Introduction: Making Simple PVC Flutes

Picture of Making Simple PVC Flutes

This flute design is a common one on the net, and for good reason. Not only is it simple to build, it's also relatively simple to learn and rewarding to play. It only took a month of on and of playing to be relatively proficient (meaning I could get a clean sound from the first two octaves without difficulty.) The flutes are keyed instruments and only play in one scale (without more complex fingerings) which is actually a plus when just noodling around since you can't easily hit a note outside of the major scale of that flutes key.

My G flute can hit about 2 octaves easily and 2.5 octaves if you push it. My D fife can hit 2 octaves. There are already a number of good sites out there on how to make flutes, but I thought I would add some of my experiences making my own flute collection that haven't been addressed.

For a primer of how to play a PVC flute check out my website: How to Flute

Step 1: Design

I used tested designs for my flutes which I found with construction information on Pete Kosel's flute page.

I made a G flute as originally designed and a CPVC D fife to which I also made a modified version. The G flute works great as is, but I was having a lot more trouble playing the fife. It was very difficult to reach into the second octave. Part of the problem I found was to do with the thin walls of the 1/2 inch CPVC. To create for thicker walls with the same pipe, I decided to add a lip plate (like those used on metal flutes) made out of a 1/2 inch CPVC connector.

I also made some original flute designs out of the same material as the G flute but higher pitched in the keys of A and C. These are both easier to play in the bottom octave, but take more coaxing to push into the second octave, especially for the C flute.

To make your own designs or to adapt these designs to different PVC tubing or drill sizes, the flutomat is a handy tool that automatically calculates the hole placement from the tubing specs, drill sizes and key you would like to play in.

Step 2: Construction

The basic construction of a PVC flute is simple. Six holes provide the western seven-note scale; one blown hole initiates the sound. Insert a block to the correct depth at the blown end and you have a flute. The steps can be performed in any order, but I tend to drill the embouchure first since is the most important hole to have a clean cut. It also tends to be the largest hole and most difficult hole to drill. To start the flute, I use a hacksaw to cut the pipe to length and sand the ends on the disc sander for smooth finish. It is easiest to lay out the holes with a pencil and then follow up with an awl to make an indent for more accurate drilling. Now that I have made a few flutes, I often use another flute Ive made to mark the positions of the holes: for a first flute you will have use a ruler to measure from the open (not the embouchure) end for each hole individually.

Step 3: Drilling Holes in PVC Tubing

Picture of Drilling Holes in PVC Tubing

The most important trick to getting a clean hole in PVC is to commit. The bit tends to grab and quickly rip through the pipe, but if you keep going, it will finish the hole cleanly. Stopping half way through is the kiss of death. It leaves large pieces of material which are difficult to remove without the momentum of the initial attempt.

Workbench
I hold my pipes for drilling and cutting in a workbench which has two move-able table sections with a grove on their sides that can clamp together. If you don't have something like that, then a v groove or two pieces of wood spaced apart the right width will help to hold the pipe from moving around while drilling and cutting.

Which Drill Bit?
Either brad point or standard twist bits will do an equally effective job at a clean hole, but they are different. Brad point is easier to make an accurate hole with while they tend to be more likely to hurt the opposite side the pipe when punching through. The tip of the brad point has almost punctured the opposite wall on some of the holes I've drilled. I also tried using a drill press thinking it would be easier, but the feedback and control you lose with the drill press made it more difficult for me to use than a hand-held drill. It is a good idea to test out your drilling skills on a test piece before you invest time in your flute. It took me a few shots to get a clean hole the first time.

Step 4: Making the Embouchure

Picture of Making the Embouchure

Some builders make the hole in one shot by drilling a hole on an angle. I find that this tends of cause more trouble than it is worth for me, so I use a straight hole then shape it afterwards with needle files to its final shape. The most important part of the hole is the blown edge on the opposite side of the flute from the player. This edge should stay as sharp as possible. To get the right angle on the blown edge, I use the needle file to carefully undercut the hole. I start on the interior edge of the pipe where the most material will need to be removed with the needle file held at the angle I'm shooting for. I continue to work the angle back until the entire edge is uniform and cleanly cut.

