Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any damage which
may occur to your instruments from following the directions (or from any
failure to follow the directions) on this site. These are techniques I use
on my own flutes and they work well for me, but if they don't work for you,
it's not my fault, and I take no responsibility. Use at your own
Care of the modern orchestral flute
A Note on Fine Flutes
Here's a common situation usually encountered by young
flutists when they move from a beginner flute to an intermediate or
professional model: the flutist, who has been told they are "outgrowing"
their first flute because they are doing so well, pick up an expensive,
beautiful flute that played so well for them in the store and...it sounds
horrid, and weak, and hard to control.
The good news is that if you stick with it for a few weeks,
playing the new flute exclusively to force yourself to adjust to it, your
playing will not only come back to life, but you'll quickly find things that
your new flute does easily that your old flute would do only with
On good beginner flutes the instrument is designed with ease
of play in mind. On intermediate and professional grade instruments, ease
of play is not the first priority. Instead, the instrument is designed with
balance, intonation, projection, range, and response as the highest
What this means to the flutist who is moving up to one of
these flutes is that the flute will seem to resist or even fight back for
the first couple of weeks. But once you get past that initial hurdle, your
playing will take off like a rocket: a good flute seems to "pull you up" to
its own level.
In particular, the low register on professional flutes can
be a real monster to get used to, but it's time well spent.
1. After every playing, use the cleaning rod and a soft
cloth (a bandana, clean handkerchief, or similar works fine), and dry all of
the condensation out of the bore. For the body and footjoint, pull one
corner of the cloth through the eye on the end of the cleaning rod, wrap the
cloth around the rod so that no part of the rod is visible, insert carefully
into the bore of the flute, and remove with a twisting action. For the
headjoint, use only the cloth and not the rod, and fold about two inches of
cloth back on itself. Insert this into the headjoint and with a twisting
motion insert more and more of the cloth until you can see through the
embouchure the the cloth is all the way up to the cork. Twist a few times
and then remove.
2. Occasionally use a soft cloth to carefully wipe away
fingerprints and keep the flute clean. If necessary you can use a
lightly dampened cloth first, being careful to keep it away from the
pads and the mechanism.
3. The far edge of the embouchure hole is the most
delicate part of the entire flute. Do not use polish here, and be
careful never to scratch the metal here. If you need to clean the
embouchure hole, the proper way is to carefully use a soft cloth moistened
with alcohol and clean gently. On a quality hand-cut headjoint, even
scraping the far side of the embouchure hole with your fingernail can damage
it and reduce the responsiveness of the flute.
4. Never press with any force on the keys or the
mechanism. The keys of a properly adjusted flute will not require
strong pressure to seal, and using strong finger pressure can eventually
force the mechanism out of adjustment and require professional repairs.
5. I do not recommend the routine use of key oil.
Unless applied very carefully, it has a tendency to get on the pads, and
very little will actually find its way into the mechanism without removing
the keys, which a young or beginning flutist should never do. Also,
professional flutes are often lubricated with very thick oil (one very
reputable maker uses 10-30 weight motor oil) to help smooth, silence, and
protect the mechanism. Commercial thin key oil will only wash this
important layer of protection away. Also never apply any oil or
grease of any kind to the tenons or the tuning slide of a metal flute.
On a wooden flute or piccolo, apply cork grease to the corks on the tenons
before each assembly but never to any metal-on-metal join.
6. Every six months, the headjoint should be completely
immersed in slightly soapy warm water and then thoroughly rinsed. Use
castile soap or dish washing detergent in very small quantities for this.
If you know how, this is a good time to remove the cork and crown and clean
the metal parts of the crown. Put a light coating of cork grease on the
headcork before reassembly. Remember the cork always comes out the tenon
end of the headjoint, and never the crown end! If your flute
rattles, check the crown assembly...there are metal plates on both sides of
the cork. Often the one closest to the crown comes loose over time and
produces "rattles" and "buzzes" when playing. Just screw it back down tight
and the noises go away.
7. Do not use a polishing compound on the flute. It
will find its way to the pads and erode them, and it will find its way into
the mechanism and cause premature wear.
8. Careful use of a high-quality polishing cloth on a
solid silver flute is acceptable as long as you keep it well away from
the pads, and you don't polish the keys or mechanism with a side-to-side
motion, as this will cause premature wear of the mechanism as well as
bringing it out of adjustment. Never use any polishing cloth or compound
on a plated instrument, or on a golden or platinum instrument, as you can
permanently damage the finish.
9. A small amount of pad noise when opening and closing
a key is normal and not a cause for concern.
