|Keeping ones instruments
in first class working order is always a problem, even with
recorders, although the techniques are never as obvious as with,
for example, changing the strings on a guitar. What follows
is a gentle guide to the art of recorder maintenance for those
players who like jumping off cliffs and that sort of thing.
All others - please send it back to the maker!
Basic Maintenance - Outside
It wasn’t until I bought my
first good saxophone that I realised just what an effect the
purchase of a new instrument can have. Until then the recorders
in my workshop had just been things I lived with every day,
usually covered in a fine layer of dust until polished up
for exhibition, but now I was facing this beautiful, shiny,
silver, mechanical marvel and I WANTED IT!!! Could it be that
my customers felt the same? Well of course they did! Beauty
is, after all, only skin deep, but it does appeal!
The external finish on recorders varies widely depending on
the maker/factory that they came from. Starting at the bottom,
makers of plastic instruments have either said ‘this
is plastic –learn to love it’ or ‘well it
may be plastic but from a distance lets try and pretend its
not’ and have used various wood look-alike finishes.
There’s not a lot you can do with it, except, like a
damp muddy pooch, give it a good soak occasionally in a bucket
of warm, soapy water.
I once got into a great deal of trouble
by drawing attention to the deposits of food that were seriously
compromising the tone of a plastic descant in a festival at
which I was adjudicating. The boy’s mother nearly killed
me, and I was never asked back!
Cheaper wooden recorders will have
some sort of spray-on varnish, which will easily become chipped
and scratched. I would treat it like your car. Rub it down
fine wet and dry or steel wool, and then spray it with cellulose
lacquer, either clear, or as close to the colour as you can
find. Some friends of mine make a small profit by buying mass
produced wooden recorders from E-bay, stripping off the varnish,
delivering a few well aimed blows with a battle-axe or similar,
and then selling them at a premium to medieval re-enactors
who absolutely love the battle scarred finish. You can certainly
do this with paint stripper and sandpaper if you like, and
you may well find a very nice piece of pearwood or maple beneath,
but don’t take off too much thickness of the wood or
you might change the tuning.
High-end recorders will have a more subtle finish involving
stain, either acid or aniline, or a natural wood finish with
oil or wax to resist finger dirt. At its simplest, if a recorder
is black, then the wood will be either blackwood or ebony,
and there will most likely be no external finish. If it’s
really mucky, clean it off with the finest grade of steel
wool, OOOO, and then use either an oily cloth, or wax polish
A digression on oils. Those you will
mostly come across are almond oil, linseed oil, and tung oil,
the last two often with hardeners added for quick drying [eg.
Liberon Finishing oil]. Almond oil does not dry, and is therefore
used mostly for the bore. Drying oils should not be used in
the bore as they can build up to give a nasty, crusty, patina
that may get into the fingerholes, and could affect the tuning.
You can use a drying oil on the outside, but be very careful
not to leave an accumulation in the fingerholes. Drying oils
will not ‘dry’ on a recorder made from oily woods
such as blackwood, or one that has been impregnated with paraffin
wax. They will just make a sticky mess which you will have
to clean off with white spirit or similar.
Boxwood recorders come in two sorts,
real boxwood [buxus sempervirens] and fake [various yellow
hard woods from the tropics]. It can be difficult to tell
them apart, but it is unlikely that a hand maker will use
anything other than real European boxwood. Boxwood will often
be stained or dyed in various shades of brown, and once again
it is difficult to tell between the two. Traditional acid
staining travels into the surface of the wood, and is often
uneven in colour, but because this follows the grain of the
wood, it is not unpleasing to look at. The recorder will probably
have been soaked in linseed oil, and this will also have penetrated
the wood and dried. Minor scuffs can be treated with 0000
wire wool, as removing a small part of the surface will not
penetrate either the stain or the oil. The finish can be restored
with an oily cloth to leave a thin coat [see note above],
or wax polished.
Some American hand makers use an aniline stain. This does
not penetrate the wood surface, and is all too easily removed,
so do not use wire wool or you will very quickly end up with
a patchy yellow and brown finish. I must confess that I am
not quite sure how to restore the finish here, so I tend to
leave well alone. Some German high-end factory models also
use a surface stain that seems to have been applied with a
sponge or similar. Once again, this can be easily damaged.
You can identify these stains as they are evenly distributed,
and do not follow the grain of the wood.
A healthy bore, if seen in a strong light, will be nicely
polished and oiled from end to end, with no fluffy bits. As
you can imagine, the vibrating air column does not like fluffy,
spiky, or sharp edges, and works better without them. I once
traumatised the SRP by suggesting that wire wool on the end
of an electric drill could be used to polish bores. I still
stand by that opinion, but it should be done carefully.
