanism tubing, the tubing can expand slightly, so steels that are made to fit today's flutes are (in general) too small to fit in an older flute.  Steels certainly can wear down over time, so the ones in this drawer will become new steels for older flutes.  These new steels will help the mechanism feel better and have less "play" (excess motion).  Steels in older flutes may also need to be replaced because they are susceptible to corrosion (since they were not made from stainless steel).  Finally, the steels in the drawer may also be used to fit keys on older flutes -- especially keys that are bent.  If the key is bent and the existing steel does not need to be replaced, the steels in the drawer are particularly handy for the process (because you don't want to bend the existing steel in the mechanism).

The cork assembly nuts and washers came from cork assemblies with cork stem plates that could not be used.  The cork stem plate is what you see when you look down into your headjoint.  It is usually very shiny -- sometimes so shiny that you can see the reflection of your eye looking back at you!  So, when these plates come in, Rachel will try to polish them.  But, if they are simply too worn to be polished, or if they have some sort or mark of visible solder point, she will removed the washer and nut from the top of the assembly and keep them.  Those washers and nuts are what you see in the drawer.  Why keep these?  Again, they might become replacement parts to fit cork assemblies on older flutes.  Also, she tells us that sometimes, people simply lose parts.  In these cases, it is very helpful to have a stash of extra parts that will fit!

Close-up on the drawer.
Close-up and comparison of one cork stem place that is too old to be shined up like the one above it.
Visible solder mark in the middle of this (older) plate.
Nut and washer can be salvaged!
Multiple cork assemblies from older flutes.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Cork Drawer

We stopped in to see Powell's Repair Technician, Rachel Baker, earlier this week.  As usual, she was working on COAs and overhauls, but we happened to see one very interesting drawer open in her supply organizer...  It was a drawer full of corks of all different shapes and sizes.  What are all these for?  We had to find out, so we asked her!

Rachel said that corks are used in different places and for different purposes on flutes and piccolos.  She went through five "categories" for us:
1) Tenon corks:  These are found on piccolos and wooden flutes.  A tenon cork is a strip of cork that surrounds the tenon completely.  It's used to hold joints together.
2) Bumper corks:  Bumper corks are found on the D# key and trill keys.  A bumper cork is a piece of cork under the key that keeps the key from hitting the body.
3) Adjustment corks:  Adjustment corks are very small, thin pieces of cork that are used to help the keys work together.  They are found more often on pinless flutes because of the way a pinless mechanism functions.
4) Piccolo tail corks:  Piccolo tail corks are small, narrow pieces of cork that are affixed to the key tails on piccolos.  They control key height and keep the tail from hitting the body.
5) Headjoint corks:  Probably the first cork that comes to mind when we think about flutes.  These are larger, cylindrical pieces of cork in the headjoint.  Their purpose is to seal the air, and their placement controls intonation between octaves.
The various corks mentioned above are actually all the same -- it's just that the cork is cut into different shapes and sizes depending on what the cork will be used for on the flute or piccolo.  Obviously, a sheet of cork is easiest to use when making corks for tenons, key tails, and adjustments, but it would not work well for a headjoint cork!  You can see the different shapes and sizes in the photos below.

Drawer of corks -- all different shapes and sizes.
Another drawer -- these are mostly used for piccolos.
Corks for different purposes.  Left to right: headjoint, piccolo tail, bumper, tenon, adjustment.
Large sheet of cork can be cut into smaller pieces for various uses.

Friday, November 22, 2013


If you've ever heard the term "swedging" from your repair technician and wondered what that meant, we are here to answer that question!  We stopped in to see Repair Technician, Rachel Baker, and ask her about the process.

With normal wear and tear, mechanism tubing loosens.  Extra motion in the mechanism caused by this loosening is what is known as "play."  You can read more about "play" in a previous post here at  When there is too much play, the mechanism can actually move from side to side.  To tighten the mechanism back up to where it should be, your repair technician will "swedge" the mechanism tubing.

