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.

Dale Wisely

 Chiff & Fipple

* DON'T DIG HOT WAX?  I got this really useful suggestion by email in April 2001:

Dear Dale,

....

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!
 
Joe Wilson

 

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.

If the bottom two notes are still weak after filling under the windway, you can strengthen them by using something (piece of emery board cut to suitable width, fingernail file, strip of very fine sandpaper, etc.) to remove a little material off the end of the soundblade. It isn't blunting the blade that strengthens the bottom notes; it's the fact that the voicing window length is increased by this. A shorter voicing window favors the upper register; a longer voicing window favors the lower register. Sometimes shortening the soundblade (lengthening the voicing window) by as little as .002 inch will noticeably strengthen the bottom two notes. Or sometimes you have to take off quite a bit more (meaning maybe .010, which is a lot). So go slow and keep checking the effect. Stop when you've got the bottom two notes just strong enough for comfort. If you take off too much, you'll weaken the upper register and/or start to get a raspy timbre.

If the notes are buzzy, seem like there are frequencies from the other register "leaking" into parts of the upper and lower registers or just seem unstable in both registers, a blunter soundblade often corrects this. On the other hand, if the notes are stable and not mixing between the registers, a sharp soundblade usually helps give a nice, sweet, focused sounding upper register that better matches with the lower register. In general, whether the soundblade is left blunt or sharp, the whistle will sound best if the
soundblade edge surfaces are as perfectly smooth as possible. I use a strip of #600 sandpaper cut so I can thread it into the voicing window and out the bottom of the mouthpiece. Then I hold the whistlehead against my stomach and pull back and forth with one end of the strip of sandpaper in each hand to polish off the finished soundblade as the final step.

More advanced tweaking involves laminating a piece of something (soda bottle plastic, guitar pick, etc.) to the ramp to create a completely new soundblade edge. This can produce an excellent result, but it's tricky to do and is very hit or miss. I've developed an improvement on this technique, where I laminate a new soundblade edge underneath the ramp, inside the whistlehead, but it's technically demanding, and I wouldn't try to coach someone through it.

I've found that some whistles respond to scraping a little bevel (maybe 1/32" wide on the flat) onto the end of the windway where it meets the voicing window. That would be the end of the fipple plug on a traditional style whistle with a wooden plug. To do this, I use the very end of an angled exacto knife, inserted through the socket end of the whistlehead and gently scrape the corner of the plastic end of the "block" until I have the bevel I want. Then I clean up the end surface of the "block" by scraping gently with the knife through the top. If this doesn't work, there's no going back, but it does work in many cases. I think the best predicter of whether it will work is whether there's a lot of room under the soundblade (see next paragraph) or not. If the soundblade is ideally positioned and there's only a sliver of daylight visible under the blade, the bevel is likely to work well. When it works, it dramatically strengthens the bottom notes and releases (the best word I can think of) the sound throughout the range of the whistle. It also sometimes helps correct a buzzy, unstable or mixed tone. It doesn't seem to work when the soundblade is higher up relative to the windway and there's a lot of daylight visable under the
blade. In that case, I wouldn't try it, because then it usually makes matters worse, rather than better.

The biggest problem with many of these whistles is that the soundblade isn't ideally positioned in relation to the windway. Ideally, when you sight into the mouthpiece, looking at the soundblade through the windway, you'll see the blade edge with just a sliver of space above the windway floor, so most
of the area of the windway is covered by the soundblade, with 1/32" or so of daylight showing under the blade. On some whistles (Clarke Original, Shaw, for example) this is easy to correct, but on the whistles with plastic heads, it's harder to do.

Enlarging toneholes will make the note sharper, not flatter, especially if you enlage the top of the hole. To make a note flatter, take a piece of cellophane tape and cover part of the tonehole. This works very well. You can also use tape (I like to use aluminum foil tape, but electrician's tape or cellophane tape wrapped thick will work) to lengthen the tube slightly if the bell note is sharp.

I think that about covers it.

Best wishes,
Jerry

Jerry Freeman tweaks whistles, including Generations, Sweetones, and Shaws.  You may contact him at jerry@(edit out this spamblocker)tcenet.net