I sell quite a few Andean flutes here on Street Musician and go to great lengths to make sure my customers get the best quality quena flutes, quenachos and traverse flutes that I can source from the skilled Bolivian luthiers of La Paz, via my family in Boliva.
Each flute I sell makes an incredible journey to reach my customers, covering over 6 000 miles (10 000 km) across the North Atlantic Ocean from Bolivia to the U.K. and then from my shop on to many destinations around the world to finally end up in the hands of my clients.
Many Andean flute players around the world already have a good level of knowledge and experience in caring for wooden flutes and understand the importance of treating them in the correct way, but for those of you who’ve never owned one before or perhaps are thinking of buying one in the future, I’ve put together a quick guide to help you get the most out of your wooden flute and keep it in good nic.
Follow the guide below and ensure you complete the first few stages until your flute is nicely played in, from then on you can relax and enjoy the sounds of your Andean quena, quenacho or traverse flute, safe in the knowledge you’re caring for it in the best way possible.
So to ensure you get the very best from your woodwind instrument and to maintain it’s beautiful sound and tonal qualities for years to come, please ensure you carefully follow the instructions below.
Andean flutes are beautiful, but fragile instruments and need to be cared for correctly, especially in their first few days of play when conditioning to their new environment is vital. Failure to do so will invalidate your guarantee and could result in cracking or split wood due to uneven moisture retention in the instrument.
Caring for your flute in the correct way will minimise the risk of damage, improve it’s tonal qualities and make the instrument much more robust in the future. A well cared for flute can last hundreds of years.
It is essential for all new wooden flutes to be oiled and then ‘played in’ very gently over a period of time until the moisture content in the wood stabilises, having spread evenly throughout the instrument.
Oil For Your Flute
When you first receive your flute and before playing it for the first time, it must be thoroughly oiled inside and out. This can be done using a wide variety of oils including almond oil, walnut oil, peanut oil, grape seed oil, mustard seed oil, commercial mineral oil, bore oil, high grade virgin olive oil, a good quality baby oil and raw linseed oil (not boiled).
Many luthiers prefer the use of almond oil due to it’s light nature and pleasant smell. Lighter oils must be used at a greater frequency than their heavier counterparts. Raw linseed oil is much heavier and can be used less often, although it’s smell is not quite so appealing.
Almond oil with vitamin E included is readily available and contains antioxidants which aid stability and help prevent rancidity occurring over time. Commercial mineral oil is also formulated to prevent this happening and is an excellent candidate. Bore oil (purified mineral oil) for woodwind instruments can be found in music shops and is available online. Good quality baby oil is also a viable option as it is simply mineral oil, fragranced with a pleasant smell.
Many artisans, flute makers and players have different views on which is best. Don’t fret too much when making your decision but one should use the same type of oil on each occasion when maintaining your flute.
Oiling Your Flute
This can be done using an oil soaked, lint free cloth or perhaps a sponge passed gently over the outside of the flute. Then using a thin wooden rod (can be purchased from any D.I.Y. store), carefully pass the sponge or cloth through the inside of the instrument ensuring a good coating on the inner surface.
Be sure to oil the holes, mouthpiece and each end of the flute, achieving an even coating throughout.
Once you have oiled your flute leave to dry for a few hours.
Playing In Your Flute
The process of ‘playing in’ your flute, is to allow it to adjust gradually to it’s new conditions over a number of days, allowing the moisture absorbed from the breath and surrounding environment to spread evenly throughout, stabilising over time and minimising the risk of cracking or warping.
Conditioning Your Flute
Day 1 – When your flute is dry you can now play the flute gently for 5 minutes only on it’s first session. You may then play it on two more occasions throughout the first day, preferably leaving equal gaps of a few hours between each session.
After each session, be sure to dry out excess moisture from inside the flute and around the mouthpiece with a lint free cloth to prevent excess moisture absorption.
Day 2 – On the second day you may play your flute on three further occasions, increasing your playing time by 5 minutes per session, again leaving a good time limit between each play. This will result in a maximum of 3 x 10 minute sessions evenly spaced throughout the day.
There after you should increase your playing time for each session by 5 minutes each day over the next two weeks i.e
Day 3 – 3 x 15 minutes
Day 4 – 3 x 20 minutes
Day 5 – 3 x 25 minutes
…and so on, until the flute can be played at your leisure.
Be sure to wipe excess moisture from the mouthpiece and inside of the flute after each session. If you play for extended periods of time, remove excess moisture from the flute on occasion throughout the duration of your practice.
Ideally the flute should be oiled after every 5 – 10 hours of playing. Good practice would be to oil the flute every couple of days for the first two weeks until it appears the wood can no longer absorb any more oil, and there after every once in a while throughout the duration of the flute’s lifetime.
The frequency at which you do this depends on how much you play and the type of oil used. As we mentioned before, lighter oils must be used more often, heavier oils less frequently.
Some players choose to oil their flutes regularly every few weeks, some less frequently every 3 to 4 months. Over time, as you familiarise yourself with your flute and begin to understand it’s needs, you will learn to care for it in the manner most favourable to you. Be sure to use good quality oils and not low grade industrial oils.
When your flute is not in use, always store it in it’s protective case to shelter it from temperature and humidity changes in the surrounding environment. Never expose your flute to direct sunlight or a heat source such as a radiator or excessive lighting.
Be careful when passing from one environment to another and if conditions vary considerably, allow a reasonable amount of time, say 1 – 2 hours for your flute to adjust to it’s new surroundings before removing it from it’s case and playing.
Sudden changes in temperature and humidity will cause the wood to expand or contract very quickly and may easily result in cracking. Excessively dry conditions should also be avoided.
If your flute is to be left for longer periods without playing, it should be stored in it’s protective case and placed inside a plastic bag to help prevent drying whilst in storage. When reviving your instrument, be sure to gradually play your flute in again over time as if it were new, as the moisture content in the wood will have undoubtedly dropped over extended periods.
Above All – Have Fun
A well cared for flute will last a lifetime and a little common sense will go a long way in ensuring it’s longevity, but try not to become too obsessed with moisture levels, oiling and temperature issues once you have successfully ‘played in’ your flute as this could become detrimental to your enjoyment of the instrument. As long as you treat it well over the first few weeks of ownership and take the basic precautions described above, your flute should last you very well and provide many years of enjoyment.
If you are thinking of buying an Andean flute, take a look at my flute page here on street musician or even better check out my Woodwind Instruments section on my Andean website Original Artisan where you will find a good range of Andean flutes of all types.
I’m in the process of expanding my collection to include native flutes, tunable flutes and all sorts of weird and wonderful instruments to ensure we have one of the best collections in Europe, so keep checking back to see what’s new.
Take a look at my extra special bone concert quenas.
Thanks a lot.