Swedging requires a special "swedging tool."  Rachel uses a "vise" to hold the swedging tool as you will see in the photos below.  She begins by running a steel through the mechanism tubing and then places the tube (with the steel inside) in the swedging tool.  She says that it is important for the steel to have a snug fit through the tubing.  If a steel is too loose, the metal tubing will get crushed during the process.  The tip of the swedging tool is comprised of three parts that can contract when tightened and expand when loosened.  When you are swedging, the tip contracts down onto the tubing.  Rachel turns a handle on the back of the swedging tool to tighten the tip down onto the mechanism tubing.  She does not want it to be too tight, because she needs to be able to turn the keys on the mechanism tubing.  The pressure exerted onto the mechanism tubing from the swedging tool lengthens it (or "draws it out"), because, as Rachel says, "The metal has no place to go but out."  She then turns the key around the tubing to "burnish" it against the inner steel.  After this, the swedging tool is loosened to release the mechanism tubing and steel.  Rachel then puts the tubing back into place on the flute and checks the feel.  She says that the best way to swedge is to do "a little bit at a time," so the process takes a few cycles of swedging and then checking the fit.

One point that Rachel made is that mechanisms will always have a bit of play -- and that is normal.  However, if there is too much play, the tubing will move too much and will need to be swedged.

Rachel places the tubing and steel in the tip of the swedging tool (which is held by the blue vise).
Tightening the tip of the tool onto the tubing and steel.
Close up of the tubing and steel in the tip of the swedging tool.  The tubing is fairly short -- the steel running through it is much longer.
Even closer here -- you can see that the tip of the swedging tool is in parts (sections).
Rachel turning the key around the tubing to burnish it against the steel.

Placing the key section that was swedged back on to the mechanism.
Checking for movement in the section to tell if more swedging needs to be done.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Changing a Mechanism?

Last week's post on mechanism wear prompted another common question about mechanisms.  Many people ask if their mechanisms can be changed.  For instance, they may have a silver mechanism and are wondering if they can change their mechanism to one that is gold.  The answer is technically yes, but the recommendation is quite the opposite.  We sat down to chat with Repair Technician, Rachel Baker, to find out more.

Rachel helped shed some light on the situation.  She said that in order for a mechanism to be changed, you would have to completely retrofit a new mechanism to an existing flute body.  This can be extremely time consuming, complicated, and expensive.  Why is this?  Well, flute mechanism designs change, and flute bodies may as well.  Say you have an older Powell with a Traditional Powell scale -- or even a Powell with the Cooper scale.  The Modern Powell scale is currently used, and a new mechanism would be fitted to the current flute bodies (built with the Modern Powell Scale).  The positioning of the tone holes on the body is what determines the scale, so the positioning of the tone holes on a Powell with the Traditional or Cooper scales would be different that the current positioning.  This would mean that a new mechanism would need many modifications to fit the existing flute.

Very different mechanisms on 2100 and Conservatory.
In addition to the tone hole positioning, there may be other differences in the design and location of keys, posts, and ribs, which would also mean that the new mechanism would need to be modified to fit.  This can be a tremendous endeavor, which Rachel tells us is really not very cost effective.  She estimates that the cost for changing the mechanism is often more than half the cost of the flute, so you are better off purchasing a new flute.  Also, if you have a pinned or pinless mechanism, you cannot switch "back and forth."  So, if you have a pinned mechanism and want a pinless mechanism, it would not be possible to retrofit a pinless to a pinned body.  You can only go pinless to pinless or pinned to pinned.  But, again, probably best to look into a new flute altogether.

Finally, the question of changing a mechanism is probably related to a common misconception of flutes.  You may have heard other flutists say, "Yeah, I bought a silver flute with a silver mechanism, but I will upgrade to a gold mechanism later."  Well, that just may not be possible.  You can certainly upgrade to a different model, but swapping out the mechanism is not a guaranteed option!  Our best advice from the repair shop is that if you would like a new mechanism, you should pick a new flute that has it!

Another view of 2100 (left) and Conservatory (right) mechanisms.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mechanism Wear

We recently had an artist ask our repair technician if a mechanism can "wear out."  We thought that was an excellent question, so we decided to find out more...

Our technician, Rachel Baker, told us that a mechanism doesn't "wear out," but it does "wear" over time.  The mechanism tubes are constantly rotating on the posts and the inner steels, which causes the mechanism to wear.  Specifically, as the mechanism becomes worn, it becomes somewhat loose.  This loosening creates extra side-to-side and radial "play" in the mechanism.  The side-to-side play comes from the mechanism tubing moving against the the post, and the radial play comes from the movement of the mechanism tubing against the inner steel.  You can read more about "play" in a previous post here at

As the mechanism wears, a couple of issues arise -- noisy keys, unstable adjustments, and unstable pad seating.  All of these problems can easily be solved by the repair technician.  In fact, worn mechanisms are always adjusted when a flute is sent to Powell for an ovehaul.  During an overhaul, the mechanism will be tightened and the keys fitted to restore proper function.

