Interview with Ken Custalow
Karenne Wood, director of the Virginia Indian Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, interviews Ken Custalow, a member of the Mattaponi Tribe, at his home on the Mattaponi Reservation in King William County.
Oral History Item Type Metadata
1467 Mattaponi Reservation Circle
West Point, VA 23181
Custalow: Well, before traditional flute-making, I’ve been a craft-maker for a lot of time—not professional but I’ve always enjoyed woodwork. One of my neighbors, talking about the flutes, was telling me about flutes that he used to make, and I said, “Well just show me how one is made.” He was kind enough to do that, and I still have that flute here, the first one I made, I still have that here. I made that sort of blind-sided, I didn’t know really the functions of the flute and exactly how it had to be carved, and where the note-holes had to be, and any of that. So over the last four years or more, I’ve been sorta, I hate to say perfecting, but I’ve been making it better. I don’t particularly like to make flutes that are tuned to notes, F sharps and A’s and G’s, and G flats and all that. I like to make the traditional Native American flute, and my reading of history tells me that the flutes were tuned to the desire of the brave’s ear. He made the tune the way he wanted it to sound, and that was his flute. There were no A’s and F’s—if it was, it was accidental.
Wood: It wasn’t like they were reading music.
Custalow: They were not reading music, they were playing music that was pleasant to the ear. And so, I’m hoping that the flutes I make … I’m working on an F sharp flute, and it’s driving me crazy—somebody ordered one, and I don’t like it, but it can be done. But I like the traditional flute, some are short, some are long, some have big bores, or holes, in the barrel, some have little holes, some have large note-holes, some have small note-holes, and all that affects the sound of the flute, the length of the flute probably as much as anything. But those are the things that I like to do, I like to do the traditional things. I’ve had people come and say, “Your flutes are nice,” and I’ve sold many flutes. But they’re asking now, “I’d like to play this with an orchestra, or play this with some other musical instrument, and that’s kinda getting me out of what I want to do, and I’ve told a few people, “I don’t do that.” However, the Native flute, I love making those—it’s a long process.
I cut most of my own wood from trees that I find, let it cure for whatever length of time, eight months to a year maybe, and then do the flutes from those. Cedar, probably, American red cedar, probably they will be the choice of wood for people that want to buy. As a matter of fact, my stock that I have on hand, shows that there’s one cedar flute left and probably eighteen or so, out of alder and black walnut and combinations of those woods. But cedar, cedar is the one that really plays a part, a big part.
Wood: What are the steps involved in making a flute?
Custalow: The steps in making a flute would be for me to first find the wood that I want, trees that I want. I do use other wood besides trees that I cut though—my neighbor across the street’s a cabinet maker, and when he finishes a job making cabinets he has a lot of wood left over that he burns, and with me being a craft person, I don’t like that, so I go over there and get some of his wood and bring it home—oaks and alder. Alder’s become one of my favorite woods—he uses alder, which is a West Coast tree that grows by the water, and that makes a very pretty, very nice flute. And I like that very much, but he does not make many alder cabinets, so I don’t have a lot of alder on hand. Alder and cedar are my favorites, but the steps in making it is first to secure the trees, cut them to size. I even took my chain saw and made boards and let those boards dry, and then I plane them down to the thickness that they need to be planed, and then I take my table saw and cut the strips out that I need to make the size of the flutes. So it’s procuring the wood, bringing it home, curing it, and then after it cures get the wood in and plane it down to the size I want, and then cut out, on the table saw, the size of the strips I need to make the flute. There’s two parts to making the flute, the top and the bottom. Before I get to putting it together of course, I have to rout out the channel—the note chamber and the air chamber. And so those are the basic steps. After that comes the note-holes, and you do your hand carving inside, which is very critical to the flute, and also drilling the air holes for the air chambers, from the air chamber, to get the right amount of air, or the flow of air, going to the flute. Real quickly, that’s just an overview.
Wood: It sounds like a process that requires a lot of patience.
Custalow: Well, it requires patience, and it takes a minimum of a day and a half to make one. If I’m making something more complex than traditional flutes, then I’ll spend as much as three days on one flute. And the bad thing is, when you do craft work, everything that you do does not turn out perfect, so I had begun to make flutes at some point in time, and it didn’t work, and I would have to trash that one and start over.
Wood: And you have to be willing to do that.
Custalow: You’ve gotta be willing, you’ve gotta have the stock on hand. A classic example is, the woods that I use are red cedar, primary, alder also a primary wood. I use black walnut, which is not one of my favorites—it’s a pretty wood, but not a favorite for flutes. I tried oak once, I didn’t like that. I do not use pine—I didn’t care for that. But my brother cut down an apple tree, and he knew that I made flutes, and he said, “Do you want that wood?” and I said, “Sure, I’ll try it.” So I went and got that piece of wood and brought it home, took my chain saw and made boards out of it, and let it dry, and I made flutes, and that is one of my favorites today. Makes a beautiful flute.
Wood: Does it smell?
Custalow: No, not very much. The cedar is the one that’s gonna have the aroma—all woods have aroma, but the nice aroma comes from the red cedar.
Wood: How would you say you’re passing this tradition on to another generation?
Custalow: I’ve already done that [passed the tradition on] with my son. I taught him craft work, and of course he had the interest to start with. I have two other sons that don’t do that. But I’ve already passed it to my middle son, and he makes flutes precisely like I make flutes, and he has ideas that I don’t know about, and he shares them with me, and I share my ideas with him, and so it’s already passed down to him.
Wood: That’s great. Is there anything else that you want to add about flute-making or carving?
Custalow: I do other craft work as well, I do a lot of other craft work. Everything is not hand-carved on my part—the carving I do on the flute is internal, you don’t even see that. But that’s critical. That is absolutely critical to the flute—if you don’t carve right, then you don’t get the flute to sound right. I do other things—I do teddy bear paper towel holders, bathroom tissue holders, rooster towel holders, and lamp holders to hold oil lamps on the wall, I do scones, whatever you want I do for you, I mean anything other than a piece of furniture, I don’t like doing that anymore. I used to do that—I don’t like that anymore, it’s too precise.
Wood: So you stay busy with this?
Custalow: I stay as busy as I want. I sometimes wonder how I had time to work, ‘cause I really stay busy in my retirement, but that means that I enjoy retired life, very much.