It’s like showering inside a soda can – but less sticky

It’s like showering inside a soda can – but less sticky

This modern bathroom is comprised of a cylindrical shower set within a planter, within a bathroom, within a closet (within a bedroom, within a house – it just keeps going!). The two sides of the his/hers bathroom share the cylindrical, glass-tile clad shower. Arcing over the sinks, freestanding mirrors stand like tombstones on top of the vanities (except no one is buried under them, that I know of). They are framed in stainless steel and contain integral, flush mirrored lights flanking a central medicine cabinet.

Because the home is located in a cold climate, I attempted to bring summer into the bathroom year-round by placing the shower within a large planter that separates the shower from the exterior wall. The idea was to create the essence of showering outdoors in the tropics. Windows bath the lush plantings with light, yet are far enough away to avoid making the shower space cold.

This bathroom highlights my design philosophy of creating layered elements which allow ‘space’ to flow around them. Walls don’t always have to extend to ceilings! Layering fools your mind into thinking the space is much larger than it really is by effectively borrowing space from other areas. The added complexity provides visual interest, as well.


Design Images

A little bit of Austria, as seen by my pencil

Austria: a more picturesque setting is tough to find, yet easy to sketch. It almost sketches itself. Just give it a pencil. And some paper. And guide its hand a bit. And voila! Adding color to the sketch, on the other hand, that I have to do myself. Someday. Until then, here are the monochrome sketches.

Hallstatt, Austria

Mining shacks, Hallstatt

Sketch of mountain village in Austria
Mountain village, Austria
Sketch of Salzburg square, Austria
Residenz Platz, Salzburg

Peter Abbey, Salzburg

Modern Hawaii Glass Home Preview

Modern Hawaii Glass Home Preview

Context is everything when it comes to designing a home. While a Victorian style home fits beautifully in San Francisco, a rustic log style home in the mountains of Montana, or an adobe style home in Arizona, none of them are appropriate in Hawaii. This is partly because of their aesthetic, but also because of their functional design. Each is a response to a particular climate, with features adapted to it. The function drives the aesthetic. The home below is a response to the climate of a tropical paradise, Hawaii, where capturing cooling breezes is the order of the day. 

I Like it When the Tonka Toys Roll in.

I Like it When the Tonka Toys Roll in.

Before you know it, this will be a modern, new house in Calabasas, California. It’s a big job for these *little* machines: remove ten feet of poor soils from the entire building site to prevent the new house from sliding down the hillside like a giant toboggan during the next earthquake. While that may sound like fun (once), I don’t think my insurance covers it. So, we’re playing it safe.

Let's see him dig his way out of this one!
This early, very conceptual rendering provides a glimpse of what we are attempting to accomplish. Stay tuned!

An Architect’s Guide to Cool Pens – The Top 50

An Architect’s Guide to Cool Pens – The Top 50

Let’s face it, you hold a pen more often than you hold your spouse. For those of you still using cheap, disposable pens, I ask you, would you prefer a cheap, disposable spouse, too? …Sorry, I can’t see with all those hands in the air. Put them down. You are all missing the point.

A good pen is one of the simple joys in life. It can be a friend (although not a very good one – unless you don’t like to talk much), a security blanket, or something to fidget with. It can even make marks on paper that can form words and stuff. The point is, it is something that most of us interact with on a daily basis so it ought to feel good in your hand and make you feel good, too. Design matters.

When I design a house, I sculpt the spaces so they evoke emotions. For example, a space intended to cuddle and make you feel warm and safe is not going to have lofty ceilings. It will be small with comfortable furniture, oriented to capture the warm rays of the sun. It will have cute nooks, soft materials and alluring details. It will not echo like a barn.

A well-designed pen evokes emotions, as well. Cheap plastic pens, not so much. Their shape, weight, texture and materials just never seem to coalesce into something that transcends cheap and plastic. The pens below are my favorites. None are fountain pens, as that is an entire topic in itself. If you don’t see one that flips your switch, no worries. There are countless others out there. Just dump the cheap, disposables, already – but keep the spouse!

