Care of the 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!!!

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 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 difficulty.

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 priorities.

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. 

Basic Care

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) Flute

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 fingernail.

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 pad seating.)

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.


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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 "stuffy."

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 playing.

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.