How to Tweak Plastic-Mouthpiece/Cylindrical Shaft Tinwhistles
By Dale Wisely
(with a really useful piece of common sense by Joe Wilson)
(and a major update by master tweaker Jerry Freeman)
Some of the inexpensive tinwhistles with plastic fipples and cylindrical shafts are almost unplayable, in my humble opinion, without a little work. When I buy a new whistle, I usually tweak it a little. Some, notably Generations, require a pretty thorough tweaking. Others, notably the Walton's Little Black Whistle and related whistles, usually require none. By popular demand, below is my tweaking procedure:
Note: I wrote this a few years ago, in the meantime, Jerry Freeman has started tweaking this kind of whistle and he has contributed a major update to this information below. Read Jerry's addition before you start tweaking!
DISCLAIMER: If you don't follow directions, you could screw up the whistle and make it impossible to fix. If you do follow directions, you could screw up the whistle and make it impossible to fix. This tweaking produces mixed, but generally good results.
Materials needed: Water. Coffee mug/tea cup. Scissors. Extra Fine Sandpaper. Beeswax candle. Book of poetry. Newspaper. Small nuclear power generator (available at fine toy stores). Outboard motor, wig, dental floss, big package of Cheetos.
Pre-Tweaking Test Sequence Alpha: Play the whistle. Play the lowest note gently and slowly blow harder until it flips up to the next octave. You should be able to control this fairly well if you've played a good bit. Some whistles "flip up" way too easily, and the transition from the low to the high range is ragged. If this is the case with the whistle you are working on, note this.
1. Put a mug of water in the microwave and heat it--hot but not quite boiling. Take it out and let is sit for a couple of minutes.
2. Make herbal tea with this water, to calm your nerves.
3. Put another mug of water in the microwave and heat it--hot but not quite boiling. Take it out and let is sit for a couple of minutes.
4. Plop the whistle, mouthpiece first, into the water. Let it relax in the bath for about 30 seconds or so. You may want to play a little soft music for it at this point to help it relax. If the water is boiling, it will warp the fipple plastic. I have one Generation Bb which was improved by this warping, but I don't recommend it.
5. Take the whistle out, sling off the excess water and pull and twist the mouthpiece to remove it. You may have to repeat a few times before you get it off. Some whistles, like Generations, have a considerable amount of glue and this softens the glue and makes it possible to remove the mouthpiece.
6. Once the mouthpiece is off, you are ready to work on it. But first, read a couple of good poems. Or have some more tea. Read the paper. Whatever.
7. Cut a strip of EXTRA FINE sandpaper. The finer the better. Don't even think of using anything more coarse. If you can find sandpaper that has, like, 4 grains of sand per square foot, that's be about right. The strip should be at least 4 inches long and should be just slightly less than the width of the airway (the channel through which you blow air.)
8. Now, some background. Some whistles, especially Generations, are often shipped with extraneous bits of plastic in the mouthpiece. These are bad. You want to remove those. You can hold the mouthpiece up to the light and sometimes can see these. Carefully and gently pass the sandpaper strip through the mouthpiece airway. You DO NOT want to sand away any of the plastic that's supposed to be there. You're just cleaning out excess plastic. Turn the strip over and do it again.
9. Replace the mouthpiece and play the whistle. If you are pleased with the sound and especially the high-low octave transitions, skip step 10.
10. If the whistle flips too easily in to the upper range, you may want to consider this step: Using the same strip of sandpaper, SLIGHTLY dull the edge of the blade. (this is the plastic on the south end of the fipple window that the air hits and where the air is split. Sand a LITTLE, test the whistle, sand a little more if you need to. Once you are done surgically altering the mouthpiece, blow out all the extra polymer debris. (Polymer Debris is, by the way, the name of my new band).
11. Another optional step is the filling of the sub-airway cavity with wax. Before you do this, look at the footnote (*) at the bottom of this page before you proceed. The subairway cavity is the space that most whistles have that is UNDER the airway channel. (see figure below) . You can fill this up by lighting a candle, holding the mouthpiece vertically and dripping wax into the cavity. Avoid getting wax into the airway. It can be a bit tough to clear out. When it fills up, hold the mouthpiece until the wax hardens some. You can put in the freezer if you want.
Figure 1. Cross-section of Generation-style plastic fipple with pooled beeswax. Illustration by Norman Rockwell
This procedure sometimes helps the sound, usually doesn't hurt, rarely makes it worse. If you want, you can reverse this procedure by warming the fipple enough to soften the wax for removal. By the way, never use Q-tips to clean the wax out of your ears. :]
12. Last step. Rub the beeswax candle around the top inch or so of the metal shaft. You are coating the shaft with beewax. Build up a nice coating. Replace the mouthpiece. This allows for a good airseal and also allows for you to slide the mouthpiece up the shaft a bit for tuning purposes.
13. You're done. Play the whistle for awhile and then go to bed.
* DON'T DIG HOT WAX? I got this really useful suggestion by email in April 2001:
I've been working on ways to make cheap whistles sound better, and one thing I've found that works quite well when filling this chamber is sticky-tack...the gummy adhesive junk used to stick pictures, posters, household appliances, etc., to the wall. It stays in place quite well, is pretty much impervious to condensation, and installs very easily with no mess whatsoever. By removing the mouthpiece, one can drop a small ball of sticky-tack (or whatever it's really called) into the chamber and mold it with the flat end of a pen or something similar. This is a lot easier than melting wax with a candle or mixing epoxy, and much more foolproof.
Using this method, I was able to strengthen the sound of my Little Black Whistle (which was a little weak to start with); the same process also gave my old Feadog a wonderfully pure, sweet tone.
I would recommend this process to anyone modifying an inexpensive whistle!
Excellent suggestion from Joe!
2003 Update by Jerry Freeman
Although this tweaking article suggests using wax to
fill under the windway, most people have switched to poster putty. In the U.S., it's available at WalMart next to the crayons.
(Note from Dale: Buy some crayons, too. It can't hurt.)
Make a ball of poster putty about the size of a large pea. Drop it into the cavity under the
windway and press it in place with something that has a flat end. I use the flat end of an exacto knife handle. Add or remove poster putty until you
have it exactly even with the end of the windway. You want a nice, flat, smooth surface. Bloomfield prefers to indent the poster putty fill so it's
concave. I've tried this and don't notice any difference, and I get excellent results the way I do it. Jerry Freeman tweaks whistles, including
Generations, Sweetones, and Shaws. You may contact him at jerry@(edit
out this spamblocker)tcenet.net
Jerry Freeman tweaks whistles, including Generations, Sweetones, and Shaws. You may contact him at jerry@(edit out this spamblocker)tcenet.net