Start with about 45 degrees between the outer and inner edges. Depending on the size of the tubing compared with the diameter of the embouchure hole, it may not take much to reach the right angle, but it is critical to getting the most out of the flute. More filing is needed on larger pipes and on smaller embouchure holes to get to the correct angle. It may be easiest to go ahead and finish the rest of the instrument so it is playable, and then tweak the blown edge until you can get the best tone and control. But don't get greedy: you can always take off more material later but you can't put more on.

Edit: Thought I'd add a picture to clarify how to undercut the embouchure as I've gotten a few of questions about it. The flute will probably work without any undercutting, but they are much easier to play over a wider range with the right angle and a sharp edge. The blown edge is to the right in the new image. After the hole is drilled (the straight lines), undercut the side of the hole by removing the red material in the image. Make sure the edge marked by B stays sharp and the surface marked by A stays straight and smooth. Don't remove any material from the outside of the tube, only from the inside surface of the hole. After you're done undercutting the blown edge, the tube and hole should look no different from the outside from when you first drilled it.

Step 5: The Cork

Picture of The Cork

The cork can be made of any number of materials. It is more a matter of finding something that fits snugly, won't come loose and is easy to fit into the flute. I have used a cork from a wine bottle, wooden dowels and a rubber stopper. Regardless of the material, the face of the cork should be about one embouchure diameter from the center of the embouchure; you may way to experiment with this to get the best sound.

Cork
My preferred cork material is, not surprisingly, actual cork. It looks professional in the end of the flute and doesn't swell or shrink and come loose when moist. This is what I used for my favorite G flute. The problem with cork is I haven't found source that doesn't need modification for it to fit 1/2 schedule 40 PVC. A standard wine cork needs to be cut down to fit with a plug cutter. This was difficult, labor intensive and frustrating. I also couldn't find any workable cork locally or sufficiently thick cork pads to cut plugs from

Wood Dowel
So, I tried wooden dowels. With a bit of a bevel on the end for easy entry and some sanding, a 5/8 inch diameter dowel fits well. I inserted the dowel to the correct depth I then cut off the dowel and smoothed the ends of the pipe and dowel to one smooth surface on the disc sander. This worked well for a while, but eventually moisture caused the dowel to loosen and fall out of the PVC.

Rubber Stopper
This brought me to the rubber stopper from my local hardware store. The stoppers are tapered but to big to fit in the pipe without modification. To install a rubber stopper, I insert it as far as it will go, then cut of the excess with a wide chisel using a smooth slicing motion. This works fairly well, but isn't as clean or nice looking as actual cork.

For CPVC Flutes
For 1/2 inch CPVC it is probably easier to find cork stoppers at a craft store of the correct size (there were non large enough to fit the 1/2 inch PVC pipe.) I haven't tried to make a cork of either actual cork or the rubber stopper method for this type of pipe, so I don't know how well they work or how hard it actually is to find suitable material. Dowels are much more difficult to use for the 1/2 inch CPVC since no standard sizes fit. I had to turn down a dowel on a the lathe to get it to fit properly (although it hasn't loosened like some of the dowels in my PVC flutes.)

Step 6: Tuning Slide

I used two different designs to act as the tuning slide. Both of these have problems, the largest for both designs being the disturbance to the smooth inner surface of the tube. This can mess with the flutes tone and playability. This isn't a huge deal but I have noticed the flutes I have with a tuning slides do play differently from my non-tunable flutes. On the plus side, this type of tunable system also (and probably more usefully) allows you to mix and match head joints and bodies. You may want to only make one embouchure and use it to play a family of flutes in different keys or experiment with different embouchure diameters on the same flute for comparison.

PVC Connectors
The easier method uses the 1/2 inch connectors already available for the pipes. To add one of these, it only requires that you use two sections of tubing for the flute. One section of the flute, the head joint, has the embouchure; the other has the finger holes. The only tricky part of this design is getting the head joint the right length so it is within range of the correct pitch, when near the center of travel in the connector. This can be difficult due to the small range over which the tuning slide can move.