A few places to look for quality pens

For the zen master (or young grasshopper)

These pens belong to a simpler time, with a humble nod to nature. 

4-7/8″  –  1.6 oz.

It may be fat, but the unusual dart-like shape fits an average-sized hand surprisingly well. This helps place it at the top of the list for style and function. As they say, once you go fat, you never go back

Refill:  Parker

5-7/8″  –  0.2 oz.

Featherlight pen or 2mm lead holder with a unique clamping ring to hold the refill. It is the lightest pen on the list – so light, I suspect it is filled with helium (or black magic is involved).

Refill:  2mm pencil lead or D1 pen refill

5″  –  1.1 oz.

This company has only one pen design, but it’s a great one, with endless material and color variations that just keep coming (even glow in the dark).

Refill:  Parker and Schmidt

5-5/8″  –  1.4 oz.

Gorgeous, tubby pen perfect for a large hand. Simple, elegant design, but not for the small handed. You have been warned.

Refill:  Parker

4″  –  0.85 oz.

This is one of many 5.5mm (or 5.6mm) clutch pencils on the market, primarily used for sketching.  But you can turn any of them into a pen with the D1 adapter found here.

Refill:  D1

Likely to be seen speeding toward an enemy ship

Minimalist aesthetic, deadly precision.

5-3/8″  –  3.2 oz.

Heirloom quality brass or titanium pen. The level of precision is remarkable. See my complete review here.

Refill:  Zebra JF, Pilot Hi-Tec-C, Uniball, G2, Schmidt and many others

5-1/4″  –  1.5 oz.

High-density concrete and stainless steel with contoured, stepped barrel. It will develop character (patina) over time due to the oils on your hands.

Refill:  Schmidt

5-5/8″  –  0.8 oz.

Lightweight aluminum with a twist mechanism to extend the tip. Compatible with many refills.

Refill:  Parker Zebra JF, Pilot Hi-Tec-C, Uniball, G2, Schmidt and many others

5-3/8″  –  1.31 oz.

Stainless steel version of an iconic, classic design.

Refill:  Lamy or Monteverde

5-3/8″  –  1.76 oz.

Precision machined from aluminum, stainless steel, brass or silver with a twist mechanism to extend the tip.

Refill:  Schmidt

Your ticket to hobnob in high society

Sophisticated, classical elegance.  Much like an architectural column, these pens are designed with a base, a shaft, and a capital.


Perfection of classical design. From its subtle curves to its gracious proportions. It doesn’t get any better than this. Available in numerous materials.

Refill:  Zebra JF, Pilot G2 or Faber Castell


The capless, daintier version of the Graf Von Faber Castell Classic Anello. 

Refill:  Parker

5″  –  1.13 oz.

Solid, blocky modern pen grown from classical soil. Oak shaft with polished chrome cap.

Refill:  Faber


Porsche knows design. Check out all of their pens. They have the most innovative mechanisms out there.

Refill:  Parker


A hint of classical design from its clip is just enough to embellish the pen’s otherwise modern, clean lines and evoke a subtle elegance.  

Refill:  Parker


Classic Deco styling. Who doesn’t dig Deco? Am I right?

Refill:  Lamy or Monteverde


Streamlined elegance with an understated diamond pattern.

Refill:  Schmidt


Unique twisting rods: As the point is extended or retracted, the stems twist and lie straight, then again form a “waist” in the middle as the end position is reached.

Refill:  Parker

Is that a pen in your pocket, or are you just happy to...?

Compact and portable. Always have a pen when you need one: in a pocket, bag or on a keychain. Did I mention these pens are small?

4-1/8″  –  1.1 oz.

Wonderfully heavy pen for its small size, giving it a substantial quality. Machining doesn’t get any better than this. A great bargain, too.

Refill:  D1

3-7/8″ – 0.3 oz

Small size, absence of clip, and light weight make this a solid contender for minimal travel. You will probably lose it. Buy two.

