Around The House: Interview with flute maker Casey Burns
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
When, years ago, I went on my pilgrimage to the mecca of Irish music (also known as Ireland), I was delighted by those gorgeous wooden flutes I saw in the hands of flutists across the country. To be honest, before I actually saw the beasts, I used to be mystified by the beauty of that sound that I couldn't really put my finger on – the timbre being somewhat rougher and reedier than that of the regular concert flutes we're used to; which, combined with the distinctive Irish trad technique, sets these flutes as a unique instrument in it's own right. With my mind bent on acquiring one, I set out to learn which were the better brands, and which stores sold them. I found that they're called Irish flutes (not to be mistaken for tin whistles, which are flutes and are Irish but are not "Irish flutes"). I also found that the concept of "brands" as we know it doesn't exactly apply, and that the ones found in music stores are often cheap replicas made for tourists – this kind of instrument is commonly ordered directly from flute makers: craftsmen specialized in making them. So I went on to find flute makers online and to research a good deal more about those flutes
I ended up finding the work of an American man called Casey Burns, who makes flutes of remarkable beauty. They weren't just good looking, though: his flutes were praised by musicians worldwide, and actually demonstrated by renowned artists such as Kevin Crawford (flutist with Lúnasa). I decided, then, to send mr. Burns an email to order myself an Irish flute.
Left to right: Kevin Crawford (flute - Lúnasa), Ed Boyd (guitar - Lúnasa, Flook) and Casey Burns. Photo taken from Casey's Facebook page, which was captioned as follows:"Kevin and I with a piece of functioning firewood in his hands. I almost burned these pieces in the cold weather a few weeks previously. Then I remembered that it would be useful for documenting his hands for the flute I want to design and build for him. He took it on stage and scared everyone, including himself, when he played it. That critic behind us is just a mere guitarist with no talent whatsoever. Cant even form a chord. Has to play in open tuning all the time. Why even bother..."
The surprise was pleasant twofold: first, the instrument indeed proved fantastic, and it's still the one I play the most at home, rehearsals, gigs and sessions. Second, because Casey turned out to be a lovely person, with a great sense of humour, teller of many interesting stories and, like me, taken to a nice conversation.
Years later, I asked Casey if he'd be willing to be interviewed by me for The Daily Pint, and talk about his career and the flutes he makes – he didn't limit himself to promptly saying yes, as he actually managed to surprise me yet again with his stories and captivating personality. He even took the chance to link my questions in a larger narrative, in a rather formidable way.
Below is the original text for the interview.
THE DAILY PINT – You are American: where does your connection to Irish and Celtic music come from?
CASEY BURNS – I do not really have any family connection with Celtic music family-wise. This was more of a new passion in my 20s thanks to an active Folk Music community in Portland, Oregon which included much Irish music. Great musicians such as Triona and her brother Michael O Dhomhnaill, and the great fiddler Kevin Burke were living there at the time. I also had housemates and other friends who were active folk musicians in Portland. I had always wanted to make instruments and Portland was a good place to learn. (see next question)
PINT – How long have you been making wooden flutes for? What got you into instrument-making in the first place? How did you learn it?
CASEY – So around 1981 I started making tools to make stringed instruments initially, forging chisels using an old piece of railroad iron and the woodstove in my house as my forge. This caught the attention of my friend Suzy Norris who had just graduated from violin making school. She asked me if I could make a specific tool for violin making - a soundpost setter last made in 1895 in Mirecourt, France. There were some of these at the Schuback Violin Workshop where she was a student. I went there and measured one of the originals, and then spent the next few weeks cutting one out of flat-ground tool steel with hacksaws and files, and bent the curves required on this tool to spec. Suzy was delighted with the tool but said that I first must take it to the violin workshop and show them.
