Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 5, 1996

On Staff: Old-Fashioned Craftsmanship Sets Goembel Apart

Mike Field
Staff Writer

     There is an old saying that the cobbler's children are the
ones without shoes.

     Luke Goembel is the recorder maker who doesn't play a note.

     "I play enough to tune them," says the 36-year-old Applied
Physics Laboratory  scientist somewhat defensively. "I mean, I
can crank out "Silent Night" or something."

     In fact though, Goembel spends hardly any time at all
playing recorder, the simple woodwind instrument that has been
around since before the Renaissance. But he does spend hours and
hours dissecting, studying and building them in the basement
workshop of his Bolton Hill home. 

     A Baltimore resident from birth, Goembel has a natural
affinity to woodworking. His father is a sculptor, weaver and
artist who for many years headed the city's arts and crafts
programs for the Department of Parks and Recreation. His mother,
an avid antique collector, instilled in her son an appreciation
of fine old handcrafted furniture. The woodworker's bench that
Goembel uses to build his recorders is over 100 years old, itself
a handsome testament to the woodcrafter's art. 

     Goembel looks right at home sitting at the bench,
meticulously carving and crafting the components of his
recorders. It's almost possible to forget that Goembel is in fact
a rocket scientist, a postdoctoral fellow working in electron
spectroscopy for satellites in the Space Department's Near Earth
Environmental Remote Sensing Group. Recorder building, he says,
was born of a need to find a relaxing diversion while he was
completing his doctoral thesis in physical chemistry with Hopkins
chemistry professor John Doering.

     "I wanted to learn to play a musical instrument, and the
recorder was recommended to me as being about the easiest to
learn," he says. 

     Goembel bought a $5 soprano recorder, the kind commonly used
to introduce schoolchildren to music making. After learning one
or two simple tunes on the plastic instrument, he returned to the
store, hoping to purchase a richer-sounding alto recorder to

     "But the alto instruments were literally 20 times the cost--
about $100 for a very basic one--which was more than I was
willing to spend. So I decided to build one myself," he says

     Using a book borrowed from the library and the woodworking
tools in his basement, Goembel spent "just about all of my spare
time for a couple months" fashioning his first recorder from a
2-foot length of kiln-dried maple. As he worked he discovered,
somewhat to his dismay, that although the recorder is a
relatively easy instrument to learn to play, it is fiendishly
difficult to build, with a cone-shaped bore and precise yet
difficult-to-reproduce air passages between the mouthpiece and
the labium ramp, where the player's compressed breath causes the
instrument to vibrate and create a tone. 

     That tone is then modified by plugging or releasing the
various holes cut at regular intervals along the recorder's
barrel. This is how the musician plays the recorder.

     "I have since learned that it is regarded by instrument
makers as one of the hardest instruments to make," Goembel says
with a smile. "The windway and the conical shape of the bore are
very precise, yet very difficult to convey in words or diagrams.
I didn't really get the knack of building them until I purchased
an alto recorder and cut it in half lengthwise to see what it
looks like inside."

     His first instrument--before he had a cutaway model to work
from--made all the right notes but was difficult to play, with a
"soft voice" that required extra effort to achieve much volume.
For many people, that might have been enough. After all, he
wanted an alto recorder to play, and now he had one. Why go on?

     But Goembel had caught the bug. Fine handcrafted musical
instruments are like little music-producing works of art. No two
are exactly the same, but each, in its own way, is beautiful,
reflecting the unique qualities of the wood brought out through
the skills of the woodworker. Having built one, Goembel decided
he wanted to build others, and perhaps even one day sell his

     Using the cutaway manufactured instrument as a model, he
adapted his design to increase the instrument's volume and
improve its playability. He also began experimenting with
different woods, using maple, apple, cherry, boxwood, dogwood and
tropical cocobolo to make his instruments. At the same time, he
began lending out his completed recorders to musician friends who
would agree to play them, hoping to get additional feedback to
improve the design. 

     "Different types of wood will give you a different quality
of tone," says amateur musician Steve Lloyd, a research chemist
in the Space Department at APL. In addition to recorder, Lloyd
plays bassoon, flute and oboe. "For instance, the apple wood
recorder Luke made some time ago is one of my favorites. It has a
warm, mellow tone that the maple recorders can't match. All of
Luke's later recorders are more resonant than his earlier

     All, he notes, compare favorably with the handmade
reproduction instruments on the market that typically cost upward
of $500 to purchase new. 

     To date, Luke Goembel hasn't sold a single one of his
hand-carved recorders. The fact is, he hasn't even tried.

     "There are some things in the carving process that take a
lot of time, but don't necessarily improve the quality or
uniqueness because of the time spent," he says. "I'd like to find
ways to produce them with less man-hours but without sacrificing
the quality. To charge the full price to cover all my time right
now would make them prohibitively expensive." Goembel hopes to
refine his manufacturing process enough to enable him to sell the
recorders at a competitive $500 to $600 each.

     In the meantime, he continues to turn out his beautiful
hand-carved instruments at the rate of about five a year. Each
recorder is branded with a discreet "LG" and a number referring
to the date of production on the bottom of the instrument's

     Goembel has also become something of a celebrity among the
select group of woodwind instrument builders worldwide. In
February of last year he published a detailed, step-by-step
description of how he makes a recorder, using his own photographs
as illustrations. The article ran as the cover story of The
Woodwind Quarterly, a small-circulation magazine read by many of
the world's top woodwind instrument makers.

     He followed that article with another cover story in August,
this time about a trip he made to Moeck Publishing and Musical
Instrument Works, the world's largest producer of recorders,
located just north of Hannover, Germany. The Germans are avid
recorder players (practically every German schoolchild receives
musical instruction on one), and roughly two-thirds of Moeck's
600 to 1,000 daily recorder production is sold domestically.
Goembel's keen eye and excellent photographs provide a
surprisingly interesting insight into how the simple wooden
instruments with the complicated carvings can be mass-produced.

     Someday, Goembel says, he'd like to publish a book on the
recorder, with chapters devoted to its production and design. His
next planned trip is to visit Dutch recorder maker Jacqueline
Sorel, whose hand-built instruments sell for between $1,000 and
$2,000 each. That expedition should lead to another article, and
perhaps further insights into how a truly world-class recorder is

     "Luke's done a very good job in researching how the recorder
is made," says Lloyd of his friend and former officemate at APL.
"What amazes me is that he essentially figured out how it's done
before he ever knew how others were doing it. I've visited his
shop, and it's all very simple, yet he's managed to produce fine
instruments with fairly common woodworking tools. Luke makes
really excellent recorders that play as well as any I've come
across, plus they're simply beautiful instruments to look at and

     And one day, perhaps, Goembel will learn to play--to really
play--the instruments he builds so well. "I've talked with some
other people in the neighborhood and we're thinking of getting
together sometime to play," he says. "It's just a matter of
finding the time."

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