Acetone
Although more time consuming, the acetone method can make for a better tuning slide since it can be as long as needed. The acetone softens the PVC so it can be stretched to fit on another piece of PVC. To start this method you will need acetone, which is sold as a solvent in the paint section of home centers. You also need a container that won't degrade sitting with acetone in it for a few days. Glass works well for this. The container should be as tall and narrow as possible so as to not waste acetone (once the acetone is used once, it is best that you dispose of it properly or store it separately rather than put it back into the original acetone container since it probably leaches all sorts of unknown chemicals from the PVC.)

To make the slide, I started with enough acetone in my container to submerge as much of the PVC as I wanted to stretch. The PVC sat for at least 24 hours before it was soft enough. At this point I took out the acetone soaked pipe and stretched it over another piece of pipe. I let the pipe dry in this position for another 24 plus hours before it was solid again at which point you can finish the flute as usual. You can stretch either the head joint or the body but it would be best to do this labor intensive process to which ever part you plan on sharing the most between other complimentary sections.

Step 7: Lip Plate

Picture of Lip Plate

For the lip plate, I used a 1/2 inch straight CPVC connector (They also make them for 1/2 inch PVC, but I haven't made a modified version of the G flute yet to see if it also improves that design as well.) These connectors are very cheap and, of course, fit the pipe perfectly. Unlike the end caps some homemade flutes use, the connector still allows you to place it anywhere on the pipe. The only difficulty in using them is the ridge in the center of the connector which is meant to stop the pipes you're connecting from sliding all the way through. I used a round rasp to carefully remove the ridge so the connector could slip all the way over the pipe. With the connector in place, you can drill the embouchure as usual. I was worried about the connector slipping of, even though it fits snugly, but it hasn't been a problem. If this becomes an issue, a bit of glue meant for PVC or some epoxy would ensure it would stay in place.

Comments

Tryin2day (author)2017-10-26

This is great. I need clarification about flutomat. Does the distance measurement from the end of the flute to the embouchure use the lower edge of the hole (facing the open end), or the upper edge of the hole(facing the cork end)? I have the same question for the finger holes. Help? Thanks

Jnkyrdguy (author)Tryin2day2017-10-27

All of the dimensions are to the centers of each hole

Tryin2day (author)Jnkyrdguy2017-10-28

Cool Jnkyrdguy, I am grateful that you are out there doing this kind of stuff. I'll be drilling holes tonight on my second flutomat sheet attempt. So far both Key of C attempts resulted in Key of B. I wonder why? And I wonder why some other web info that flutomat sheet is based on hole edge. It seems hole center makes more sense. Thanks very much!

Dkoops22 (author)2017-10-24

how long should it be?

Jnkyrdguy (author)Dkoops222017-10-27

All of the relevant dimensions for a couple flute designs can be found on Pete Kosel's page (http://11wall-west.com/~ph_kosel/designs.html).

SaahiU (author)2017-03-11

hey JnkyrdGuy,
I need your help. I have already made PVC flutes. But the softwares that I use like flutomat do not give accurate dimensions. So I end up making some holes little wider than I want them to be(I prefer .8 - 1 cm dia). Also the higher octave in my flute plays a little off the tune. I have low D scale flute currently.

I need Low E flute(indian Scale), In the designer I need to enter Low B as my desired scale(it must be around 65 cms long). PVC specs:- Ext. Dia 25cm, Internal dia 22cm. Need Low B scale(Low E note while 3 holes are open). also I need one with 7 holes, so that lowest note is easier to play.

Please see if you can provide accurate dimensions.

Thanks

Jnkyrdguy (author)SaahiU2017-03-12

I've only made flutes that use dimensions calculated with flutomat and it's always been pretty accurate for me.You might want to recheck the PVC diameter and other dimensions then try recalculating. Otherwise you could just use trial and error: Make a couple flutes and for each one move the holes in the direction needed to get the diameters to something you're comfortable with while playing still in tune.