I did and all of a sudden I had orders for several of these from many makers around Portland and elsewhere. This was at a time in my life (age 25) when I really had no idea what I would do for the rest of it and all of a sudden, I had something unique that I could do. An added benefit to this new task was that suddenly every luthier in Portland wanted to talk to me about their tool needs. It was at Kerr Violin Workshop that I was introduced to Douglas Steinke, a maker of Baroque Oboes. He assigned me the task of making the simple brass keys for his oboes.
I had played flute since age of 6, and went through the grades playing flute in band and orchestra. I was never very good about it. Much of that I blamed on my flute and I always had this idea in my mind that someday I would make a better one (naively assuming that would be a more direct route than affording one). These thoughts were in my mind when I asked Doug about learning how to make a flute. He invited me to his workshop the next week and I made my first flute that afternoon, evening and the next morning. That was the extent of my formal "apprenticeship".
Soon, thanks to friends who loaned me a lathe and other equipment I set about making flutes. I was learning about Irish flute and that there were very few new makers and none in Portland. I had a ready market to fill and soon I was making and improving my flutes to the best of my abilities. A local music store, Artichoke Music, had some antique flutes that I measured, including a Clementi and a Rudall & Rose. (see next question)
An original Rudall & Rose, made in London in 1843. Currently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons
PINT – Can you tell us a bit about your Irish flute models? What is this “Rudall” model you base them on? Why did you choose that model to base them, as opposed to, say, the “Pratten” design?
Had I been well funded, the next most obvious step would have been to take a trip to visit the big flute collection at the Library of Congress known as the Dayton Miller Collection, and measure several flutes. As I was barely making enough money to live on this was out of the question. In 1983 I decided to try to sell some of my flutes at a music festival in Seattle. So I had some 20 flutes on the table. One of the other vendors came by and tried the flutes out and said "These flutes play like Crap!" I explained that I had just started making these in the last 5 months and had many kinks to work out. This person said "Well - for 5 months these are actually pretty impressive. Talk to me after the festival." This was Mickie Zekley who ran the musical instrument business Lark in the Morning.
Mickie invited me to his home in Mendocino California and showed me his collection of 19th century wooden flutes from London - and many other instruments. The mid-19th century London 8 keyed flutes the orchestral flute that was about to be rendered obsolete by the newer Boehm metal flutes. Irish musicians in the late 19th and early 20th century gravitated towards these flutes for their simple system fingerings identical to the whistle. Irish musicians in the late 19th and early 20th century gravitated towards these flutes for their simple system fingerings identical to the whistle. Mickie mentioned that most players used either flutes by Boosey called "Pratten's Perfected", Rudall & Rose, Prowse and a few other makers. These all differ in various ways and in how they play - with the Prattens favoring a rich bottom note, the Rudalls being more "even" throughout the scale, and the Prowse kind of a combination of the two. He has excellent examples of these and after measuring, I started making acoustical keyless copies of the Prattens. (see next question)
A "Perfected Pratten" in boxwood, by Boosey & Sons, made in London around 1863. Currently displayed in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, New Zealand. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Boosey & Co; Pratten, R
PINT – You also make small-handed flutes based on the “Pratten” design, for players with smaller hands. Can you tell us about the research that went into that, and the pros and cons of a small-handed flute?
CASEY – Mickie ran a music camp in Mendocino every August. I came to this camp with several flutes that I had made based on Mickie's Pratten. The flute teacher coined the term "Honker" for these. Lark in the Morning and other music stores started carrying these and I was on my way. Eventually I wanted to be closer to Mickie's collection as well as Rod Cameron, the great Baroque flute maker who also lived in Mendocino and so I moved there (1986). One day Mickie called me and asked if it was possible to redesign the Pratten flute into something that would work with smaller hands.
