Keyed Flutes - traditional musical instruments

Keyed Flutes hand made by P.G. Bleazey UK
Keyed Flutes, hand made by P.G. Bleazey

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Keyed Flutes
The classical 8 keyed flute is the true origin of today's keyless flute or folk flute or Irish flute whichever you choose to call it. These instruments became widely available to the general public when Theodore Boehm introduced his revolutionary new key system in the mid 1800s and players of the classical models discarded them for the new Boehm system flutes. They soon began to appear in junk shops for sale at prices the folk musician could afford. They were snapped up by players who soon developed a playing style which did not need the keys and after a while it was realised that the redundant keys were actually detrimental to the performance of the instrument. This prompted makers to start taking dimensions from surviving instruments and start making replicas without the keys.

Great effort is put in by today's makers to achieve superior tone production and tuning accuracy and to this end much experimentation is made with different materials. The original wooden instruments were made from Cocus wood or African Blackwood. Today makers are using such replacement species as Mopani which grows in Africa and is known to withstand long periods of drought. This means there is no danger , at present, to the species from cutting for instrument making. I also have made instruments in Lignum Vitae, one of the densest of woods and Cook town Iron Wood from Australia. Other makers prefer to use materials requiring little care and no maintenance work at all such as the plastics and I know of makers who machine keyless flutes from solid aluminium. Probably the strangest looking keyless flutes are made by potters and these ceramic instruments come glazed in many colours including the traditional blue of Delft in Holland.

Keyed flutes are becoming more and more sought after by folk and Irish musicians alike. There are two methods of fitting keys to wooden flutes, the more common and modern, post method and the less often seen method of block mounting as found on all the good original flutes. The medieval and Tudor flute was not largely different from the flute we know today. Like many modern folk flutes and whistles, the instruments were six holed and did not have any keys.

Post mounting is achieved by using mass produced posts, or pillars as they are sometimes called, which are screwed with a thread, like that found on a wood screw, into the body of the instrument. The key is usually furnished with a crosswise mounted tube to take the trunnion pin and the two posts and key are drilled in position with a jig to create the assembly, all lined up to accept the trunnion pin which is screwed into one of the pillars. The longer keys are further supported by a similar pillar, screwed into the body of the instrument and slotted to keep the head or cup of the key lined up with the tone hole.

Block mounting requires more work to be done on the actual flute body due to the blocks which have to be left standing up to accept the keys. This means that the flute body is turned leaving rings of wood in place where the mounting blocks will be and then using a dividing head on the milling machine the unwanted part of the ring is removed to leave the block in position. The blocks are then slotted in line with the tone hole drillings. The best method of block mounting is to use a block with a metal lining as this makes the block much stronger and friction is reduced giving a very smart action.

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