Jeff's Native American Flute Project

Under Construction

Last updated 07/29/2009.

I recently developed an interest in making Native American Style Flutes. A few years ago, I bought a Navajo flute in Arizona, made by Jonah Thompson, and I decided to take a stab at flute making myself.

My Jonah Thompson Flute -

Before investing a lot of time into the project, I wanted to see if I would actually be able to apply the principles I read about on various web pages towards a working flute.
I made a mouth piece out of a scrap piece of wood, and bore a hole into one end to accept a scrap piece of PVC. This was my "Proof of Concept" flute.
After an hour of fooling around with it, and not getting any sound out of it, I did more research into the proper way to shape the holes and flue in the mouthpiece ... then it worked!

The playing holes are just drilled at random for testing, and the block is a piece of scrap wood held in place with a broken rubberband. Aesthetically a far cry from the Jonah Thompson flute above.

My "Proof Of Concept" Flute -

Click here to hear a sample of this flute (enhanced with reverb)

First Flute

Now that I knew it could be done, I wanted to make a prototype out of some scrap pieces of 1-1/2" furring strips. They are a little wide for the 3/4" sound chamber I'll be routing, but it should be easy to thin the flute walls when I shape it.

Some flutes are made from a solid piece of wood, but it is more common to make the flute in two halves, and glue the pieces together.

The next step was to make a jig to route the sound chamber and slow air chamber (SAC). I designed several generations of the jig in my head before making it.

My Routing Jig -

Routing The Sound Chamber -

One of the reasons I wanted to make a prototype out of scrap, was to make it easy to determine where to put the jig stops without doing the math. It also turned out to be a good idea, because during my first attempt at routing the SAC, I forgot to clamp down the other end. The wood moved and I routed the SAC right into the Sound Chamber. As you can see, the end stop for the SAC is hanging off the end. I'll reposition all the stops by about an inch before I make my first "real" flute.

The Slow Air Chamber routed -

I removed the end stop, and routed a small channel from the SAC to the end. When the two halves are glued together, this channel will help guide the drill bit when I drill the blow hole from the end into the SAC.

Blow Hole Channel to SAC -

About two weeks have passed, and I'm back at work on the project.

I made the second half -

I may have jumped the gun on this part, but I made the Slow Air Chamber Exit Hole, and the True Sound Hole. I also misread the book, and made them too big. I glued a small piece of wood in each to make the holes smaller, as you'll see later on.

SAC and TSH holes from the outside -

SAC and TSH holes from the inside -

Here are the two halves glued and clamped together -

Next, I drilled the blowhole to increase it's size to 1/4", and I used a block plane and sandpaper to reduce the wall size, and shape the flute.

It's starting to look like a flute now! -

The SAC and TSH Holes and Flue (Windway) -
(Later, I had to remove the plug from the TSH, the original size was correct,
also, I made the flue a little deeper, and cemented a small piece
of copper flashing to the bottom of the flue, to prevent it from
swelling from the moist air passing through).

I wanted to see if it was going to work, so I positioned a block of wood in the proper place with a rubber band. It "toots", but it's breaking into an overtone, too easily. I think adjusting the size and shape of the True Sound Hole will fix it.

Flute with Temporary Block For Testing -

Click here to hear the test

I was still a bit confused about the size of the True Sound Hole, so I contacted Russ Wolf, who wrote the book I was following (see "Resources" below).

It seems that my original size was correct, and I should not have plugged it to make it smaller. I started scraping away the plug that I had glued in, when the plug came entirely out. It was now a little bigger than I intended, but it cured the problem of the flute playing an octave high so easily.

Now it was time to tune the flute. In it's current state, it's fundamental note was a "D". I shortened it a little bit at a time until the fundamental note was a "G". That was the key of the flute Russ recommended in his book for a 3/4" sound chamber bore.

Next I drilled the starter playing holes in the positions for a "G" flute. After they were drilled, the fundamental note dropped to an "F#".
Instead of shortening the flute length again, I decided to see if I could adjust the playing holes for "F#" instead of "G". After spending a lot of time going back and forth adjusting the playing holes with a Dremel rotary tool with a tapered stone, drill bits, and round files, I got the flute in tune.

Flute with Playing Holes -

Right now it seems to play a little more "airy" than I'd like, so that's something else to look into, but otherwise it sounds pretty good to me.
I had intended for this to be a prototype, but it came out so nice, I consider it my first "real" flute.

Click here to hear a reverb enhanced sample

Finally Done! -

My Second Flute

Here's the 2nd flute that I've been working on. This "Em" flute is made from pieces of a redwood fence plank.
The block is made of the same scrap wood as the bear block on my first flute. I think it's Douglas-fir.

Due to the blistery cold and wet weather we've been having here in Los Angeles, I haven't been able to place the playing holes, and tune it.
Ok, it's been it the 60's, so maybe blistery cold is a bit of an over statement, but I've read that it's best to tune a flute when it's 72.

Here's the completed 2nd flute.

It's a bit hard to play, because the spacing of the playing holes for this key make it a little too big for my hands.

Click here to hear a reverb enhanced sample
Click here to hear another reverb enhanced sample

Flutes 3 through 6
Now that I had two flutes under my belt, I thought I was an expert flute maker, but I was about to find out that I had a lot to learn.
I attempted to mass produce four Gm flutes.
I got off to a good start. Here are pictures of them in four phases of construction:

Here's a picture of a piece of scrap wood I used to make some blocks. I call the design a generic animal fetish (I probably will make them a little wider in the future):

Here's yours truly, shaping and sanding:

And here are the four finished flutes:

I guess I had beginners luck with my first two flutes. I ran into a lot of problems with these four, but I got a lot of help from the members of the Native Flute Woodworking Yahoo Group.

I messed up the flue so badly on two of the flutes, that I had to chisel them down about a quarter of an inch, glue in a new piece of wood, and start the flue over.

I also discontinued gluing a piece of copper to the bottom of the flue, because moisture droplets would condense on the copper.

In the end, I think I got them all to sound pretty good, though I haven't quite got the art of tuning perfected yet. Depending on the ampient temperature, one is a little flat, and two are close to Gm#.

Click here to hear a reverb enhanced sample of one of these flutes.

Combining My Hobbies-

Since I also enjoy building and playing electric guitars, I wanted to make a recording where it all came together.

Click here to hear a multi track recording of me playing one of my flutes, a 6-string, and a 12 string guitar at

I build all the guitars heard in the recording.

Me and master flute maker, Ordell Borg of High Spirits Flutes.
Hoping some of his skill rubs off on me


Native Flute Woodworking Yahoo Group
Anatomy of the Plains Flute -
Wooden Flutes
Ron Zadjik's Flute Pages
Werner John's Video
A Guide to Crafting the Native American Style Flute by Russell A. Wolf (book)
Free Online Native American Flute Lessons with Odell Borg

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