Thus started something opposite to the acoustical "arms race" of the 19th century as the simple system flute was trying to keep up with the louder Boehm flutes. It took some trial and error to experiment with repositioning the fingerholes and eventually my first small handed flute appeared. Depending upon the bore, it is actually possible to move the toneholes around to fit the hands better - yet still achieve the same tuning and remain close to the original "voicing" - the inherent tone quality and presence. Simply the closer the tonehole to the embouchure the smaller it must be. Using that simple principle it was possible to make a flute more comfortable to play. The voicing and tuning of the 2nd octave is preserved by careful undercutting of the holes once these are sized. I've taken these methods further. What I called by small handed flute in 1986 is actually what I call my current "Large Holed Standard". Since 1986 I have been able to iteratively make flutes with much closer fingerhole spacings.
PINT – What kinds of woods do you use for your flutes? How do they sound, in relationship to each other?
CASEY – There are actually many species of woods that work well for flute making. These include some fruitwoods, Boxwood, Rosewoods and relatives, Ebony, Cocus, various woods called "Ironwood", Olive wood, etc. For the occasional flute maker this large variety is wonderful. However, when one commits to making some 100+ flutes a year, one has to limit one's choices to what woods are available and affordable. Also, some woods simply do not work well for some - I for instance am allergic to Cocus and most of the Rosewoods. Ebony makes me sneeze. For most makers in the last 2 decades, African Blackwood (also called Grenadilla, Mpingo) has been the wood "du jour" with Boxwood running a close 2nd. I discovered Mopane, a wood from the savannas of eastern Africa, as an excellent flute wood. These woods go through frequent cycles of availability. Mopane has been hard to find in the last decade. Boxwood is available from Turkey. Blackwood was easily available until recently. Many of the regular wood turners realized that with CITES and the Pandemic that no more of it will be coming to the US from Africa by way of Europe. They quickly rushed to purchase what was left. Another maker of flutes and I had to scramble to make sure we have enough of this wood for our remaining careers!
All of these woods more or less sound the same. Some may feel a little quicker in response than others. Most of the time I am only experiencing how these flutes play when new. If properly cared for these flutes all eventually feel pretty much the same, until one starts getting down to the microscopic differences. This has more to do with such factors as the particular embouchure cut, bore porosity and other factors.
PINT – This is a (possibly naïve) curiosity of mine, that I’m sure has also popped in the mind of many other Brazilians: I’ve noticed some of your flutes are fit with silver rings, while others (like mine) are pure wood. Can you tell us about that decision of yours? How does the silver ring affect the instrument?
CASEY – I have always offered an all wood version of my flutes. The most recent version of this instrument was my simple "Folk Flute". By omitting any of the metal parts (rings and tuning slides, as well as keywork) I can make these faster - and thus sell them at a lower price affordable to new players. This has also required me to make many flutes which has given me much practice in the tuning and voicing of the flutes. The rings do provide some additional protection and are absolutely necessary with the metal tuning slides. These features add more material (including expensive silver) and thus the cost for the flute is higher. Keys are an additional cost - these allow the flute to be played chromatically.
PINT – Aside from making wooden flutes, you also offer the service of repairing them for your previous customers, right? What kind of repair do you get most?
CASEY – I have usually taken in repairs on my instruments. Given that there are now the results of 38 years of my flute making out in the world (>5000 flutes) and the fact that I turn the retirement age this year I am asking most who need repairs to seek out a local repair person if possible. I have other things to do! Most repairs are due to carelessness and stupidity - people sitting on flutes, dropping them down a flight of stairs, having their dog chew them after oiling, and in one case, accidentally driving over the flute with the car. The other main cause is by not paying attention to storing the flute with sufficient humidity to keep the wood from splitting, after playing the flute.
My care instructions are available at caseyburnsflutes.com/folkflutecare.pdf. These are applicable in all climates.
PINT – Can you remember all the countries you have shipped flutes to?
CASEY – Most of my flutes stayed in the US and Canada. I've sent several to most of the European countries including Russia. Japan, Australia and New Zealand. A few have gone to Brazil, Mexico and Chile, and other South American countries, as well as China and African countries.
