What Are Flutes Made Of?


The flute is categorized as a “woodwind” instrument, even though the modern flute has virtually no wooden parts. This descriptor was coined at a time when flutes were predominantly made of wood, and it has been maintained even as the material changed due to the sound retaining some of its wooden characteristics.

What are flutes made of? Flutes are made mostly of metal – both their tubing and their keywork – with corks embedded in strategic spots along their construction. The pads below the key cups are made of a combination of felt and leather in most cases. Some flutes are made of alternative materials, though they're rare.

In this article, we'll be taking a closer look at the different flute build materials, as well as the materials used for the different flute components.

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What Materials Are Used For Flutes?

As said earlier, flutes were traditionally made out of carved wood. The earliest samples utilized animal bones, as evidenced by a vertical flute found in Germany that dates back to approximately 33,000 B.C.

Contrary to popular opinion, wooden flutes still exist to this day, though they're not called flutes in modern English musical lingo. The recorder is the most popular of these wooden flutes, which some claim is the “oldest relative” to the modern Boehm-system flute.

The Boehm keywork, courtesy of Bavarian musician Theobald Boehm, was designed to streamline the fingering patterns through complex interconnected pads and rods. It also helped enhance the modern flute's tone and sound.

From that moment, flute “keys” became a reality, and the recorder, which was the predominant flute type (one of the oldest mainstream flutes in use), was relegated to specific chamber pieces.

Most notable – at least from a visual standpoint – was the change in the material used for the tube, effectively transitioning from wood to metal in 1847 (silver, to be more specific).

The motivation behind this change has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt. However, it could be speculated that silver, being inorganic, is more consistent in density, whereas wood varies greatly according to the tree/plant from which it was extracted. Also, wooden models cannot be reshaped without the material losing mass, while silver (and many other metals) can be melted down and repurposed without sacrificing the material's integrity.

Changes in the sound are another crucial factor to consider. While numerous experts have stressed that the materials themselves are not responsible for changes in the sound, some materials are notoriously more porous than others, leading to air leaks (these would be deemed “unsuitable containers”). This would lead to the generally accepted view that metal flutes have a distinctively brighter sound than wooden flutes.

In addition, no piece of wood is perfectly smooth and airtight, which would explain why results differ greatly between distinct wooden flutes. If they're manufactured using the same methods and tools, metal flutes should offer a consistent tonal quality across the board.

The metal used for flutes varies depending on the manufacturer and the model. Let's look at the different materials used for silver and golden-coloured flutes.

Silver-coloured flutes could be either solid silver, silver-plated, or a nickel-silver alloy. Gold flutes tend to be denser than silver and less susceptible to tarnish (pure gold doesn't tarnish).

The materials may vary in purity. Pure gold flutes are rare, but you might find flutes made of 14-carat and 18-carat gold, mixed with silver and copper to various degrees.

Platinum flutes are some of the heaviest flutes available and are known to produce the strongest sound but at the expense of resistance due to their weight. Silver flutes are easier to play, but their sound tends to be weaker. Again, this might have more to do with the material's density than its intrinsic properties.

Plating materials include silver, gold, and nickel. Apart from endowing the flute with different aesthetic properties, the plating is meant to provide the underlying silver or silver alloy with a protective layer against tarnishing agents (typically sulphur compounds present in the environment). The plating itself is naturally exposed as well, though typically more resistant to corrosion than the material it's designed to plate.

Contrary to what many flute marketers would have you believe, there is no established difference in sound production between plated and non-plated flutes. The plating is often so thin that it does little to change the underlying material's density to any noticeable effect.

The material used for the tubing is, in most instances, the same used for the bulk of the keywork, including the rods, posts, needle springs, and keys. You could theoretically adapt pieces made of different types of metal, but this is not common practice.


Non-metal Flutes

The modern flute market is getting filled with non-metal flute variants. This time, we'll focus on transverse flutes with the same Boehm configuration but made with non-metal materials rather than other flute types traditionally not made of metal (such as the aforementioned wooden recorder).

Flutes made from alternative materials are becoming increasingly popular, especially among young flute students. Many are marketed to budget-concerned customers who want an affordable instrument to learn and play.