The places where you are most likely to encounter sharp, fluffy
or spiky bits are in the fingerholes, so have a good look
down them in a strong light. A fingerhole has two edges, inside
and out, and between is a surface of wood that can collect
oil, sweat, fluff and general grime. Go to a home brewing
shop and buy a very thin nylon bottle brush, the sort that
is used for cleaning out plastic tubing. Cut it down to 5
cm or so and use it to clean out the fingerholes. Afterwards
use cotton buds with alcohol to really clean the sides. If
you are feeling braver, polish the hole with some 400 grit
paper wound round a drill bit small enough to go in the hole
and dunked in some almond oil, but be very careful not to
enlarge it. An improvement to the tone can often be made by
smoothing off the sharp corner of the hole as it meets the
outside of the recorder. You can do this with a cone of fine
paper [see pic] Inside the bore, the best cleaning method
is with a bottlebrush, and these can be purchased at specialist
recorder shops, or just from your local kitchen supplies.
The notorious Cranmore ‘wire wool on the end of an electric
drill’ can be used if the surface of the bore is very
rough, but not to excess or this will change the bore characteristics
and the tuning. Get a bicycle spoke, or similar length of
fairly rigid wire, either bend a loop into the end or cut
a slot with a fine hacksaw, and thread a hank of medium grade
steel wool into it.
Always insert this into the bore before switching on the drill,
or it will thrash wildly out of control, and switch off before
taking it out for the same reason. When you have smoothed
the bore to your satisfaction use some recorder oil on a bottlebrush,
or if the wood seems very dry, immerse the centre joint and
foot joint for a day in an oil bath if you have enough. The
head joint can be immersed, but all traces of oil must be
removed from the block socket before it is replaced. Oily
blocks can be cleaned with acetone or some other oil solvent.
Soak the block for a day, and all that unwanted oil will be
washed out into solution.
I have been voicing recorders for 30 years and I still don’t
really understand it. All I do know is that the sound that
comes out of your tube of air is a truly international one.
All parts of the tube contribute, and all of them have to
be considered. A mistake that I often made, as presumably
did everyone else, is to look for a magic bullet that will
conquer all the faults in one fell swoop. [what is a fell
swoop? – sounds a bit like bog snorkelling]. The fact
is that, in constructing a voicing, you are balancing surfaces,
angles, directions, air flows, air pressures, any one of which
could profoundly disturb the sound if you get it wrong, and
in my case nearly all by hand and eye, not in a computer controlled
Autocad system. For example, at the windway exit there are
many angles, surfaces and dimensions , all of which have to
match, be symmetrical, and correctly guide the airflow.
It is in this situation that we come up against the engineering
problem, no, not one that you solve with a lump hammer, but
a problem with engineers, who profoundly believe that if you
have the right information and sufficiently accurate machines,
then any product can be turned out in any numbers with the
same reproducibility as a Rolls Royce crankshaft.
I have seen an engineer spend an inordinate length of time
setting up a massive computer controlled milling machine to
make a cut that I do in 10 seconds with a hand operated scalpel,
and the machine still got it wrong. A recorder looks to an
engineer like an ‘engineered’ product, and in
fact 90% of it can be treated as such, but the last 10% needs
skill, experience, and, dare I say it, creativity to make
it all come together.
The voicing of a wooden recorder can, and will, go horribly
wrong. It is, after all, designed within a rectangular tube
of two different woods, with different grain structures and
absorbencies, which are then subjected to a continuous rain
of body fluid. As nature abhors a vacuum, the ecosystem, which
is subsequently created, will soon be colonised by all manner
of flora, and occasionally fauna, and the wooden container
will twist and turn and rise and fall with the seasons. Factory
produced recorders whose costing does not include a lengthy
blowing-in session, attempt to forestall this by waterproofing
the wood with paraffin wax, and by starting with a windway
that is beyond the optimum specification for its function,
thereby giving the floor and ceiling leeway to move.
Hand makers will always blow the recorder in for some time
before letting it out of the workshop, and will re-voice several
times during the process. If the voicing has gone off, it
will most likely result in tightening of the sound with some
edginess and extraneous noises, and this is nearly always
caused by the block surface rising as it absorbs water, or
a build up of deposits.
The idea of having a cedar block is that it can absorb a certain
amount without expanding and either disrupting the voicing
or splitting the head joint, but this is not infallible. Various
solutions have been used, and these have included chemical
stabilisers, and the notorious ceramic block from a well-known
German manufacturer, which occasionally disintegrate after
some years of use.
If you are going to work on the block of a wooden recorder,
it helps to be able to get it in and out, and this can be
scary. Look down the windway into a strong light. Can you
see the labium? Is the windway nice and symmetrical or do
the corners seem rounded off? Are there little black things
growing from the top of the block? Is anything walking around
or waving its legs at you? I still remember the noise made
by an earwig as it hit the wall after a friend had sucked
it out of a windway. If the answer to any of these is yes
then the block might bear removal. If you have a friendly
recorder maker round the corner then refer to him, but as
these tend to be rarer than polar bears at the equator, why
not have a go.
Planning is everything. Find or turn a dowel with a diameter
slightly smaller than the head joint bore and with a smooth
end, and a hammer! Take the head joint in one hand, insert
the dowel, and point the beak at your lap, and hit the exposed
end of the dowel. One of three things will happen; The block
will come out –well done! – the block will come
halfway out - hit it again – or the block will not shift.
In the last case try hitting the dowel harder, but if there
is absolutely no movement it is best to leave the recorder
for a week to dry out thoroughly and try again. If you still
have no success refer to your local recorder maker.
