In my other life I am also a mechanic

I started repairing musical instruments in the 1970s. My hippie days. Started a business doing that when I was 19. Taxes and red tape slowly turned me, or helped turn me, into a conservative, if by conservative we mean someone who believes that people should stay the hell out of other people’s business.

Anyway it’s difficult to get away from the musical instruments completely. Below is a Yamaha 894– solid silver body and keys, and this one has a custom headjoint made by Drelinger in White Plains, NY. The Japanese have been making some fine instruments and this one is no exception. Each key is like a piece of jewelry, not in the sense that certain guns are said to be “jewelry” but literally.

Every key is fit to its pivots or shaft to perfection. Any tighter and it would bind with temperature changes. One key can have a half dozen or more parts, silver soldered together in a jig and hand polished. The soft pad each key holds must produce an air-tight seal with a light touch to the tone hole, it must do it quietly, and it must usually do it in mechanical combination with one or more other keys, so there is a fair amount of regulation of each key, and more regulation between keys.


The soft pads are leveled to the tone holes by use of paper shims of various thicknesses. I work with .001″, .002″ and .003″ shims mostly. Mark, remove the pad, cut a shim, paste it on the back of the pad, reinsert the pad, and try. Repeat as necessary, which can be many times per pad. You can see the punches, of which I’ve made several to fit various pad cup sizes, and bits of round shims, and a razor blade for cutting them into pieces. Sometimes you use whole shims to increase the effective thickness of the pad.

If you’re not already crazy it can drive you there. Many, many attempts, by many people (myself included) have been made over the decades to come up with a pad that’s more or less self-leveling and that can still hold up to moisture and all the rest, without sticking or making more noise, and so far it’s still the old felt and bladder skin pad that’s generally preferred.

It takes hours and hours, but I love it when it all comes together and the instrument finally becomes a “single thing” again, rather than the many parts I’ve been working on separately. You could even say it’s music to the ears. Lately though I’m given pause, wondering what good any of this does for anyone.

This flute is one of several owned by the principal flutist in a Northwestern U.S. orchestra, and yes; she knows that her flute is being worked on by a gun accessory corporation president. We’ve known each other for decades. She’s also a university professor and so it is safe to say that our world views differ somewhat. Two worlds. We get along very well all the same.


9 thoughts on “In my other life I am also a mechanic

  1. Intricate mechanical devices are cool. Well made ones really are works of art.

  2. Amazing stuff. I have a cousin that plays a few woodwind instruments and they are intricate indeed.

    I’m pretty handy with tools myself but tweaking those is beyond me.

  3. The interconnections in a flute are neat. The modern flute design (unlike the ones of the 17th century), by a German name Böhm, is essentially chromatic — one hole per half step. That means more holes than people have fingers. So the mechanism allows you to close some of the holes close to the mouth-piece by pressing keys further down — which also closes that lower hole but that doesn’t change things. Very slick.

    One hassle of those pads is that they sometimes get sticky. A flute book long ago taught me the solution to that: slip pieces of cigarette paper (with the glue strip torn off) between pad and flute. That’s just absorbent enough to cure the problem.

    Yes, Yamaha makes nice flutes. I still have one I got from my grandmother 30 years ago. It wasn’t even all that expensive, but it sounded much better than the other ones I tried (even though I’m very much an amateur).

    • Some people use a dollar bill to clean the pads, but I think it’s far too thick for a flute. We used cigarette papers coated with Dry-Lube for years, and then Yamaha came out with “Powder Papers” which are stronger than cig papers and come pre-coated with some powder that works about like the Dry-Lube.

      Yes; the whole mechanism is merely an exsention of the fingers, both for the spacing and the number of holes you mentioned and also for the size of the tone holes, most of which are much larger than those on more primative flutes and couldn’t be properly covered with a finger.

