Designing Square-Holed-Flute-banner

Grantville High School Television Studio

June 1637


“Are you ready to go, Bob?” the assistant director in the small high school television studio asked Bob Davidson as he nervously shuffled his papers at the lectern.

“I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be,” the tall, dark-haired teen-ager replied, putting down the papers and taking a deep breath. Several flutes and a piccolo rested upright on pegs beside him.

“Okay,” the AD said briskly. “We’re going to be just taping this segment, so if you feel—or I feel—you bobbled something, we can stop the tape so you can start the sentence over again. So don’t worry if you’re not perfect. . . . By the time we finish editing everything together with your graphics, it’ll look great.”

Bob nodded and watched him carefully as he started counting down from five, mouthing the last two numbers. The red light on the camera blinked on at his sharp hand signal.

“Hi,” Bob said simply, looking directly into the camera. “My name is Bob Davidson and I’ve been asked to speak with you today on the design of the modern twentieth-century concert flute, and how we were able to reproduce it here in the seventeenth century.” He reached down beside him and held up a flute in front of him. At the AD’s gesture, the camera zoomed in and panned down its length.

“This is a round-holed flute, made in the twentieth century. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems at first glance.

“The seventeenth-century flutes generally only have one or two keys on them. Otherwise the holes are closed directly by the tips of the players’ fingers. The bigger your fingers, the easier they are to play, which is why during this time period, most of the flute players are men. Our hands are generally bigger and so is our lung capacity. Even so, there are only so many holes on a flute one person can cover directly, and only so much of a range these holes can play.

DSHF-3“The modern concert flute, however,” he said, rotating the body of the flute to present the sides of the cups towards the camera, “substitutes cups with pads in them for individual fingers. These pads, which are generally made of felt and cardboard covered with two thin layers of goldbeater’s skin, mimic the tips of the player’s fingers, and can seal its tone hole closed. These cups are connected by a system of thin rods within tubes with a complicated system of buttons and levers that can be played by pretty much anybody, regardless of the size of their hands. That is why the twentieth-century flutes could be played by women. Oftentimes the only limitations were on lung capacity, which is why taller women had an edge on shorter women with smaller lungs. But if a piece was written by a composer who took into account a flutist’s need to breathe every so often, the size of the person playing it made no difference.”

Bob placed this flute back on its peg and picked up the next flute.

Displaying it for the camera, he continued, “You may notice that the flute we decided to recreate here on the campus of Grantville High School and the State of Thuringia-Franconia Community College has square cups and tone holes rather than round. That’s because this was the very latest in professional flute designs before the Ring of Fire.

“No examples of Leonard Lopatin’s SquareONE flutes came here with us, but one of Mr. Lopatin’s brochures provided us with side-by-side pictures of both his round-holed ‘Classic’ flute and his SquareONE. By my making a few assumptions about tubing diameter and round-holed cup size, I was able to make a good approximation of Lopatin’s flute scale.

“You see, there is no perfect scale for a flute. As Mr. Wendell explained it to me, if you make one note—say, middle C—dead on perfect, the other notes which depend on that same tone hole come out either too sharp or too flat.

“By comparing Lopatin’s round-holed cup placement with my student flute, I was able to—fairly accurately—determine where his scale differed from the known scale. Or at least I was able to make my best guess.” He smiled and shrugged.

“It took me about two weeks in Mr. Ambler’s drafting class to create my comparison drawings, but after that, I didn’t have a clue what to do. I wasn’t even sure if it was possible to get seamless tubing for the body, let alone how to make any of the parts.

“Before the Ring of Fire happened, I’d often been advised to ‘not try to re-invent the wheel,’ meaning that I should find out how the experts do something and not just try to figure it out by trial-and-error testing. That saying had to be thrown out the window when it came to up-time instrument creation following the Ring of Fire, since there were no ‘experts’ to consult.

“So, I opened my mouth and started asking questions. I asked my shop teacher, Mr. O’Keefe, about whether he thought square cups and tone holes were practical, and he said, ‘Hmmm, that’s a good question.’ It was such a good question, he passed it along to his other students to see if they could come up with ways to test both the scale I had in my drawing and the whole square versus round concept.

“The next thing I knew, my flute was a class project, being used as a practical example of the mathematics of acoustics. Somehow, someway, the whole technical college got involved, from the machinist and engineering students, to the business and marketing students as well. The project quickly expanded to include almost all of the other modern woodwinds.

