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Making a Five-Hole Flute from recycled PVC Pipe
"I like your flutes, the sound is so soft and mild." -Pearl B. Detroit, MI
I remember sitting on a rock beside Hollowtop Lake one quiet summer evening, listening to the soothing sounds of a flute trailing out across the water. I do not know who played that night, but the flute has been my favorite instrument ever since. Later I learned from a student how to make simple five-hole flutes from scrap PVC pipe, and I absolutely love them. Although I don't consider myself all that musical, I've learned to play the flute well enough to add my music to our Art of Nothing Wilderness Survival Videos. Someday I will add some flute music to our website too.
I used to make and sell a few flutes, but I have since become so busy that I just don't have the time any more. So here is a quick out-line of the instructions so you can make your own. Eventually I will post some pictures and more detailed instructions, but at least this is a start.
These instructions will be brief, but I think adequate to make a duplicate of my flute. There is room to vary certain parts of it, but for simplicity, lets stick to these measurements:
Start with a scrap of 3/4" PVC pipe (schedule 40) that is 18 inches long. I will refer to the "top" of the flute (where your mouth goes) and the "bottom" (the end away from you). All holes in the flute should be drilled with a 1/4" bit. I make marks along the side of the pipe that has writing printed on it to keep my holes straight.
From the bottom, measure up the flute and drill 7 holes centered on these measurements:
The first five measurements are for the "five-hole" flute. The last two measurements are used to make the whistle.
Now the tricky part is to make a good whistle. First you need to cut a channel between holes #1 and #2 (from the top of the flute). So you are making a 1/4" wide channel on the surface of the PVC between those two holes. The channel should only be about 1/16" deep, so you are not cutting all the way through the PVC. Later you will wrap a piece of paper over the channel to contain the air as it comes up out of the first hole, runs through the channel and splits on the whistle of the second hole. I have carved this channel with sharp tools, but it is dangerous and difficult. A Dremel tool with a selection of cutting and abrading tips makes the job much easier.
The second hole was drilled straight in at first, but now you need to go back and cut it at an angle on the downwind side of the hole, so that air coming through the channel will split on the sharp edge, with half the air going down and half the air going up. You can tilt the drill at an angle to cut away the plastic inside the hole. But try not to eat away at the upwind side of that hole, as you want to keep the 90 degree edge there. Again, the Dremel tool makes the job a lot easier. You can take just a little bit off the top edge of the hole (downwind side), but most of the angle should be achieved by carving off the bottom edge, inside the flute. I fear that this sounds confusing, but I don't know how else to explain it without pictures.
Anyway, the next step is to pour a beeswax plug in between those first two holes. I use a 3/4" dowel with tape wrapped once around the end to thicken it a little, and push it up through the bottom of the flute until it has just barely plugged hole number two from the top (the whistle). If you pour melted beeswax into the top of the flute then it will form a plug between holes number one and two, forcing the air up out of hole one, through the channel to split on the whistle of hole number two. Allow the wax to cool thoroughly before removing the dowel. Look through the flute to make sure the wax doesn't pull away from the inside of the pipe to allow air past it. Sometimes that happens and you have to redo the wax.
Now you are ready to test the flute. Wrap a piece of paper over hole number one and the channel, so that the air can still split on hole number two. Tie a string around the paper and flute to keep the paper in place. Blow through the flute with and without fingering the holes to see what happens. The rest is experimentation, as you try adjusting the angle of the whistle or the size and shape of the channel until you get a good sound on all the holes. I have spent hours fine-tuning flutes that way in the past, though I am faster at it now.
When you get it just the way you like it, then you can finish the flute with paint. Rub it all down with coarse sand paper to give the paint more texture to grab on to, and round out the top and bottom ends of the flute. Finally paint it with a couple coats of acrylic paints. I pound a large nail into a board to hold the flute up while the paint is drying. I lay a pencil beside the nail to lift the bottom end of the flute up a little bit, so that the only painted part in contact with anything is the bit resting on the pencil. When it is dry then you can put the paper and string back on and play to your heart's content. The layer of paint may slightly alter the sound though, so it could require some precise fine-tuning.
Playing the Five-Hole Flute
These flutes do not fit to a Western do-re-mi scale. For those with more musical background than I have, the lowest note is G (played with all the holes closed), followed by a B flat, C, D, F and G at the high end. A few other notes can be achieved through various combinations of open and closed holes. But the exciting thing about these flutes is that you do not need to have a musical background to play.
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Here's some simple instructions: First, position your hands correctly on the flute. The left index and middle fingers are used to play the upper two holes. The left ring finger is positioned on top of the flute (as if there were another hole there) and does not move during play. The left thumb is positioned below the flute and also does not move. The right index, middle, and ring fingers are used to play the lower three holes. The right thumb is positioned below the flute and does not move. Put both your lips inside the pipe, or your lower lip outside and your upper lip inside.
The trick to playing the flute without experience is to start by playing simple scales. Play a note with all the holes open, then cover the first hole (closest to you), then cover the second (keeping the first closed), and so forth, until all the holes are closed. Then do the same thing in reverse, uncovering the holes one-at-a-time until all are open.
Start playing the notes in order this way, and you can experiment more later. Much of the musical quality from the flute is made by your rhythm of air pulses and finger movements. You can create nice tunes just by playing with rhythm up and down the scale. With practice and experience you will be able to explore new note combinations.
The haunting sounds of the Native American flute can be made by barely lifting your finger tips and hovering over the holes, up and down, or back and forth. Also try adding sudden starts and stops for interest. With a traditional Native American flute you would have to use your tongue to block the air, but with this style you can just open or close your lips for air control. But I must emphasize, stick to the basic scales and techniques before you try anything too fancy.
Short, impromptu sessions with the flute are the best. Practicing the flute is a good way to relax, so keep it next to the recliner, or where ever you usually sit down to take a break.
Note: We are more interested in promoting the sale of flutes from recycled PVC than making them ourselves. If you know of someone that makes and sells them already, we would be delighted to get connected with them. Send us a note through our firstname.lastname@example.org. We will only accept flutes from recycled or scrap materials. The production of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is highly detrimental to the environment, even though the end product is reasonably benign.