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My first challenge

My first challenge in making a recorder?  It was drilling the hole through the wood.  Now if all you had to do was drill a hole, that would be relatively straight forward.  But a recorder does not just have a straight cylindrical bore.  Its bore is tapered, which means that it starts out large at the top and then gets smaller as you go down.  Which is otherwise known as a “conical” bore, since it approximates the shape of [part of] a cone.

Now the problem is that you can’t really buy an off-the-shelf tool for reaming the right kind of conical bore shape that you want on a recorder.  But … to the rescue came a fellow by the name of Trevor Robinson who wrote The Amateur Wind Instrument Maker.  In his book he explains many things, one of which is how you can buy something called a Taper Pin Reamer, which is manufactured for making tapered holes for metalworking equipment, which just so happens to be somewhat close to the bore shape that you might want for a recorder, if you get the right size.  Here is one of the taper pin reamers that I bought on ebay for this purpose.

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Well I have since concluded that many of Trevor’s suggestions, when followed, are likely to give you what might best be described as an amateur recorder.   Which is not a surprise given the title of the book.  It so happens that I am not really interested in making amateur recorders (despite the fact that I have made plenty of them so far) … I’m really more interested in making a recorder that a professional musician might covet.  Which I do not believe I have yet done, but maybe will do in the future.

So, back to the story.  I went back to ebay and bought up a bunch of these taper pin reamers from old retired machinists.  Let me show you my collection of reamers … here they are on my sawdust-covered garage floor.  Suffice it to say that these could, hypothetically, be used to make the various pieces of a soprano, an alto, and a tenor recorder.  According to Trevor.  I put one of my soprano recorders (made with 3 of these reamers) there for perspective.  The largest of the reamers was not cheap, despite being second-hand from ebay.

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Now before I could use the above-mentioned reamers, I had to drill a straight hole through the wood.  Since the reamer can only be used to enlarge the hole and get it the right shape, not to actually drill it.  Did you ever try drilling a 8-12 inch hole, the long way, through long skinny piece of wood with a handheld drill?  It doesn’t work so well.

Below you can see what does work.  You basically use a wood lathe to drill the hole … but with the drill bit held steady and the wood mounted into the lathe chuck.  That is a cheap 18″ drill bit that I got from Harbor Freight … where you can find a few real gems among the piles of flimsy power tools.  (Ask me to tell you about the amazing shoe horn I got there sometime).

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Drilling holes through the to-be-recorder pieces of wood worked pretty well this way, except for one slight issue.  That is when you get the hole drilled all the way through, and you take a look at the other side, you usually find that the hole is off from center.  The drill bit tends to wander as you drill.  Well it turns out that this doesn’t really matter, because later you can re-mount the wood on the lathe using a conical center or mandrill to center it coincident with the axis of rotation, and then you just turn down the exterior and viola … you have your exterior cylinder perfectly inline with the bore.

Once I had my straight hole through the wood, I could use the taper pin reamer to enlarge it and end up with a very nice conical hole.  Which, once I sanded the inside up to 800 grit sandpaper and completed all the rest of the steps in the Recorder Chapter in Trevor’s book, did in fact make a reasonable recorder.

Well, the first recorder wasn’t really that reasonable.  The second was only a bit better.  The third I was pretty damn proud of, and the fourth was a complete disaster (not in how it looked, but in how it sounded).  Here you can see my first, second, third, and fourth recorders.

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Let’s fast forward a bit.  Here is my 9th recorder.  It took until the 9th one until I had one that was really acceptable.  And “acceptable” here means just that … I can stand to actually play it – it doesn’t mean that it is actually good.  I was happy enough that I decided to imprint it with the number “01”.  So that if I ever get to be a famous recorder maker, they will think this is the very first one that I ever made.  Below the photos I also uploaded a sound sample of number 01 so you can hear for yourself.  It does actually have a similar tone to my lovely rosewood Moeck Rottenburg that I modeled it after, although not quite as loud and clear.

Now … there was one glaring flaw to recorder number 01.  The second octave was sharp!  And that was after I spent hours painstakingly tuning the lower octave by carefully enlarging the holes with a file.

I’ll tell you in the next post what I did about that.  So tune back in … maybe in a few days or a week I’ll find time to write it.

Until then, happy travails to you!

