Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bone Flutes.

Over the years I've made a few bone flutes and whistles. And even more out of random things like hollow reeds, bamboo sections, rolled up pieces of paper and whatever else is on hand. Here, then, is a short tutorial for those interested in how to construct flutes and whistles... likely for ritual purposes.

ATTENTION: This tutorial assumes you know how to do a few artsyfartsycraftsythings. I will not walk through bake times for clay, the ups and downs of de-fleshing bones... etc.  This entry was written after a flicker comment with Ms. Graveyard Dirt.

Additional Note: If you're going to whinge about my blog's content, I'm gonna delete it. If you don't like what's here, clearly it's not intended for you. Find another place that better suits your fancy.
How Flutes and Whistles Work.
I am not a professor, nor a professional in the manufacture of instruments. However, I'm someone who has got an understanding that's amateur enough to share it with others without too much fuss.
Flutes work by cutting air. Simple as that. You want it to make a sound? The air needs to be sliced. It's the same reason that air will buzz through tall grass, or make that hollow "wooo" sound over pipes.

This Bone looks vaguely like a boner. Yes, I went there.
How to Make a Really Simple Bone Flute.
1: You will need a bone that is hollow. Bird bones work exceptionally well.(see above).
2: Ream out the interior so that there are no structures, or debris.
3:  Fabricate a voicing.

This is a long step, and requires explaining the voicing, using pictures. The voicing is the portion of the flute, or whistle, which cuts the air, creating the vibration.  Your breath enters the flute at the mouthpiece (the purple line) and is split in two. The portion which exits the flute (blue) and the portion which remains inside (red) are both important. The "red" portion vibrates around inside of the flute. The difference in size determines the tone of the flute. For a bone flute, if the bone is thin enough, I don't mess with it. I build the mouth around it. For thicker bone, I do file the voicing into the arrow/blade shape above. The basic premise here is that the air needs to get cut approximately in half. If the air passes too high, no sound. Too low, no sound.

4: Building the mouth piece.
I am a finicky, fiddly, sorta person about "germs". Unless that bone came from a domestic food animal, and has been bleached... I'm just not keen about getting down on it. So, for the mouth-piece on the majority of these "spur of the moment" flutes... I've used Oven-bake clay and/or wax.  Yeah. That's right.
Here's a handy little MS Paint drawing showing what they generally look like.  The Mouth-piece (reddishbrownish parts) is formed out of Super Sculpey or Fimo. I mold it on the bone (gray and tan part), then carefully slide it off and bake it (usually setting on it's "butt", the end near the yellow). Then I use hot bee's wax (yellow bits) to secure it to the bone after baking.  In order to form the airway, I usually use a coffee stirring stick, popsicle stick, or something else narrow and flat (with a bit of thickness). You'll note that the air passage here is cut directly in half by the bone. This is what you want. 

5: Drill a few holes (if there's room) for the ability to play "notes". 
I ... there are no words that can explain how to do this and get "true" notes. There's just not. There's a mathematical equation out there that I've used a grand total of once... before going "Not. Damned. Worth. It."
Generally, I use an electronic tuner on my computer to figure out the base note of the flute, mark out regular intervals along it's length, and start with tiny pinpoint holes... slowly widening to get it into "tune". It'll only ever be in tune to itself, rather than a concert tuning... but well, ritual instruments don't really need to be ready for a pub gig. 

6: Finishing, decoration, consecration. 
If you make your mouthpiece out of sculpey, you can put designs into that, even small stones/curios. The bone itself can be painted, or reddened with blood (personal favorite). 

Consecrating...I generally face in the direction of the prevailing winds, and blow a single "open" (no fingers) note into the wind. I put the breath of life through it, and bathe it in smoke. Sometimes I stroke the length of it with a feather (as though "magnetizing" it). I generally use mine to summon spirits, and so I have to get them associating the blowing of the flute with coming forward (especially with animal spirits). 

Other, Quick, Interesting, Flute methods. 
1: Take a pencil, roll it tightly in electrical tape, or something else slick. 
2: Take a sheet of paper, saturate it with glue-water. (Sigilized?!)
3: Roll paper around pencil. Allow to partially dry before disentangling the pencil. 
4: Make the voicing/mouthpiece described above. Attach to paper tube.
5: Drill sounding holes. 
6: Bamf, flute.


  1. Very cool idea! I love making instruments. I've made whistles and ocarinas out of clay before. The firing process tends to change the notes quite a bit though. After reading this post, I'm very intrigued by the idea of using fimo or sculpey instead... I love that brilliant moment when you get the voicing juuuuust right.

    Have you seen Vi Hart's website before? She's got some cool ideas on paper instrument and other instrument projects that you might find interesting.

  2. I've made ocarinas as well. I've discovered that if I let the clay dry really, really, REALLY (weeks) slowly, and fully (BONE dry) and THEN finish up the sounding and tuning, it stays extremely close to 'true'.

    Actually, I've been considering making a few soon as "spirit calls". Little, simple, ones with only a few notes - likely shaped into skulls, thighbones, etc.

    Vi Hart's website is very interesting - that's pretty much how I used to make paper flutes. And generally, I used to surrender mine to fire after use - again, because I generally used them as calls/lures.

  3. You didn't have a problem with shrinkage during firing then? I'll have to be even more patient next time. :D

    The other thing I've been having fun experimenting with are thumb pianos (mbiras or kalimbas). It's another great project for found objects.

    The process of creating from scratch is one that I truly appreciate. Things that before had no purpose or only one purpose suddenly become useful in many ways. It makes one see potential in everything around us, and in turn we become better and more creative problem solvers and artists.

  4. I had a LOT less problems with shrinkage, usually to the point where the e-tuner went "Ehh... good enough."

  5. This is astoundingly relevant! My daughter is obsessed with all things Ice Aged and wants me to make a bone flute. I just cooked a lamb shank, so I've got a bone. Your directions are great but I was wondering if you could suggest a book so that I don't need to lug my laptop down to the workshop?

  6. Unfortunately, I don't really know of any books on this topic. My only suggestion would be to check at your local library or book-store for books on making flutes/ocarinas.