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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Olwell

Here in the fluteshop, we like to take every opportunity to remind flute players and our customers that like many musical instruments, wood flutes are quite sensitive to humidity and will swell or shrink as the wood absorbs or loses moisture from (or to) the surrounding environment. In the wrong conditions it's quite possible for a flute to crack, and even though we take great care to season our wood properly to reduce this risk, there are some steps you must take if you share your home with a flute or travel with one. If you can't find a "flute terrarium" like this one, never fear! There are some simple things you can and should do to protect your flute.

The first thing to be aware of is the ever-changing relative humidity (RH) in the geographical area and individual living space in which the flute is kept. While it's not important to understand all of the relevant physics (we can't all be meteorologists, right?), note that the volume of moisture needed to reach a given RH changes with air temperature—thus in winter, conditions tend to be drier, especially indoors with forced-air and most other heating systems. As far as we have been able to ascertain, the ideal humidity range for a wooden flute is about 45-60% (possibly 50-60% for antique flutes which may not tolerate drier conditions as well as modern ones). However, indoor humidity in a home can be much lower: easily 25% in many areas of the U.S. and so extra care is needed to protect your flute from the possibility of cracking.

Step 1: Get an Accurate Hygrometer

In our experience, these things aren't always calibrated correctly, so its a good idea to

get a several and check them against each other. If you have three or four and they all agree except for one, you can be reasonably certain that those with similar readings are correct. If you get the type with an additional sensor and place it outside, you'll be able to see what the outdoor conditions are as well. This can give you a heads-up when there is a change in the weather and it's about to get dry indoors.

Step 2: Keep an Eye on the Humidity

Depending on where you live, the climate may be more or less of an issue. Ireland for instance has wetter weather than most places in the U.S., but even in wet climates, indoor

humidity can be much lower than outdoor, depending on how the home is heated or cooled. It's a good idea to swab excess moisture out of the flute after playing and to keep a hygrometer in the case as well. This is especially important when traveling. Alternatively, in

very dry conditions it may be beneficial to refrain from wiping all of the moisture out of the flute and allow the condensation inside the bore to keep the conditions in the case from drying out. A smaller device like the one seen at right can be placed inside the case—particularly critical when going from a relatively wet climate to a drier one. For example, if you live in Virginia and take a trip to Arizona, be aware that you're moving from a medium-humidity environment to the literal desert and need to take extra precautions. No one wants their flute to end up like this...

Step 3: Ideas for DIY Humidors

Depending on the above variables, it can be quite difficult to maintain the proper humidity. During a recent test we performed at home, the RH was below 30%, even after running a humidifier on high for 48 hours. In this instance it is best to keep flutes in something with a sealed vapor barrier, even if it is just a large, heavy-duty ziplock bag. We have yet to find an affordable humidor option designed for flutes, so start with a bag with a hygrometer inside and then work your way up from there.

The next step up and the simplest is a plastic tub with a rubber seal integrated into the lid. One of these made by Sterilite is a good solution, especially if you have multiple

flutes, and the clear sides allow the hygrometer to be seen without opening the lid. The rubber seal is important because the bins without them tend to dry out too quickly. You can place a cut half of an apple or a damp sponge inside to act as a time-release moisture holder and then keep an eye on the hygrometer so you know when to change it out.

If you really want to go all the way down the RH rabbit hole and make something a little nicer to look at, it's actually not difficult to make a home humidor out of a wall cabinet with a few basic tools. Our in-house mad genius Aaron Olwell created one for flute parts in the shop by sealing around the door of a wall cabinet with foam rubber, cutting a hole in the door (that is then taped over with clear tape), affixing a hygrometer to the inside, and then putting in a moisture source. Some trial and error may be needed to get the right amount of moisture going inside, but then you have a stable place where it is easier to control the RH.

However you choose to do it, don't forget to monitor the environment in which your flutes are kept, and make sure it doesn't get too dry. Remember, a dry flute is a sad flute!

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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Olwell

Updated: Jan 20

“God is change.”

-Octavia Butler

At long last, it’s moving day for Olwell Flutes! We finally finished the dual purpose workshop/living space we've been building for many years, and just before Christmas, we began the process of moving shop.

It’s been a long time coming and we are so excited to be setting up in the new space that we thought we’d share a little history and some scenes from the move. It also feels like a good opportunity here at the start of a new year to pause and reflect in gratitude for workshops new and old…

In 1988 we moved into a rented space on the upper floor of an old brick building in Massies Mill Virginia, never thinking that it would house the business for the next thirty-four years. The site itself had originally been a bank, constructed in 1921 to serve what was then a bustling small town with a railroad depot, two sawmills, and a host of businesses, but the Great depression took its toll and the bank shut down in 1931. Times changed as they do, and by the 1980s the entrepreneurs, industry, and bankers had left for greener pastures and the railroad had stopped service to the depot. There wasn’t much happening in Massies Mill but that meant an affordable space for a budding flute business—and a weaver friend of Patrick's who rented the downstairs—to set up shop.