“Which was pretty cool. Particularly when the testing proved on all the different-shaped bodies that yes, square tone holes make a difference in ease of articulation and in clarity of tone.

“Since the fingering is so similar between the flute, the oboe, the clarinet and the saxophone, theoretically, if you learn how to play one, you should be able to learn how to play them all, but the differences in mouthpieces and a few other structural differences between them make the reality of learning how to play multiple woodwinds well a lot harder than you’d think.

“I know that up-time a good many flute players also doubled on the saxophone. For me, right now, I’m still trying to master the flute and the piccolo so that I can retain my seat in the Magdeburg Symphony. Over the next few years, other flute players are going to get up to speed on these up-time flutes and start giving me some real competition, so I need to stay ahead of the curve. I’d rather concentrate on playing one instrument really well than be just okay on several different instruments.

“ ’Okay’ can be good enough in some situations if, say, a small band can’t afford to hire both a flutist and a saxophone player, but pretty soon that won’t cut it for the major gigs of this world. Pretty soon all the big cities and the powerful courts will have their own up-time orchestras and they’re going to demand the best.

“So once I was politely—but firmly—relegated to the sidelines and it was made clear that my true value to the engineers and mathematicians was as a product tester, I decided to concentrate on becoming the best product tester possible. When my English teacher asked me to document the whole woodwinds development process, that also seemed like a valuable contribution that only I could make.” Shrugging, he added with a smile, “It didn’t hurt that she offered me extra credit.

“But it was really neat watching these guys work. I wasn’t sure at the beginning if square tone holes were even feasible. Certainly I’d never heard of being able to drill a square hole, but the machinists knew their business. They knew that although you can’t drill a square tone hole in a tube, you sure can mill a square hole! With drilling, you go down through the material, but Mr. O’Keefe showed me how you can drag a mill bit across a tube, taking off layer after layer of material until you break through. The main problem is knowing when to stop. But square holes in a tube? No problem.

I also wasn’t sure how they were going to make some of the other square parts . . . the cups and the tone hole chimneys . . . but by darn, they did it. Basing the cup sizes on the measurements I made, Mr. O’Keefe divided his advanced college class into pairs and assigned each pair one size of cup-making punch and die sets. I was amazed at how quickly they created a complete set of all four sizes and their matching blanks.

DSHF-2“And all the parts! By the time we finally figured out just how many parts were soldered together to make the keywork, I wasn’t surprised to discover that there are over two hundred parts in each flute. Seventeen cups attached to mechanism tubing by seventeen arms, each with its own pad coming down to meet its own chimney surrounding seventeen tone holes. Fourteen of these pads also have washers holding them in place with tiny screws which are screwed into tiny spuds which are soldered into the cups. Each cup is held in its ‘at rest’ position by a straight spring which is hooked into a tiny spring catch which is carefully soldered into place onto one of the twenty-four pieces of mechanism tubing. Then there are nineteen posts which are hard-soldered onto five different ribs which are in turn soldered onto one of the two body tubes using a different solder with a lower melting point so that the posts won’t fall off in the process. There are ten lengths of steel rods within the tubing, plus seven or eight removable pins holding the mechanism tubing to the steels. That adds up to over two hundred parts, without even adding in the barrel joint, the box joint, and the seven or eight rings which protect and strengthen each tube. Oh yeah, and there’s the different parts which have to be either sculpted individually or cast . . . such as trill levers, rollers, thumb levers, and several other different types of parts.

“Mr. O’Keefe summed it up best: ‘Parts and parts and parts and parts!’ ”

“But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

“Shortly after the engineers did their sound testing and decided that yes, square holes had many features which made them superior to round holes—although many non-musicians had a hard time discerning the difference—it was time to analyze just how many parts there were and how they could be made.

“I could tell just by looking that we needed several sizes of seamless tubing, but I wasn’t sure if the tech level was up to doing that yet. A rolled and soldered tube might work for the flute body, but I didn’t know how that would work for the tiny mechanism tubing. I thought that maybe, for my one flute, we might be able to make some thick enough wire or bar stock and ream out the individual parts, but that would have made any kind of assembly-line parts-making very slow and enormously labor-intensive. I was willing to do the work for my own flute, but what would it mean for the whole Boehm woodwinds industry as a whole? There was no doubt that we’d be able to make a flute—obviously if it had been done, it could be done—but whether we’d be able to make one that people in the here and now could afford and be willing to buy, that was the question. There might be a couple of people who could buy a fifty-thousand dollar flute, but you can’t base a whole industry on that!

