blog of everyday life on and around the workbench
So there I was, standing in the pub around Christmas last year having
a jolly good time quaffing ales and scoffing mince pies, when I
found myself embroiled in a conversation with an equally festive
lady who happened to be a violinist. The topic turned, naturally,
to music - and at some point or other (possibly after the third
pint) the prospect of getting together to start an informal folk
ensemble was raised. I'd mentioned that I played the flute - but
when she asked me if I also played the penny whistle, I'm afraid
I did a terrible thing...and lied. "Penny whistle? Pffftt...sure,
OK, technically it was a bit of a white lie because I do play the
whistle - just not to a standard that I'd be happy to display in
public. It was pretty clear, however, that she took my statement
to mean I could stand up with the best of 'em, and I regret to say
I did nothing to dissuade her of that notion.
Or do I? Because once the alcohol-induced bravado had evaporated
I began to think that stepping up to the plate wouldn't be such
a bad idea. I'd had a lot of amazingly good things fall into place
in the last few months or so and it struck me that here was yet
another opportunity waiting to be taken advantage of. I have a modest
collection of whistles (including a very nice Howard low D), I have
the time and the space to practice - all I needed was an excuse.
And now I had one.
I dusted off my whistles, pulled out some jigs and reels and set
about bringing my playing up to a 'session' standard. And then I
ran into a rather painful problem.
I suffer from a touch of arthritis in the base of my thumbs. It's
not at the stage where it's debilitating (and I hope it remains
that way) but it gives me a twinge on odd days, and it can sometimes
make certain tasks around the workshop more challenging (key swedging
and dentwork in particular) - and the way around it is to adapt
the techniques and the tooling to ease the load on the affected
What I found with the smaller whistles was that the distance between
my right thumb and forefinger when playing seemed to hit the 'sweet
spot' for the joint pain and made things all rather unpleasant.
As I have no such problems when playing the sax, clarinet and flute
I figured that there had to be a minimum distance beyond which my
thumb was fine.
It was pretty easy to test this theory with the aid of an old wine
cork and a lump of adhesive tack - from which I determined that
20mm was about right. This gave me no pain at all and had no discernible
effect on my fingering technique - but it looked a bit unsightly,
and I figured that someone out there must surely make a gizmo that
does the same job and looks nice into the bargain.
Apparently not. The best that I could find was
a blog post on the McGee
flutes website (fantastic site, incidentally - heaps of in-depth
info on all things flutey) which detailed the construction of what
he called 'tin whistle buttons' to cope with the exact same problem
I was facing - and rather helpfully he'd come up with a few measurements
that would save me a fair bit of R&D time. Rather interestingly
I noted that he too had found 20mm to be the ideal length for the
button in terms of pain relief and playability.
I knocked up a few prototypes using his dimensions (suitably adjusted
for the diameter of my whistles) and they seemed to work very well
indeed. However, the more I looked at them the more I wondered whether
the design could be tweaked still further. And they can - but not
by much...so I thought I'd at least document my findings here in
case anyone else has the same problem.
seems like the best material for making buttons. It's cheap, strong
and has some flexibility...which is going to be an important factor
in the way in which they work.
I began by drilling a cross hole through a length of 25mm Delrin
rod. I could have used 20mm and saved myself a few pennies by not
having to turn the rod down to size later on, but 25mm was all I
had to hand.
The hole was drilled undersized then bored out to the required diameter.
The body tube dimensions of a whistle aren't usually all that precise,
which means having to work to a nominal measurement (effectively
a 'ballpark' figure - take the highest and lowest readings then
pick something inbetween) that turned out to be 12.76mm. The meant
the hole needed to be 12.66mm. This dimension is important. The
button needs to be able to grip the whistle securely and it does
so by being a touch undersized and relying on the flexibility of
the material to accommodate the difference - but you don't want
it be too tight a fit or it'll be difficult to put on...and nor
do you want it too loose or it'll just move about. Terry McGee's
buttons were 0.3mm undersized - and while that works I found it
to make the buttons quite hard to fit...and not necessarily as effective
as you might think. We'll come back to that point later.
However, because the tube dimensions aren't all that accurate it
means that the size of the button's bore hole needn't be that precise
either. I found the easiest way to gauge it was to bore the hole
out by eye and test it against a piece of rod of the required diameter
(12.66mm) - in this case the shank of a drill. When the drill was
just starting to fit in the hole, I'd hit my mark.
turned the rod down to the required diameter (20mm) and now I'm
slicing off the waste. Those of you who know their way around a
lathe might be wondering why I'm attacking the job with a hacksaw
and not using the lathe to part it off. It's because parting through
a hole in soft material sometimes causes the material to catch on
the tool...which then digs in. At best this'll chew up the job -
at worst it'll tear it right out of the chuck. I find it's safer
and a lot less buttock-clenching to saw the end off and face it
square afterwards. I know...I'm a big chicken.