Refill:  D1

4″  –  1.2 oz.

Unique, solid milled stainless steel / brass body with bolt action tip extension. Outstanding workmanship.

Refill:  D1

3-1/4″  –  0.8 oz.

High precision machined stainless steel rod with laser etching. Small enough to hang on a keychain.

Refill:  D1

4-1/4″  –  1.5 oz.

Small in the pocket, but large in the hand. Cap posts on back to lengthen the pen to normal size.

Refill:  Parker and Schmidt

3-3/8”  –  0.36 oz.

Bolt action keychain pen. Hang it from a bag or clip it to your clothes. 

Refill: LAMY M22


Worried about getting that first scratch on your pen? This one comes pre-scratched so you don’t need to pamper it. Go ahead. Throw it in your bag!

Refill:  D1

For the well-equipped Ninja

Equally at home at a fancy cocktail party or stealthily navigating rooftops in the dead of night (or soon to be dead, anyway).

5-1/2″  –  1.83 oz.

Modern, yet reserved design featuring stealthy, textured, dark matt chrome.

Refill:  Parker

4-3/4″  –  0.85 oz.

Dramatic, tactical (yet refined) shape in matt gunmetal. 

Refill:  Parker


A modern classic in dark woven stainless steel. 

Refill:  Parker

To Hex and Back

Modern iterations of the timeless hexagonal barrel.

5″  –  1.13 oz.

Cheery. It’s not just for halloween. Available in subtler colors, too. Resin shaft with chrome. Twist action mechanism.

Refill:  Parker

5 1/4″  –  0.95 oz.

Rotring is an icon in the architectural drafting community. Previously limited to mechanical pencils, they now make pens, as well.

Refill:  Parker

5 1/2″  –  1.2 oz.

Comes with sandpaper so you can lightly sand the painted body for a worn look usually achieved only through years of use.

Refill:  Parker

5″  –  1 oz.

Bold, hex-shaped pen in anodized aluminum. Light weight and surprisingly comfortable to hold.

Refill:  Parker

Pens that measure up - literally

When you have a job to do, these won’t let you down. For architects, contractors and makers of all kinds.

5-1/8″  –  4 oz.

Minimalist stainless steel rod within a ruled ‘cap.’ Option for standard ruler or architect’s scale.

Refill:  Zebra JF, Pilot Hi-Tec-C, Uniball, G2, Schmidt and many others

6-1/2″  –  1.3 oz.

A small, metal architect’s drafting scale combined with a pen. The scale rotates mid-way to retract the pen tip.

Refill:  Parker

3-1/2″  –  .63 oz.

A ballpoint, screwdriver, ruler, stylus and a keyring, in a tiny package!

Refill:  Troika Micro

5-1/2″  –  1.3 oz.

A pen with an integrated ruler (magnetically attached) that detaches when needed.

Refill:  Schmidt

5-7/16″  –  2.12 oz.

A pen / stylus integrated within a ruler / straight edge drawing tool.

Refill:  Schmidt

5-3/8″  –  1.22 oz.

Another pen within a ruler, but shorter.

Refill:  Zebra JF, Pilot G2 and others


6″  –  1.34 oz.

A spirit level, a ruler, a screwdriver, a capacitive stylus and a ballpoint pen all in one.

Refill:  D1

May I have some color, please?

A pen for every outfit and every mood.

5″  –  0.8 oz.

The ultimate in comfort. This pen feels so good in your hand, you may forget it’s there. Minimalist, balanced design for long term writing. The stainless steel version is a joy. 

Refill: Parker and Schmidt

5-7/16″  –  1.4 oz.

The feel of a fountain pen with the convenience of a rollerball. Mix and match the body and grip colors.

Refill:  Pilot G2, Parker and others

4-3/4″  –  1 oz.

Converts from a pen to a 0.7 mm pencil by exchanging refills. Operates by twisting the cap.

Refill:  Parker

5″  –  1.1 oz.