SaahiU (author)Jnkyrdguy2017-03-15

The dimensions are accurate. And you can check different designing softwares to see what I mean, say flutomat and 'Whistle and Flute Hole Calculator' both calculate different hole separation for same flute.

I don't have much tools. I use different sized screw drivers to make initial holes and then use a separate tool to finish the hole so that it ends up as a clean hole. and honestly, I take about 3 hrs making a flute. So, I didn't want to waste 3 hrs of work. That's why I needed accurate dimensions. But I guess that is my last resort now.

csummers1 made it! (author)2017-03-14

I built a flute with the instructions. I think it is best to read the details several times to get it right. It may be me, but I'm having a hard time getting a consistent tone.

I think perhaps a removable mouth piece may be good for experimentation.

Jnkyrdguy (author)csummers12017-03-15

Is there a cork in the end of the flute in addition to the PVC end cap? If there isn't then that is most likely creating the problem. The distance from the end of the cork to the embouchure is really important but you can't get it anywhere near close enough with just an end cap like you're using. I've seen people make flutes with just a PVC end cap and no cork, but I could never get one to work.

270058981 (author)2017-03-02

i test many times to see if certain things would work, but found no success so far, so far i have no clue what on earth im doing wrong, but im gunna try and try to see what im doing wrong. sorry to say that i have no clue what an octave is yet, but i'll find out, thats y they call it trial an error, i'll look up some things and see what i can find out, if i fail i'll say so, so wish me luck :<)

AviS29 (author)2017-02-02

What kind of instruments help me to make/ drill holes in flute

Jnkyrdguy (author)AviS292017-02-03

I used a hand-held drill and a standard twist drill bit set.

MattW88 made it! (author)2016-02-03

Awesome tutorial! This really helped me out, I've made three different size PVC / CPVC flutes so far and just made a tutorial of my own that adds a few more tips and examples for everyone here, I'd really appreciate it if you checked it out. Thanks again!

http://mattwins.blogspot.com/2016/01/building-home...

http://mattwins.blogspot.com/2016/01/building-home...

AngelicaL5 (author)2015-12-28

What do you mean by the angle?? As well, I was wondering about the tuning slide.. Does this mean you ave to like cut the PVC pipe in two?? If so how much do you cut it by??? (if I were to use the pvc connector.) What would be the right lengths?? Please help!

sexymarthaE (author)2015-12-09

I have made several bamboo flutes, side blown not much imfo on side blown mouth piece, they all work. i'd like to improve the mouth piece if anyone has any suggestions or ideals , I'd like to hear from you

fatimalrifai (author)2015-05-11

Wow thanks i will make it on the weekends✌ i always wanted one♥

Flash67 (author)2014-11-15

Can I do this with a 3/4" pvc pipe?

Jnkyrdguy (author)Flash672014-11-17

3/4 inch pvc will work, but a smaller flute will usually be easier to play: They need less air to get a strong clean tone and the holes are easier to reach.

lgulli (author)2014-04-23

Thanks for the post. It really helped. My flute sounds really good at the first note but the second hole is very weak. compared to the first and the other holes. It's funny I made a bamboo flute with the same measurements and the same thing happens. I don't know if I should mess with the embouchure since it sounds really good with all the other notes. Any thoughts? Perhaps it's the hole that is too big in comparison with the first?

Jnkyrdguy (author)lgulli2014-04-26

If the other notes sound good then the embouchure probably isn't the problem. Might want to check that the edge of the offending hole is smooth inside and out. The larger holes can be more difficult to drill cleanly and any burs or roughness could hurt the tone. Otherwise, you can make that hole smaller while still playing in tune by moving the position towards the embouchure. This can make it harder to reach that hole but might be worth experimenting with.. you can use the calculator on this page (http://11wall-west.com/~ph_kosel/flutomat.html) to get the right position and diameter so the note still plays in tune.

lgulli (author)Jnkyrdguy2014-04-26

one thing I noticed was that everything needs to be super clean and smooth because the flute is very very sensitive to little imperfections. Also I have a tin whistle of good quality with the same problem but it's less noticeable so I guess thats an aerodynamics thing. I will make sure to follow your advice. And one last thing. I am making a irish flute like the pvc but with oak wood. I already have it routed and holes drilled, now should I take advantage that I can see the hole from inside and make them super smooth? Can I kill the hard edges of the hole on the inside part? Thanks!