Blocks you might find.
Tapered block – fits into a tapered
socket in the head joint – easy to remove and replace
but not too easy to adjust backwards and forwards
Straight block – fits into a parallel socket in the
head joint. Not easy to remove or replace, but can be easily
adjusted backwards and forwards
Socketted block – fits into a section of the bore that
is larger than the sounding bore, but fits against a shoulder
in the bore and cannot be moved beyond that.
Two part block – comes in three versions:
1. A cedar block with the centre removed and replaced with
another cylinder of cedar with flexible cement between the
two. Designed to prevent expansion of the block
2. A cedar block in two parts with a square section glued
into a groove, which has been machined into the top surface
of the block and forms the upstand. A means to speed up and
simplify block production
3. A cedar block with a ceramic insert as the windway floor
intended to absorb excess moisture. These are no longer used
as they have tended to disintegrate, and the whole block usually
Windway blockages you might find.
1. Food, spit, lipstick, fag smoke, need I go on? –
recorder makers occasionally need a strong stomach.
2. Fungus, usually seen as a series of pinhead size lumps
which you can feel with a fingertip inserted into the bore.
3. Paraffin wax – usually seen in mass produced recorders
that have been left in the sun.
4. Fluff from those abominable fluffy cleaning sticks that
used to be standard equipment with every new recorder.
All these will be on both the windway
and the block, but can be cleaned off with care, using mechanical
or solvent means.
Food etc deposits really need scraping off, and as they will
be mostly at the blowing end, there is less possibility of
making unwanted changes to the voicing. Try one of those plastic
pan scourers under a stream of warm water, or if baked hard,
use fine steel wool or a scalpel blade on the dry block. The
pinhead fungus will be distributed all along the windway,
and once again, the best means of removal is with gentle scraping
with a scalpel blade. Always scrape away from the windway
exit so as to not touch the end chamfer. Some people will
say that a certain amount of slime on the block surface helps
spit to slip through easily and avoids blocking, but if the
windway size has been reduced than it needs to go.
Not so easy! Have a look at the wind channel with a strong
light, and once everything has been cleaned off you can become
familiar with the shape that both the block and the windway
should be. In a decent instrument, both windway roof and the
block surface will have been made with a slight concavity.
The chamber created between the two accelerates the airflow
so that is it at its fastest when it exits from the windway.
You can see it by carefully laying a straight edge such as
a 6” steel rule along the surface. The rule should only
touch either the block or the windway roof at the very ends.
If there is a bit of a ‘hill’ in the middle of
either, then the wood may have moved, and you may feel like
adjusting it yourself if you are feeling particularly brave.
However, just restoring the windway to its default manufactured
state must be done very carefully, as you don’t want
to remove any of the original wood unless you are entering
the uncharted waters of DIY voicing.
Hard blockages will probably be either food or paraffin wax.
Wax can be very difficult to remove as is does not dissolve
in any solvent generally available at the hardware shop, so
it is better scraped. For both food and wax you can use a
small file with the end ground down to a square edge and the
file serrations smoothed off. This will certainly be necessary
to get into the corners of the windway. For the centre a small
bit of steel wool on a finger tip will do the job. For softer
deposits or fluff use a cotton bud with alcohol.
While you are in cleaning mode have a look at the window.
You will often find that the corners of the window exhibit
the same gunge as the windway, and they can be scraped away
with a scalpel. If a fluffy cleaner has been used there will
also be bits of fluff embedded everywhere. [ps. If you have
one of these, it is best burnt immediately so that it can
never be used again!]. These will interfere with the airstream
by vibrating in it, and you can spend a lot of time individually
What comes out must go in? – not necessarily, especially
if the block has come from a parallel socket, when you may
well find that the end of the block appears not to fit the
hole it came out of. When re-fitting a block it is best if
you have a sliding fit, so that force need not be used. A
tight block can be reduced in size either with abrasive paper
or with a scraper. If it goes in part of the way then sticks,
you should be able to see the sticking points as polished
areas on the round section of the block. These can be selectively
rubbed or scraped down and the block tried several times,
hopefully going in further each time. I prefer a sliding fit
with a good shove from the thumb, with maybe a tap from a
block hammer for the last 0,5mm or so. Rubbing a wax candle
along the rounded section to make insertion easier can lubricate
If you have read the preceding chapter carefully, you will
see that, rather like looking for fleas in a shaggy coat,
I am encouraging you to look closely at your instrument –
probably more closely than you have ever looked at it before.
Now that you have had a really good look, we can have a go
at some serious obedience training!
Recorders are made from wood – wood comes from trees
– it is a dead but extremely complex skeleton of cellulose,
lignin, spaces, tubes and fibres, and it cannot be guaranteed
to be stable. Besides, as you grow as an owner, the recorder
might no longer suit your technique, or you may begin to discover
irritating behavioural traits that you didn’t at first
I have always tried to encourage players
to buy from a maker that is local to them, not just for my
sake, but also for the ease of just popping up the road for
adjustments and for developing a personal relationship with
Really successful makers not only have good craftsmanship
but also excellent personal skills [not to mention salesmanship,
financial acuity and entrepreneurial talent].
