Friday, January 30, 2015

Repair Technique

Rachel checking pad seating.

What's does it take to become a repair technician?  In a previous post, we shared an overview of the path our technician, Rachel Baker, took to train professionally (follow this link to read that post).  We had time to chat with her again about this topic and discovered that formal training is an important foundation, but there is more to it than facts and procedures...

Rachel told us that one of the most important skills a good technician will have is "puzzle solving skills."  For example, if she gets a flute in the shop, she will normally have information to some degree about problems with the instrument, but she will need to determine what exactly is causing the problem and how to fix it, which she says can be "like solving a puzzle." She shared that in addition to the procedures she has learned in school and the gauges she uses to check her work, it all boils down to the "feel, look, and sound" of the instrument.  The "feel" is particularly important, and it is an acquired skill that takes time to develop.  She said it is important to be able to feel how the flute is working.  She will need to feel where a problem might be and also feel when everything is finally working properly.  Another example she shared is that she repadded a flute, and when she was finished, she checked the mechanism but could feel that something wasn't quite right with one particular pad.  Her gauges showed that the pad was seated correctly, but she could still feel that the way the pad was hitting the cup was different, and she could also hear a difference when the key closed.  Come to find out, there was not a problem with the pad -- it was actually the tone hole!  The tone hole was leaking where it was attached to the body and needed to be resoldered.  As we can see, it really can be like solving a puzzle -- and the technician's acute senses are critical for diagnosing and repairing problems.

Rachel began her training as an apprentice in a local music shop (for two years) and then went on to earn her associate's degree in repair.  She went back to work at the shop after graduation, and three years later, she started at Powell.  She has now been here for almost eight years.  She told us that becoming a skilled repair technician "really does take time, and when you first start out, someone always checks your work so you can develop your skills."  She said, "It's always possible to repair an instrument to make it play, but there are fine little subtleties to making something play really well."  She has developed her skills over time and realizes that the ability to see, hear, and feel these subtle differences takes you to a "whole different level" as a repair technician.  Finally, she says, "And you really do have to care -- really.  People's lives are hanging in the balance!  Auditions for jobs, school -- there's much more at stake, so it's not like you are just 'fixing something'." We're so glad she shared that thought with us, because it really does help illustrate a very special perspective...

Friday, January 23, 2015

Pad "Life"

Have you ever wondered how long flute pads last?  It may be surprising to some if pads need to be replaced during a COA, but try to think back...  How long have the pads been in there?  Have they reached their lifespan -- and what is the lifespan? 

We spoke with Powell Repair Technician, Rachel Baker, to find out just how long one should expect a pad to "live."  She told us that on average, it's about 5 years for flute pads, and anything older than 6 or 7 years should really be replaced.  Although there is no absolute guarantee for the lifespan of a pad, it is important to note that there are different "aging" factors in pads because of the difference in materials.  For instance, felt pads have a cardboard backing, and Straubinger pads have a plastic backing.  The plastic is more durable than the cardboard, so the Straubinger pads will last longer.  Also, moisture will affect felt pads in a much greater way because felt pads are comprised of more "organic" materials.  Rachel tells us moisture causes the felt and cardboard in a felt pad to shrink -- and it is also what causes them to smell "moldy" over time.

Using the feeler gauge after repadding.
However, there is one crucial "sign of aging" with pads that certainly determines when they need to be replaced -- resonance.  Loss of resonance means it is time to replace the pad, and this is particularly true with Straubinger pads, which Rachel says, "are known for their crispness and resonance."  She tells us that she had many customers who had pads replaced during a COA or overhaul and noted how much better their flutes played.

As for piccolo pads, they don't wear out as often as flute pads.  Why is this?  Well, Rachel tell us that there are two main reasons: (1) piccolos are usually not played as much a flutes, and (2) piccolos have wooden tone holes that are softer than metal tone holes.  She says piccolos also have some cork pads which will definitely last longer because they are made to handle moisture better.

As we can see, pads will not last forever, but they do have a decent lifespan.  They can also make a world of difference to your flute.  So if you get your flute back from repair, and your technician says s/he replaced some pads, see if you can tell the difference!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cleaning Supplies

Cleaning supplies are under the case, inside the case cover.

When you purchase a new Powell flute, you'll notice that it comes with a microfiber polishing cloth, a swabstick, and a gauze swab.  It's essential to your flute's well-being to keep it clean and use these items everyday, making sure to swab out the flute thoroughly and use the cleaning cloth to wipe off the flute after you play.  It seems elementary, but these basic steps of flute maintenance should help keep your flute healthy and prevent issues that might occur in flutes that are not cleaned regularly and properly.

The cleaning items that come with your flute each have their own longevity, so we spoke with Powell's Director of Service and Quality, Rebecca Eckles, about finding replacements for these items when the time comes.  In a previous post, we discussed how you can clean the polishing cloths and swabs (follow this link to read that post).  However, we realize that eventually, these items will need to be replaced -- or perhaps you would simply like to have extras.  Luckily, each item is available through the VQP Shop on the Powell website.  Ciick here for the link to polishing cloths, here for the link to swabs, and here for the link to swabsticks. These links take you directly to the flute supplies, but swabs and swabsticks for piccolos are also available in the VQP Shop.  Follow this link for a one-piece piccolo swabstick and this link for a two-piece piccolo swabstick.  Silk piccolo swabs are also available -- follow this link to view them.

We realize that the gauze swabs will probably be the first cleaning supply that needs to be replaced, and Rebecca mentioned that you could use something other than gauze. She currently uses small pieces of t-shirt material as a swab for her flute and told us that you could use this or any material that is 100% cotton, absorbent, and soft.  As simple as it seems, it will do the trick.  And remember, do not use any treated cloths for the inside or outside of your flute.  Keeping your flute clean will make a world of difference.

Cleaning supplies that come with a new Powell flute: swabstick, swab (inside cloth), and polishing cloth.
Gauze swab inside the polishing cloth.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

New Life for Tarnished Flute

We caught up with flute finisher Karl Kornfeld this week after he completed quite an amazing transformation on flute that had been left alone, unplayed, and badly tarnished.  As you can see in the photo above, he was able to transform this flute back to its original beauty.

So, how did he do this?  Well, he had the chance to document the process in a series of photos which you will see below. It's not the same flute as above, but it was one that was tarnished nonetheless...

Tarnished footjoint 
Keys must be removed.
Footjoint goes into the ultrasonic cleaner first.  
Footjoint after the ultrasonic cleaning.
Footjoint is dipped in an acidic solution to remove the tarnish.  After this, it goes through the ultrasonic cleaner again.
Polish is applied.
Polishing keys with a "tarnish ragging cloth."
"Tarnishield" is applied to body.
"Tarnishield" is applied to keys.
Keys are ready!
Everything is reassembled, and the tarnish is gone!
The process seems pretty straightforward, and it essentially is -- but it takes a great deal of time and careful hand work.  Karl told us that it normally takes about 4 to 5 hours to complete the tarnish removal and polishing process.  The flute featured in the photo at the very top of this post was extremely tarnished, and it came in to the shop needing a complete overhaul.  So, in the case of that flute, the total time from start to finish was roughly 19 hours!