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Where to start

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Making recorders.  How in the heck did I get started on this journey?  I was putting a woodshop together in the garage to try to get my son to do some woodworking with me.  As a musician, I thought it would be fun to try making a musical instrument.  I’m a guitar player and a piano player, and I had dabbled around with making a cigar box guitar in the past.  But everyone makes guitars.  And making a piano seemed a bit more than it would be wise to bite off.  Now it turns out that I did play recorder as a kid, but not like most kids in a classroom playing Hot Cross Buns.  My dad had a yamaha soprano and alto, and he also had a fingering chart.  Which was enough for me to start playing around with and sounding out tunes on my own.  Pretty soon we started playing duets, mostly hymns by ear, me on the soprano and Dad on the alto.  That was my introduction to the recorder.

I had a couple old wood recorders around the house, so I dusted them off and said “hey I bet I can make one of these”.  I went to Amazon and found a book on recorder making, ordered it, and went to work!

It didn’t take me long to make a rudimentary recorder flute from the instructions in the book.  I made it out of some really cheap wood, and it looked and sounded terrible.  It was then that I realized that I really didn’t have enough experience with recorders to actually have a feel for what is good and what is bad in a recorder.  So I hit the computer again, this time ebay and started watching for interesting looking used recorders.  Once I started I couldn’t stop!  My dear wife dreads seeing another package show up on the doorstep … not another recorder.  Let me show you my recorder collection.

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Of the recorders you see here four were built by me, one (the best of the bunch) is on loan from and was made by a friend and mentor, one (the bass) I’ve had since I was in college – picked it up used at a sale, one I splurged and bought new, and the rest were from ebay.  And these are only the best ones … I’ve got another dozen or so complete junk ones in a drawer.

Let me show you my best two purchases.  First, a Moeck “Rottenburg” rosewood soprano that I bought new (mail order) from Lazar’s Early Music.  It has an amazingly sweet and piercing sound.

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And my favorite alto, a Mollenhauer Denner model that I got for a steal on ebay.  Not sure what kind of wood it is, it might be pearwood.

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Now, the surprise is that I actually have an alto recorder that I made, which I prefer over this beautiful Mollenhauer.  As long as what I’m playing doesn’t have a low F in it.  Anyway, more on that to come.

In my next post I’ll tell you some interest facts about recorders, including some of why they are so devilishly difficult to make by hand.

Now here’s a little clip for you to listen to … it’s me playing a Bach fugue on 4 recorders – soprano, alto, tenor and bass.  Ok, I’m not a professional musician and I’m sure you can find plenty of issues with the technique.  But what I want to tell you is that alto you hear that starts out the piece – I made that out of maple and cedar.  Tuned it to A=440 (modern pitch) but with a Vallotti temperament.  And I think it sounds pretty good.  The other recorders are my Moeck rosewood soprano, a smelly old Honer tenor that it looks like someone tried to refinish by scraping it with a putty knife but actually makes a nice sound, and the Mollenhauer bass that I’ve had since college.

In case you wondered about the smelly old tenor, here’s what it looks like.  It has a bite taken out of the mouthpiece.  That bite was not taken by me.

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JpegThat’s what these are.  Firewood.  You can see I place the fire extinguisher next to them just in case things got out of control.

They are also recorders, soprano or otherwise known as descant recorders, made by me in my garage.  They are the product of uncounted hours of work.  Or at least I call it work … my dear wife calls it “derping in the garage”.  Experimenting with methods and tricks I’ve learned online or from correspondence with an instrument-making friend.  I can play a tune on any one of these.  Some of them are even tuned to concert pitch.  But in the end my first 8 tries at recorder making pretty much yielded junk.  The low notes are wobbly or too airy, the high notes are out of tune or don’t play at all.  Those plastic recorders you played as a kid?  Those sound better than these.

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The recorder … the seemingly ubiquitous instrument that you learned to play in school.  Maybe your kid ran around the house belting out Hot Cross Buns one too many times on her blue plastic abomination of an instrument.  Please don’t make me ever hear that sound again!  If that’s what you think, put on some good headphones just try listening to this heavenly recorder rendition from the Woodpecker’s Recorder Quartet (page down to see it).  Wow!  Once you’ve heard a recorder sing like that you are not the same anymore.

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So, it turns out recorders are pretty hard to make.  Nevertheless I have embarked on a journey of learning how to make this instrument.  I’m over a year into this journey, and it seems I’ve only just begun!  Stay tuned for the journey and I’ll show you some interesting stuff.

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Now listen to die Kunst der Fuge again.