In the first part of this series, I discussed routers and routing, that allows you to make flutes out of construction, or dimensional lumber that you can purchase on nearby Home Depote or similar store. Once two halves of the flute are routed, you need to glue it – just like I explained in an article about gluing branch flutes.
Then, the flute must be rounded, and this can be accomplished with a lathe. But first, let’s talk about routing a little bit more.
More on Router and Router Bits
Each router tool comes with its own instructions for setting the depth of your cut. Basically, if your router bit is 20 mm wide, you need to make 10 mm deep grooves in each half of your flute body. Read the instructions for your router to set up a proper depth. Always remember to make shallower cuts first, because it’s easier to deepen the groove than to fix a groove cut too deep.
Let’s look at the illustration one more time.
Schematic 2 shows you a general example of a jig for hand-held router (2). Everything is built upon a base (4). The lumber piece (1) is being hold by wooden walls (5), and the router slides upon these walls, while the edge guide (3) pushes against the wall. This way, the router moves straight. The router bit is placed right above the middle of the lumber piece (1) and once lowered, it cuts into the wood.
You can see these two, hand-drawn pointers next to the lumber piece. This is where the router should be stopped, if we want to keep the wall between the sound and air chambers intact.
Please note that this is a schematic, and the lumber itself should be properly mounted and hold down for safety reasons.
Using round router bits will create a nice and smooth halves of each of the chambers. You can use a craft knife to clear the edges of the chambers, but beside that, there is no need to sand the router chambers.
Usually, I turn one of the flute halves around, and I use a flat router bit to cut a small nest area – this way, I make sure I will have a flat nest surface to work with.
All of the above is no rocket science – once you get familiar with your router and your router bits, you will feel very comfortable with doing the math and creating all the chambers.
Rounding the Flute with a Lathe
When making a lumber flute, the lumber itself isn’t round, obviously. Once the wood is routed and glued, you need to round it. You can round the flute with a hand tool that is called a “plane”. A plane is a simple hand tool with a flat bottom surface, and a metal blade mounted at the bottom. It is used to cut wood material off. If the wood is soft enough, and the plane is sharp enough, and you have enough skills and the lumber is mounted firmly in a vise, it is possible to round the flute nicely.
But a better method is to use a lathe.
A lathe is a huge machine, that is made of an engine and two holders. Please note that a lathe must be long enough to fit your flute, so pay attention when shopping.
- Check some woodworking lathes on Amazon (aff). Make sure you can mount a long enough piece on the lathe you’re buying. JET lathes are often recommended by flute makers.
You mount the piece of wood between the holders, and start the lathe – it begins to spin. Then, you use special chisels to round the wood. Schematic 3 shows a simplified lathe (doing my best with drawing). (1) is the engine, and (2) is the holder. (3) is a spike holder – it usually looks like a spike which you can put into the sound chamber and hold the lumber. It’s placed on a movable piece. (4) is the support for gouges – you always place the gouge on the support and use micro movements to round the wood. (5) is the body of the flute, and (6) is the nest area.
- Don’t try to save money on a lathe – cheap models are inaccurate, often two holders are not even on the same level. Buy a good lathe, not a cheap lathe. Also, buy good set of chisels dedicated for lathe. It will make your work a lot easier!
First of all, lathe may not look like a dangerous tool, but it is – if you’re not careful, the chisels can do you great harm. Never push the chisel too deep – working with lathe means pushing the chisel very gently into the wood, half a millimeter at the time, no more.
Second of all, if you want to achieve good quality of your rounded wood, invest in proper chisels that are meant to be used with a lathe. Such chisels are slightly rounded, which makes rounding the wood much easier. Never use flat chisels with a lathe! Their shape is not right for rounding wood.
Never use flat chisels when working on lathe as a tool of flattening anything. Flat surface is achieved by proper moves of rounded gouges and with sanding paper. Flat chisels just have the wrong shape. Either purchase professional gouges to be used with lathe, or purchase cheaper, half-rounded gouges. The rounded shape of the gouge can easily remove material when using lathe, but it has one advantage over flat chisels. Flat chisels, due to their shape, may actually cut into the spinning flute, and due to the force of the swirling wood, be shot away – often, towards you with their blade facing your body. This may cause serious injuries, if not death.
Remember, when it comes to woodworking, safety first, and hand tools are far more dangerous than power tools!
We lathe the flute from one end to the other end, using a caliper to check the diameter of your instrument. Remember that the walls of the flute should be between 5 and 8 mm, no more and no less.
- Find good calipers on Amazon (aff).
In most cases, I leave a square part near the mouthpiece of the flute that is 10 to 20 mm long, as it often is the part that is hold by the lathe mechanism. After rounding the flute, I cut off this part.
The problem starts when you reach the nest area (6). There are two ways to build the nest. First, you can make it right away, before gluing the two halves of the flute. Or second, you can build it after rounding the flute. In the first case, you can’t round the lumber around the nest, because it would destroy the nest if the nest is located higher than the desired thickness of the flute’s walls. When this happens, most flutemakers simple leave the lumber around the nest area square, and round everything else but the nest area.
Then, they turn off the lathe, and use the plane or a power sander to manually round the nest area. Once enough material is removed, they start the lathe again, and use sanding paper to smooth everything.
That is why you may notice that some Native style flutes are thicker around the nest area (6). This is because the maker used a plane or power sander to manually remove the material from this region of the flute.
If you decide to create the nest later, you can simply round the entire instrument, and then use flat router bits or knives to cut the nest area, and build the nest from there. Once you learn the theory and practice some flutemaking, you will learn how to shape the sound mechanism from the outside only, with not access to the inside.
There are many other tools you can use for making flutes – power sanders, drill press, dremmel, professional burning tool for decorations, these are only few examples and subjects for future articles. For now, you have learned how to use the power router and the lathe to make flutes out of construction lumber.
If you’re a woodworker or more skilled Native Flute maker, I’m sure every reader will appreciate your additional suggestions and tips that you can post in the comments below. Thank you!