When do flute mechanisms begin to wear?  Well, it all depends on the amount of usage over time.  If a flute is twenty years old, but has been sitting in a closet untouched, there may be very little wear on the instrument's mechanism.  If you have a new flute and practice regularly for several hours each day, the mechanism may become worn faster.  The more use a flute gets, the more it will wear -- just like many things (tires, shoes, and the list goes on...).  There is no need to worry, though.  It is all part of the instrument's life cycle.  Plus, as mentioned above, a worn flute mechanism can be easily adjusted by an authorized repair technician.

Flute on the far left was made in the 1940s and has its original mechanism, which has just been adjust in an overhaul.  Two flutes to the right are Conservatories, which were both made after 2002.
Close-up on the body mechanisms of the three flutes.
Close-up on the footjoint mechanisms.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Felt and Foam

In our series of "repair or replace" topics, we thought it would be interesting to look at "tail felts and tail foam."  These are found on the "tails" of the keys where the tail hits the body of the flute.  The purpose of these felts and foam is to control key height and stop noise (from the mechanism).  Some flutes have all foam tails, some have all felt, and some have both.  It really just depends on the flute.

So, we asked our repair technician if these are repaired or replaced.  We had an inkling that they would be replaced, because it isn't really possible to "repair" such a small piece of foam or felt.  Indeed, they are always replaced.  When?  Well, they are replaced when you send your flute in for a complete overhaul.  Why is this?  It's because in an overhaul, the keys need to be removed from the flute so that they can be polished on a buffing wheel.  Since the entire key (including the tail) gets polished, the felts and foam are removed.  Then, they are replaced in the process of putting the keys back on the flute!  In general, the felts and foam are left in tact during the light polishing during a COA.  However, a felt or foam tail can always be replaced if necessary from wear.

Finisher adding felt to keys.  Yellow arrow points to finished felt on key.
Orange arrow points to foam on key.
Red arrows point to foam, yellow arrows point to felt.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Base Shim

Stopped into the repair shop and found our technician, Rachel, working on an overhaul.  As usual, she had a tray full of keys and mechanism components, including some round, rubbery discs that we hadn't noticed before.  So, we had to ask -- "What are these?"  Well, Rachel explained that they are "base shims."  They are used at the bottom of the cup, underneath the shims and pad.  These base shims are used with Straubinger pads, because Straubinger pads are much more compact and take up less space in the cup.  The base shim helps take up the extra space so that the builders and repair technicians do not have to put an over-abundance of shims in the cup to raise the pad to the correct position.  Rachel added, "One thick piece of material is much more stable than many thin pieces."  Certainly makes sense to us!

Taking a closer look at the base shims, we noticed two types.  One type is a rubbery plastic that is somewhat translucent.  It is used in cups that are flat on the inside.  The other type of shim is made from a harder plastic and has "rings" that interlock with the ringed surface of the bottom of cups with a "rings."  The top of the "ringed" shim, however, is flat so that shims and pads can sit properly.  Rachel also told us that base shims have been made out of different materials over the years.

How long have flute makers been using base shims?  Well, it's a bit difficult to pinpoint exactly, but for many years, flute makers used felt pads.  The felt pads are "fluffier" and take up much more space in the cup, so they do not need a base.  Felt pads may be made from either woven felt or pressed felt.  The Straubinger pad is made from microfiber, so it is much thinner in comparison with the felt pads.  Rachel mentioned that there are many types of pads available now, and many will use a base shim because they are much more thin or "compressed" than older felt pads.  Base shims are pretty sturdy, so in terms of "repair or replace," they generally would not to be repaired or replaced -- they are just part of the pad-fitting process.