PINT – My first wooden flute was your Folk Flute – and, even though it was your less expensive model, it never failed to impress the most experienced musicians I’ve played with for its robust tone and beautiful design. At some point, you seemed to have shipped them on a quasi-industrial scale to the whole world – yet, a few months ago, you announced that you wouldn’t be making them anymore. What led you to that decision?
CASEY – Overwork! And wanting to pursue something more intriguing and less repetitive. It's actually hard on the body to maintain that production level.
PINT – Following your Facebook page for the past years, I can see the enthusiasm with which you are constantly researching not only new techniques and materials for your instruments, but also new add-ons such as the beautifully engraved coins you started placing at the end cap of your Irish flutes. Your design is quite unique in itself and I can tell a lot of passion and effort is constantly flowing towards your craft. It is clearly not “just a job” for you, so it begs the question: what does it all mean to you?
CASEY – I am not quite sure about the "enthusiasm" after some 5000+ flutes. I have recently stopped taking orders of all flutes except in certain circumstances so that I can catch up on my remaining orders. This winter I will then simply make flutes - and offer these finished instruments individually on my new website https://www.traditionalflutes.com Thus I will no longer have to answer frequent emails such as "when will my flute be ready?" which do nothing to accelerate the process (this actually does the opposite).
I will be making some flutes to sell at that website - but at this point in my life I am pursuing some new directions. Where I want to go artistically is to develop and start making copies of the special glass flutes of the 19th century Parisian maker Claude Laurent. I have already done much research and collected data on these and hope to be making glass flutes this winter. Nobody has made these since the 1840s. These are amazing flutes!
(Casey currently writes about his research and development of the glass flutes, as well as other topics, on the following blog: laurentflutes.substack.com)
This is really something aimed more towards the professional and historic flute community, instead of the Irish Flute community. There may be some interest in the Irish flute community but that is secondary. There are enough makers of Irish flutes as well as enough of my own flutes out in the world. I do not feel that this refocusing of my career will hamper peoples' ability to find a decent flute to play.
There is much misunderstanding on the forums as to my new directions. Some think I have retired entirely from flute making. The only thing I have retired from is participating on these forums - I'd rather make flutes.
PINT – Your flutes are praised world-wide in renowned forums like TheSession.org – that was actually where I went to research your work before buying my flute, and was told only great things about it and yourself! How long did it take to get to this point of recognition?
CASEY – I was already a long established flute maker with recognition when these forums evolved.
PINT – I understand you also play the Zampogna: the Italian bagpipes. What drew you towards them? What makes them unique in face of, say, the Uilleann Pipes, the Great Highland and the Galician Pipes? Do you also make Zampognas?
CASEY – I would like to play these Italian bagpipes but I haven't had any time to make the ones I would like to play. Another instrument that I would love to play would be the Court Musette from Baroque music. I do play Galician and French Bagpipes - there are several of us who pursue this music on the Pacific Coast of the US. I also play a little bit of acoustic guitar style jazz, inspired by Django Reinhardt.
PINT – What kind of music permeates your life, both in playing and in listening?
CASEY – Jazz, Opera, Galician - and whatever my wife is learning on her diatonic accordions. I actually listen very little to Irish music, though I used to listen to lots of it in the past. I just make the hardware!
PINT – Your logo is quite unique: it’s a little crinoid fossil! And I remember the story you told me about it was quite fascinating! Could you tell us about that?
CASEY – Besides instrument making I have wanted to be a paleontologist. This is actually from an animal that I have been studying since 1970 at a fossil locality northwest of Portland. I published an article on the paleoecology of these.
PINT – Your life is full of fascinating activities: music, instrument-making, geology, bird photography… anything else?
CASEY – I like to keep my mind open to new possibilities, new adventures, finding new friends, community and enjoying life. Currently the Pandemic keeps us all isolated from each other but eventually we will overcome this. I remain hopeful for the future.