Asheville is a makers town. The tall trees of the forests echo with the energy of woodworkers past and present. One of those woodworkers is Chris Abell, an Asheville native and resident, and the first flute-maker to make a professional wooden flute in the USA since the 1920's when Haynes Flute Co. in Boston stopped production of their wooden flute line (they made the first professional wooden flutes in the late 1890’s). Abell produces an array of wooden flutes, from Boehm-system flutes to penny whistles to headjoints to his newest vertical headjoint (make sure to try one at NFA!).
Abell's shop is located in the historic and fairy-tale-like Grovewood Village, known for its artist studios specializing in American arts and crafts from local metal smiths, wood smiths, glass workers, and ceramic artists; it is even on the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings were built for giving Asheville's mountain people skills like weaving and woodworking, and Abell's building once housed the weaving and woodworking operations of Biltmore Industries, started by the Vanderbilt family. Abell moved into the space in 1995 and has been creating his wooden flutes there ever since. Growing up in southern Asheville, he spent all his time in the mountains when he could, which inspired his love of woodworking.
Growing up, Abell mostly played Celtic music on simple system wooden flutes and lots of penny whistles. He later started working at Brannen Brothers Flutes to learn the ins and outs of the flute making business. While at Brannen, he procured some wood from piccolo maker Jim Keefe and made a prototype of his first whistle. He always wanted to make a wooden flute so he needed to know what kinds of machines and tools he needed for working with wood, and in 1985, he made his first penny whistle. He has about a dozen machines in his shop and ages his wood for a minimum of 10 years. Abell uses African blackwood from the rosewood family and South African mopane for his flutes. Due to current wood regulations, the rosewood family was put on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) list in 2016, and it is now regulated for international trade. What does that mean for woodworkers like Abell? It is ok to trade; it just needs to be regulated, and it requires a lot of paperwork and time. The wood is not endangered by any stretch, as it comes from the national tree of Tanzania and Mozambique. Abell made his first wooden flute in 1988, and no one had made a professional model in the ‘Boston tradition’ since the 1920’s.
When you run your business and your name is on it, there really isn’t any schedule; there’s just showing up. (Chris Abell)
What does a typical day look like for Chris Abell? "Every day is different; there is the soldering bench, stringing bench, admin work, turning lathe…there’s something to do everywhere. It takes a month and a half to make the flute. I work 6 days a week. When you run your business and your name is on it, there really isn’t any schedule; there’s just showing up.” Abell reiterates: "I'm a flute maker and I make them; I don’t want to manage people that make them. I’ve seen flute companies who started out like I did, and the makers became managers and didn’t make anymore, and I don’t want to do that." He employs two part-time workers, and they do parts of the process that Abell is not as good at, but Abell puts the tape on the boxes and takes them to the post office himself. He is happy with the flow of his business, and he maintains a year long waiting list on his instruments. For Abell, the rise of the internet means convenience, and he credits his good fortune with timing. "There is a whole generation of players now who probably haven’t heard of me because I’m not so aggressive on social media. I think the product is going to sell itself, but I don’t think the internet is the ONLY way you can get good business. It’s a good tool, but it’s just another tool. If you use it wisely like a tool, it’s fantastic."
Renowned French flutist Patrick Gallois started playing Abell's flutes in 1991, which helped Abell's reputation grow worldwide. Abell was exhibiting at a German flute festival, and Gallois, in a hurry to catch a flight, looked over at Abell's booth and asked to try a flute. He said “I’m going to buy this flute and I’ll be in touch,” and walked away. He contacted Abell 6 months later saying he was ready to buy the flute and asked where to fax his order. At the time, Abell didn’t have a fax machine, so he told Gallois to call him back the following day, and Abell went out to buy a fax machine! “I’m glad I’m part of his voice, but his voice is his. It has been and continues to be a very symbiotic relationship,” Abell states. Abell's flutes now span to hundreds of players worldwide. Some of those players include Kate Steinbeck (Pan Harmonia), Jeffrey Beyer (Touring Artist, America), Russell Itani (Second Flute, Danish National Symphony), Bill Larsen (Principal Flute, Southwest Florida Symphony), Trio d’Argent (France), Jeremie Mignotte (Jazz and Traditional music artist, France), Anders Jonhall (Sweden), players in Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Toyko Symphony, Aarhus (Denmark) Symphony, and many other professional and amateur players.
When Boehm invented the mechanism that we all use on our flutes, he was a goldsmith, composer, flutist, and flutemaker who made simple system wooden flutes for the professional players of that time. Then Boehm heard Charles Nicholson (1795-1837) play a wooden flute in London and wondered how he got such a big sound. It sparked the idea in Boehm’s head to change everything from wood to metal. He began changing the mechanism, adding larger holes, and started working to bring the design to metal. Then, makers started making both metal and wooden flutes until the end of World War 1, when the wooden flute started to go away. The war destroyed flute making factories and flute makers, and the wood flute was much more difficult to make. So, when Abell made his flute and Gallois played it, people were enticed by the sound, and it came back around after 100 years. Abell describes that "it is a perfectly viable sound for any type of music. You’re getting a richer, more full sound in every note because the fundamental is more audible and present."
I am happy to have had the opportunity to not only play all of Abell's fantastic wooden flutes and tour his Asheville shop, but also to hear him play his flutes and penny whistles with his Scottish chamber music band, the Tune Shepherds. Abell's place is highly regarded in the Asheville makers scene, and his fine workmanship and attention to quality and detail are apparent in everything he does. His wooden flutes are a true work of art.
For more information, visit www.abellflute.com.