“So I was really holding my breath on the night that the Partow twins—Brent and Trent—the owners and founders of the Twinlo Park Research Center, came to help us disassemble and analyze my student flute, Gerda Heinzenburg’s oboe and Abe Nasi’s tenor saxophone.

“Besides being the original designers of the Higgins sewing machine, and only being two or three years older than me, Brent and Trent have all kinds of contacts within the Grantville business community. If something were already available or in the process of becoming available, they would know about it and be able to advise us where to go to get something made, so it was really kind of them to agree to help.

“So on that first Thursday in November, we all gathered around a couple of tables pushed together to make a big square as I helped Brent disassemble the flute onto a sheet and we all made notes. He probably could have done it on his own, but the keywork is a bit tricky in that the parts have to be removed in a certain way and replaced in exactly reverse order. And you definitely don’t want to lose so much as a screw!

“So first I unscrewed and removed the C-sharp trill key from its steel and passed them to Brent. Then the left hand section, the right hand section, the trill section, the thumb keys and the foot joint keys.

“It was a privilege to watch these best and brightest of our school system work. All of the team leaders from the engineering, drafting and business departments, with Mr. O’Keefe and Mr. Ambler looking on, and me and Abe.

“Unlike Gerda, who just wants an oboe of her own that sounds good, Abe and I are actually interested in learning how our instruments are made. Abe’s been apprenticing with his father’s jewelry business like forever, so he brought a jeweler’s perspective to the table.

“It turned out that Abe’s input was vital. He was the only one there familiar with casting and could identify which parts were likely to have been cast, or possibly could be cast. He’s also the one who—when I mentioned that I had been told the felt pads were covered with two layers of ‘fish skin,’ recognized this as another name for ‘goldbeaters’ skin, which is a membrane found lining a cow’s stomach and which is used a lot in the jewelry trade. The pads alone could have been a total game stopper, because without pads, the flute doesn’t work, but Abe was able to get us a good supply, no problem.”

Bob paused to take a deep breath before continuing.

“So many things came together to make these instruments possible at this time period. One of the team leaders—Jasper Klaus—is a journeyman smith, specializing in copper work, at the nearby Kudzu Werks plant during the day, while taking up-time engineering classes nights and weekends.

“He and his bosses apparently had recently had dies made for drawing seamless copper tubing and wire, so when he saw what was needed for a flute, he already knew the technology involved and how to draw up the specs for precisely the sizes we needed.

“It turned out that we needed two different sizes of mechanism tubing, plus the matching steel rods to go inside them. We also needed two different sizes of body tubing; one size for the main body and foot joint, plus a slightly bigger size for the barrel and box joints.

“Someone suggested that we just draw up a piece of body tubing to make it wide enough to work, but that idea was shot down as costing more in the long run in time and energy for multiple flutes than simply having it made to the right inner and outer diameter the first time around.

“We also needed two different diameters of tubing for making rings . . . one size for the crown of the head joint, and another size for the body rings. Each end of the body tube needed some kind of ring for reinforcement so it wouldn’t be so easily dented in. That was a strong factor in the decision by some of the students to go with an unsegmented body. Extra segments meant more parts.

“What really surprised me, though, was the number of different size tubings needed for the chimneys . . . the little rings that surround the tone holes and enable the pads to close off each hole. We needed six different sizes, even though we only needed four different-sized cups. Go figure.

“But that was okay. Brent and Trent, the other students, and even the teachers agreed that these instruments simply create another sales outlet for technology that craftsmen have already decided to pursue. So rather than having to create these dies totally on spec, the people who invested in the up-time symphonic instrument mutual fund . . .” Bob waved one hand in the air and pointed enthusiastically at himself, “ended up paying for the die creation. Since the Kudzu people will be able to use them for other purposes, they gave us a good price on them.

“The upshot of this meeting was to not only outline what kind of tubing, casting and stamping abilities were needed, but also to assess the current technology available to make these up-time instruments. In so many ways, it’s comforting to know that most of the technology needed either already exists or is high on the desirability to be developed list.

“It truly is a blending of the old and new techniques and methods of teaching. It’s not something that you can just take classes in to learn—although you can learn many of the techniques—but it involves so many cross-disciplines that—right now—there isn’t any one down-time apprenticeship that fits.

“Abe already has many of the skills he needs to do a lot of the actual hands-on work, but his jewelry background really didn’t prepare him for the physics, mathematical and acoustical engineering background required for instrument testing and design work.