10. A pad which "sticks" (i.e. makes a loud popping
sound, or holds to its seat for a second before rising) can often be
successfully treated. Take a sheet of soft absorbent paper--cigarette
papers work well for this--and place it under the pad. Hold the pad closed
onto the paper for a few seconds, release the key, and gently remove
the paper. Test and repeat as necessary. If this is not effective, the pad
may need to be replaced, but there is another treatment you can try, which
is described in the "Advanced Maintenance Topics," below. Never clean
a pad by pulling out the paper while holding the key closed, as this
invariably damaged the skin of the pad and will lead to premature failure.
11. If a key binds, oiling the mechanism is not the
answer, as it will tend to attract dust and dirt into an already-in-trouble
key mechanism. Instead, take the flute to a reputable repair shop.
This should not be an expensive repair and they should be able to do this
while you wait in most circumstances.
Advanced Maintenance Topics for the Orchestral (Boehm)
1. Wooden flutes and piccolos will require occasional
application of bore oil, which serves the twofold purpose of protecting the
wood from cracking while helping the instrument sound its best. You
must be absolutely sure no oil touches the pads or gets in the mechanism.
The surest way, if you are competent to do it, is to remove the key
mechanism from the body and then oil the body. Give the oil a few hours to
penetrate and then remove all the excess oil, inside and out, before
reassembling. For best results, allow to sit overnight before playing. If
you are not comfortable removing the keys, you can also carefully shroud the
pads with plastic wrap or foil so they are protected from the oil. If you
use foil, be very careful not to slice the skin of the pad with the sharp
edge of the foil!
2. Periodically the Boehm system flute needs to be
disassembled for a thorough cleaning and oiling. At the least you
should clean all the pad seats, oil the mechanism, check the pads for wear
or soiling, check the corks or felts, and check the adjustments after
reassembly. Also when the keys are off is the right time to clean and
polish your flute...being very careful of the needle springs, which break
easily, and which are quite painful if they poke into you or get under a
3. There is a myth that flutes need to have a major
overhaul and repad every year or every few years. If a flute has been
properly padded, with careful handling there is no reason the pads cannot
last ten years or even longer--most of the pads on my Gemeinhardt are still
pads I installed in 1985, making them about seventeen years old now, and
they are still fine. The "yearly repad syndrome" is caused by shoddy
workmanship at your local instrument repair shop. During football
season, they may have fifty flutes all come in at once for a repad. Instead
of only taking the amount of work they could reasonably do at one time, they
take all the flutes, shim the pads high so they hit hard on the back, and
"bake seat" the pads with heat and moisture. Such a flute won't play well,
but it will play well enough for marching band, at least until the pads
start to stiffen--which on a well-padded flute is a good thing--and no
longer seal. So next year its back for another shoddy repad to the tune of
several hundred dollars. Need I say that this is not the kind of
repair shop you want to take a good flute to? Even on a beginner's
flute, the pads should not need replacement every few years.
Update to the local repair shop (true horror story!)
I cannot resist placing this (true) story on my site,
but will for obvious reasons omit the name of the repairman and the
music store. As mentioned above, the pads on my flute became quite old,
and I finally decided the time had come to replace them. I had enough
pads in my own stock to do most of the flute and got it playing
beautifully over a weekend, but I didn't have enough French pads to do
the right hand mechanism, which really needed it. So I went to a local
music store / repair shop to buy some pads. When they commented that
the pads they had were a little thicker than the example I'd taken with
me, I told them not to worry about it, as I could shim them and they'd
do fine. "Shim them?" said the repairman, looking slightly
puzzled. "You have to bend the keys. (!!!) " Need I add that my
flute will never ever be in the hands of that repairman or that
store? (The pads installed just fine and shimming them correctly only
took about ten minutes per key. Also, the keys on my flute are
cold-forged silver, which is very hard and has great strength, and so
would likely break before bending enough to make any difference to the
4. One of the big differences between "beginner" flutes
and better quality instruments is the quality and durability of the key
mechanism. On beginner flutes, the mechanism is not built to the exact
tolerance of the professional flute, and will require more frequent
adjustment to keep it playing well. Some flutes may need adjustment as
often as every month. There are only two reasonable solutions to this
dilemma: either learn to do these adjustments yourself (they are not
that hard to learn, but they are beyond the scope of this article), or
upgrade to a better quality flute. Or, after the flute has been freshly
adjusted and is playing well, place a single drop of clear fingernail polish
over the end of each screw and allow to dry. This will lock the screws
in position and should greatly reduce the frequency of professional
adjustment needed. Be very careful not to get fingernail polish in the
key mechanism or on the pads!--if you do, take the flute immediately to
the repair shop and tell them what you did. This is not fatal but does
require immediate and knowledgeable attention.
