In his workshop in Rochester on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, Jim Hall carefully places a 4-foot tube of glass on a homemade machine he calls the “Flute Tractor” and flips on a blowtorch.
He presses a button, and the Flute Tractor begins rotating the tube, which sits on rollerblade wheels, as he heats the end of the glass. As the glass heats up, Hall pinches off the end and flattens it before tapering a few inches on the end of the tube.
He places it on a rack to cool and grabs another glass tube, placing it on another homemade machine called the “BlueStar,” a contraption he also programmed software for.
This machine moves the tube into seven positions, heating sections of the glass while pressurized air is forced through it, creating bubbles. Once the bubbles have been created, he removes the tube from the machine and lets it cool again.
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Later, he’ll take these tubes and sand off the bubbles, creating a blowhole and six finger-holes for the flute before it is decorated.
He can make as many as 40 of these in a busy day, which takes up all of the work week for him and his wife, Jenny.
“That’s what we’ve got is a lifestyle business,” he said.
The couple has operated Hall Crystal Flutes Inc. out of their Rochester home since they were married in 1994, but Jim Hall had been making flutes for at least two decades before that.
He said it all started when he was attending L.A. City College in 1974 as a 19-year-old intent on earning a degree in chemistry. He started making flutes as Christmas presents out of chemistry pipettes.
“We’d pull some little pipettes that we used in chemistry and I thought, ‘I can use this, I can do this,’ ” Jim Hall said.
After he made $300 in one weekend at a craft show on campus, he was hooked, and hit the road selling his flutes for a good 10 years.
Even today, the couple is frequently found at music conventions, craft fairs and music festivals peddling their flutes, which range in size from piccolos to didgeridoos, and which they sell to music stores in bulk or individually, online and internationally.
This widespread customer base has served them well, Jenny Hall said.
“We’ve been able to float with the ups and downs of the economy because we’re so diversified,” she said.
Their prices also help: The flutes range from $50 to $110, with larger pieces like the didgeridoos running nearly $200 for a 4-foot piece. The price allows teenagers or people who haven’t played in years access to an instrument.
The glass gives the flutes a bright sound because of the rigidity of the material, but Jim Hall said the smaller holes he cuts in them help temper the brightness.
“It doesn’t absorb a lot of the sound energy because it’s so hard. The sound just bounces right off,” he said.
Even after more than four decades of making flutes, Jim Hall isn’t tired of it. He said he’s constantly working on new designs, like a pan pipe that he hopes to produce.
“Quality is a huge thing with Jim,” Jenny Hall said. “Anything that’s not perfect goes in the garbage can.”
Jenny Hall runs the business side of the operation, including shipping, which they handle out of their garage.
The couple also sells imported Clarke penny whistles and other small instruments, but the heart of their business is their own products.
“It’s nice to have ‘Handmade in the U.S.A.’ I think we’ve been proud to make something here,” Jenny Hall said.