Of particular notoriety is the Nuvo Student Flute (link to check the price on Amazon), made almost entirely of plastic with silicone comfort pads. This flute is touted as being “waterproof” and providing a similar response to more professional flute models while being much more lightweight. A renowned YouTube flutist tried it out and was surprised by the wide dynamic range attained with it.

Nuvo Student Flute

Other modern wooden variants have been manufactured using a type of heavy wood called grenadilla (also known as African Blackwood). Powell, a maker known for its trademark head joint styles, offers a myriad of high-quality grenadilla flutes (link to check the price at Carolyn Nussbaum) and piccolos, albeit at a steep price.

Powell is featured in My New Microphone's Top 11 Best Piccolo Brands On The Market.

Far less conventional flute types can be made using household materials such as PVC pipes or cardboard, though these are regularly unsuitable for professional use.


Non-metal Flute Pieces

Modern flutes are highly intricate instruments composed of over 120 different parts, a great majority of which are made of metal, sometimes of the same kind as the tubing or of a different kind, depending on the manufacturer's tonal/acoustic goals.

However, you'll find some pieces that are crucial to the instrument's functionality but that are not made of metal. They are supposed to interact directly with other metal parts and should, therefore, offer some cushioning to prevent damage to the mechanism.

To wit, these are the cork and the pads. Let's elaborate a bit on each of them:

The Cork

Cork is an organic material extracted from the bark of a tree. It has been used extensively in ancient times for sealing containers, as well as for making footwear and fishing equipment, among other uses. In the musical world, it has been an important material for wind instruments due to its air-sealing and dampening properties.

Across the keywork, you'll find various pieces of bumper corks devised to ease the friction between parts and provide enough height for the pads to close the tone holes properly. These bumper corks can be found on trill and Eb (D#) keys.

Another important piece of cork lies below the crown, facing the inner tube. This cork is important for ensuring the instrument's proper tuning, and any small variations in its positioning could ensue major problems in your delivery.

You can find both natural and synthetic corks on the market. If you need to replace or install a cork, it's recommended that you opt for synthetic corks due to their enhanced durability.

The Pads

Flute pads are disks – wrapped in non-woven felt and an outer skin layer – that are lodged in the keys' underside, facing the tone holes. The outer layer is often made of goldbeater skin or leather, though you may find synthetic variants with similar consistency and texture. The disks can additionally contain a metal backing for improved endurance.

The purpose of the pads is to seal the tone holes and prevent air from leaking through them. The material should be relatively flexible so that it may be pushed through the tone hole edges without cracking. This allows for proper airtight sealing while the pads retain their integrity.

Depending on the design of your flute's keys, they could sport a hole in the middle. Some flutes come with open-holed keys to offer players more versatility in their playing style, while others come with closed-hole keys, with the pads filling the entire tone hole area.

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Is It Possible To Soften Flute Pads?


If Modern Flutes Are Largely Made Of Metal, What Makes Them Woodwind Instruments?

The answer to this question was already mentioned above, though it merits some elaboration. For the record, this same question was addressed regarding saxophones, which are, in the majority of cases, made with a brass chassis.

Related articles:
Why Are Saxophones Made Of Brass? (Since They're Woodwinds)
Are Flutes Made Of Brass?

In a nutshell, the criteria for determining what constitutes a woodwind instrument has shifted from the build's material to the sound production technique employed.

For starters, whereas brass instruments amplify our lips' vibration against the embouchure, woodwinds translate the effects of blowing air against their inner edge into audible notes. In the latter case, the instrument is partly responsible for sound production rather than simply behaving like an amplifier.

Another distinction is in the way the instrument changes pitch. Brass instruments use valves (or a slide in the case of the trombone) that redirect air towards the longer tubes, and air always escapes through the same spot (the bell).

Meanwhile, woodwinds operate through keys or holes, and air can escape at different points across the tube. This gives woodwinds a less projected sound since air travels in various directions.

Related article: How Many Holes Does A Flute Have? (Different Flute Types)

These are just some of the differences, though you could find instruments that combine traits of both woodwind and brass instruments, making them a bit more difficult to pin down.

In any case, these categories were brought up at a time when build material was a determining factor, and it would not be surprising if the way we classify these instruments changed over time.


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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