The second most common question I have received about flutes is “How can I fix up tight flute joints?” This is second after “How to use the adjusting screws”.
Unfortunately, this is a topic that many people believe that there are ‘quick-fixes’ for, when this is not the case. In fact, by applying quick-fixes, you may be doing a lot more damage to the instrument.
So, I don’t think I would be short-changing you by addressing this topic, and telling you “don’t do it yourself!”
In this article, I will talk about:
- What the problem is
- What causes tight flute joints
- What damage you can do by applying some of the common quick-fixes
- How to best avoid tight flute joints in the first place
The ideas in this article fall into 2 categories: Scratched Tenons and Non-Scratched Tenons. Read both sections to find out what you can and can’t (shouldn’t) do.
How Flute Joints Work
When cleaned and fitted properly, the tenon and socket of a flute should slide together smoothly and without any trouble. And when assembled and disassembled properly, they should give many years of good use without any change in how they function.
The tenon and socket fit together so finely, that they do not allow for any other particles to fit in between. This includes any scratches, because scratches usually have raised sides.
If solid particles become caught up in the tenon, they can begin to scratch the surface. This can be disastrous, because if they scratch out new metal particles from the tenon, those metal shards will create more scratches in the same way.
Metal shards can be like dust. It is unlikely that you will ever see the offending pieces, but the results are clearly there.
Scratches are not always just indentations in the metal. A scratch may also have raised sharp edges along the sides of the scratch. This is often the case, and scratches normally create more scratches and metal shards along the length of the tenon or socket every time it is assembled or disassembled.
In addition to this, incorrect pressures on the metal during assembly can cause the metal to warp and change shape, leading to a tenon and socket that does not fit well together.
Tight Flute Joints from Scratches
There is more than one reason for a joint to become tight. I’ll deal with non-scratched tenons later in this article. Right now, let’s have a look at how scratching the tenons can create problems.
Tenon troubles can be caused by:
- Scratches and burs that are there from manufacture
- Assembling and disassembling badly
- Grinding the tenons while assembling
- Using greases and failing to keep the joints clean.
Scratches and Burs from Manufacture
In recent years there have been a lot of flutes that have been manufactured with scratches already in the tenon or socket. If this has happened with your flute, there is no way to avoid the process of damaged joints. The damage must either be detected before sale, or be fixed up very quickly after it is discovered. Most manufacturers will replace flutes that are found to have had this fault.
Improper Assembly and Disassembly
One of the biggest causes of damage to flute tenons is handling. Most commonly, small children will assemble the instrument with the parts aligned at an angle. This action tends to bend the metal and usually results in a rounded end of the tenon, or a tenon that is at an angle to the flute, and can also cause indentations at the inner part of the tenon.
When the tenon is bent, the joint often fits very loosely, if it still fits at all.
Grinding the Tenons
Another damaging action is to put the joints together too quickly. Many young players grind the joints in an attempt to get the assembly started. This can dislodge shards of metal from the end of the tenon which is immediately caught up in the tenon when assembly finally does happen.
This then results in scratches and the eventual gouging of the metal that causes the joints to become stuck.
Using Greases to Lubricate the Joint
The biggest mistake is to grease the joints when they begin to become tight. It may feel nicer, but the damage is still increasing.
Grease works against you in two ways:
Firstly, grease does not stop the metal shards from doing their damage, or the rough surfaces from creating more scratches and shards. Sharp metal edges of scratches are still scratching the other side of the tenon. And grease does not make extra room for scratchy particles to fit. They will still be scratching their little gouges into the surface to make room for themselves.
The damage is continuing and the only difference is that you can now do that with a smile on your face, being completely unaware of what is happening.
The second reason that grease should not be used is that it does not allow any particles to escape from the tenon joint. If you are in the practice of keeping your joints clean regularly, then you will be cleaning out any harmful particles on a regular basis. Grease prevents this from happening. It keeps the harmful particles there for longer and also attracts more particles, just to make things worse.
There is also a possible third reason that greases work against you…
Since assembly of the joint feels so much better without the scratchiness, users will normally be more gung-ho about how they treat the joint. Without the grease, it is easier to feel the damage that is being done, and it is more likely that players will react with more caution. With grease, caution will go out the window, and serious scratches are more likely to occur at greater speed.
What you can do
Take it straight to a good repairer!!
As soon as the joints begin feeling tight, the best thing to do is to stop using the flute immediately and to get it fixed. The sooner you see someone, the easier it is to fix. The longer you continue to use a flute with this problem, the more costly or irreparable it becomes.
