Woods Used in Fifes

D Fife, American Holly

  Which woods make the best fifes? Some woods sound differently, some sound quite noticeably better to some people. Some woods are pretty much a matter of preference. I've made fifes out of all kinds of wood. Each gives its own quality of sound and ease of playing. There is a recent controversy over maple for flutes. But my curly maple flutes sound fine to me. Someone told me that flutes should only be made of mountain bamboo --because his grandfather told him -- it was a tradition.

Several very experienced players have told me prefer black walnut. My favorite fife is sissoo, an Indian wood, a cross between teak and rosewood, and extremely impervious to rot. I am no experienced player. Perhaps my opinion is based on a preference for rosewood sides and backs on guitars. I use the term fife, loosely, to mean a transverse flute with 6 note holes, though some have seven.

  White Pine -- Northern white pine is inexpensive, soft, but strong. It is easy to work, lightweight for its strength. White pine vibrates in a sort of sympathy with the note in the air column. This gives the white pine fife a breathiness to the sound --voice-like and reed-like.

  Eastern Red Cedar-- Really a juniper. this wood has some of the sound qualities of white pine. The growth rings are very close for a softwood. And, it is not so soft. One player preferred red cedar to the very hard buckthorn fife. With its swirling grain, varied color, and clean fragrance, red cedar is a winner. A sharp knife leaves a polished surface on eastern red cedar

  Black Walnut-- This was the first hardwood fife I made. This wood is much harder to work than pine. One muti-instrumental personage tested a bunch of my fifes and settled on the black walnut --his favorite. His playing was delicate and sweet. That was his basis for choosing black walnut. Otherwise he might have chosen Sissoo, my favorite. I have thus far only used native black walnut.

  Mahogany  --This is another hardwood also used in stringed instruments. Mahogany guitars are less jangly than rosewood. I salvage some now and then from furniture projects or construction. I got one batch meant for table legs. This wood makes a golden brown fife similar in sound to black walnut. Mahogany actually is an evergreen and technically a softwood, but soft it is not. Mahogany comes in so many varieties it is hard to comment on a particular one. The true Honduras variety can be extremely hard. Phillipine mahogany is not a mahogany.

  Curly Maple  --To me these fifes have a good hardwood sound, with their unique flashing beauty. Curly maple is used in violins, which I play. Guild has used maple for sides and back for a great finger picking guitar, not as 'ringy' as rosewood sides and back.

  Butternut  -- Also called white walnut, this cousin of black walnut is less hard, less springy, and lighter in weight. Unlike black walnut, it is very dimensionally stable, and was a favorite for making doors and furniture a hundred years ago. It is very resonant, making a fife sound between pine and black walnut. My first hardwood Bb fife was butternut, chosen for its straight grain and stability. But, go to work on this wood, and it is not so soft .

  Buckthorn  -- I considered this my hardest fife wood. It is not easy to find a piece of Buckthorn big enough to make a fife. The grain is tropical, golden, and iridescent. It resembles osage orange. The wood itself is the most unringing-est (anecoic) wood I have ever worked. When you tap a piece you get a dull 'thud.' This makes a fife which interacts the least with the air column. To many players this is very desirable. The note is the pure result of the vibrating air column.

  Sissoo  -- These fifes have a husky sound, very lively and robust. They are my personal favorites. The wood is very hard, a cross betwen teak grain and rosewood color. My limited supply was once fence for a Girl Scout Camp in the 1960's. It was lying on the ground. In the 80's I carved a white oak tree stump into a figure of an Indian woman for the camp, and the sisoo was still on the ground -- bleached but untouched. Sissoo is nearly impervious to rot. It was used to make homes in India. It is hard to work. Many woods like witch hazel and sycamore bend or contract while being bored out. Sissoo also grips the boring tool, making deafening screeches. But the handsome dark fife is well worth the effort.

  Beech  -- Dry and with a varied grain, beech makes a surprisingly bright mid-range fife. The attack is very good. The wood is hard, but not as hard as walnut, not as bendable. Perhaps this gives it a certain brilliance. I made one fife for the wild look of the grain, and was pleasantly surprised at the sound. This is one fife where I can really hear a difference from the others.

  Teak  -- Teak is another winner. I found some choice pieces at a marine consignment shop. Teak --Thai teak --is waxy and fairly hard. It makes a superb fife, easy to play, good attack on a note, a clear and mellow sound. The wood contains a natural wax, which may fill the air pockets to make teak sound so great. Wax may even store the sound. Kids used to make 'telephones' with waxed Dixie cups and waxed string. Teak vies with sissoo as my favorite. Teak is brighter, sissoo more robust.

