Jen Cluff ~ Check your flute for repair

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

Is it the Flute? Or is it me?

Testing your flute. by Jen Cluff

Here are some common problems to check for on your flute
so that you can determine: Is it the flute? Or is it me?
All of them occur as the result of either simple aging,
or through rough or careless handling.
After you've checked all these things you should
have a clearer idea how much (if any) repair your flute
needs, and can take it in to be seen to by a reputable flute
technician or repair person.
It's a smart idea to use the same repair-person that the
professionals in your areas use, so ask your private teacher,
your nearest flute performing professional,
or the music school staff in your area.

Things to check yourself:

1. Headjoint cork shrinkage:

Suction-test the headjoint to see if there's a leak in the crown end due to a shrunken or loose headjoint cork.
Method #1 Suction test (easiest): Wet the pad of one finger and use it to gently and completely cover the blowing hole, so that no air could escape. Use the fleshy pad of your fingerprint, and let the saliva make an air-tight seal. Create a vacuum with your mouth on the open tenon. Determine whether there is an air leak at the cork-end of the crown by listening, and feeling for vacuum pressure.
Additionally: Test to see if the suction "holds" for a few seconds after you've stopped creating it.
Method #2 Suction test (older method): Cover the open end of the headjoint with the heel of a licked palm, a rubber stopper or large cork to totally close the tenon, or connecting end of the headjoint. Next create a great deal of suction through the embouchure hole, and listen for hiss at the crown of the flute.
Additionally: Test to see if the suction "holds" for a few seconds after you've stopped creating it.
Alternately, your cork may be so shrunken from age and moisture (takes about 10 years, but this DOES happen) that you can slide it easily by using the cleaning rod or by unscrewing the crown several turns and pushing or pulling on it.
If this is the case, and your headjoint cork slides around easily, it should be replaced. A new cork is under $10 and a technician or repair-person can accomplish this in just a few minutes.

2. Pads leaking:
Finger the keys as lightly as possible, and play each note
chromatically down the flute, refusing to press the key any
harder than you would a piece of delicate tissue paper (or
butterfly's wings, if, for example, you were a butterfly vet.)

Without adding ANY finger pressure, does each note sound equally clear? If not you have a leak.

Those clever enough to find a long, thin light that can be gently
inserted down the body of the flute can look for light-leaks in
the pads like a real pro. But most flutist's begin to sense pad leaks only after they've felt the difference between leaking and non-leaking pads by lightening their finger pressure after a well-repaired flute has been returned to them in top working order.

So the best bet is to have a flute technician check for pad leaks, especially when you're returning to the flute after
many year's absence, or if you haven't had it serviced in at
least the last two years. Take it in to the most reputable
technician you can find and let them fix the leaks.

Note: Almost any flute that has not been serviced for a year DOES HAVE PAD LEAKS. You just have been unconsciously using more and more finger pressure. Believe me. :>)

3. Pad wear and tear:
Turn the flute over, and look carefully at the pads, looking for
tears, dirt buildup, and surface wear.
Any pads that show shreds of tissue, or breaks in the surface
will need to be replaced by a qualified technician.

To avoid pad wear:
- press very lightly on keys when playing
-never wrap your hands around keys when assembling flute
-avoid scuffing pad edges when buffing flute with a cloth
-swab out flute body moisture after every use

4. Footjoint keys out of adjustment:

The most common reason for having difficulty with playing low C on the flute is that the footjoint keys are no longer adjusted so that they're falling at the same split second. If you look closely, the C and C# keys are both supposed to go down when depressing only the C roller.

There's an L-shaped elbow that connects them, and a tiny piece of L-shaped cork at this elbow that insures that the two round pads hit the holes at the same exact instant.

 If there has been rough handling of the footjoint,
the C and C# will not land at the same exact instant.
To check for this problem:
Depress the C natural roller only, and watch closely to see if
both the C and the C# keys land at the exact same time on their
respective tone-holes.
You will probably be able to see, just with your eyes, whether or not they are acting identically.

If you suspect that the C# key is somehow bent, or not closing
all the way when only the C roller is depressed, but are not
sure, take a leaf of cigarette paper, with the glue strip cut
away, and place it under the C# key while depressing the C
If the cigarette paper can be pulled out from under the C# pad
with little or no resistance while just the C roller is
depressed, it could be that the footjoint's keys are out of
adjustment. Both pads (C and C#) SHOULD both seal at the same rate.
This is an inexpensive repair. The technician will tweak the bent key, and/or add a shim or new piece of cork to the L-shaped joining-bar of the two keys.

To avoid this problem:
- When assembling the flute, never grip the keys and rods of the footjoint, but only the very end of the joint, where there are no keys.
Hand pressure on the footjoint is the number one cause of low
note pad leaks.