Many people avoid leaving a flute for repair because they have concerts, rehearsals or exams coming up. In these cases, try to borrow a flute. It is better to get your own fixed right away, rather than play Russian Roulette on the outcome. Chances are that the joint may get stuck half way on or at an odd rotation just at the time when you need it most.
And when that happens you will also be left with a flute that has deep gouges in the tenon/socket and it will perhaps never fit together quite the same ever again.
Getting to a repair technician may be most difficult for those in rural areas. The number of spare flutes in the vicinity are also probably a lot lower, and you will probably be without your flute for a lot longer owing to postal service delays.
If your area is very community-minded, it may be worth trying to get the community to keep a spare cheap instrument available for cases like this, where students will need a replacement. Good quality 2nd-hand instruments, if well-kept, can work wonders for filling the gap.
Fixing Flute Joints Yourself
Frankly, if you attempt your own fix, you might add more damage to the problem! This is a very touchy area, and inexperience can cause more problems than you might imagine.
- Create more grit to lodge in the tenon
- Inadvertently cause more scratches
- Create further bends in the metal
- Make the joints loose (wear away the metal)
- Make it impossible to ever obtain a good fit at reasonable cost
In professional repair workshops, I have seen rookie repairers with little experience achieve some very poor results when trying to fix tenons. And they had access to some good quality tools for the job.
I am all for people being well-informed about instrument repair and understanding what they can do to help themselves before going to a professional for better quality servicing and repair. That is why I write articles and make videos on all these topics.
But, my best advice to you is to find a way to avoid doing your own repairs to any tenon joints. You could just be doing a lot more damage and be completely unaware of the new damage that has occurred.
Having said that, people have asked me about various methods they can use to get around the problem of tight joints. I’ll face these head-on and advise you not to use them.
- Using steel wool
- Using Sandpaper
- Using scotchguard scrubbers
- Using graphite
- Using a burnisher
Steel wool is extremely abrasive. I wouldn’t use anything but the finest grade 0000. Repairers do use steel wool on slide joints – flutes, trumpets, tubas, etc – but the joint is never finished with steel wool. It cuts into the metal, but a good slide finish needs something that will polish. Steel wool is not good for this.
It also may not really get rid of the high points of the scratches without affecting the rest of the tenon surface equally. So you may end up just cutting away at the tenon without achieving what you originally set out to do.
If you do use steel wool, remember that every use will be thinning out the metal of the tenon. You will also be leaving behind tiny pieces of metal grit everywhere that can cause problems in the long run.
Sandpapering Tight Flute Joints
Sandpaper can also be extremely abrasive. If you are just trying to dial back the scratches, you don’t want to thin out the metal of the tenon. I do use sandpaper in repairs, but only sparingly. What I really want to do is polish the tenon. I use up to 8000 or 10,000 grit when polishing, but if you were to use 2000 grit (more readily available) you might survive.
This is something you should not use regularly (it thins out the metal no matter what grade you use). And it leaves behind dust – metal particles that can exacerbate your original problem.
Scrubbing pads that you find in kitchens will probably do nothing at all. Honestly, I have never tried using one. They are made of plastic and I don’t imagine that you will have much success dialling down the high-points of the scratches with this.
Graphite. Do not use graphite or any other gritty materials in the tenon.
Burnishing Flute Joints
Burnishers can be useful for pushing down the scratches in flute tenon joints. The problem is that you need to use a minimum level of force for it to work. As you know, if you put force on the metal of a flute, you will leave a dent in it. In a workshop, the flute fits onto a mandrel (metal rod) so that there is something on the other side of the metal, to prevent it from denting. You can use a burnisher if you are desperate to create even a minimal amount of improvement.
The other side-effect of burnishers is that they expand the metal. So overdoing the use of a burnisher may lead to a tighter joint – just what you do not want.
In any case, just remember that this is not a completely suitable solution to the problem you have at hand.
There are three other ways to develop tight flute joints. These are usually much more benign, and can be fixed easily. However, be diligent about fixing the problem early on. Tight joints often lead to bent keys when students struggle to assemble the instruments easily.
- Tight flute joints from non-round tenons
- Oxidized metal joints
- Tight joints from grime
Bent tenons are different to the rounded and bent tenons I was describing earlier.
This is a (normally) harmless reason for tight joints. It is when the tenon (or the socket) has been bent out of round by being leaned on, sat on, or something similar. The tenon only has to be bent very slightly and the joint can become very difficult to assemble. An oval tenon does not fit well into a round socket, and vice versa.