More colors, patterns and graphics than any other pen out there, and a beautiful, comfortable shape, too. 

Refill:  Parker and Schmidt

Pens that MacGyver could turn into laser-guided smart bombs

(with only a paper clip and bubble gum)​

5-7/8”  –  1.2 oz.

Solid, milled aluminum with ink or 2mm pencil lead refill. Highly adaptable to fit your favorite refill which is visibly held inside with a vise-like mechanism.  

Refill:  Parker, D1, 2mm pencil lead and many, many others

5-5/8”  –  1.1 oz.

Has a fantastic clip for thick materials like leather journals or jeans. Continuous twist cap deployment of tip – a fidgeter’s dream. My choice for an EDC (every day carry) pen.

Refill:  Zebra JF, Pilot Hi-Tec-C, Uniball, G2, Schmidt and many others

5-3/8″  –  1.5 oz.

Minimalist rod with lightly domed ends crafted from stainless steel , copper, brass or aluminum. The metal’s patina is its only ornamentation.

Refill:  Varies depending on model of pen

6″  –  0.7 oz.

Highly customizable: clip or no clip, round or cylindrical caps, tip extension and various interchangeable finishes. Lightweight. Read my complete review here.

Refill:  Extremely versatile. Compatible with over 60 brands.

For Extreme Conditions

Need to write upside down while scuba diving? Play Sudoku on Mount Everest? Fend off zombies? Are you clumsy and break things or just overly prepared? Look no further. These pens excel in extreme conditions, are compact, durable and travel well. Note: they may melt if used within the sun’s fiery plasma core – I have not tested this.

3-7/8″  –  2.6 oz.

Heavy-duty stainless steel pen with lever action deployment. Unique mechanism provides hours of fidgety fun.

Refill:  Parker or Fischer pressurized Space Pen

4-3/8″  –  1.3 oz.

Solid Stainless steel or brass body with bolt-action deployment. Precision machining.

Refill:  Schmidt Megaline or Fischer pressurized Space Pen

4″  –  1.9 oz.

Heavy pocket pen with a simple, rugged design. Heavy to write with when posted, but will appeal to those who appreciate a rough, industrial aesthetic.

Refill:  Fischer pressurized Space Pen or D1 (with adapter)

4″  –  1.1 oz.

Rugged, lightweight aluminum. Pull to deploy. Attachment loop for keychain, backpack, etc.

Refill:  Tombow pressurized or D1

4-1/8″  to  4-5/8″ – 0.6 oz.

Lightweight, titanium strength with a clever shaft that expands to fit almost any ink refill.

Refill:  80+ Various types

5″  –  1.6 oz.

Tumbled aluminum, brass or copper with a virtually unbreakable stainless steel clip.  

Refill:  Parker or Fischer pressurized Space Pen (with adapter)

It's a Pen... It's a Pencil... It's a Multi-pen!

Need black ink for doodling, blue for signatures, colored pencils for highlighting, mechanical pencils for drafting? You can have it all in one writing instrument.

5-1/4″  –  .81 oz.

So skinny you’d never know it held 2 pens and a mechanical pencil. You select the lead size and pen colors/sizes.

Refill:  D1

5-5/8″  –  0.9 oz.

Iconic in the design world. 4 pens concealed within the shaft.

Refill:  D1

5-5/8″  –  0.9 oz.

A pen, mechanical pencil and eraser within a futuristic design.

Refill:  D1

5-1/2″  –  0.3 oz.

4 pens or mechanical pencils in one. You select the lead sizes and pen colors/sizes. It is, sadly, cheap plastic – but it makes up for form with function. The Hi-Tec-C pen inserts are second to none. 

Refill:  Pilot Coleto

5-7/8″  –  0.3 oz.

5 pens or mechanical pencils in one. You select the lead sizes and pen colors/sizes. Another cheap plastic multi-pen – but on the list for its functionality. The selection and quality of the refills is outstanding.