Where this cut is made is reasonably critical
because it needs to be some way past the centre line of the hole
- and here's why.
The diagram shows the tube of the whistle end on, with the button
fitted to it. The red line denotes the centre line of the tube's
diameter. If you were to cut the button below the centre line if
would fit around the tube well enough but wouldn't have any means
of holding on to it. The moment you took your thumb off the button
it'd fall off...unless you glued it in place.
the cut made above the centre line the effective bore of the button
begins to narrow - you can see that the inside edges of the top
of the button aren't as far apart as the points which lie adjacent
to the centre line. It's this portion of the button that grips the
tube. The more material you have above the centre line (the overhang)
, the more grip the button will have (up to a point) - but it will
also make the button harder to fit. So there's a balance that needs
to be struck.
In my experiments I found that Terry's 0.3mm undersized button certainly
gripped very well indeed but was a right old job to fit. Granted,
you can tweak it somewhat by reducing the overhang but I also noticed
that it tended to wobble slightly because of the resultant distortion
of the button's bore. This is why I went for just 0.1mm undersized
- it's the closest fit to the diameter of the tube that still gives
a workable grip.
That said, it's all a bit 'six of one, half a dozen of the other'
- so as long as you're in the 0.1 to 0.3mm range, you're going to
be fine (at least for a body tube of around this sort of size).
I daresay there's an optimum height above the centreline too...
the end of the button squared up and chamfered (to reduce the chance
of contact with the fingers, and to look nice) it's time to clean
up all the edges. I found that a sharp knife was the best way of
doing this, but you could just as easily use a file or some sandpaper.
And now is a good time to test the fit of the whistle in the button
and make any adjustments as necessary. If you find it's hard work
to slide the whistle in, try cutting a wider chamfer on the leading
edges of the hole. It helps if you present the whistle at an angle
then then carefully lever it into the button.
With the hole being only 0.1 smaller than the diameter of the whistle
tube it becomes much easier to push the tube in from the top (as
per a pipe clip), and you may find that some chamfers on the top
edge will help. You have to be careful not to overdo it though,
because that top edge is where all the grip is.
Once that's done all that remains is to part the button off to length
and then finish it up as desired. I simply rounded the bottom over
slightly and cut a couple of grooves in the face to give the thumb
a bit of grip - but you could just as easily stick a piece of cork
or leather on the face.
a better look at the overhang.
The centre line of the whistle tube is marked by the blue line.
In terms of grip on the tube both buttons stay nicely in place -
but can be slid up and down the tube with reasonable ease as and
when you wish to reposition them.
The shorter button has an overhang of 1.5mm (distance from top edge
to bottom of hole minus half the hole diameter) and will clip onto
the tube with ease - but if you tap it smartly with your finger
you can knock it off the tube. I doubt the overhang could go any
smaller and still hold the button on reliably. The longer button
has an overhang of 3.5mm and takes some real effort to fit it. It
will just about clip on, but not before it makes you wonder whether
you're about to crush the tube. Sliding it on is less stressful,
but still takes a bit of effort - and if you try to knock it off
the tube with your finger you'll end up hurting yourself. I think
a longer overhang would prove to be very difficult to handle, and
would probably begin to foul the fingers as you played.
The takeaway from all that is that a shorter overhang is handy when
you want to be able to clip buttons on just before you play (makes
it easier to carry the whistles around) and a longer overhang means
the button is less likely to fly off when you drop the whistle on
the pub table. Anywhere inbetween is likely to be a very good compromise
- and from looking at my figures it would appear that we have a
sort of formula for the ideal button:
size: 0.1 to 0.3mm smaller than tube diameter
Overhang: 12% to 28% of hole size
And that pretty much wraps it up for the whistles
The biggest drawback, of course, is that you'll need a lathe if
you want to make your own - though I suppose you could do a pretty
reasonable job if you were handy with a power drill and a couple
of files...and had quite a lot of patience.
I've also no doubt that this very basic design could be considerably
improved upon; for example, some thinning out of the button around
the overhang will make a big difference to the flexibility - as
will using a different material (such as nylon). It might be advantageous
to taper the bottom of the button into more of an oval shape, or
round the top edges over rather than leaving them flat.
And, of course, there's no end to the amount of decoration you can
turn into such buttons if you so desire...and they don't even have
to be black. Or even made entirely out of one material.
In terms of feel I found they made little or no difference at all
- but that's from the perspective of someone who hasn't played a
great deal of whistle and is more used to very much larger instruments.
If you're a dedicated whistler facing the onset of arthritis in
your thumbs, you're probably going to find it all a bit strange
for a while.
So I can now sit back and enjoy playing my whistles
with comfort - while I wait for someone to email me to ask if making
the buttons out of different materials will have an effect on the