      A friend of mine was a maker of Baroque flutes, which were wood and had only one key, typically, or sometimes two or three. You could play a chromatic scale, but it took a great deal of dexterity (and some contortion) in “half-holing” and cross fingering to do it. That would have been the technology used before and around the time of Mozart. Baroque flutes had a cylindrical bore head, and a body that tapered downward toward the other end, and were much softer in sound. The modern flute has a tapered head and a cylindrical body, and in the right hands it can belt out a lot more, brighter sound and is vastly easier to play. The owner of the one pictured is very loud, as I like to say, or she can be, in her personality, her voice, her dress, and in her playing, and is extremely good at the latter.

      • The relatively complex mechanisms of modern “woodwinds” results in the need for nearly all of the relatively frequent and very expensive maintenance work they require. A Baroque woodwind instrument with two or three simple keys didn’t need much beyond keeping the wood properly cleaned and treated.

  4. I was always taught that a modern flute is cylindrical all the way through. I’ve certainly never seen any sign of taper in it anywhere.
    As for complex mechanism, yes indeed (with the exception of recorders, which are essentially unchanged from their baroque ancestors). You mentioned the adjusting that’s needed — which isn’t too painful where it can be done with little adjusting screws, but as I recall some things depend on bending stuff and that’s a lot more trouble.

    • All modern flute head joints have a visible taper, which is more or less parabolic. The body and foot are cylindrical.

      The entry level flutes all have adjusting screws, as do some of the mid to sort of high end ones. This one, due to a tradition that I hate, has none. The adj screws can be a problem, in that they can go loose if the system is not designed and built properly. The better adj screw systems have constant tension on the screws so they can only turn with deliberate effort and they essentially never get loose. The screws also tend to present very little surface area, and so they can peen into the material they’re pushing against. I like them when they’re made right though- they really work and make life easier.

      But alas; no adj screws on this one. Adjustments are made by shimming in nearly all cases. You can bend the longish thumb Bb lever, but that’s about it unless you want to cause more trouble than you’re avoiding. Everything else you shim. You use the right pad thicknesses, the right felt thickness and so on, and you’re close. From there it takes maybe a few thousandths of paper shim, at those places where you’d otherwise see an adj screw, to put it spot on. It’s built to such perfection at the factory that bending anything only subtracts from it. Call it tedious or just time consuming. It just is.

      With cheaper ones I have no compunction against bending and bending ’till it works right, but if you do it wrong you only end up with binding hinge rods and other problems. Ok, I did bend one key arm to the side on this flute, so as to center the pad cup over the tone hole. I’ll assume that it had been bumped at some stage in its years of use. I know it was perfect from the factory because I handled the sale and did the final check, tweek and test.

      Some techs claim they never bend. I’ve run into those guys. They’re mechanically inept if it’s true, or just plain dishonest for no particular reason if it isn’t. I guess some people are turned on by the claim, like the keys were made in heaven, by magic, and they have a sort of virginity that is soiled if you bend one. Those people have never seen a real life factory assembler at work. If they did, their world view (their “faith”) would be shattered. Actually, I know from experience, that they’d just move their “faith” into something else they haven’t seen. Anyway, practically all users bend their keys once in a while in handling mishaps and may not know it. They just know something isn’t right and so they take it in for repair. If you bent it, I’m sure going to bend it back.

  5. As head of Audio for a large production show I have to pay for “horn” repairs form time to time and its always terrifying… Its hard to believe how insanely complex woodwinds and brass are. I Just had to send a Tenor Sax in for serious work. I Pray the English horn doesn’t need anything for another year or two, that will take your breath away….

    • Properly set up, HANDLED AND CARED FOR, the English horn could potentially go several years without any major work. The problem with instruments made of wood is that extra variable– the expanding and contracting wood onto which all the precision mechanism is mounted. If it’s played only occasionally it could dry out quite a bit, depending on local climate, and then when pressed back into service you can end up with problems ranging from binding or loose keys to a cracked body.

      We’d take shipment of instruments out of the Midwest, where it is apparently more humid than here in the inland Northwest. They could be set up beautifully, but after several weeks to months they’d start to bind up due to wood shrinkage. Customers could get frustrated, when after spending several thousands of dollars on a new instrument they’d find the mechanism seizing up. I took to explaining to them in advance that such would likely happen, that we would take care it, and it was all fairly normal.

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