Jnkyrdguy (author)lgulli2014-04-30

It could be worth trying different shapes for the edges of the holes, but I think most of the difference in tone comes from the different size of that hole which is made that way to make the note easier to reach and the flute more ergonomic overall. I'd probably keep the holes sharp and just make sure they're clean.

lgulli (author)Jnkyrdguy2014-04-30

Thanks so much for the tips!

Ira7 (author)2014-03-13

Thanks for sharing. I was wondering if you could help me with my idea for a project:

I play guitar (mostly acoustic), and have a singing voice that can peel paint. I'm looking to be able to play a woodwind instrument SIMULTANEOUSLY while strumming my guitar, even for simple melodies. So...

Think of a seal at the circus that squeezes the horns to play a song. What I would like to do is create a similar instrument out of PVC flutes/pipes, each pre-tuned to a single note. (No fingering involved.) For two octaves starting at G and ending at G, it would require 25 pipes, and includes all sharps/flats. Basically, it would have a piano layout, clamped together God-knows-how. (I'll figure that out.)

1) Originally, I thought I would create each "flute" only with those holes AS IF IT WAS BEING FINGERED FOR THAT PARTICULAR NOTE, MEANING I WOULD ONLY DRILL FOR THE NON-FINGERED HOLES FOR THAT PARTICULAR NOTE.

Does this make any sense, or is it more logical and simpler to use pipe length to achieve the desired note?

2) I want to achieve maximum tonal quality, the best sound bang for the buck, so instead of PVC, should I explore using steel EMT piping, electrical mechanical tubing, that they sell at HD & Lowes? (It's the stuff they snake wires through.)

Thank you in advance for your ideas and experiences. I want to really think this through before getting started!

--Ira

Jnkyrdguy (author)Ira72014-03-15

I think a pan flute would make more sense for you. They aren't made the same way as a side-blown flute and don't quite sound the same: They have a closed end on one side and you blow into the other end -- they're more like blowing into a beer bottle -- but they would be much easier to rig up and mount for hands free playing. There are a bunch of instructables on them too with them made from all sorts of materials including household items like pens and straws that would be easy to mock up and test. You could hold a small one in a standard harmonica holder.

I wouldn't worry too much about the material. Anything reasonably hard and airtight will work about the same. I'd be more worried about the weight of steel tubes.. even thin walled they could be pretty heavy.

Jakonator (author)2014-02-26

Here's some pictures of mine. It's 16 3/4" long, and I did a 28L4B Turks head in black and blue on it.

Jnkyrdguy (author)Jakonator2014-03-01

Looks great.. I bet the braid makes it a bit easier to hold too. Thanks for sharing!

Väterchen Frost (author)2014-02-02

Ok this is verry NON-DETAILED. Like really... Just freaking tell us how long the pvc flute should be and where to place everything.

DeathSuperMario (author)2013-08-04

How important is holes alines? Am I getting it right that I need to cut inside the mouth hole on the other side, not where is blown ? I'm making something between fife and flute from aluminum rod. Drilling in angle on steel is very hard.
rod sides are 3mm thick and inside is 12mm wide.

FlutePlayer (author)2013-02-06

Hi! For an event for Science Olympiad I am making a PVC flute. I have to be able to play the C scale. I was wondering how to put in the b flat thumb key. I play the flute in band and I know from experience that I have to have that key in order to play a couple of notes. Any ideas on how to put it in and where? I don't want to mess it up too much and make a big mistake. Any suggestions would be FANTASTIC!!!!!

FlutePlayer (author)FlutePlayer2013-02-06

P.S. It is in a low octave. The lowest C is a middle C

JstDoIt (author)2012-11-19

I attempted to create a PVC Flute in the key of C. For some reason instead of the nice flute sound I get an ugly, airy tone. I followed the instructions...any suggestions?

