Flutes and whistles made of wood merit a bit more care and maintenance than other wind instruments. Wood can be sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature, and may warp or crack if not looked after. Whether you're looking into purchasing a wooden flute, or seeking care and maintenance pointers for an instrument you already own, we hope to provide some helpful suggestions and additional resources here.
"PLAYING IN" A NEW WOODEN INSTRUMENT
When you first receive a new wooden flute or whistle, you may be eager to play it as much as possible. Tempting as it may be to play for several hours straight, we must advise caution in this, as doing so could lead to swelling around the joints, and irreparable warping down the road. Our suggestion is to play up to an hour per day to start with, and very gradually increase the play time, week by week. We will also discuss oiling below, but it is particularly important to oil a newer wooden flute regularly. When "played in" properly, your flute will adjust to your frequency of practice and serve you for many years to come.
MONITOR YOUR ENVIRONMENT FOR HUMIDITY AND TEMPERATURE CHANGES
Be aware of the environment you store your wooden instrument in: Avoid hot and humid conditions. Also avoid leaving the instrument near a heater or an air conditioner. Certainly don't leave it in a vehicle in hot weather. If it helps, you can think of your wooden instrument as a sort of pet, or even a small child, with similar needs regarding temperatures and care.
In playing the instrument, make sure to allow the woodwind to warm up to room temperature first, and be careful when playing outdoors in the cold. Wood is sensitive to temperature extremes. If you know you'll be playing in extreme weather conditions, it might be best to buy a second flute (such as this polymer keyless Dixon flute, or this keyed NUVO Student flute) for just such occasions.
Some common-sense pointers here, but worth repeating: Avoid dropping the instrument (wood can be fragile) and try not to leave the instrument on a chair, or in a place where it might camouflage and find itself underfoot. Proper storage (such as a heavy-duty flute case) can go a long way to extending the lifespan of an instrument, and if you're a good custodian of the instrument, it will go on to make beautiful music for many years to come.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE
Something you can do on a regular basis to make sure the wood is happy is to oil your instrument. You'll want to do this once a month or so for an instrument you play regularly, or whenever the ends of the tenons or bore look dry (when the wood grain becomes more visible).
As to which oil to use, opinions do vary. Many would recommend 100% Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil or 100% Sweet Almond Oil (if you're not allergic to nuts). Store a small bottle in the fridge to keep it from going rancid (but apply it at room temperature). Some oils come with added Vitamin E, which can help prevent it from going off (and it happens to be great for your skin). You might want to consult the maker of your instrument for recommended oils specific to that wood type, but non-drying natural oils work well for blackwood instruments generally.
To oil your instrument – which you'll want to do about once a month, or whenever the wood looks "thirsty" – follow these step-by-step instructions:
- Pull the instrument into pieces, and take care to not apply too much tension around the joints when taking it apart. If the joints seem too tight, consider removing some of the threading at the tenon, or apply cork grease (such as this, if your instrument has cork). If your instrument has keys, remove them for the cleaning and oiling process (this can be done by pushing the pins out, remembering how to put them back as you do so).
- Swab the bore to remove accumulated gunk (can be done with isopropyl alcohol, a rag, and some cotton swabs for the key pads). Avoid sticking anything metal into the instrument, as wood can scratch easily (wooden dowels work nicely).
- Apply a few drops of oil to the bore using an absorbent towel (an old cotton shirt scrap or similar) wrapped around a thin dowel or a flute cleaner, and coat the bore thoroughly (it isn't necessary to oil the inside of the head joint). Do not apply oil to the joints/tenons.
- Leave the individual parts of the instrument standing on their ends (in a safe place where they will not fall over). Leaving them for 4-8 hours will allow excess oil to naturally drain out (overnight is a good time). If you have reattached keys at this point, place a square of wax paper over each hole to prevent the oil from sticking to the key.
- After the wood has had time to rest, give the instrument a good rubdown to remove excess oil from the bore.
- Use the drying towel to then lightly coat the outside of the instrument (avoid the keywork and corresponding slots, if applicable).
- Polish the outside and make sure there is no excess oil anywhere (which would make for sticky playing once dry).
- Re-assemble (careful to never force a socket and tenon, which can cause cracking).
In case of cracking or other damage, make sure to wrap the damaged area securely so that no further damage can occur. If a crack begins to develop, wrap the area in a rubber band to keep it together, and do not apply oil or wax to the instrument (this could prevent glue from adhering during repair). If you are able to contact the maker, this may be the best course of action. Otherwise, consult with a local luthier.
Storage cases, as mentioned above, can do a lot for the longevity of a wooden instrument. It's best to keep the instrument disassembled between uses to allow for better breathing, and to preserve the fit of the tenons. Along with standard-issue cases that allow for storing the instrument in segments, a plastic tub or tightly zippered nylon pouch might be useful in drier environments. A tightly sealed container, along with a damp sponge (in a plastic bag perforated with a few holes) is one way to ensure the wood doesn't excessively dry out, but you also want to avoid creating an overly humid environment for your wooden instrument!
For this reason, you might consider investing in one or more of the following: A hygrometer (to measure the humidity of a given space), a humidifier (to make the room more humid; for dry or frequently heated environments), and a dehumidifier (to make the room less humid; for wet environments). You can set these up in the room in which the instrument is frequently stored (ideal range of humidity is 45-60% for a modern flute and 50-60% for an antique flute).
There are many other accessories that you might consider investing in, for the care and maintenance of your instrument, and for the sake of brevity, we won't be listing them all here. We'll leave you with a list of other helpful articles and resources, many of which we've used to source the information provided in this article. Wishing you many happy years of tooting and fluting!
SOURCES FOR FURTHER READING