Recorder voicing is sometimes referred to as a ‘dark
art’. Fred Morgan was often reckoned to be the only
living maker who really understood the subject, but I think
we are catching up. One thing to remember is that to ascribe
all the properties of a recorder to the voicing alone is to
lose oneself down a blind alley. Whether a recorder ‘works’
or not is the combined result of the voicing, the tuning,
the bore, the wood, the ‘blowing in’ process etc.
I have always described the construction of a recorder as
a cyclical process. One aspect cannot be finished in isolation.
All must be addressed in turn until the final product emerges,
and even this cannot be thought of as ‘final’
until the instrument has been used for some time. Thus, the
recorder must be voiced, tuned, cleaned, blown, voiced, tuned,
cleaned, blown, voiced, tuned, cleaned, blown etc etc until
finished to the maker’s satisfaction.
This is not intended to be a course in recorder voicing, but
I will be giving away some secrets and short cuts that may
be helpful to anyone who wants to have a go.
A successful recorder voicing is all about symmetry, linearity,
and balance. Once again I am encouraging you to take a very
hard look at your recorder. If you are short sighted take
your glasses off [I remember the very first moment I did that
just because my ears hurt – it was a revelation], or
use a magnifying glass. On a high-end recorder you will see
that the windway is curved laterally, but with a flatter curve
than the bore itself. [An Irish 6 hole whistle nearly always
has a curve that matches the bore and seems to introduce the
instability that those instruments need to break easily into
higher harmonics. A whistle made with a recorder style voicing
really doesn’t work. I know because I’ve tried].
The windway is also slightly concave along its length, and
the lateral curve is maintained until the windway exit.
The windway entrance controls the volume of air entering,
and also the pressure. The pressure and speed of the air needed
to operate the voicing at its optimum needs to be just so,
and on a high end recorder an increase in pressure at the
windway entrance will raise the volume of the recorder as
the whistle mechanism is made to work harder, but will not
appreciably raise the pitch. The adjustable parameters at
the windway entrance are the height after manufacture, and
the height, width, and curve during manufacture. The reasons
for a curved windway are often argued about, and I’m
not sure that the advantages are immediately obvious, but
baroque originals had them so we tend to expect it in our
more expensive toys.
The windway exit is altogether a more complex arrangement.
It is essential that the air exits in as symmetrical a way
as possible so that it crosses the window in a cohesive and
well-directioned flow at the right speed and pressure for
the voicing to operate effectively. Sounds difficult? Believe
me it is!
Like you are doing now, I once had a good look at the window
of a recorder and realised that there are at least 10 surfaces,
12 dimensions, 9 lines and 7 angles that have to be orientated
with each other.
The surfaces are;
· The north side of the window perpendicular to the
· The south end of the block
· The underlabium which joins the labium to the bore
· The ramp which joins the labium to the external turning
· The two sides of the window which confine the sides
of the airstream
· The top surface of the windway
· The top surface of the block
· The top windway chamfer
· The bottom windway chamfer .
The dimensions are;
· The height of the windway entrance.
· The width of the windway entrance..
· The height of the windway exit.
· The width of the windway exit. · The depth
of the window.
· The size of the two chamfers.
· The thickness of the labium.
· The height of the windway roof above the labium.
· The height of the labium above the block surface.
· The length of the underlabium.
· The length of the labium
· The longitudinal position of the block within the
The lines are;
· The labium itself, with which all the other lines
are orientated. · The four lines which comprise the
edges of he top and bottom chamfers .
· The two top corners of the windway.
· The two bottom corners of the windway where block
meets the bore
The angles are;
· The angle of approach of the windway.
· The angle of both chamfers.
· The angle of approach of both the labium and the
· The angles made by the sides of the window as they
come to the surface.
· The angle made as the labium flares out to the surface.Not
to mention the fact that many of these are curved,and that
the curves have to match!
I should point out that I hardly ever
measure anything in the voicing. I just look at it. The eye
is a marvellous comparator, and after many years I can judge
dimensions much better that any measuring instrument that
I could possibly afford.
You can see that the possible permutations
of these lines and surfaces are overwhelming, but there are
two things to remember. There is no such thing as a correct
set-up, just one that works for you and the instrument, and
that the greater the symmetry, the better the result. For
example, the chamfers must be parallel to one another and
to the block and windway. If they are not, the air stream
will not exit correctly and will cross the window in a disturbed
To begin with I am only going to suggest that you try adjusting
two of these, namely, the position of the block ithin the
windway, and the relationship of the block surface to the
labium. Later, we will move to processes that actually involve
cutting into the main body of the recorder, but as these are
by their very nature irreversible, I might ask you to sign
a disclaimer first!
Looking and seeing
I sometimes suspect that we see what we want to see. Have
you ever looked for a skylark that is singing merrily above
[yes, we still have them in the Malvern Hills], and totally
failed to spot it, then suddenly, when it is in view, you
can’t miss it. When I have asked players to look down
a windway and describe what they see, they often seem to see
nothing at all, or at least not what I am talking about.
Take your block out, and identify the north and south ends
of it. Look down the empty headjoint and identify the windway
and the labium. Now replace the block and see how they relate.