Jnkyrdguy (author)JstDoIt2012-11-21

The shape of the embouchure is critical for playability and tone, so that's probably the best place to start. Recheck to make sure the edge of the hole is burr free, sharp and at the right angle. Finding the best angle and shape may take some experimentation which is a great excuse to make a couple more flutes in different keys! Also look for air leaks. This shouldn't be as likely a problem with PVC as it is with wood, but any cracks or air leaks will make the flute impossible to play.

Overall, these flutes do tend to be on the 'woody' side compared to a modern metal flute that can get to the more pure sine wave sound that most people associate with the flute. If you're new to playing the flute it may just be a matter of practice.. it takes some chops to play well so keep at it!

LesB (author)2011-07-07

I currently play a recorder, so this looks like a nice project for me to expand my skills. I suppose many of the principles described here could be used with other materials such as wood.
There are drill bits made specifically for plastic. They don't grab, and drill through smoothly. I've found that the type with the sharp point leave the smootest hole.
http://www.acrylicbirdcages.com/plastic_working_tools.htm

dung0beetle (author)2009-01-04

you can make a saxophone too, just omit the embochure and add a 45 degree angle joint and a tenor mouthpiece. (use larger stock for the sax and cut it a bit shorter sounds just like the real thing) I have a bamboo saxophone and it is awesome, just used red hot metal rods to make the holes. Nice instructable! Everyone go grab a saw! There are tons of pipes under the sink!

Pryo Chain (author)dung0beetle2011-02-24

Brilliant! Now... could you perhaps MAKE a mouthpiece, ligature, and reed? From scratch?

dung0beetle (author)Pryo Chain2011-02-26

You could, but it's so cheap to buy them. Unless you plan to make a lot of them, it isn't worth the cost of casting materials.

jimstoffel (author)dung0beetle2009-01-07

Great Instructable! And thanks for link. @dung0bettle: Do you have notes on how to make the "bamboo saxophone"?

etymological (author)2009-01-15

I have a friend who makes beautiful self-tuned bamboo flutes with a similar method.

Pryo Chain (author)etymological2011-02-24

Is his name William Miller?

salomon1996 (author)2011-02-04

ok, so I made a g flute, and when i try to play it, I get REALY dizzy, any suggestions? thanks!

Jnkyrdguy (author)salomon19962011-02-05

You don't need to blow very hard or use much air to get a sound. You may just be breathing too often and/ or too deep and hyperventilating. This is easy to do when you start... you'll get more efficient with practice.

Breathing to play a wind instrument is not very intuitive in the beginning. Focus on where and how deep your breaths are and it will start to feel more natural in no time. And take it slow sticking to short playing sessions while you build up your stamina. It's a lot more work than you would think breathing in and out could be!

salomon1996 (author)Jnkyrdguy2011-02-06

Thanks, that helps! :D

feralin (author)2010-11-28

Hi! Is it possible to make a good flute with only a saw, sandpaper, and drills? (and PVC too, obviously!). I do not have any needle files (or ANY files, for that matter). I really want to make a flute like yours, but I do not have a lot of materials!

Jnkyrdguy (author)feralin2010-11-29

It's definitely possible. You will have to be even more careful when drilling the embouchure hole to make sure it's clean and angled the right amount. A few practice runs in some scrap would help a lot to get a feel for it.

Capt. Kidd (author)2010-04-29

its called an embouchure plate. not a lip plate.

Bodygard1117 (author)Capt. Kidd2010-09-14

it doesn't matter what you call it all that matters is how it works. and calling it the correct name isn't going to make it sound any different.

modhomeecteacher (author)2010-07-17

I need a little help in drilling or cutting holes in a section of PVC pipe that I'm going to make into an umbrella stand (to sit next to the front door for umbrellas, not the kind used for outdoor patio umbrellas). I need to cut different sized circles all around for decoration. Is it possible? Do I need to go buy a vice clamp?

Kryptonite (author)2010-03-10

Wow that's awesome, I play flute and would love one of these for school or other places where I can't take my real one.

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