Care and Feeding of your Native Style Flutes Flute care is one of those subjects that, for everyone that you ask, you may likely get a different opinion. As a rule, the primary source of information on the subject should be the original maker of the particular instrument. It is always valuable to ask and to know if there are any special considerations, do’s and don’ts, for their finish of choice and method of construction.
Speaking of finishes, be aware that there is not one universal finishing product or technique used in flute-making and will likely vary greatly from one maker to the next. Be advised that what may be beneficial to one type of finish may be harmful to another. For that reason I always find it valuable to know what products were applied to your flute. Secondly, considering that you are putting it directly to your mouth, I feel that you have every right to know. So again, ask the maker and consider him, or her, to be the primary source of care information.
Transporting and storage are important aspects of flute care. A simple bag from a soft, scratch free fabric can go a long way to keeping your flute safe from scratches and dings and can be considered your first line of defense. Many makers will provide bags with their flutes, have them available for purchase or, unless you are handy with a sewing machine, be able to direct you to someone that makes them. Beyond the bag I have seen flutes being transported in many creative ways ranging from 5 gallon Home Depot buckets to gun cases, rolling suitcases, padded instrument cases and so on. With a little bit of research you should be able to find something that suits your needs and gives you peace of mind to take your prized possessions out into the world.
If you have been playing the Native Flute for any time you surely have become aware of the dreaded condition known as “WET OUT”. Caused by the naturally occurring moisture in your breath condensing inside the flute and building up to the point that it “wets out” and impedes play. How quickly this occurs is impacted by several things includes the type of wood and construction, the weather condition and how “wet” a player that you are. The important thing to note is that with your breath there is moisture. Beyond getting in your way of making beautiful notes it can have some detrimental effects on your flute all of which can be easily avoided with basic care. There are several methods you can use to remove the moisture. First you can BLOW the moisture out by putting the flute to your lips with the block facing down, opposite from the way you would play, and giving a hard blow. This may clear the moisture and allow you to continue play but will not remove it completely. Second you can hold the flute firmly with the mouth end down and shake. I generally do not recommend this method as flutes have been known to slip from the hand and hit the floor with disastrous results. Last, you can untie and remove the block, wipe off the flue and bottom of the bird with a soft and absorbent cloth and stand the flute upright (mouthpiece down) allowing the flute to dry out naturally. I realize that some folks, especially new players, are intimidated with the thought of removing the bird but the sooner that you get comfortable with the process, the better.
The unique construction of the Native Style Flute includes a “Slow Air Chamber (SAC),” that is dark and typically damp after playing. This creates an ideal environment for growth of bacteria or mold and can be of particular issue if you live in a humid climate. Removing the bird regularly and allowing the chamber to dry thoroughly is your best defense from that happening. It is important to note that this moisture is naturally occurring condensation from your breath and is not saliva. Should you find something growing inside your flute what should you do after being initially grossed out by your discovery? Again, here is where the type of finish needs to be considered and perhaps your flutemaker consulted. Alcohol, while a great disinfectant, is also a solvent and can degrade the finish and rob the wood of it’s natural oils, and never use mouthwash (another common "recommendation") for the same reasons. Filling the SAC with any liquid can cause a host of issues and should be avoided at all cost. I typically prefer and recommend natural methods to combat the problem. Air and sunlight can go a long way to help with the problem. Beyond that some essential oils such as Tea Tree and Lavender are known for their antiseptic properties. For most applications these oil should be diluted in a carrier oil selected for its properties and resistance to rancidity. Almond, grapeseed, or hemp oil are both good choices and the 5-10% dilution of essential oils to carrier can be an effective germ killer for the external surfaces but, always do your homework before blending your own. A single drop of pure Tea Tree or Lavender essential oil in the area of growth can be used to effectively combat mold growth inside the SAC. I do not recommend oiling the bores of a wooden flute, bamboo is another subject. If you do choose to do so anyway go easy, use sparingly and remove any excess never leaving a buildup. IMPORTANT: ALWAYS know what is contained in the product you choose prior to use and always read the labels and warnings. Be aware that some folks have sensitivities to certain oils, natural or otherwise. Pure essential oils can be effective in small amounts and typically not to be applied to the skin in full concentration.
Most commercial cleaning and furniture care products contain chemicals and solvents so always read the label prior to use and avoid if possible. You may be surprised that an off the shelf product labeled “Orange Oil” may be comprised mostly of petroleum based solvents and only a small amount of natural oil. A flammability warning on the label is a dead giveaway.
The last area I will touch on is maintaining the exterior finish of your flute. This is another area where a little bit of proper care can go a long way. Remove your flutes from their bags and store in a safe area out of direct sunlight. Besides removing the bird and drying the SAC that we already discussed, always wipe off the mouthpiece with a soft cloth before putting them away. Carefully selected and properly applied, most finishes will last for many years although the contact areas and mouthpiece in particular may tend to show some wear and tear. Here is where a natural wax product can work wonders. Again, I advise to avoid commercial furniture care products and always know what goes into whatever product you choose apply to your flutes and therefore put to your lips. I prefer to use organic beeswax with the addition of natural oils carefully chosen for their safety and benefits and blended to soft, paste-like consistency. Applied to the surface, the oils, depending on the finish, can be absorbed into the wood nourishing it and leaving a wax coating on the surface that can be buffed to a satin sheen. The wax preparation can be applied with a soft cloth but personally, I like to use my fingers and find that your body heat helps to soften, spread the wax and work it in. I also find it to be therapeutic. Use the polish sparingly working it into the surface paying particular attention to the mouthpiece and other contact points. Be careful not to leave any residue that can interfere with play and avoid applying anything to the flue and to the bottom of the block. While the above is suitable in most cases, again consult with your makers for compatibility with the finish on your flute.
To sum it all up, exercise preventative measures first, consult with your maker, educate yourself on the finish of your flutes and to the ingredients to any product that you choose to apply. With a small and thoughtful amount of care, your flutes will retain their beauty and playability for a lifetime of enjoyment and beyond.
Ed “Greybeard” Dougherty; Flutemaker at Tree of Life Designs.