Pads left to right: Straubinger, pressed felt, woven felt.
Rubbery plastic base shims for cups that are flat on the bottom.
Cups with "rings" inside take a different base shim.
Harder plastic base shim for cups with "rings" inside.  Base shim's "rings" interlock with cup, and flat side is up.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Repair or Replace: Springs

Continuing with our "repair or replace" series, we met with repair technician, Rachel Baker, to talk about springs.  Is a spring something you would repair -- or replace?  Once again, the answer is both.  Springs can be "repaired" or replaced.  When they are repaired, they are really adjusted.  Springs allow keys to open and close, so proper spring tension is critical.  Spring tension can be adjusted, and this is the most common spring "repair."  If a key is too weak, you can create a bit more tension.  If there is too much tension, you can adjust it so that there is less.  Rachel tells us that spring tension can be adjusted at any time.  She uses a spring hook to adjust tension.  She can make this adjustment whether the spring is on the key or simply on the body.  She tells us that often times it is hard to get to the spring when it's on the key, so you take the key off to make the adjustment.

So, when are springs replaced?  Rachel says, "Springs don't ever leave the flute once they are attached -- unless they break."  The installation of the spring keeps it in place because there is a tapered fit.  The end of the spring in the spring hole is "flared" to hold it in place.  If a spring is broken, it must be replaced.  If a spring is severely bent, it would also need to be replaced.  In general, springs can become "oddly" or severely bent after several repairs over time, or if something happens to the flute (i.e. -- an accident) that would bend the springs.

Should springs be replaced if they don't "match" -- like pads?  Well, the answer is yes!  Springs on the flute should all be the same material.  Different materials have different strengths and tension.  So, you want consistency and evenness of tension.  If there are a few springs that don't "match," they will have to be replaced.

Aside the the tension adjustments and replacement scenarios above, there's not much else to it!  Rachel says, "Springs have a job -- they do it.  You replace them when they stop doing it."  That surely seems to sum it up for us!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Repair or Replace: Pads

We thought it might be interesting to look at a few components of the flute over a series of posts and examine whether they get repaired or replaced when a flute is sent to the repair shop.  Of course, we stopped in to see Powell's Repair Technician, Rachel Baker, to help us begin this series.  We wanted to start with pads, so we asked, "When a flute comes in, do you repair or replace the pads?"

Well, in the case of pads it's an either/or situation.  Pads can be "repaired" or replaced.  What would constitute a pad "repair?"  Shimming!  Rachel says that the type of repair most commonly done with pads is shimming.  Shimming is done to correct leaking pads.  When it comes to replacing pads, there could be a couple of things that would lead to this solution.  Obviously, if a pad is torn, it needs to be replaced.  Also, like anything else, pads age over time.  As they age, the skin on the pad can get brittle, and the pad would need to be replaced.  Brittle skin is more likely to tear, which (as we know) is certainly cause for pad replacement!

When it comes to pads, a "matching set" is very important as well.  Felt pads and Straubinger pads have different compression rates, so it is important to make sure that all the pads are the same type (or rather, "match") on the flute.  You don't want to mix the pads and have a few felt here and there and then a few Straubinger.  Definitely not a good thing.  If a flute comes across Rachel's bench and has "unmatched pads," well, some of the pads would need to be replaced.

So, in the case of pads, they may need to be repaired, or they may need to be replaced.  Visual inspections, play tests, and checks with the feeler gauge can all help determine whether the pad should be "repaired" or replaced.

This pad's edge has been "lifted up" and definitely needed to be replaced.

This flute has matching pads and is good to go!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Cleaning Your Plug-Os

Plug-Os in French keys
We recently had an inquiry from a customer with a "stuck Plug-O" and thought it might be time to talk a bit about prevention...  You see, if you have a Plug-O stuck in one of your flute keys, the best remedy is to take it to your repair technician.  But, there is something you can do to keep your Plug-Os from getting stuck -- clean them!

The Plug-O has a rubber "O ring" that fits inside the hole in the middle of a French key cup.  The rubber is meant to grip the metal to provide a secure fit.  However, the Plug-O can accumulate some "grime" after a period of time, simply from normal wear and tear.  The oils from your hands can get down around the edge of the Plug-O, mixing with dirt and dust particles and creating a build-up that makes the Plug-O difficult to remove.

