Overtone Music Network

a common space & database for harmonic overtones

There's no instrument with a more simple construction than the overtone flute. Just a tube, a blowhole or a fipple and a person doing the work with his breath. Simple as it is in construction, the overtone flute encourages you to build one yourself. But as with all simple things, the devil is in the detail.

There are many materials to build a flute from: bamboo, different woods, even copper or pvc. And the blowhole or fipple can be made in many different ways. Any builders out here (and there are some, I've noticed) that want to share their tricks of the trade?

My favourite material is elder. There are plenty of these shrubs growing in the area where I live, on different soils and with different microclimatic conditions. I find the wood that has grown on a loamy, sandy soil, in a moist area with poplars the best. When it comes to construction, my favourite is the scandinavian sälgflöjt, blown sideways, but with a fipple like a recorder. What are your favourite materials and constructions?

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The devil is certainly in the details. Even simpler are the overtone flutes,like the Kalyuka,which have no fipple but are rim or notch blown.
As I do not have the luxury of elder I rely on urban elder from Home Depot in the form of cpvc. Here you run into aspect ratio L/bore problems. C pvc tends to be a tad too small and cramps dynamics (volume of sound). One would think in the USA any size tubing is available and that's true if you can buy a freight cars worth. In small quantity this is not so, so your stuck with plumbing stuff. The next thing PEX is a better size but can not be glued so assembly poses challenge.If the window of the fipple is too small the instrument loses volume when it's end is closed, but if too big sustain is lost (takes too much air).The top tone needs to appear without having to jolt it introducing unwanted staccato and the bottom needs enough volume to work musically. Of some 30 tries I have one,a big G# (32"), that works the best (for me) and I have no idea why. Replication is out of the question.
So like all - "simple"- things it turns out there are still complexities--Peter
I have some plastics experience. All polymers can be glued, you just need the right glue. I could recommend some for PEX, if you explain just what that is.
Hi Dan
Well OK, PEX is a fancy kind of plumbing pipe. It is the step after PVC and has bronze fittings that hold it all together. It is a Home Depot offering and,of course, more expensive than the PVC system.. What kind of plastic,on your terms ,I donno. The instruments I am making are a combination of PVC and PEX. The interior dimension (id) of this pipe is the very critical factor which is why I use it.---Peter Riley
PEX is ---cross linked polyethelene---I think. At least that is what the "pewter" tells me--Peter Riley
I only found out just how a fipple is made earlier this year and it can be done very simply. I once saw an instruction leaflet on how to make a simple flute from a certain twig, where you'd pull the core out of the rind, notch some parts and stick them back together and voila, you have a flute. But I didn't understand from the drawings what made the thing work. Now I have learned the theory of these simple woodwinds, I understand what I didn't then, but that brings out an interesting issue.

As for bonding agents... Is glue really necessary? I bet if you attached any parts together that need to be air tight, you could just wrap wire around it (decorative steel or copper) so it's fixed, then seal it with latex paint, which sticks to pretty much anything, at least temporarily, or enamel or silicone caulking. Consider, though, that the ancient civilizations made due without the use of adhesives or mortar, they just shaped their work pieces so masterfully that they fit tight enough to build dams and airtight chambers from stone, dig?

The aforementioned 3m PEX bonding agent sort of dissolves the surface of the plastic making it possible to join it with another piece of compatible polymer. When the solvent flies out, the polymer sets up resulting in a firmly joined object that will not come apart again at the joint, but rather anywhere else where it is weaker. In essence, the bond is a weld, not a seam, the two pieces are joined by "melting" them together chemically.

Also, is PEX not flexible? I haven't had any experience handling it, I use PET or MVC mostly, some acrylics and polycarbonates, but they're not often used for pipes and tubes, too rigid and not elastic enough to withstand pressures at decent lightweight material thicknesses, like glass. It's too easy to break if it's too thin-walled, and making thicker walls increases the weight of the pipe, making PVC clearly the better choice.

The website says it's thermosetting HDPE-like material, which I believe means that you can give it's shape memory using heat, suggesting that it is bendable when warm, and hard when cold. Perhaps one could use it's thermal properties to insert an oversized "cork" or stopper into the tube while it's warm and then letting it cool off, creating a tight joint similar to the way railcar wheels are attached to their axles.

That's all the smart-ass suggestions I have at this time, seeing how I still haven't built my plastic flute yet...

Hope it's helpful. Ask me anything. I can be a huge resource of semi-useful information at times.
Overtone flutes need to be 50-55 times the length of the bore diameter to sound really well. They definitely work better as fipple blown than end blown due to the necessary length implied by the bore/length ratio. Finger holes are easily determined using one of the many available spreadsheets. Google "home made Fujara" or "home made overtone flute" and you will end up with some great resources.

BTW Most societies were well aware on animal protein adhesives, eg hide glue, casein glue etc. Combined with a hide cord wrapped around the flute air tightness is pretty straight forward. Hard drying oils can provide moisture proofing.
I think making a fipple in an elder flute (or any other kind of wood) is harder than making a fipple in a plastic tube, but correcting mistakes on the other hand will be easier. When the blowing channel is placed too low for the airflow to hit the sharp edge of the blade, you just use a file to put the channel higher up. Maybe you'll need a new block in that case, but blocks are the easiest part in the whole process.

I've always wondered about fipples in copper flutes. You'd have to bend the metal a bit to place the edge of the blade in the airflow, but I've never found working with metal really appealing. It would be possible to combine a wooden mouthpiece with a copper tube, but I doubt the copper would have too much influence on the sound of the instrument. And with all the copper theft we have around here these days in the Netherlands (even historical brass wind instruments are nicked to be sold for scrap, not to mention the delays on the railways because of copper wire theft along the lines!)...I guess I'll stick to wood.

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