View from the window of the Massies Mill Shop, Winter 2023

The old bank building housed us—often in more ways than one—while we gradually transitioned from making bamboo flutes and selling them at arts and crafts festivals to

custom-made conical-bore simple system wooden flutes and doing our best to complete the many orders that continue to fill our infamous waiting list.

Through the years in Massies Mill, we made flutes, swam in the river in summer, and stoked the wood stove in winter. Patrick gradually outfitted the workshop with a collection of vintage machinery, did countless hours of research on flutemaking and flute history, developed his own designs, and became one of the world’s most respected flutemakers; Matthew and Aaron played with tools, flew paper airplanes, rode bikes, and grew up working in the shop; Rowena made flute cases, worked on the production line, designed show displays and letterhead, and did much of the endless series of tasks both small and large that happen behind the scenes to run a family business; and a long series of friends and flute apprentices worked on the instruments as Olwell flutes went out into the world and became an internationally respected name.

Over time, Aaron went from flute apprentice to master craftsman in his own right, and in recent years he and Patrick have been training Matthew and our other trusty apprentice Seth Swingle, both of whom are working their way along the informal apprentice-to-journeyman path of flutemaking. Through all, the old bank building has been a great creative home to us and an important stepping-stone for the business, but as anyone who’s ever visited and experienced the outhouse can attest, it was and is a bit rustic, so an upgraded workspace has been a longtime dream.

Building the new workshop has been a lengthy labor of love, beginning in 2009 and moving in fits and starts, now gradually reaching completion thirteen years later. Now we are

excited to report that we recently passed our final inspection and so commenced an epic hauling of machinery, tools, wood, and materials to the new space, and we’re excited to start making instruments here. We have had fun setting up the machinery and configuring storage for wood and the first few days of making wood chips in the new space have been joyful ones.

Big life transitions are often bittersweet and this one feels especially so, but mostly we are feeling excitement and gratitude to have the opportunity to continue making instruments and to do it in such a beautiful new workspace. Whatever else, it’s the end of one chapter and the beginning of another and we are happy to keep “poking holes in trees” as we say in the fluteshop. Here's to many more years of flutes!

Turning on the lathe for the first time in the new shop...

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  • Patrick Olwell

It's unusual for me to have two flutes on the bench that are almost exactly the same specifications but by two different makers so I thought I would take the opportunity of working on these two 19th-century instruments to describe some of the features to which I pay particular attention when doing research. The ivory-headed flute seen above is by William Hall and Son (1847-1858), and the all-wood one is by Firth and Son (1863-1867). What I found interesting about these two is that that they have the same size tone holes in the same locations and in other respects are very similar designs including the lengths of the pieces, bore measurements, and keys, which look identical. This isn't as strange as one might suppose if we consider that the two makers trained together with flute-maker Edward Riley (and in fact married both his daughters) in New York after the War of 1812. It is probable that the same person or company made keys for most of the New York flute makers during that period, as there is quite a bit of uniformity in key designs across different makers. In the case of Firth and Hall, either the two were using the same designs and measurements or a single shop made both flutes and one was simply marketed by the other (though references indicate that the men set up businesses with their sons to make flutes, not just operate a retail music store).


The size of the tone holes are small by modern standards, but large when compared to 18th century flutes or continental 19th c. instruments. My yardstick for comparing hole sizes is based on the #4 hole, which is 7.7 mm on these flutes (just under the 8.0 mm of the “small" or Rudall-Rose model that we make here at Olwell Flutes). The bores of these two instruments I would also consider to be comparatively narrow and is similar to the pre-Nicholson bore on English flutes like Potters or Willis, where the small end of the left-hand piece is about 14.0 and the small end of the right-hand section is approximately 12.0. This is very close to the most common bore on French and German flutes. Most Rudall-Rose flutes have a bore almost a full millimeter larger, with the break between right and left hand being about 15 mm and the bottom of the right hand at 13 mm.


I'm always taken with the sweetness of tone that these flutes have and a certain ease or efficiency of how they blow. Many people also comment that the American versions are easier to play in tune and closer to A=440, which I have generally found to be true. English flutes of the period had to be able to play at sharp pitch, as well as down to 430 or 435. It seems as if the Nicholson features like his peculiar tuning system and the thinner headjoint had not made such an impression on American players and makers.

Both of these flutes are similar to others I have seen made by this consortium of makers, that is, flutes labelled Firth, Hall, Pond and Co, Firth Pond, etc., that span the years from about 1820 to 1880. They look to have been made precisely and carefully but perhaps more hastily than the most elegant silver-mounted flutes from the period, especially those made in London by Rudall and Rose. On the Hall I see details that have been glossed-over and the finishing work is not perfect. Flutes made with more rigorous quality controls have a bore that is perfectly and smoothly reamed, and the action of the keys is more smoothly regulated. Here, there are no double springs or spring plates under the tips of the springs. It's interesting that both of these flutes have barrels with no cracks, indicating that this wood was more carefully cured and dried than that of many other instruments from this period, or perhaps that these flutes benefited from a more humid seaside climate at some point in their history.

Here, Matthew and I play both flutes on a tune called "Gallagher's Frolics."

-Patrick Olwell

(Matthew Olwell, ed. and photos)

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