If you have been applying greases to lubricate the joints and have been finding that it does not harm the instrument, then a bent tenon may be the reason for the original tightness.
Nevertheless, I would also avoid trying to fix this. Many people try squeezing the sides of an oval tenon to make it better. They do not realize that it may not turn it round, the way you might expect. This can add expense to something that is normally easy and very inexpensive to repair.
Alternatively, try wax, as described in the point just below about dirt on the tenon.
Oxidized Metal Joints
The metal used for most flutes does not oxidize. However, a couple of manufacturers have begun to use alloys that oxidize and tighten up over time.
Instead of having a nice shiny appearance, the metal takes on a dull matt finish and changes colour anywhere in the vicinity of yellow, orange, brown or green.
The easiest way to take care of this is to clean it with a silver polishing compound. You will need to use a mildly abrasive polish such as Silvo. Simply dab a small amount onto a clean cloth, rub this onto the tenon and then wipe off using a clean section of the cloth. Then do the same for the inside of the socket.
Remember that Silvo is abrasive, so you must remove every trace of it from the tenon, to avoid any future troubles.
Tight Flute Joints from Dirt
Some flute joints can seem perfectly fine aside from a bit of grime. This is common and normally not too harmful. Usually, oils from the hands and elsewhere have combined with dust and other particles. This creates dirt that is slightly sticky.
If this is the case try these steps in this order. Test the fit after each step:
- Clean the tenon and socket with a dry, clean microfibre cloth.
- Clean the joint using silvo, as described in the previous point.
- Use some wax to relieve the pressure
If you have carried out steps 1 and 2 and the joint is still a little tight, then there is probably a slight bend in the tenon or it is out of round. Try applying some wax (Step 3).
Simply rub some wax, such as plain candle wax, around the tenon. Assemble the joint, taking care not to bend keys or do any other damage. The wax will make the joint feel tighter, but make sure you assemble the joint completely. Don’t stop half way. Then take it apart.
Clean off the wax from the tenon and from the socket.
Now assemble the flute joint again. Is it a little looser?
The reason why this works is that the wax works to compress the joint in the socket and shrink it slightly.
I have seen other people claim that it “cleans the joints” but adding wax will never clean a joint. If you followed step 2 and cleaned it with Silvo, you won’t be getting it any cleaner than that. Anything placed between the tenon and the socket will compress the tenon. Wax provides a very small film of extra material in between, and it can make fine adjustments to the fit.
Other Instruments – Saxes and Bass Clarinets
Bass clarinets and saxophones also have metal joints where the neck meets the body. Some older bass clarinets have a tenon-socket setup that is just like a flute, so all the same rules apply to the bass clarinet as to the flute.
Most other bass clarinets and saxophones, though, have an additional problem. And that is the slot and tightening-screw that helps to keep the joints from swivelling.
Through poor handling the slot/screw setup can become bent or otherwise misaligned and the joint can become tighter to assemble. In some cases the misaligned slot may start to scratch the tenon joint as well. This can be incredibly difficult to straighten out and most times it is impossible to repair at a reasonable price. If a replacement socket is available, it is usually easier and simpler to replace the damaged socket.
Bass Clarinet tenons and Sax tenons usually oxidize too. If you want to fix these up, follow the instructions in the previous section on how to clean oxidized metal joints using Silvo.
How to Avoid Tight Flute Joints
Assembling and Disassembling the Flute
This must be done gently.
Keep the joints straight when assembling. This avoids putting pressure in any other direction and bending the metal.
Start slowly. Holding the body and the foot at the far ends where there are no keys, bring the two joints together and very gently insert the *end of the tenon* into its socket. If the joint does not catch or become stuck at this point then continue with assembly.
Continue to keep the joints aligned and use small twisting motions to facilitate smooth assembly.
A well-fitting joint should present no difficulties, and should keep the instrument safe from developing bent keywork.
On a daily (or almost daily) basis, wipe the tenon clean with a clean dry cloth. That is:
- the outside surface of the tenon
- the inside surface of the socket
Make sure there is no dust, no oil, no cleaning compounds or any other grit left on the surface. Use a microfibre cloth that is:
- Made for polishing
- Does not drop fibres (these are usually standard non-microfibre cloths)
- Feels a little grippy when you use it
Taking time to clean the joints every so often gives you a chance to inspect the health of the surfaces. Was there some build-up of dirt anywhere? Are there any scratches that are beginning to form? Does the joint feel fine?
I hope this information helps in the situations that you find yourself. If you have andy questions or comments about the information in this article (or even more ideas) please contact me, and I’ll be happy to help you out.