So, how can you keep this from happening?  Well, you should remove the Plug-Os periodically and clean them -- and the keys as well.  Start by removing the Plug-O with the tool that came in the package.  It is specially designed with a small plastic tip that goes under the middle of the Plug-O.  Push up gently, and the Plug-O should come out.  Then, you should take a clean, dry Q-tip and wipe around the inside of the hole in the French key cup.  Now it is time to clean the Plug-O.  You can run the Plug-O under a bit of water and then wipe it off with a clean, dry cloth (or clean, dry Q-tip).  Make sure the Plug-O is completely dry before you put it back in the key cup!  Once it is clean and dry, it should be good to go!

Water really is best for cleaning the Plug-O.  Do not use alcohol (no matter how tempting) because it will dry out the rubber O ring and cause it to crack or break.  Also, if you are wondering how often you should clean the Plug-Os, well, it depends on the player.  It could be once a month or once every now and then.  It really depends on how "grimy" your flute gets on the outside from regular wear and tear.  Whatever frequency you need for cleaning, it will all pay off in the long run!

Red arrow points to built-up grime on the Plug-O's "O ring."
Red arrow points to clean O ring.
Removal tool that comes in the Plug-O package.

Top of the tool has a small plastic tip to help remove Plug-O.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Headjoint Recutting

We stopped in to the repair shop this week and had a chat with Rachel (our technician) about "headjoint recutting."  What exactly is that?  Well, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like.  Often times, older headjoints may not have the same overcutting and undercutting as a modern headjoint, and the shape of the embouchure hole is different.  An older headjoint usually has a rounder embouchure hole that the modern headjoint.  That being said, owners of older headjoints may ask to have them "recut" to give them a more modern shape.  The shape and cutting of the modern heajdoint may offer better projection and make the headjoint easier to play in general.  It is also not a very costly modification -- it runs about $75 to $80 for silver headjoints (gold is a bit more because it is a harder material).  However, only Powell headjoints may be sent to Powell for recutting.

Older headjoint on the left, newer on the right. 
So, what would be involved in the headjoint recutting?  First, the headjoint must be sent to Powell for evaluation.  If an older headjoint already has an embouchure hole that is too big to be reshaped and modernized, recutting would not be possible.  Why is this?  Well, if an embouchure hole is very large, recutting it could result in one's sound getting out of control and really losing focus.  Therefore, the evaluation by headjoint cutters is critical.  If the headjoint is able to be recut, the customer will be able to provide the headjoint cutters details about how they would like the headjoint to play.  The headjoint cutters at Powell have plenty of experience, and as Rachel says, "They have a very good idea of what the headjoint should sound like, and they know what to do.  They wouldn't make extreme changes, but rather very modest ones."  Rachel tells us that is is a very careful process.  The headjoint cutters listen, then make very subtle changes, then listen again, make more subtle changes, and the cycle continues until the headjoint is exactly where the customer would want it.  The turnaround time for headjoint recutting is about a week.  Like most repairs and modifications, it takes time and care to complete the process.

You may wonder what types of customers may request to have their headjoints recut.  Rachel tell us that sometimes, people who own older headjoints may feel that their headjoint is no longer working for them and purchase a new headjoint.  Obviously, the new headjoint will have the modern shaoe, overcutting, and undercutting -- so it is a good point of comparison for the older headjoint.  If you are considering having an older headjoint recut or have additional questions, you may contact Rachel Baker at

Friday, September 20, 2013

Chip Off the Old Footjoint

We've seen previous posts about repairing dents and dings in metal flute bodies and headjoints, but what happens when there is a nick in a wooden flute?  Well, we happened to be in the wood shop this past week to see how this could be remedied.

In the case of this particular footjoint, there was a small nick in the wood.  Wood surely isn't pliable, so it cannot be reshaped and burnished like metal.  What is one to do?  Well, the solution is to fill the nick -- then secure the filler, file/sand, blend, and buff.  It's really quite straightforward as you will see from the photos below:

Nick has been circled in yellow.
Getting grenadilla dust ready to fill the nick.
Applying the dust to fill in the nick.
Just a bit more dust on top of the filled area.
Filled and ready for glue.
Adding the adhesive glue over the dust filling. 
Glue doesn't take long to dry.
Filing the glue down with a mill file to blend it in.
Using sandpaper for final blending.
Applying oil.
And it's done!  A little more oil was applied after blending.  Nick is gone!
If you are interesting in reviewing the previous posts on dents in metal flutes, take a look at the following:

Post on dented headjoint:
Two-part post on dented tenon: