When you have a bad day, nothing is better than putting on headphones and listening to some of your favorite music while working in your studio. It’s amazing how therapeutic that can be. I suspect that I am not the only one in the ceramics world who thinks that the perfect antidote to a lousy day is clay and music. So today I decided to present a ceramic flute project that combines both.
In today’s post, an excerpt from Barry Hall’s From Mud to Music, you’ll learn how to make a ceramic flute similar to a recorder or an Irish Pennywhistle. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
The ceramic flute in this demonstration is an end-blown ducted flute similar to a recorder or Irish pennywhistle, which has an airduct assembly at one end and a series of finger holes. This flute is challenging to make but easy to play. Successfully make a four-hole ceramic ocarina and you’re ready to give this instrument a try. For variety, experiment with different tube lengths to develop different pitches and try bending the tube into different shapes. As with the previous projects, most any type of clay can be used. What’s important is to begin with fresh, well-wedged clay.
The Process: How to Make a Ceramic Flute
Our collection of familiar tools now includes a drum stick and a carpenter’s square. The drum stick is about 14 inches long and 1/2-inch in diameter. A wooden dowel rod is a suitable alternative. It is important to have two of the sharpened Popsicle sticks (like those used in the ceramic ocarina demo). This ceramic flute project starts with a 1/8,-inch-thick slab of clay that measures about 12 inches wide and 18 inches long. A slab roller (If you don’t have a slab roller, try out this DIY slab roller!) is recommended to create this, but a rolling pin can be used if care is taken to ensure a slab of even thickness. A 2-foot-square sheet of drywall makes an ideal working surface.
After gathering the tools and rolling out the slab of clay for your ceramic flute, the next step is to cut the clay into a manageable shape. Use the needle tool with the carpenter’s square to make a straight cut along one side of the slab. Lay the edge of the dowel or drumstick on the clay with its side about an inch and a half from the edge of the slab. Make another cut in the slab about an inch and a half below the other side of the dowel (1).
Using the needle tool, make squared cuts at each end of this strip of clay (2). Cutting the strip slightly shorter than the dowel makes it easier to remove the dowel later. (click images to enlarge!)
This is where the suppleness of the clay is critical. If the clay has been allowed to get too firm it will crack as it is formed around the dowel. The trick is to move slowly along the length of the dowel (3). If some cracks develop, lightly moisten the outside surface of the clay. If the strip is too wide, reopen the clay and trim the excess. Don’t seal the seam shut yet.
Once you have the clay trimmed just right, thoroughly score the edges of the slab using the needle tool or a serrated rib. Then, apply a light coating of water along the full length of the strip (4). There’s no need to drown the clay in water. In fact, too much water will make it more difficult to remove the dowel.
Now the seam can be sealed. Pinch the edges together along the full length of the dowel (5). Every few inches, stop to give the dowel a slight twist to keep it moving freely as the tube is being formed. Making a strong seam now will prevent splitting later.
Once it is completely closed, roll the tube back and forth to smooth out the seam(6). Leave the dowel in the tube while you do this, to keep from crushing the tube. As soon as the seam has been smoothed, twist the dowel and draw it out of the tube. It must be removed at this point, because the clay shrinks as it dries, and will tighten up around the dowel.
To construct the airway, insert a Popsicle stick into the tube and press the clay down around it with your thumbs, as shown (7). Press the clay from the end of the tube down about an inch. Leave the stick in place for the moment. Trim some of the excess clay from the sides of the mouthpiece.
Trim the opposite end of the tube. A large serrated rib (as shown in image 9) works well, but a variety of tools can be used for this purpose.
With one Popsicle stick in the airway, the other is used to cut the sound hole (10). The sound hole should be located just below the point where the clay begins to taper toward the mouth hole. Make the cuts into the clay until they reach the inner stick. Use the sharpened edge of the stick to cut a shallow bevel in the back of the sound hole.
This is the finished sound hole (11). The tube is now a simple, one-note flute. Give it a try. Although the clay is wet, the flute can be blown enough to determine the quality of the basic sound. No sound? Reinsert the stick in the airway and adjust the beveled edge so that it splits the airway passage. Be sure the beveled edge is sharp and smooth. If it’s a little ragged, use the Popsicle stick to smooth the surfaces. The ocarina’s mouthpiece was made in the same way.
The flute is nearly ready for drying and firing. Use the hole cutter, as shown here, or a 1/4inch drill bit, to cut four evenly spaced finger holes along the top of the flute (12). You can now play the flute to see how it sounds. If you’re not happy with any of the finger holes, you can enlarge them to raise their pitch, or fill them in with clay and re-cut them in another spot on the tube to get a different pitch.
The countersink is twisted over each hole to give a nicely smoothed edge. (13) Before letting the flute dry completely, check the inside of the flute to be sure it is smooth and free of obstructions. The dowel won’t fit in it any more, so use the needle tool, a chopstick or other small stick to clear out the flute’s interior if necessary.
Give this project a try and then tell us how it turned out in the comments below!