By Greg Colgan
Richard Cox sits on a stool in his workshop as he hits the green button to turn on his scroll saw.
The machine begins to whirl as he gently holds a piece of Ontario oak and slowly moves it as the saw whittles away the wood and begins the first step in transforming it into an Irish flute.
It’s a process that Cox has done several times since 2005, when he first started making flutes. Since then, he has sold 169 flutes, which gives him pride in knowing that throughout North America his instruments are being used to make music and entertain people.
The process of making a flute is one that takes patience and dedication, often taking weeks to complete, he says, but for Cox, it’s one of the few ways he maintains a Celtic presence in his life in a home that’s thousands of kilometres away from his native Dublin.
“It’s a huge satisfaction to hear somebody play it well at a Céilídh (a traditional Gaelic social gathering) or an event,” said Cox with a smile. “That’s my flute, it’s great.”
“The music is certainly part of the Irish culture,” said Cox. “There was a time when we didn’t have very much culturally, but we had our music and we had our language and those things are very much part of the development and maintenance of a people.”
Cox said he had musical experience from playing in accordion bands as a child in Ireland and continuing to play other instruments as he grew older, but had never played the flute.
As a member of the London Irish Folk Club, Cox looks to his Irish background as a reason for making these instruments.
Cox originally started calling his flutes Irish due to his heritage, even though what he makes aren’t traditional instruments of his native country.
“My making is very much bound up in that. I started from the beginning calling it Irish flutes. There’s nothing Irish about it except that maybe Irish people will play it,” said Cox. “The old traditional instruments are the harps and uilleann pipes and the fiddle and flute came later.”
Although primarily known for his flutes, Cox has also made other musical instruments like classical guitars, mandolins, bodhrans (a small handheld drum made with goatskin and a wooden frame), bouzoukis (an eight string guitar similar to the mandolin, but with a lower pitched sound) and mandolas (an eight string teardrop shaped guitar that’s half the size of an acoustic guitar).
As a craftsman, Cox has been working with wood since the 1960s. Although he began with more traditional forms of woodworking like millwork, cabinetmaking and furniture, he gradually moved towards musical instruments in the 1970s.
His flutes can cost anywhere from $300 to $750 depending on the style a person chooses and the type of wood. Other instruments like the bodhran can cost as much as $1,000 and mandolins and mandolas upwards of $900.
It was after he took a night class with the Irish harp maker Jan Muyllaert in Navan, Ireland in 1972, that Cox began to craft instruments as a hobby. But he always wanted to give himself more time to make them, he said.
Cox, 65, is close to retirement as a craftsman and only works two days a week at his job. He’s unsure how long he’ll continue to make the instruments and is hopeful that an apprentice will come along to fill any void that he leaves.
He said he hopes one of his four daughters carry on the legacy he has created and is inspired to do it. However, it may be a few years until that will happen due to the time and training it would take, he said.
Among the several musicians playing his flutes, Jane Mettham, of London, began using Cox’s instruments after she went to the London Irish Folk Club about five years ago. As a lifelong musician, she said it was a natural progression to try instruments from a musically inclined culture like Ireland’s.
By talking with other musicians in the club, she found out that Cox made instruments and went to see if he would make one for her.
He initially gave her one to try to make sure his flute was for her. After four weeks of trials, Mettham came back to have one made.
As a trained musician for nearly four decades, she said she’s more inclined to play with handcrafted instruments because there’s a greater feeling of awareness with the instruments.
“I appreciate it more because it’s handmade and I know the person who made it. I’ve seen his work and I know he’s a good craftsman,” said Mettham of Cox’s instruments. “You just appreciate the fact that there were a number of hours that went into it. You appreciate that more than something you pick up at a music store you have no connection with.”
Richard Semmens, a professor of music in Western University’s Don Wright faculty of music, says handcrafted instruments offer a connection between musicians and their instruments.
“The relationship between a performer and their instrument is very intimate and they speak to each other,” said Semmens. “When I play my instrument I can hear it talk to me. When I play a lower quality instrument I talk to it, but it doesn’t talk to me.”
Semmens, who received his doctorate from Stanford University in 1980 and teaches music history, said handcrafted instruments are likely to be the only type trained musicians will use.
“For the very best instruments, the one that classically trained musicians would use, they almost always insist on instruments that are hands on and crafted to a specification.”
Cox was first asked by his friend Tony O’Callahan of Studio Celtia on Wellington Street to craft flutes because O’Callahan was looking for Irish flutes to sell in his store. Since there were few flute makers, he asked Cox because of his background with creating musical instruments from scratch.
“You improve things as you go along; there’s still some things that I see a better way of doing them and I will change them,” said Cox. “You learn how to do something and do it that way until you find a better way.”
Cox described the process as a “long period of trial and error” and he had to invent his own equipment since the tools to make many of the instruments simply don’t exist.
Though Cox can no longer remember the first time he saw someone play one of his instruments, there was one moment when he realized the power his instruments can have.
“I was at the Summerfolk festival in Owen Sound about five years ago. A guy came into the booth and he was a cook at one of the food tents,” said Cox. “He still had his apron on and he was all dirty from his work.
“He picked up (one of my) flutes and he knocked sparks out of that flute, absolute fabulous player,” said Cox. “My jaw dropped, my eyes opened, it was absolutely fantastic.”
After that he realized the capabilities that his flutes can have when in the hands of a trained musician.
With few flute makers left, with the exception of a handful in the United States and Ireland and one in Australia, Cox is one of the last of a kind.
Still, after all his years of making flutes, Cox enjoys seeing his flutes be played to a crowd.
“It’s great, wonderful. I’m a quiet-keep-to-myself-work-away-in-my-shop type of guy, but it’s a very nice feeling having over 150 flutes out there being played.”
Wondering what an Irish flute sounds like? Take a listen to Seamus Tansey.