Refill:  Zebra Sarasa

Pentel Multi-8


8 kinds of refills: 2mm colored pencil lead or ballpoint pens, yet surprisingly small barrel. Fantastic for color pencil sketching. See my complete review here.

Refill:  Pentel Multi-8

Final thoughts

A very wealthy man once told me that you’re not really wealthy until you have something money can’t buy – but that doesn’t mean you can’t buy cool stuff, too! So go ahead and buy a cool pen or two. It probably won’t help you attain enlightenment and ultimate happiness, but it may help you track your progress.

Tim Bjella is the architect behind the curtains at Bjella Architects - Specializing in fine home design throughout the United States.

Yup, I’m a Farmer!

Yup, I’m a Farmer!

Farmer Tim and the lil' missus sitting on the ruins of ye ol' farmhouse (there's a rocking chair under there, somewhere!)

Sitting at the breakfast table one morning, I pointed an emaciated finger at the bowl of gruel in front of me (some healthy stuff that’s supposed to make me live longer, as if this is worth living for). I Looked Robyn squarely in the eyes and proclaimed, “I want Lucky Charms.”  Sometimes she doesn’t hear me accurately, or chooses to accidently misunderstand, because the next morning she tells me we should really go check out our farm. 

“What?” I said, “I told you I wanted ‘Lucky Charms’, not to ‘buy a farm’!”

“Well, you own one now, and we should go see it.”

“When did I buy a farm?” I ask.

“You didn’t,” she said, as I expel a sigh of relief, along with the sweet scent of gruel.

“That’s a relief. I don’t have space to fit crop harvesting into my schedule this morning.”

“Nevertheless, you might have to give up that whole architecting thing you do. You are a farmer now. We inherited one from my family in North Dakota, and we should go see it.”

“I am? What?!!! … and where the hell’s Dakota? Is that in Iowa?”

Just kidding, I know where Dakota is. Vacationing there has always been a dream of mine, particularly West Dakota, with its amber fields of grain and its… well, I’m sure it has other things, too (at this point the architect in me meandered to thoughts of a quaint, little farmhouse with a red barn and silo that I could renovate and maybe while away my later years, rocking on the front porch, chewing on a stalk of amber grain).

“The farmhouse was demolished,” Robyn said. “It’s gone.” 

My heart sank.

“What happened?” I cried, already fully invested in my new life as a farmer. “One of those Sharknados blew through town or something? I’ve heard bad things about them.” She gives me a look like that’s not even a thing. Seriously.

“No, of course not,” she said, “It was torn down to make room to plant more crops… but we are getting a windmill!”

My heart rose very, very slightly. That was something, anyway. I pictured one of those creaky, little windmills on a rickety metal stand topped with a cute rooster weathervane (not to be confused with the type you putt into at the mini golf course. Those are Dutch windmills, for the benefit of you city folk). So at least I’d have something to climb up and shoot critters from (or is it varmints? Whatever).

What Robyn meant to say is that we’re getting an enormous, industrial wind turbine to provide power for the entire county! Oh, yeah. That was the other thing Dakota has, wind. Lots of wind. Apparently I’m not just a farmer* anymore; I’m an alternative energy provider. To think, I was merely an architect a few minutes ago. Looks like we’re taking a trip to see my farm.

North Dakota Farmland - Yep. It's flat.

To make the experience more palatable, Robyn suggested we call it a road trip (because that sounds more fun, apparently) and see all of Dakota. Every… Last… Mile… of it. Picture, if you will, lying on warm sand under a thatched umbrella, sipping margaritas as Pedro asks, “Would you like more nachos, Senor?” Then remove the nachos, umbrella, warm sand, Pedro and God forbid, the margaritas. This was the vacation Robyn was trying to sell me. Except she forgot to include the words ‘cold,’ ‘flat,’ and ‘windswept’.

“You know,” she said, “Everybody else takes family vacations to see Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the nuclear missile silos, and the buffalo roaming through the State parks. Why can’t we?”

