Friday, June 13, 2014

How to clean and repair a flute? Take it to the shop.

(click on picture to enlarge it.)


Hi Jen

I'm preparing a speech about basic flute repair for my demonstrative speech assignment for a college class.  As I was doing some research to help cite my sources, I stumbled upon your blog and ended up checking it out. 
By any chance could you possibly give me some tips for basic cleaning? Although I've played the flute since middle school, I would love some tips from professional.


 Hi there, you probably have found them already, but you can find my care tips here: Flute Care.

And here are my main pointers:

Firstly, flutes are the opposite of say, brass trumpets or trombones that can be bathed and polished.
Flutes should never be "bathed and polished" or even oiled at home.

Fluteplayers are not advised to "clean" their flute themselves because of all the possible damage that can result from the exuberance of an inexperienced enthusiast.

Ask any professional flutist and you will find, even among those who have taken re-padding courses and general repair courses, that the true expertise and tools required would take more time and focus than you actually have to hand. If you need that flute working now, short of putting rubber bands on it to hold the pieces together, there is nothing to be done but to take it to the repair expert in your area.

Leave it to a reputable technician who ONLY fixes flutes and woodwinds for a living, and the flute will be repaired (in a fraction of the time it would take for you to make the problem way way worse!), and the price for the visit to the repair shop may be much lower than you think.
(Disclaimer: I am not saying this to make a profit for anyone; I'm saying this like an Olympic athlete talks about needing their daily equipment to be expertly repaired.)

Here are my main points from 40 years experience:

1. Working flutes need to be free of common "pad-leaks".

Pad-leaks occur every few months due to the wet-dry effect on natural pad materials (cotton batting, fish skin membrane etc), plus the unevenness of finger pressure and moisture collection affecting certain pads (gravity pulls moisture onto pads that are facing downward during play).

Experienced professional flutists will notice pad leaks immediately, whereas beginners and amateurs only notice them when they become truly bad; for example, when "notes don't come out". A flute technician finds leaks through very careful testing and can transform your flute from a bungler to an amazing machine in a day and a half. It's all about pad shimming. They have the tools and the eye. Trust them. You cannot shim your own pads.

Afterall, the key parts of a flute that are  most affected by weather, daily use, and wet-dry cycles, are not the great hulking tubes and round keys made of silver, they are surprisingly, the hidden tiny elements of a flute; things such as cork, glue, leather and paper. (padding expertise is really paper-shim expertise.)
These tiny important parts are invisible when you look at the flute.
You'll never find them. And if you find them, you won't know what to do with them.
 Leave it to a trained technician.

The main tube and the moving metal parts of a flute cannot be properly cleaned at home with any success. Most tarnish is unreachable (under the rods) and most tarnish returns.

And the unseen parts that truly affect the flute (paper shims, corks etc.) are not fixable by the home user without the experience of working on many many flutes; ask anyone who's taken repair courses.
You need to have successfully padded about 1000 pads before you even begin to know what you're doing. Don't start with your own flute. :>)

All tarnish removal requires a technician to disassemble the mechanism
 (and household or jewellry silver-polish is not for flutes!).

So 99% of all flute cleaning should be done by an experienced flute repair technician when they are doing their annual clean-oil-adjust maintenance on every flute, and they will oil it and clean it all at once.

 How do you find these amazing technicians?
The flute professionals know who the good technicians are in your area. Just ask.

2. The flute owner needs only to do the following:

- swab the moisture out after playing

- handle the flute carefully avoiding bumbs and knocks

- protect the flute from household dust and animal hair (super-thin dog and cat hair can wind around rods and lurk clingingly in the flute case; vaccuum the case and keep it closed.)

- don't let the flute sit upsidedown on its keys (water droplets cause pads to harden unevenly)

- don't mishandle the flute by assembling/dissassembling while grasping the bendable moving parts ( grasp smooth parts of tube only.)

- ask who the professional flutists take their flutes to.

3. Flute owners can also keep their lip plate clean for comfort:
If there is unseen gunk build-up inside the blow-hole you can clean that once a year.
Gunk can be removed gently with a Q-tip dipped in isopropyl alcohol.
A microfibre cloth and spit can be used to clean the lip-plate when you're putting it away each time.

4.  Ask any flute repair expert; it is the lack of proper oiling (every 6-12 months by technician) is the cause of longterm mechanical wear and tear on a flute, making it lose its value (oil-dry flutes wear out the fine fit of metal parts). Without oil the metal eventually grinds down and finally, through much wear, fits loosely causing whole chunks of rods and therefore keys to move out of position during play.
Once at this stage, the flute is usually a write-off. So annual oiling is key, and goes along with the cleaning and adjusting in the "Clean-Oil-Adjust" once a year.

5. Fingerprints don't need constant polishing off. But spit and microfibre cloths will eliminate sticky marks. (Don't rub against the pad edges under the keys.)
 Most owner-caused problems are caused by trying too hard to keep the flute clean. The flute body stays cleaner if you wash your hands, brush your teeth. Isopropyl alcohol can be used to wipe a lip plate between those sharing a flute.

Almost everyone who tries to clean or repair their own flute ends up having to take it to the shop afterwards, and THAT becomes incrementally more expensive.

I have had the ghastly experience of hearing what students do to their flutes when they only meant to polish them, and ended up taking a screwdriver to them.

(I once had a student who took all the keys off herself and then, as she said,  "reefed on them" to fix a pad leak. She lost track of which way to reef.
She bent several keys and rods, and then the repair shop had a heck of a time trying to bend them back. And this was a very smart student.....gad! Flute was written off.)

Some pictures are below that show some of the specifics, from an earlier blog post on knowing when a flute needs repair. There is also an article called "Is it the flute, or is it me?" on my website, with a checklist for noticing repair needs.

click on pictures to enlarge them.

Hope this helps.
Best, Jen
Comments (4)
Blogger Olya said...

In keeping with the subject, is it possible the cracking high Es is related to cracks in the solder in the head joint? I know that the note is unstable, but I've tried fixing the problem with no good result. However, I happened to test a different head joint (a Nagahara, I am playing a Muramatsu GX) and the problem went away. Completely. On the spot. No work needed, except to adjust to a better sounding effortless Es. Unfortunately, I couldn't keep the Nagahara (someone did a HORRID jod of fitting it to a different flute) I should probably mention that I did drop the head joint once on a concrete floor.

Monday, June 16, 2014 9:56:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

It sounds possible. If you shine a flashlight on the headjoint lip-plate, of course in a dark room, and block the blow hole with a finger tip, can you see the light shining in when you look up the open end of the tube?

Monday, June 16, 2014 12:54:00 PM

Blogger Olya said...

Oh, no, I can. I wonder if it's an expensive repair. They'd probably have to re-solder it. Thanks for your help!

Monday, June 16, 2014 1:08:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

It's not that expensive to repair, but you must must must take it to an expert technician; don't just have it repaired at any old music shop.
Glad you were able to "see the light". That was an easy diagnosis. Good for you! Don't worry; worse case it won't sound exactly the same, but at least it will play. Best case, it will be restored to its former ability. Best, Jen

Monday, June 16, 2014 1:54:00 PM


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