5. If your pads are old and dry and don't seal well as a
result, you may be able to use the following trick to extend their
life: moisten a piece of paper with hand lotion and gently apply to the
surface of the pad, holding the key open. Then use another clean piece of
paper to absorb the excess. This does slightly increase key noise for a
little while but I have had good luck with this on my own flute, which gets
this treatment about once a year. (Did I mention that I used a single set
of pads for over seventeen years?) Use this tip at your own risk! If
this damages your flute or your pads, I am not responsible!!!
6. Pads that stick no matter what you do will
generally require replacement, but here are a few things worth trying
first. Instead of just using cleaning paper, try using cleaning paper
moistened with alcohol first and then using regular cleaning papers to dry
the pad (remember, do not pull the paper out while holding the key
closed!). You can also buy a powder that can be applied to sticking pads,
which is usually made of zinc stearate. I have had mixed results with this
stuff, in that it will stop the pad noise but seems to inhibit the pads
ability to completely seal as an undesirable side-effect. Also you must be
careful not to get the powder into the key mechanism, where it cause such
problems as premature wear, or could even gum up and make the key mechanism
seize. Finally, see the tip above about using hand lotion on old, dried-out
pads to help them seal. Even though this is counter-intuitive, I had had
good results using hand lotion on sticky pads to stop them from sticking.
--- o --- O --- o ---
Care of the wooden (concert, or Irish) flute
Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any
damage which may occur to your instruments from following the directions (or
from any failure to follow the directions) on this site. These are
techniques I use on my own flutes and they work well for me, but if they
don't work for you, it's not my fault, and I take no responsibility.
Use at your own risk!!!
1. After each playing, carefully dry out the flute with
a soft cloth, being very careful to dry the ends (tenons) where the wood
grain is likely to absorb more moisture. Completely wrap the cloth
around the cleaning rod so that you don't accidentally scratch the bore. On
the headjoint, don't use the cleaning rod; instead, fold a couple of inches
of cloth back at one corner and insert into the headjoint, feeding more and
more cloth into the headjoint until the end is reach. Twist a few times
more and remove. Use a small amount of the cloth to carefully dry the tone
holes and the embouchure hole as well. Your best protection against
cracking is carefully drying the flute after each and every playing.
2. The most delicate part of the flute is the far side
of the embouchure hole. Treat with extreme care, and never do anything
that could abrade or change the shape of the embouchure hole.
3. A new wooden flute, or an old wooden flute which
hasn't been played for some time, will require "playing in" to avoid
cracking or swelling the wood. The first week, play no more than five
or ten minutes a day. The second week, extend this to fifteen to twenty
minutes a day. The third through the fifth week, an hour a day. You should
never play more than about two and a half hours a day on any wooden
instrument, no matter its age or how well it's been played in. Note that
you do not have to "play in" a polymer or plastic flute.
4. During play, you should occasionally remove the
condensation from the bore. There are two ways. The first, and
probably the safest, is to just disassemble your flute and run a cloth
through it, as above. The second is usually what I do, and it works well in
a pinch: finger low D, cover the embouchure hole with your mouth, and blow
sharply and with force, while angling the end of the flute toward the
floor. This will blow the droplets of water out the end of the flute.
You'll know when the flute needs this because it will start sounding
5. A wooden flute should be oiled to protect it from
cracking and to improve the tone and repsonsiveness of the flute. There
is some controversy as to what kind of oil is best. Some like almond oil
(which must be applied with great frequency), others like cold-pressed (raw)
linseed oil, which is applied sparingly and much less often. I personally
just use bore oil for wooden clarinets, which works fine. Oil the flute
inside and out, being careful to not get any oil on the pads or in the key
mechanisms, and allow to dry for several hours. Then use a clean, soft
cloth to remove the excess oil, and allow to remain dry overnight before
6. Grease the tenons before every assembly with cork
grease. On some flutes with a tuning slide, also apply cork grease to the
tuning slide before mating it with the barrel. Note that this is the
opposite of what you do on a Boehm-system flute, where the tuning slide
should never be greased with anything. Check with the maker of
your flute to find out if the slide should be mated completely dry or
moistened with cork grease. If in doubt, leave it dry.
7. Check the head cork. A leaky cork will destroy
the strength of tone and the responsiveness of the flute. A cork which is
loose and leaks should be replaced. The proper position of the cork is
one bore-width up from the center of the embouchure hole. If this isn't
positioned properly, the octaves will not be in tune with each other.
8. Old leather pads get stiff and may not seal well.
If this happens, the best solution is to have the pad or pads replaced with
new ones. But you may be able to get a little more life out of the old ones
with this trick: remove the key from the flute and gently rub hand lotion
in to the pad. Allow to sit overnight, dry off the pad with a soft cloth,
and restore the pad to the flute. Sometimes this will soften the leather on
the pad enough to allow it to seat again.