You should be able to see the space between the labium and
the windway roof, the labium itself, and the gap beneath the
labium as seen along the top surface of the block. [It is
often said that the sign of a quality recorder is that the
gap visible below the labium should not have any visible light,
and this is often taken to mean that the block is sufficiently
high that no direct light can be seen. However, if you think
about it, you might not be able to see light if the windway
slopes upwards [re-entrant], or if the centre of the underlabium
is not coincident with the bore, but actually joins the bore
some distance behind the labium itself.]
A common problem with recorders after some use is that the
block rises so that there is no direct sign of the labium,
or it can only just be seen above the block surface. The symptoms
are a scratchy tone, especially on the high notes, and a tendency
to blockage with spit. The cure is often to lower the block
surface so that the labium is visible once more.
There are two ways to do this. The least invasive is to persuade
the whole block to move down without touching the top surface.
Remove the block and take two strips of adhesive tape in the
positions shown, either side of the upstand. Try to re-insert
the block. If this is successful you may well find that the
south end of the block has been forced downwards. If the block
will not go in because the addition of the tape makes it too
tight, scrape or sand away the curved side of the block opposite
from the windway and try again. Eventually you should find
that the block will enter at a slightly different angle and
the edge will be visible.
To adjust the block by sanding down the top surface requires
that you have a very good idea of how that surface is to start
with, so take a good look. I want you to notice especially
the chamfer at the south end, its size, and the angle it makes
with the block surface. You will need to reproduce that when
you have re-finished the surface as some or all of it will
be removed. Make a drawing or take a photograph. Next, lay
a straight edge along the block and notice any concavity.
If there is none, then you might think about introducing one.
I am only talking about a fraction of a millimetre in the
centre, so that you can see light under the rule in the middle
but so that it touches at both ends.
Find a small square block of wood and wrap some abrasive paper
[150 grade] round it. Lay the sanding block along the recorder
block lengthways, and abrade the cedar lengthways, rocking
it slightly from side to side to allow for the curve of the
windway. Use the existing chamfer as a guide, noting that
it should reduce in size equally if you are abrading the surface
symmetrically. Check for concavity, and if it is not there,
use the sanding block across the block , and with your thumb
at the south end of the block to prevent the abrasive from
quite reaching the end, abrade the wood lengthways again.
Now using the block at an angle replace the chamfer exactly
as it was with fine abrasive [400 or similar].
Replace the block in the headjoint and look for the labium.
Blow the recorder and see if it has made a difference. Repeat
the process if you feel it is necessary. If you want to raise
the block again, use some adhesive tape on the curved lower
side of the block opposite to the windway to force it upwards,
scraping down the shoulders either side of the upstand if
The contemporary recorder developed by Martin Helder made
all this unnecessary. The height of the block was adjustable
using a screw thread mechanism so that the tone of the recorder
could be changed from edgy to round as needed.
To investigate the effect of the block
positioning, try leaving the block sticking out of the mouthpiece
by a millimetre or so, or try and push it in further. See
what effect this has on the tone. Sometimes you might like
to change this position to suit the particular music being
played at the time. Leaving the block standing out of the
windway can give a breathy but fuller sound, whereas pushing
it further in will give a tighter, brighter sound.
Really Major Surgery [WARNING
– could be fatal]!
If by now you have the bug for DIY recorder adjustment, I
am going to give an overview of all parts of adjustments that
can be made to the voicing and bore of a baroque recorder,
and what might happen if you make them. There are no guarantees
of success, and my first recommendation would be to invest
in some tired out wooden instruments to practice on –
EBay is a good source.
I have acquired a varied collection
off EBay. Judging by the photo and the price [ie. low ] alone
I now have what I call my chest of recorder horrors, all of
which were foisted on the public during the last 50 years
or more as ‘musical instruments’ by various mass
production facilities. They vary from early Bakelite jobs
to American marching band plastic things that look like something
from Whoville! I occasionally pass them out to a room full
of teachers and challenge them to play a B in tune with each
It saddens me to think that these things were regularly passed
out to primary school classes with the promise that they could
be used to make music.
Having said that, I must admit that the plastic school recorder
has vastly improved in recent years, but I still suspect [based
on my own experience as a school recorder teacher] that the
recorder is used as a filter mechanism. A box of assorted
recorders is passed out to the class, and after a few weeks
it is obvious where the more talented musicians are. It is
at this point that the clarinet and flute teachers come nosing
about asking if anyone is any good, and before you know it
your best pupils are swanning along the corridors with a gleaming,
key-festooned orchestral instrument and seem to mysteriously
‘quit’ your class!
The windway of a recorder is essentially
a channel milled into the roof of the headjoint beak. It can
point down into the bore and extend beyond the window as the
underlabium on the same axis [best for mass production], or
it can be parallel to the bore and change direction for the
underlabium, more often seen nowadays in mass produced instruments,
or it can slope slightly upwards, and be created entirely
independently from the underlabium, which is milled separately
or cut with an angled knife [the method probably used in baroque
The height of the windway varies considerably, but the basic
rule is that the bigger the windway the more air you need
to put down it to make it work, and the louder the recorder
could be if the rest of the voicing is properly set up. The
advantage of a large windway is the range of manipulation
of the sound available to the player, but disadvantages will
include coarseness of tone, too much pitch variation with
blowing, and a tendency for the player to pass out! A small
windway, with good focus, will give a much more precise sound,
more pitch stability, and greater staying power per lungful,
but can also be a bit of a straitjacket when it comes to expression.