5. Gunk buildup on the inside of the embouchure hole.
Does your flute sound progressively more stuffy each year?
Perhaps there's a gunk buildup inside the strike wall of the
embouchure hole.

To remove gunk-buildup inside the chimney of the flute's
headjoint, take a clean Q-tip and dip it in isopropyl alcohol
(available at any drugstore, also cleans tape-recorder heads and removes adhesive residue...handy all around product).
Gently gently swab the inside of the chimney, and carefully
remove any buildup.
Check the tone of the flute to see if it has improved.

To avoid gunk buildup inside the embouchure hole:
-Clean the inside of the embouchure hole at least every few
months if you've previously experienced a 'gunk build-up'
problem, and remove lipstick or heavy makeup before playing.

6. Checking for key adjustment problems:
"Adjustment" means that two keys are falling at the same time, or that a lever is operating a key at a distance accurately. If one or more keys is "out of adjustment" you will find that the note in question sounds stuffy, or has poor tone compared to its neighbouring notes.
You may also find that you need to apply a lot of finger pressure to make the tone sound clear on a certain note.
So here are some adjustments that you can check yourself. (Very much like checking for pad leaks: Use a butterfly-touch when depressing keys).
a) All the Bbs on your flute for tone quality.
Check: Thumb key Bb; RH index finger Bb; RH lever Bb (above F key) If these do not sound equally clear in tone, bring the flute very close to your eyes and watch each series of keys and levers as you finger these forms of Bb. When you observe that one of the keys is not sealing all the way, take it to a repair person.

b) F# fingered with the RH ring finger.
When you depress the right hand ring finger the round, padded key just above the F natural key (have a close look) should be going down at the same time to cover the "real" F# tone hole with no leaks.
You can also place a gum-less piece of cigarette paper under this "real" F# key, (above the F natural key) and depress the RH ring finger, checking that the paper is properly "gripped" by the real F# key.
If it is easy to zip out from under, you need to have the
repairman take a look at it.
Additionally, you may want to check the adjustment of the RH
middle finger and how well it closes this "real" F# key.
c) Check the F natural keys the same way as you checked the F#.Both keys should descend to cover at the exact same rate and pressure.
In general: You should never have to press down at all (!) on
your flute's keys in order to get pads to seal.

7. Other pad problems:
Pads can be worn, can shrink and dry out, and can swell and seal unevenly. Only a good technician can spot these details, so if you have not played the flute for years, or it's been longer than 2 yrs. since it was last serviced....make an appointment and take it in.
Your flute playing will improve dramatically when the flute is
properly sealing and in good adjustment.

8. General things to avoid to preserve your flute in top

These are covered on the Flute Care Page as well.

-Rough handling during assembly. The safest method for assembly and disassembly is to never grasp the keys or rods, but only the smooth areas of the flute. See youtube videos on assembling the flute.

-Rough handling of the embouchure plate.
Gripping too hard, poking sharp objects at, or accidently banging the headjoint against the music stand can dent or bend the embouchure plate. Other dents can be taken out, but not the ones that occur at the tone-hole of the flute. Be careful.

-Avoid cleaning between the keys with cloth or Q-tips.
Trying to get dirt or tarnish out from between the flute's keys
can knock springs out of place, or even break them.
Leave this detailed cleaning to your repair person who will
remove all the keys in order to clean tiny areas.
If you must remove dust from intricate areas, use compressed air, or blow your own compressed air at them. :>)

-Avoid the use of silver polish.
Silver polish will travel farther than you can control, so do not
use it.
It is especially bad when it gets on the flute pads, and creates
sticky sounds that won't go away with time.
Again, if you wish to have a shiny instrument, leave that to the

- Avoid excessive use of pad-cleaning papers.
If you use cigarette or other papers to clean pads please avoid
holding the keys down and pulling the paper out from underneathe.
This activity damages the pad surfaces, eventually causing the
pads to rip.
The correct way to dry an overly wet pad is to lay a gum-less
paper on it, tap the key lightly, and remove the paper while the
pad is UP.

- Avoid extremes of temperature:
Don't leave your flute in the car where it can be subject to
extremely hot or cold temperatures which can damage the pads.
If your flute is very cold, and you start to practice and water
droplets are building up very quickly in the headjoint, you may
wish to swab it more frequently in order to keep pads from
getting over-saturated, and to avoid a "stuffy sound" in the
water-logged headjoint.

- Avoid dust, dirt and pet hair from entering your flute's
Pet hair, according to Cinncinati Fluteworks, is the most common item found wrapped around the inside of the flute's moving parts.
If you have dogs or cats, keep the flute case closed whenever
you're not using it, and avoid placing your flute on a couch or
bed where pet hairs may cling.
In general, don't leave your flute out, but put it safely in its
case when not in use.