“I got to make some of the parts for my flute—the apprentice-level grunt work that mainly involved using muscles to stamp out the parts from a blank, like the cups and washers. The guys also let me do some lathe work on the posts and rings and chimneys after they’d got the tools all set up.

DSHF-1“But I learned that I just don’t have the training yet for so much of the parts-making and assembly work. In addition to the general machine shop class I took last semester, I’m going to need to take a class at the Tech College on the basics of soldering, and a least a couple of different ones on casting for jewelry making, as well as more detailed classes on lathe working. These are skills I could pick up over the course of a six- or seven-year apprenticeship, but if the classes are available, this is a much quicker and easier way to learn. Trial-and-error experimentation for these basic skills would be a waste of my time and energy. I’d rather learn how to do it right the first time.

“Once I have the skills, then there’s a lot of experimentation I’m eager to try, particularly in the realm of head joint creation.” Bob leaned over and pulled off the head joint on the nearest flute and held it up for the camera.

“The one aspect of this whole flute creation where I feel I made a real difference was when the mathematician and engineering students started concentrating on the head joints.” Bob paused and smiled. “They were all stressing about how to reproduce them mathematically when I remembered a classic story about Thomas Edison and how he had handed one of his mathematicians a glass light bulb and asked him to calculate its volume. The guy told him it would take about a week and a half to do the mathematics, at which point Edison took a pitcher of water off his desk, poured water into it until it was full, handed it to the guy, and told him to ‘measure that!’ ”

“So when they were trying to figure out how to best reverse-engineer the mandrel which had been used to draw down a length of body tubing and give the head joint its taper, I suggested we use some of my Mom’s stash of plastic wrap to line the head joints, and then pour in some plaster of Paris to create a measurable reproduction of its mandrel.

“Once they got over the shock of hearing an intelligent suggestion come out of this person they’d dismissed as ‘just’ a musician, we got along fine. They took my advice and pretty soon we had four different types of head joint mandrels.

“Now, the head joint is a very key part of the flute. A good head joint can make the difference between an adequate sound and a great sound. I’d kind of heard this before, but this whole creation process really brought it home to me . . . there is no perfect head joint, but there are head joints which are better on some lips than others.

“We had four up-time head joints to work with, and every single one of them had a slightly different shape. They all started out at about the same diameter at the crown, and ended at the same diameter where it fit into the actual flute body, but everything in between was different. None of them went straight from the crown to the body . . . they all had differing curves down to the body. They also all had different-shaped lip plates and their risers underneath.

“One of those head joints sounded good on my lips, another sounded good on Marla Linder’s lips, and one could only be described as a ‘toilet seat,’ since it had no undercutting at all. Once we made a reproduction of it, however, and did a little undercutting, it didn’t sound bad at all.

“I suspect that there’s an almost infinite number of combinations possible regarding mandrel shape, the cut of the riser, the shape of the lip plate opening and the materials used for the tube, the lip plate and riser.

“The samples of professional trade magazines that Mr. Wendell had made it clear that there were some companies up-time which made entire instruments, but also some which concentrated strictly on head joints, so flute players could mix and match bodies with head joints until they found just the right combinations for their needs.

DSHF-4“Once I get my schooling and military service out of the way and get settled in my playing and teaching career, I’m hoping I’ll have time to do more experimentation with head joint making. I found it absolutely fascinating how such minute differences in shape and materials could result in such incredibly different tonal qualities. I have two pretty good flutes and head joints now, but I’m interested in seeing what other possibilities are out there, and whether another shape or a different combination of lip plate and riser wouldn’t work even better for my lips.

“This has been a pretty long program already, but really, I’ve just barely scratched the surface of what all’s needed in making an up-time flute, and haven’t even begun on what’s needed for a piccolo. I have no doubt that there’re lots of different possibilities for improvements and changes to this current design. And yet, when you compare my newest flute to the picture of one of Theobald Boehm’s original flutes in the state library, you can see that Herr Boehm himself would have no problems picking up my flute and playing it. Which, ultimately, is the highest compliment you can make to the man and his instrument’s design.

“Thank you for tuning in, and thank you to the audio-visual department of the Grantville High School which made this program possible.”


Art Director’s Note: The title banner art and interior illustrations  for this article are based upon original art and photos provided by the author, Jackie Britton Lopatin and Alan Moody of Graphic Expressions.

Thanks, Jackie!    -Garrett