Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

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Crafting Native American Flutes

If you are interested in crafting Native American flutes, this page and the following pages provide a wide range of resources. However, players can also benefit from some of this information, such as how to bind a flute to repair or prevent cracks.

These resources come from many sources and take many approaches to the art and craft. Some are oriented to a “seat of the pants” approach, and others are more technical and analytical. These various levels and approaches are intermixed, so you'll need to browse around these pages to find the resources that best suit your style.

Be aware that many things associated with constructing musical instrument have the potential to be dangerous (or deadly). Consider carefully you level of experience with the tools or techniques you are planning to use, and please seek the advice and training of someone who can guide you on how to use the tools and techniques safely!

Traditional Methods

Northern Plains Courting Flute, about 1880, Heritage Auctions

Northern Plains Courting Flute, about 1880, Heritage Auctions Larger image

Traditional approaches to flute crafting have been surveyed in a number of sources ([Conlon 1983], [Wapp 1984]), but these references may be difficult to locate. One available source document is [Densmore 1929b] Chippewa Customs, which provides a detailed description of traditional construction techniques in the Chippewa culture. See also the description of hole placement by traditional means on the Finger Hole Placement page on this site.

Flute Sheet

A popular tool for flute construction is Bob Grealish's Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. It is ideal for people who are comfortable with Excel and like a more technical approach. Note that many of the cells in the workbook (especially those containing formulas) are protected.

On March 21, 2011, Bob provided this description of the history of the equations and calculations used on the spreadsheet:

I made the first version of my spreadsheet after studying Lew Paxton Price's books for a year**. I used his “magic ratio” formulas for placing the holes, which are based on the volume of each section of the vibrating air column. After that I had a couple of years worth of discussions with Mike Prairie, who knows more about fluid dynamics than anyone else I've run across. I then modified FluteSheet, replacing the magic ratio formulae with impedance formulae that Mike provided. I also included adjustments for the inside and outside curvature of the flute wall, which gives slightly different results than assuming a straight cylindrical finger hole. I believe these modifications give more accurate results, but I have yet to actually document this (a planned experiment).

I then started learning how to tune the cross-fingered notes, and added the section to the spreadsheet for estimating the size (and thus the location) of the second hole that would result in that hole being tuned for the regular and the cross-fingered note. By locating this hole, making the other holes similar in size, and adjusting from there, I can tune a 5-hole flute close to a perfect chromatic scale with cross-fingerings. Hole 4 (of 6) becomes superfluous. The instructions for tuning the cross-fingered notes are included in a separate section of Flutesheet.

Here is a link to version 3.1 from March 1, 2009, provided courtesy of Bob Grealish:

Flute Sheet Version 3.1 - Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for flute construction

**The complete series of small flute-making books by Lew Paxton Price (including [Price 1991] and [Price 1997]) is described on the Oregon Flute Store site. They are also available from other sources or by contacting Lew at lewprice@softcom.net. The Lew Paxton Price web site (primarily educational) is at http://www.softcom.net/users/greebo/price.htm.

How-To Manuals

Several widely-used manuals on creating Native American flutes are available:

For more how-to books and videos, visit the Oregon Flute Store and click on the “Flute Making Resources” link.

Historic Instruments

An on-line version of the core reference The Care of Historic Musical Instruments ([Barclay 1997] The Care of Historic Musical Instruments) is now available. It provides a wealth of information on handling and documenting artifacts, as well as details on materials, finishes, and construction methods.

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