- Avoid laying the flute on a soft surface.
Apparently the flute's main tube, and rods (which hold the keys) can warp over time, if the flute is continuously placed on a soft surface like a bed or couch.
If you are not using your flute, put it in its case, and/or lay
it carefully on a table top or dresser for your 10 minute
practice breaks.

- Avoid laying the flute on its keys.
Water inside the flute can collect on the pads if the flute is
upside-down, and additionally, keys and rods can bend if the
flute's weight is on them.
Always lay your flute down (in your lap or on a table) with the keys UP!!!!

- Avoid transferring sugar from your birthday cake to your
flute's pads:
If you're going to play Happy Birthday to yourself, brush your
teeth and wash your hands first!!! :>)
Hope all these ideas are of help to newbies coming back to the
flute, or young beginners who never knew about them.

Happy tootling,
Jen Cluff :>)

Checking your Flute's Physical Condition

by Nancy Shinn

As a flute repairperson, I find that many flutists play flutes which, with a little work, would play much better.  Here are a few things you can do to check your flute's physical condition.

The headcork in your headjoint should make an airtight seal.  To test it, cover the end of the headjoint opposite the cork (the end that goes into the body-it's called the "tenon").  Now, put your mouth completely over the embouchure hole and suck the air out of the headjoint until your mouth is kind of "stuck" on the embouchure hole by suction.  Count to ten slowly.  Your mouth should continue to be held onto the embouchure hole by suction, and when you pull away, make a little Pop!  If, during the count to ten, your mouth comes un-sealed
from the embouchure hole, it means the headjoint cork is leaking and needs to be replaced.  A professional flute technician is the person to do this.

Next, check the pads on the body.  Don't try to take your flute apart!
Just turn your flute over and visually check the pads.  They may be dirty because they have picked up tarnish from the silver on the flute-this doesn't matter too much.  Look for  fraying, holes, and tears in the skin of the pads.  I have seen pads that were chewed up by little mites! 

Use a magnifying glass.  Any tears or fraying will
cause the flute to leak, and the pad will need to be replaced by a professional flute technician. (Let's say "PFT" from now on.)  You can only check the front of your pads with this visual inspection, but the PFT will disassemble your flute and check the backs, too.

Next, play down the scale from third space C down the octave to low C.
Press the keys lightly, just enough to overcome the springs and seat the pads on the tone holes.  Blow hard, but use a light touch.  Your flute should play with a steady, clear sound all the way down to low C.  If the sound starts to get fuzzy, or wobbles, or gets worse as you go down, you flute probably has leaks and you should have it repaired by a PFT.  Once your flute is put in peak condition, it will  play much better.  It's easy to get in the habit of pressing keys harder to
force pads to close and seat properly, but it will slow down your technique, tire your hands, and generally discourage you from playing.

If you have some cigarette paper (which of course you shouldn't,  because you shouldn't be smoking!!) you can test for leaks, although this is more difficult to do.  Cut a section of cigarette paper (not the part with the glue on it)-about two inches long, but only 1/8 inch wide.  Insert about 1/2 inch of the paper (let's call it a "feeler gauge") into the space between the pad and the tone hole.  Pressing the key LIGHTLY, and pulling the paper out, you should be able to feel
that the pad is touching the tone hole by the friction on the paper.
If there is no friction on the feeler gauge, then the pad is not
seating properly and should be "shimmed" by a PFT.

Here's how a PFT shims a flute:  The flute is disassembled and the pads are taken out of the pad cup.  Little paper washers (shims) of a very particular thickness and size are put in the pad cup, trying to match what the PFT thinks is the size and placement of the leak.  Then the pad is put back into the key, the flute reassembled, and the PFT checks with a feeler gauge whether the little shim was the right size
so that there is no longer a leak.  This is a time consuming and
meticulous process that you shouldn't try to do yourself, it will make you nuts!  Careful shimming is what makes the difference between a poorly padded flute, and a professionally padded flute.  Commercial flutes do not have a professional pad job, but if you get your commercially made flute padded by a PFT, it will play much, much better.

Detecting leaks between pads and tone holes is harder to do than most people think.  It takes a PFT a considerable amount of time to learn the technique, so don't be discouraged if you can't "feel" anything when you try using the gauge of cigarette paper.

Your flute can also play poorly is if the adjustments are off.
Everybody has heard about adjustments, but what the heck are they anyway?

