It’s possible that Chris Raven is the only person in the UK making baroque flutes. He turns 80 in a few months, and far from having a lifetime of making instruments behind him, he started out at 70, after decades working in IT. Yet in childhood, he loved woodwork. As he says: “You can plant a seed in a child’s mind. And the seed stays.”
Raven grew up in a musical household, in Chelmsford, Essex. His father played the organ and his mother sang in the church choir. Raven himself played the flute until he lost interest as a teenager. But he rediscovered his love of the instrument in his 40s when he won lessons at his daughter’s school fundraiser, and 20 years ago founded a flute choir where he lives in Dorking, Surrey.
But in adulthood the woodworking had lapsed entirely, bar replacing the odd broken floorboard. It was after his mother died, and he was going through his parents’ bureau, that he found his old school reports. Raven had taken A-levels in the sciences and maths, and studied science at university, but when he read his old reports, he was taken aback to see that: “The two subjects that I did consistently well at – which nobody seemed to spot at the time – were music and woodwork.
“That was the biggest surprise. Although once I’d noticed it, it really wasn’t that surprising,” he says, “because I made stuff as a child. I had a little bench with a vice. I found I was good at it.” He still has a table and a bedside cabinet he built as a teenager. Rather than feel minded to look back and wonder if he might have made different career decisions, Raven’s discovery was more a case of noticing his aptitudes, he says.
After all, before IT he had started out as a teacher. “But I concluded that I hadn’t done anything in what you might call the real world. I didn’t feel sufficiently qualified to pass that on to youngsters. I thought: I’ll do something and then come back to it. But that never happened.” At the time, IT was “quite a young profession. It just had an attraction.”
I always get up in the morning anticipating what I shall be doing. I feel real enthusiasm about a new design
Around 10 years ago, at 70, Raven enrolled on an Irish flute-making workshop, followed by a baroque flute-making workshop. Then, he made some bamboo fifes for the biannual flute camp he organised with a flute choir. And he cleared out the garage of the home he shares with his wife Sue so that he could install a lathe, bandsaws, milling machine, bench and tools. His childhood passion “was resurrected” in baroque flutes and in flute boxes, which he now sells to amateurs and professionals.
“It’s been all-consuming,” he says. He spends at least four days a week “on my own in the workshop”. To make a baroque instrument, “You measure an original instrument to a high degree of accuracy, to tenths of a millimetre,” he says. “I have developed skills in wood turning, silverwork, leatherwork, French polishing.” And he has met and collaborated with “a helpful and friendly circle of other makers”.
He loves “the handling of the materials, the feel of the wood, the smell of it when you are working it, turning it on a lathe”. Zebrano smells like animals; olive like the cooking oil. The wood is so smooth, the first thing people do when presented with one of his boxes is to run their hands over it.
“You could call it a job, but I never think of it as that,” says Raven. Flute making, and box making, is not a living so much as a hobby. But Raven feels more fulfilled. “I always get up in the morning anticipating what I shall be doing. I feel real enthusiasm about a new design. And I am more creative than I have been previously – something that comes to me naturally.”
His next project is to make boxes for metal flutes made in England. “The greatest satisfaction I feel is that I have developed the skills to make boxes and flutes that people in the business admire,” he says. “It has been enormously satisfying. Enormously satisfying.”