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Water Flute - Liam's Pipes

Paul Marshall

(c) Paul Marshall 2002

Inspired by Evelyn Glennie

Sound Samples in the pipeline ('scuse the pun)

I had the great pleasure, as a member of Different Drums of Ireland, of performing on stage with Evelyn Glennie for a short time at her 'Shadow' performance in Belfast in summer 2002, that gave me the opportunity to have a wee scout around her equipment (with her permission of course). She had two of these items that I have called 'Water Flutes', I have no proper name for them but they work on the fipple flute principle as I found when I tried to make one..

Since writing this page I have had contact with Evelyn and she tells me that these are called Liam's pipes, named after the gentleman who created them for her. Super idea and thanks to Evelyn for filling in the blanks.

The basic premise is that the pipes form an airtight circular tube. When the tube is part-filled with water, the rocking of the tube sucks air into the instrument over the fipple assembly which splits the airstream and causes the sound. It is a multi-toned instrument over several octaves which are accessible with variations in the speed of the rocking. The sound is a bit like a large swanee whistle or 'the clangers' if anyone remembers.

I made this in about two hours, the main elements were together in about 15 minutes but I had to work out how to get it to act like a flute and Bart Hopkins Instrument Design bible came to the rescue there. I should say that this is a prototype, mistakes were made and it is wholly unfinished however the design is sound and functional. Total cost is about £5 ($7-8) if you purchase the pieces from a builders supply merchants, pipe should be readily findable as scrap but you may have to buy the bends unless you have some lying around come across some as part of someone's throw aways.



A basic toolkit is required

  • The bits (below)
  • Saw
  • Sharp blade (knife or chisel)
  • Bung or bung material
  • Candlewax

The bits

To construct the Waterflute you will need any number of bends that equal to a circle. The 8 in this example are 45 degree bends, it would work with 4 x 90 degree bends or 16x 22.5 degree, you get the picture.

Each of the 8 sections of straight piping needs only be long enough to be anchored firmly in each bend however there is nothing apart from the human range of hearing to stop you from choosing longer piping for tuning purposes (discussed later) I made these approx 6" as an arbitrary figure.

You will also need a bung of sorts that can provide an airtight seal inside the pipe. I cut my bung from a piece of scrap timber using a hole saw adaptor on a drill. It fitted perfectly inside the pipe. This of course left a hole in the centre of the bung which I filled with a piece of threaded bar but you could use anything to block it up such as epoxy or some sort of hard-setting compound. I found the threaded bar useful however in adjusting the position of the bung and in taking it in and out.

Cutting the pipe

Caution If you are working in a school or elsewhere with children, this step should be supervised or done by an adult.

Initially you need to cut the pipe to length. There are considerations here regarding the final pitch-range of the instrument. You technically only need sufficient pipe to span the gap between the connector bends, however a longer pipe length throughout or even longer pairs will enable you to construct a lower pitched instrument and to play with different shapes - experiment. Any pipe length longer than the minimum will also allow for some tuning adjustment.

Making the bung

The bung needs to be slightly flattened on one side, this will align with the air hole in the pipe. This was the bit which had me running to Bart's 'bible'. I haven't experimented with the sizing of the flattened bit but I made a natural cut using an angle grinder to the same width as the hole in the pipe. You can see in the photo to the right. (I told you it was finished roughly :) The useful thing about a wooden bung is that when wet it will expand to make a tight seal.


The smart bit

Fipple flutes work by passing air over a sharp edge that causes the airstream to be split. It is this splitting that causes the sound. In the case of this instrument you have air being sucked in between the bung and the edge of the pipe, this replaces the blowing action normally taken by a player.


Caution - this part involves using sharp implements, this needs to be done by an adult

To cut the hole, I simply used a saw to make two parallel 6-8mm deep cuts in the pipe and used a chisel to join the cuts, enabling me to remove material to leave a hole, as you can see in the picture above left. If you look also you will see that I have tapered the end of the pipe where the bung is positioned (above right) this tapering gives an edge and with the addition of the bung, this is where the airstream is split. I have placed the bung level with the end of the taper. I am unsure if this is optimum.


Assembly is straightforward, you just join 7 of the 8 pipes and all the bends together into an almost complete circle. This is fiddly and it was only on my second re-assembly that I considered rubbing a candle on the edges of the pipes, this made the insertion of the pipe into the bends about 50% easier as it is a really tight fit. Be careful that the small rubber seal inside the bends remains in place and intact. Any compromise in these joins will give you air leakage which will rob you of your sound and will also cause water to spill out.

I opted for two differently coloured bends on either side of the holed pipe section, my thinking on this is to mark the bit which MUST remain upright to save the embarrassment of a wet stage or classroom floor.

The eighth piece is the piece with the flute assembly, this slots into its place and voila you have an instrument.

Tuning and playing

To render it playable you need to part-fill the pipe with water, how much you put in is entirely up to you, all you need is enough to isolate the chambers of air on either side of the hole by filling the bottom of the instrument. you will need enough that the chambers aren't allowed to join as this will render the instrument useless for that period. I fill to 40-50% (easy peasy - turn the instrument so that the hole is on a vertical panel, it will naturally find 50% as excess water will fall out :). The amount of water determines the unfilled portion of pipe and therefore, (as with the length overall) will determine the note, more water = shorter pipe = higher note and vice versa.

Experiment with tunings. Evelyn had two tuned a fifth apart and you could really get a good groove going with them.

To hear the instrument, them you simply grab one of the bends beside the flute assembly and rock the whole thing back and forth, the harder you rock, the faster the air is drawn across the fipple assembly and the higher the note. You will note that it only works in one direction.

The best way I have found so far of playing the instrument is to hold it somewhere around the hole bends and take the opposite side in your other hand. I try to keep the hole as my pivot and control the rhythm, speed (also note) and duration (pitch bend) with my right hand.

if you rotate the instrument so that the hole is say at 45 degrees you will find a different note, either higher or lower, try it at 90 degrees (watch out for splashing). It is from this positioning that I can see any melodic use of the instrument. you have basically 180 degrees of adjustment with 90 either side of vertical.

If you have enough players and instruments, it would be possible to play entire tuned pieces on them, in the manner that one might see in bell-ringing, but I certainly see this and a second or more as being part of my live stage arsenal for either solo work, looping work or as part of a larger ensemble.

It is theoretically possible to make the instrument have a greater degree of playability by the addition of finger holes however I haven't investigated this, I think it would require a slightly different design so that water isn't allowed to spill out, maybe a perpendicular tube with finger holes, Let me know if you have any success with his.

Thanks to Evelyn for the inspiration for this instrument and for a great gig, if anyone has a proper name or details of the original creator, I'd like to be able to include those details here too.

Sound files are coming as soon as I can get them organised.