When you press the "F" key on your flute, you will notice that two other keys go down at the same time:  the key above F ( this is the F# key) and the key above A (the A# or Bb key).  Notice that these two
keys, the F# and the Bb key, are NEVER pressed directly by your fingers-they only close when you press another key.  Notice that when you press the E and the D keys, that same F# key closes at the same time.  Notice that when you press the G key, the key below it (called the "lower G key") closes at the same time.  What must happen, in order for your flute to play correctly, is that when you press the F key (for example), the F# and the Bb keys must close exactly and precisely when the F closes, so that all those pads seat and seal at the exactly the same time.  If the F key closes first, it will keep the F# and the Bb keys from closing properly.  The term "adjustments"
refers to adjusting these keys so that they in fact DO close at
exactly the same time.  You'll notice that when you press the A key on your flute, the A# (or Bb) key closes, so they must be adjusted to close at exactly the same time, and shimmed properly to do so. The same is true of the two G keys (upper G, which is the one you press, and lower G, the key directly below it).

Over time, the adjustments on a flute can become "off" and the flute will not play properly when this is the case.  You can try to check these adjustments visually.  Press the F key lightly and look carefully at the F, F# and A# keys.  They should all be closing completely.  If you see a little opening around any of these three pads you can say, "No wonder this isn't playing right!" Visually check the E and F#, then the D and F#,  the A and A# and the upper and lower G keys in the same way.   More often, the adjustments need to be checked with another little piece of cigarette paper, because visually checking  isn't enough.  When you press the F key, the F# key should
close completely at the same time.  The fronts and backs of the pads being checked should all have about the same amount of pressure on the paper.  If not, the adjustments are off and you should then take the flute to a PFT to fix.  This is another process that is difficult to "feel" or see, so don't be discouraged if you can't tell if the adjustments are off.  Your PFT will do this during a yearly "COA" (clean, oil and adjust).

Here are some other things that can be wrong with your flute.  Pads can be sticking.  Springs can be too tight, causing the key to require too much pressure to close the key.  Springs can be too loose, causing the key to rise only sluggishly after the key is pressed.  If your flute is "noisy"-sounding "clacky"-- it probably needs to be oiled.

Some action may be "lost."  Lost action means you are pressing one key that should cause another key to close (remember the F and F# keys) but there is some motion "lost" before the non-pressed key (F# in this case) begins to actually go down.  The two keys should start moving at the EXACT same time.  If there is a "step" in the feeling--in other
words, the D or E or F key is going down even just a little bit
WITHOUT the F# key going down too, that should be fixed by a PFT. This is true for all of the keys talked about in the "adjustments" section.

If any side-to-side motion is present in your keys, the pads will not seat properly.  To check this, carefully hold a key at its sides and try moving it left and right.  It should not  move at all from side to side.

If any pins are not in tightly, the pads will not seat properly.  The pins are the little steel things that stick out of your flute-you may have scratched yourself on one or caught your sweater on it.

Ever wonder about the little rectangular thingie on the back side of your flute, to the right of the G# key?  This is called the "clutch," or the "back connector."  It is the point at which the right hand keys (D, E, F and F#) connect with the left hand keys (G, A, B and C).  The back connector is what makes the A# key go down when you press the F key (another adjustment that needs to be perfect).

Ever wonder what those teensy weensy screws are?  Not the ones at the ends of the rods, but the ones in the middle, near the D, E, F and A# keys?  Those are adjustment screws.  Don't touch them!  They are used to make the adjustments perfect.  When your PFT screws IN an adjustment screw, it makes the screw press more against a little plate, so that when you press the F, for example, the adjustment screw hits the plate sooner, and the F# key is pressed down further.  So the
PFT uses the adjustment screws to make the adjustments perfect. Handmade flutes usually don't have adjustment screws, instead,  little pieces of shims are used to make the adjustments.

I was fifty years old before I learned flute repair.  In fact, I never did anything to even look at my flute to see how it worked, I just stuck it in my face and blew and blamed myself whenever I couldn't play something.  Now I know to check my flute first, blame myself later!  You will be doing yourself and your flute playing a big favor if you have your flute cleaned, oiled, and adjusted every year, and pads replaced or shimmed as necessary.  A regular maintenance routine
can make a world of difference in your playing and self-confidence.

I have heard flutists say, "I've owned my instrument for ten years and it plays perfectly!  And I never have any work done on it!" Folks, what's happening here is the flutist has learned to (1) compensate for shortcomings of the instrument by pressing harder on the keys, and

(2) accept the sound the instrument makes as its "best" without realizing it could almost certainly sound much better. 

Have your instrument taken care of and it will serve you as it should.  Your flute will "feel" better in your hands, it will speak immediately when you blow
air into it, and produce a fuller sound.

One more thing.  A band instrument technician ("BIT") is different from a professional flute technician.  Your local music store has BITs who know a little bit about a whole bunch of different instruments and so they are great for general instrument repair.  But they are not trained to do the precise, meticulous work that a PFT will do.  If you find an experienced PFT who is also a flute player, you will have
found the person who can make your flute play at its absolute best.

Nancy Shinn


© Jennifer Cluff