If you want to open the windway of a recorder, the easy option
would seem to be to just lower the block, and if it was too
high in the first place this will give an improvement, but
once the labium is visible any further lowering will quickly
destroy the tone. You need to raise the roof at the south
end. You can do this with abrasive paper on the end of a stick,
but you may end up rounding off the end of the windway. Try
to make a scraper. I use a small, square file, ground down
to a scraping edge at the end, with a curve that is slightly
rounder than the windway profile [pic] at one end, and a square
cut at the other. The former can be used in the centre of
the windway, and the latter to raise the corners. This tool
can also be used to introduce or adjust the concavity mentioned
on p???. However, it can only be used successfully if the
grain of the wood is on your side. Try a test scrape along
the centre of the windway. If the tool cuts neatly you are
in luck, if it judders along and leaves a torn surface then
the grain is working against you and there is very little
you can do about it except the abrasive on the stick method,
and that is a lot less precise.
By raising the roof at the windway exit, you will also have
removed part or all of the top chamfer, so you really need
to have made a record of it in advance. Take an ice-lolly
stick or similar and trim it so that it fits neatly into the
window with the same width. Put a blob of wax, plasticine,
or some such on the end and press it into the top surface
of the window. When you take it out you should have an impression
of the top chamfer. Also, make a tool consisting of a small
mirror on the end of a stick. By introducing this in the bore
underneath the end of the windway in a strong light you should
be able to see the chamfer through the window. You can also
see the underlabium.
Re-cut the top chamfer using a new scalpel blade. A lot of
this can only really be done through feel and experience.
You can measure the chamfer as you go along by measuring the
width of the shavings you are making, by looking at it in
the mirror, and by taking further impressions. Bear in mind
that this is an irreversible process. I have always used an
angle of approx 45 degrees for the chamfer, but there is nothing
to stop you from experimenting at this point. Keep checking
the tone of the recorder as you go along and see what a difference
the top chamfer makes, and bear in mind that it must be balanced
by the block chamfer, but they do not necessarily have to
be the same size or angle, or even at the same point in the
bore, just parallel to each other.
The Labium interrupts the airflow and
introduces the acoustic vibration. A transverse wave is converted
rather inefficiently into a longitudinal sound wave within
the bore. The characteristics of the labium are its thickness,
the distance between the centre of the labium and the bore,
and its length both on the outside of the recorder and also
inside the bore [the underlabium]. On mass produced recorders
the labium will be thicker as this is easier to make without
too many disasters. The underlabium will be long as this is
also easy to manufacture. On baroque originals the labium
is usually thin, with a short underlabium, which was probably
cut with a knife through the window. [pic]
The only experiment that you can really do with the labium
is to cut it back with a scalpel and re-profile it from the
outside of the recorder. If the sound is rather tight then
this can open it out, but fractions of a millimetre count
here so be careful and be prepared to write the recorder off
for the sake of curiosity.
The Bore and Fingerholes
The fipple may be the engine of the recorder, but the bore
and fingerholes are the running gear and bodywork, and a well-tuned
bore can turn a three-legged mutt into a race winning greyhound.
It’s like the difference between singing into a cathedral
and singing into a sack of potatoes. A resonant space takes
the sound and amplifies it nd feeds back on itself so that
none of that energy is lost. The most resonant bore is a parallel
tube. Loud fundamental, few partials, strong basic tone. How
the early makers came up with the idea of tapering the bore
we will never know, maybe someone bored a recorder from both
ends with a blunt bayonet and never quite met in the middle
giving the first choked bore by serendipity. However, once
the idea of a tapered bore got around, makers started playing
with the idea, and eventually came up with the baroque bore
with its complex tapers that produce the characteristic rich
sound and extended range of the high baroque originals. I
should also mention that the contemporary recorder has returned
to the open parallel bore, with its loud lower notes, and
persuaded it to work beyond the accepted baroque range using
baroque fingering, but the subtlety of tone of the tapered
bore remains far more suitable for the repertoire of the baroque
The fingerholes are spaced with two
things in mind, that they should give the correct pitches,
and also that theyhould be comfortable for the hands. On smaller
recorders they can be spaced more with tuning in mind, but
as the tube gets longer they have to be arranged in a left
hand and right hand group. On the large renaissance originals
these two groups are spaced apart from each other, and the
tuning is controlled by the size of the fingerhole rather
than the position, so you will see a large hole above a medium
hole with a small hole underneath. If the hole position is
too far for fingers to reach we see various combinations of
keywork, and modern basses and great basses can be keyed throughout.
DIY Tuning is not as difficult as it
sounds, but it must be followed in a logical and ordered manner.
