Each Native American Flute consists of two main elements: the flute’s main body, and the block. The block is sometimes known as totem or fetish, but these are quite “Western” terms – both totem and fetish has little to do with the block on the flute :). The most common name, though, is “the bird”, because in many traditional flutes, the block was shaped as a bird.
These days, many flute makers create blocks in various shapes, from saddles to birds to wolves or even more artistic things. In this tutorial, though, I will teach how to create two basic versions of a block for Native American Flute: the saddle and a simple block with wings.
But we’ll start with some theory.
The goal of the block is to enclose the air channel from the top. Sometimes, if the air channel is not carved within the flute’s body, it is carved within the block itself. I noticed it’s much easier to achieve a good sound if the air channel is placed in the block. When you do so, do not sand down the splitting edge on the top, just make the bottom chamfer cut.
Anyway, the block must fit the nest’s surface perfectly, there must be no leaks – the seal must be good enough, because this affects the pressure of the air. If the seal is good, the pressure is good, and achieving clear and powerful sound of the flute is much easier. Leaks between the nest and the block may cause the flute to sound airy.
As I said, these days people shape their blocks in various ways. You can carve anything, as long as you stick with the following rule:
- The seal between the block and the nest must be perfect.
Once this is achieved, you need to remember about:
- The front wall – the one right above the True Sound Hole – in most cases, it should be straight vertically.
- The wings on left and right are optional.
As long as the air channel is enclosed, the block will work. Now, let’s talk more about these two mentioned features.
The optional wings cause more air to hit the splitting edge and often, this can result in stronger and less-airy sound. If your flute sound weak or airy, experiment with winged block.
The front wall, the one above the True Sound Hole in your Native American Flute, can affect the sound, too. If it’s leaning backwards, towards the mouthpiece, less air hits the splitting edge. If it’s leaning forward, towards the True Sound Hole, more air is directed towards the splitting edge.
This may come in handy – if you made a mistake with your sound hole, a block may help. Lean it forward if the sound got too big. Sometimes, it helps – so you can experiment with different blocks.
But also, front wall leaning backwards increases the pitch of the flute, and leaning it forwards lowers the pitch. This can be helpful if you made a mistake with tuning. But – the ultimate goal is to make the flute sound great with a simple, vertical front wall and no wings, because this way, you will be able to replace the block quite easily, whenever something happens to the old one.
Block is usually tied to the flute with a leather strap, but you can use whatever you want. We never glue the block to the flute, because of hygiene – after playing, you remove the block and let the inside of the Air Support Chamber dry out, to decrease the chance of fungus growth.
A basic block can be made of small piece of lumber, just use a saw and sanding paper to cut a small block.
In this tutorial, I will explain few simple tricks to create a block out of a piece of branch.
When you build a block, keep it wide and long enough – make it extend 2-3 mm on both sides of the air channel, and 2-3 mm on the back, so to ensure the good seal. Sand down the bottom surface of the block perfectly.
What you need is a saw (can be a handsaw), a flat chisel, hand or power drill and sanding paper.
Building Basic Saddle Block
Take a piece of branch wide enough to cover the air channel, and cut a piece of it.
Mount the piece in a vise, and cut one of its sides.
Then, flip the wood and cut off the opposite side.
Finally, flip it again and cut off the 3rd side.
Try to make straight cuts.
Now, place the block flat, and mount it to your “work bench” with a simple woodworking clamp. Drill two small holes through. You may want to put some scrap of flat wood below so that you can drill into it, and not into your work bench.
Then, flip the wood vertically, and mount it again. Use a saw to cut from the top down, into the two drilled holes.
Again, flip it flap, and use a flat chisel to cut between the two holes. Push the chisel firlmy, but be careful – once the wood breaks, the chisel will jump down.
Almost done – all you have to do is to sand everything smooth, especially the bottom surface. By now, you known a lot about sanding – after all, you made a flute with previous tutorials, right?
To achieve a flat surface, I clamp a piece of sanding paper with woodworking clamps to a flat work bench, and I push the block firmy one direction only – so I sand the surface moving the block forward, then I take it up an sand it foward again. This way, I don’t make a curved bottom surface.
After sanding, the block is ready.
Making a Winged Block
Again, cut a piece of branch. This time, make it a bit longer than intended. Mount it in a vise, and cut it half.
Then, mount the piece on a workbench, put something under it not to damage the bench, and drill through it with a large diameter of your drill bit, like on the photo above.
Now, use a saw to cut the piece near one of the hole’s edge.
That’s why I asked you to cut a longer piece of branch – some of it has to be cut off again.
Mount the piece in your vise again.
Use diamond files to sand down and shape the square inside of the block.
Use a chisel, a saw or a simple knife to cutt of the sides. Be careful not to damage the block, nor your fingers.
And finally, sand everything, especially the bottom surface. Your simple winged block is ready.
By now, you should realize that you can make similar blocks from standard lumber :). With a band saw you can cut out various shapes, like this one:
Each block can be protected with oil, laquer, shellac or any other method you choose to protect the wood. If you wish to create a decorative block, just remember to keep it’s bottom surface flat, and everything above can be shaped in any way you wish.