  Buttonwood  -- Also known by most folks as Sycamore, my sycamore stock has an interesting story. It came from a mill which made Union army uniforms. These wooden 'ingots' were made into buttons in the 1800's. The wood is like maple and harder, often with a subtle tight curly grain like maple. Sycamore was often used by violin makers, including Stradivarius. It makes a great hard fife. Tough to work and unruly when boring a fife, but very stable. As old as these pieces are, none are checked. The name 'Buttonwoods' is given to a section of the town where I grew up, and where many of these trees were planted long ago for harvest. Some standing trees are huge.

  Staghorn Sumac  -- is soft and contrary to work. The wood is a striking green. This is not the poison variety, but a small tree which produces very dark red berries arching upward like flames, which make great tea. The wood is light, although classified as a hardwood. It's sap makes a great violin bow rosin! I was cherishing a grove of staghorn of rare large size, when the state plowed everything into the swamp to make a highway. Sumac fifes sound a bit like pine and red cedar, often quite outstanding.

  Witch Hazel  -- I have finally made some fifes made from this impossible wood. Unless completely cured it seems to have a life of its own when worked. It warps intensely just while being cut into blanks on the table saw. I cut blanks of this wood from a toppled witch hazel, the largest I have ever seen. Witch hazel is used to make dowsing rods, so it may have some unusual affinities for water. It grows in swamps, Once cured, it is tame, stable, and turns beautifully on the lathe. Witch hazel fifes sound like walnut, or better. The grain is close and a golden iridescent. Another wood deemed by books to be 'of no commercial value' makes a great fife.

  Rosewood  -- I have made one Brazilian rosewood fife. Nice, no doubt about it. Rosewood sounds and plays great. Does it represent a huge quantum jump over the others ? Not really. The inside polishes very nicely just from boring. It fits the criterion of fifers who say 'harder is better'. I think alot of other hardwoods give rosewood a run for the money. I have a large Indian rosewood plank which I might make some smaller bore fifes out of.

  American Holly  --Not a winter tree, as supposed from the Christmas ads, holly is one of the few trees that have a blue tinge to the wood. Between that and a creamy white color, holly makes a beautiful fife. The close grain gives a firm tone, with good attack on the note. I like it alot because it resembles boxwood, which was a favorite of early flute makers. It is lightweight for its hardness.

  Boxwood  -- I have some 'on the hoof' but I will not make a fife out of it until my skill levels have increased to wizardry, and I have a really special or bizarre instrument to make of it. I have made one or two chisel handles of this wood, and it does not split despite no retaining rings arond the striking end of the handle. I am torn between making an instrument of this wood or engraving upon it.   Ipai  -- I just got some of this wood, and identified a larger piece which I already had. It is heavier than water, dark brown, not terribly distinguished or attractive, but has a wonderful ring when struck. I am just as liable to make a kalimba or marimaba type instrument out of this stuff, as make a fife.   Iroco  -- I have made one incomplete fife of this wood, no report on the quality of sound. The wood is wicked hard. Obtained a scrap at the shipyard.

  Apple  -- An old standard of early European flutemakers, I have cut some blanks of this and they are curing. Dry apple is light and strong. Dang, that reminds me of a couple of pear trees I just missed. Fruitwood generally makes good fifes.

  Japanese Plum  -- One of 5 blanks makes it to fifedom. The wood is variegated and colorful -- and very unruly. It expands tenaciously around the boring tool then flies apart unmercifully. People have been very happy with these fifes. The unruliness of the wood is due to a lifelong struggle against an ant infestation.   (Birch beer) Birch  -- I have seen other trees lose this battle, notably a tall birch stump which I cut down for its gnarled shapes, very artistic. And I might actually make some fifes out of the straight pieces of this birch, which seems to attract the ants by its sweetness. I have seen walnut and red cedar so infested, and perhaps the formic acid from the ants makes the wood extra hard.

  Lightning struck Pine  -- I have several pieces of this, from large branches which grew up and around the trunk of a huge pine struck early in its life by lightning. I took one branch from the fallen tree, and found it hard to slab out. For ten years the slabs have sat outside, and not rotted. Unusual for pine, but some tell me this is typical of lightning-struck wood. I have yet to make a fife out of this wood.

I have to stop this list somewhere, but there are more woods to add.

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