When I tune a recorder from scratch I follow a cyclical pattern,
starting by tuning the recorder to about 20 cents below pitch,
then cleaning the bore. This will give the voicing a chance
to work better, and then I can tune the recorder again and
clean it again. If you take a note in isolation and bring
it up to pitch before finalising the voicing, you will nevitablyfind
that it is sharp when the recorder is finished and the recorder
is working at full power. A further complication is that the
bore also contributes to the tuning, and until the bore is
right the tone will never develop fully.
Each hole will make a contribution to the pitch of several
notes, with diminishing effect the further away you get from
the first open hole. However, the higher harmonics are sometimes
affected by unexpected holes, and not by others. You can do
some experimentation yourself. Play a particular note into
a tuning meter, and then cover each open fingerhole in turn
and see what effect it has on the pitch. You will probably
end up with results something like these;
Finger hole terminology as applied to the following descriptions.
O- Left hand thumb
1- Left hand index finger
2- Left hand middle finger
3- Left hand ring finger
4- Right hand index finger
5- Right hand middle finger
6- Right hand ring finger both holes covered
6a-Right hand ring finger one hole covered
7- Right hand little finger both holes covered
7a-Right hand little finger one hole covered 8- End of foot
The bore also affects the tuning,
and once again you can experiment by adding material to the
bore in different laces and seeing what effect it has. A more
dynamic way is to mount a piece of material, wax, plasticine
or some such on a length of wire that is fixed to the bench,
and then move the recorder on to it so that it travels up
the bore while playing the same note into the tuning meter.
You will see the pitch rise and fall as the ‘lump’
passes various key points, and these will be different for
each note. This means that any note can be tuned individually
using the bore, but it is most often used for tuning octaves
where the same fingering has to give two notes that are exactly
one octave apart. In a parallel bore this happens via simple
physics, but in a tapered bore you have to be more cunning.
For example, the octave A on an alto is tuned by opening the
bore between holes 1 and 2. As the bore is opened the lower
A falls in pitch and the upper A rises until they meet. At
that point the hole can be opened up and the pitch of both
will rise together until it is correct. When the bore is right,
the lower A will also develop a harmonic allowing it to be
blown more strongly,and the high E natural, [the harmonic
twelfth of A] which is also controlled largely by the same
hole 6 as the two As, will be in tune.
The effect of adding material to the bore can be The logical
extension to this is that removing material from the bore
will have the opposite effect. Have a play with it using paper
or wax or some plastic cut from a curved bottle to add material.
For removing material, why not try making a reamer.
All makers work from bore diagrams taken from original recorders.
If you draw one out you will see that the taper is not straight,
but has separate sections, some appear to be parallel, and
some taper sharply. I soon realised that this is the effect
of using several reamers to adjust the bore, and familiarity
with this technique can make all the difference during the
end stages of making a recorder.
A lot of hot air has been expended on the subject of reamers
and bores. Basically, what works, works and whether a bore
has been made to a tolerance of 1/100mm with a beautifully
hardened, tempered and ground, fluted reamer or with a bit
of wood fitted with a scraping blade makes no difference.
I have seen a velvet lined drawer containing spotless steel
reamers, and mine live in a plastic cutlery drawer in a mess
of oil soaked shavings, and are largely made out of oak and
bandsaw blade. They can produce a beautiful, long shaving,
instead of a pile of wood dust, and can be made in minutes
and easily discarded if faulty. The final reaming of a recorder
is not a question of reaching pre-determined parameters, but
of listening to the instrument and knowing just which reamer
of several to use to give it the final tweak. Engineers always
start by producing one-piece reamers, which slavishly copy
the bore of the original they are working from, and can never
quite understand why they usually don’t work.
Making a simple wooden reamer.
Assuming you have a lathe and some skill with it, find a piece
of oak or similar, that will reach to the point of the bore
that you want to experiment with, plus 5cm for a handle. Take
a diameter beyond the point you are interested in, and knock
off a couple of millimetres, and decide what diameter you
want to take the bore out to. Use these as your maximum and
minimum. Turn the wood to these sizes minus 0.5mm. giving
a cutting length of about 4-5cm to adjust a treble, and then
back off from the maximum to make the stem, and turn a nice
handle on the end. Saw along the reaming section leaving a
D shaped section, and then take a section of band saw blade
and drill and screw it to the section, so that it will cut
when rotating clockwise. [I find that an old band saw blade
that has done many thousand revolutions is sufficiently soft
to be drillable, but still takes a good edge. In other words,
ask your local woodworking shop for a broken one.] Grind it
tangentially to the reamer surface until the maximum and minimum
diameters are the ones you are after, and try it out.
Tuning, step by step.
Overall, a simple rule is start from the bottom, and head
for the top, but first you have to ask some questions of the
recorder as a whole.
1. Is the recorder overall too flat? Rather than attempt to
adjust each note, try drilling a small hole of 1mm diameter
in the side of the head joint just by the window. This should
raise the pitch overall. If insufficiently, drill two. You
can always block them up if the room gets warmer.
2. Is the recorder too sharp? Pulling out is of course, an
answer, but can give problems with the octaves as a space
is formed between the head and the centre. Try building up
the wall around the window with some wax or similar.
