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Eldred Spell


Iíve been making piccolo headjoints for just over twenty years and have been pleased to have heard them in a number of major orchestras. Over the years, I have been the subject of some interesting rumors: You have to beg for an Eldred Spell headjoint, or He doesnít make them anymore, etc. The web offers a chance to communicate a bit about what I do. I hope youíll find the following information interesting.

Who is this guy?

Well, first of all, Iím not a full-time flute maker. Most of the time, Iím a college flute professor. Hereís the generic biography:

Eldred Spell is Professor of Flute at Western Carolina University. A popular recitalist and clinician, he has appeared throughout the United States, Canada, and England. For many years he served as principal flute of the Sewanee Summer Music Center. Dr. Spell has recorded for the CRS, Early Light, and Sonus record labels and many editions of his music are available through ALRY Publications. Spell has been a member of the Board of Directors of the National Flute Association, the Performance Health Care Committee, and an editorial adviser for the Flutist's Quarterly. He maintains a substantial collection of historic flutes and performs primarily on a nineteenth-century instrument by famed French maker Louis Lot. Spell holds a Ph.D. from Michigan State University. His teachers include Clement Barone, William Bennett, Israel Borouchoff, Geoffrey Gilbert, and Stephen Preston. Also trained as a flute maker, Spell has done considerable research into the practical acoustics and tuning of the flute and has been a consultant to numerous flute companies. As a teacher, Eldred Spell offers a unique blend of personal warmth and musical expression, combined with a thorough knowledge of historical styles and the practical mechanics of flute playing.

So whatís with the piccolo heads?

I made my first piccolo head in 1968 °™ I was in the ninth grade. I literally bored out a tent peg in my fatherís shop and used a rifle cartridge to make the tenon. Amazingly, it played °™ though not particularly well. It wasnít until the late 70ís that I began to get serious about it. By then I had trained as a flutemaker and was back in school working on my PhD (in flute, of course!). I was also studying piccolo with Clem Barone and had been working on intonation and flute scales with William Bennett (WIBB). One thing I learned from WIBB is that the size of a flute embouchure hole actually alters the tuning of the harmonics. One swipe of a scraper can make a huge difference in tuning and response. It began to bother me that, compared to a flute, most piccolo embouchure holes were proportionally huge. If you made a flute that way it couldnít possibly play in tune. So, I made several experimental heads. I found that a tiny hole does give good intonation, but itís impossibly difficult to play. Guided by Clem Barone, I worked out some compromises with under and overcutting to make a head that felt larger than it actually was. I made one for Clem and to my amazement, he played it until retirement and his successor, Jeff Zook, is still playing it. What a stroke of beginners luck! Clem showed it to few friends and Ethan Stang (Pittsburg Symphony) bought the second one. And, . . . I suddenly found myself in the piccolo headjoint business.

For the next fifteen years I averaged a two-year wait for delivery. This was due partly to a lack of time (I was in graduate school and later teaching full time), but also to my peculiar method of working. I found very quickly that no two piccolos (piccoli?) are remotely alike. This meant that I had to approach each one as a new project, with subtle differences in the bore, tubing and socket; (What an annoyance!) and, I have not yet found a way to streamline the process. I still start with an individual instrument and draw tubing, make rings, and drill the wood to suit. Even the head crowns are individual. My headjoints are not interchangeable, even among the same makerís piccolos.

And whatís really so different about them?

There are so many wonderful instrument makers in the world today, that one really needs a niche to justify their existence. My particular specialty is making, what many piccolo players believe to be, the best sounding and playing piccolo headjoint available; custom made for a particular instrument to bring out the very best aspects of that instrument. I have reason to believe that my heads play well, and I can say that quite a few knowledgeable folks seem to like them. Hereís what I see as the major distinctions:

  1. They are truly hand made. Because every little part is made just so, I can get an optimum result. Also, because I spend a considerable amount of time on each one, I have a personal investment. Each head gets my full attention.
  2. The embouchure cut. I donít offer cut A, B, or C. After all these years I have a pretty good idea of what works best. I start with the same basic cut, then play the piccolo and scrape away until Iím happy with the way it plays. If I donít like it, it never leaves the shop.
  3. The wood. One of my favorite rumors is that I use rosewood. What I actually use is mountain mahogany. It looks a bit like rosewood, but grows in North America. There are none of the environmental or allergy concerns that arise with tropical hardwoods. The sound is less bright, and seems to blend better in the orchestra.
  4. The secret process. Um, er, well, . . . I actually do treat the wood. Untreated mountain mahogany absorbs water and doesnít sound all that great. I began with the traditional raw linseed oil but eventually rejected it because over time it deteriorates. For the past quarter century Iíve used tung oil, with pretty good results. After the head is completed, I put it under a high vacuum to pull out all the air and water, then fill the pores with tung oil.
  5. Recent developments. There are good reasons no one else uses this wood:
    1. . Mountain mahogany is inherently unstable. The wood I use is very well seasoned (cut in the late 70ís and early 80ís) AND treated with oil. Even so, it continues to shrink and swell with changes in humidity. Most players donít worry unless a head actually cracks and this is relatively rare. My heads work well, there were no complaints, and for years I didnít give it a much of thought. About a decade ago I began measuring older heads and the results were frightening. Boring accurately (to about 0.0001Ē) isnít difficult with the right equipment, so I make my heads very accurately. When I measured old heads, I found the bore had changed as much 0.012Ē Ė thatís an enormous change.I was (and still am) somewhat incredulous. If a flute head changed that much it wouldnít work, but several of these piccolo heads were being played in major orchestras. A couple of things seemed obvious:1) piccolos work differently from flutes, and 2) since changes happened slowly, the players had adjusted.Again, Iíve never had a complaint about any of this, but still found it unnerving. What to do? I could have just ignored it, but about this time someone in Canada ordered a head and was particularly concerned about having a head crack.I simply substituted epoxy for tung oil and got a very good result. I canít tell you what a mess it made, but the head turned out quite well. This began a two-year investigation that led me absolutely nowhere. Epoxy is thick and hardens quickly, so I wasnít confident that it had really penetrated the wood. There are commercial products made for ďstabilizing,Ē typically used by folks making fancy pens and knife handles. I duly ordered some resin and quickly found that it wouldnít harden with mountain mahogany. It eventually emerged that the wood has water chemically bound. A vacuum wonít remove it, but heat will, so I set up a laboratory-type oven and began baking wood. After quite a bit of trial and error I made a head for Heather McKee, who was at that time a graduate student. It turned out beautifully and played very well. The wood was harder and denser, so articulation was easy. The sound was a little bright for my taste, but the experiment seemed a great success Ė briefly.After just a few days the head cracked from one end to the other. The wood was hard to the point of being brittle. A few experiments showed that the resin absorbed a tiny bit of water. Since the wood was now inflexible, it shattered. ĎBack to the drawing board.
    2. Mountain mahogany is scarce. Itís actually common in some parts of the country Ė people burn it for firewood. It has no commercial use, so you canít go out and buy it.

Text Box: Most of my work is for wooden piccolos, but here°Įs one I did for a friend°Įs silver Haynes.

And here's one for an Opperman piccolo.
Since they are all made "one off," unusual sockets are no problem.

Can you send a few heads for me to try?

The answer is simple Ė NO. If you want to try one of my heads, hereís how it works:

  1. Get in touch and let's find a time when you can send your piccolo and I am free to do the work. It helps me to know something about how you play and what you're looking for. Besides, I like getting to know other piccolo players.
  2. Send me your piccolo and Iíll make ONE headjoint to fit (unless you want to buy more than one; some people seem to collect them!). This represents a big investment and a gamble on my part that you will be pleased. If you happen not to like it, I'm screwed ─ so rest assured that I'll do my best.
  3. Try the headjoint for about a week. Most folks know within two seconds, but itís still a good idea to play it in your orchestra and in a variety of rooms.
  4. If you donít like it, send it back. Mercifully, this doesnít happen very often! If you do like it, send me a check.

I've done business this way for a long time. I assume all the risks - you make no deposit and no commitment to buy. It works because of my customer's integrity and because the headjoints really are good. Please don't order unless you are seriously interested and prepared to make a purchase. Remember that you are dealing with an individual human being, not a corporation. When you do decide to purchase, I really appreciate prompt payment. BTW, the current headjoint price for a traditional style piccolo is $1200.

Contact information

Flute related:

email: eldred@eldredspellflutes.com

Phone/FAX:(828) 293-7457

Eldred Spell
871 South Country Club Drive
Cullowhee, NC 28723
Eldred Spell
PO Box 100
Cullowhee, NC 28723

Academic Inquiries:

Dr. Eldred Spell

School of Music
253 Coulter Building
Western Carolina University
Cullowhee, NC 28723

email: espell@email.wcu.edu

Studio Phone: (828) 227-3952


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