3. To use a treble recorder as an example, is the octave A
too large, or have the low C or D got a strange hollow sound
when pushed, with a high top octave? Or conversely, are these
octaves too small with a weak low note and a flat top octave?
If so then the only means of adjustment is the bore, and this
should be done before any changes are made to fingerholes.
These adjustments are treated in the following table.
Techniques referred to in this table include filling holes,
opening holes and bore adjustment [method given above]. For
opening holes, use a needle file, or a small, sharp blade.
For closing holes, run thin superglue into the wall of the
hole and let it dry, or melt beeswax into it using a hot scalpel
blade or wire. For bore adjustments, material can be reamed
out [irreversible!], or replaced temporarily with wax, or
more permanently with epoxy resin or twopart varnish. This
can be reamed to a new profile when properly set, and is hardly
detectible on first sight.
All processes apply to a treble recorder
Low F. Largely controlled by hole 8.
Insert wax etc. to flatten, ream out to sharpen, but bear
in mind the effect on he highest notes.
Low F#. Controlled by hole 7a. Enlarge to sharpen, fill to
flatten. Low G. Controlled by hole 7 and 7a. Enlarge to sharpen,
fill to flatten.
Low A flat. Controlled by hole 6a. Enlarge to sharpen, fill
Low A. Controlled by hole 6 and 6a. Enlarge to sharpen, fill
to flatten, but bear in mind that this octave is very inflexible
unless the bore is correct, and enlarging hole 6 will raise
both high E and high F. Also controlled by the bore between
holes 1 and 2. Open to widen the octave, close to narrow the
! ALL THE PRECEDING CAN ALTER THE HIGH
REGISTER FROM E UPWARDS – check as you go along!
Low B flat. Sharpen by undercutting
hole 5 to the north, flatten by filling in on north side.
Low B natural. Sharpen by undercutting hole 4 to the north.
This will preferentially sharpen B nat. in relation to low
C, but bear in mind that a very sharp B nat. with an ‘in
tune’ low C is difficult to correct, and an alternative
fingering should be looked for. Flatten in the opposite way
but with the same provisos.
Low C. Sharpen by undercutting hole 4 to the north, but bear
in mind that this will preferentially sharpen low B nat.,
and this note may need an alternative fingering. If the low
C is flat and ‘boomy’, try filling in the bore
opposite the thumbhole.
Low C#. This is best adjusted using alternative fingerings,
as changing hole 3 affects several other notes.
Low D. Sharpen by undercutting hole 3 to the north, flatten
by filling. If low D is flat and has a rasping sound, try
filling in the bore above the thumbhole.
Low E flat. Sharpen by enlarging hole 2 to the south. This
will also raise high F, so consider alternative fingerings.
Low E. Sharpen by undercutting hole 2 to the north, and flatten
Middle F. Sharpen by undercutting hole 1 to the north, and
flatten by filling, but remember that this hole also affects
Middle F#. Sharpen by undercutting thumbhole to the south,
and flatten by filling.
Middle G. Sharpen by undercutting thumbhole to the north,
and flatten by filling.
Middle G#. Sharpen by undercutting hole 1 to the south, and
flatten by filling, but this is a difficult note to change.
!WHILE ADJUSTING TUNING ALWAYS LISTEN
TO OTHER NOTES THAT MIGHT BE AFFECTED BY THE AME HOLES - and
don’t go too far at once!
High A. Sharpen by undercutting or
enlarging hole 6 to the south, but bear in mind that this
octave is very inflexible unless the bore is correct, and
enlarging hole 6 will raise both high E and high F. Also controlled
by the bore between holes 1 and 2. Open to widen the octave,
close to narrow the octave.
High B flat. Sharpen by undercutting or enlarging hole 5 to
High B nat. Sharpen by undercutting hole 4 to the south. This
note will be preferentially sharpened over high C. Flatten
High C. Sharpen by undercutting hole 4 to the south, flatten
by filling, but keep an ear on high B nat. If the octave is
too wide, flatten high C by filling bore opposite thumbhole.
High C#. Sharpen by undercutting hole 3 to the south, flatten
by filling, but keep an ear on high D nat.
High D. Sharpen by undercutting hole 3 to the south, flatten
by filling but keep an ear on C#. This note is best adjusted
in the bore. Addition of material just in the top joint will
narrow the octave, and removal of material will widen it,
but keep an ear on the tone, as too wide an octave will result
in an unpleasant hollow tone to most of the middle range.
High E flat. This note is often so tied up with the other
top range that the best way to cope with poor tuning is to
find alternative fingerings by adding right hand fingers.
High E nat. This note is controlled by all the lower right
hand holes including the end of the bore, but mainly hole
6, which is why it is so tied up with A. It is often too high,
and you can adjust the bore by reaming around the end of the
centre and top of the foot joint, or use a combination of
hole 6 and 7 if you want to try filling. As mentioned before,
adjusting the bore between holes 1 and 2 can bring the A octave
and high E into harmony with each other.
High F nat. This note is controlled by the holes at the end
of the recorder similar to High e, but with the added advantage
that hole 2 also affects the pitch. There may be some conflict
with the low E flat, but making hole 2 larger to the south
or filling it will either sharpen or flatten respectively.