“Because,” I said, “I hate road trips, and driving on road trips, and fast food while driving on road trips. Not to mention driving on road trips… Wait a minute. What was it you said between the words Badlands and buffalo?”

“uh… nuclear missile silos?”

She had me. Gotta see those!

No, these aren't alien spaceship droppings littering the countryside.

*It occurs to me that some of you might be thinking, “He’s not actually a farmer just because he owns a farm. He doesn’t wear overalls or carry a pitchfork. I’ve never even heard him sing a song about that old MacDonald guy.” I’m sorry, you are wrong. When I visited my farm, I picked a stalk of wheat and, throwing caution to the wind, along with the husk, ate it (It wasn’t packaged so I’m not sure it was gluten free). By the way, another word for ‘picked’ is ‘harvested’. I believe that makes me a farmer.

Another Sharknado forming over the farm - At this point, we decided it was a good time to check out South Dakota.

Dakota Photo Album

I purchased a stuffed, Big Horn Sheep just to get this picture. I think it was worth it. Sadly, I Had to leave it behind as there was only enough room in the car for the sheep or the family. It could have gone either way.

In case you are concerned, farmer though I may be, somebody else does the actual farming of the land, and I am still practicing architecture in the big city, designing amazing houses across the country with my company Bjella Architects. Please call if you would like me to design one for you (on or off a farm).

Rugged Luxury – Mountain Timber House at the Yellowstone Club, Montana


Modern Mountain House at the Yellowstone Club, Montana


What was the driving factor in the design of this mountain home? Context.

I designed this modern, rustic mountain home at the Yellowstone Club in Montana with an aesthetic of rugged luxury specifically to integrate with the other mountain homes in the area. In many ways it is unique, but it has underlying characteristics that allow it to blend, to fit in, yet retain its own identity.

  • Heavy wood timbers
  • Rough textured, natural materials
  • Hand crafted details
  • Solid, heavy metal connections
  • Large windows comprised of many smaller windows
  • Strong connection to the earth via stone base and walls
Cotswolds, England
Cotswolds, England

Why was context the driving force behind this design? Because all communities, towns, and neighborhoods have a sense of place, sometimes distinctly good, sometimes awful, but most often unremarkable. Some, however, are extraordinary, like the Cotswolds, England. We cherish these places, and for good reason. They have a fabric that ties them together which is based in large part on architecture. Most are not the children of forethought and planning, but came into being spontaneously and were nurtured over many years.

While many are resilient, some are fragile. Sometimes one thoughtless building can rip the fabric. Imagine a modern, white building in the middle of the Cotswolds. I bet it wouldn’t last a week before an angry mob with pitchforks and torches descended upon it. I’d be the one carrying the gasoline.


The Tawdry, Musical Odyssey of a Flute Tramp

The Tawdry, Musical Odyssey of a Flute Tramp

This is the story of one man’s search for the perfect flute and the secret he discovered:

Having been a guitar player all my life (but without the sex and drugs part. Damn it), I was pushing 40 years on this planet and still felt I was missing something (in addition to the sex and drugs). I needed something to fill the musical gap during my more contemplative, meditative moments. The serene, quiet sound of the flute beckoned to me like one of those weird Siren babes from Greek mythology, and I wasn’t wise enough to change course, so I bought one. No sense trying one on for size first, or borrowing one from a friend to see if I liked it. No. That is not my way. I jumped right in and bought a beautiful, and expensive, Sterling Silver Boehm flute, the kind played in fine orchestras, and one time, at band camp. 

Silver Boehm Flute

Sadly, the flute didn’t even make the cut as an expensive paperweight. It just lay around in my drawer, untouched, for fifteen years (very quietly, I might add). And it’s still there. 

Even today, now that I am a marginally adequate flute player, guilt nags at me. The beautiful flute has yet to fulfill its destiny, and it’s my fault. Its exquisite voice is not eliciting joy nor drawing tears in some stately philharmonic like it could, no… like it should . I sometimes think about who might be playing it right now, were it not for me. Then I think about squirrels.  

But this year, the flute finally got its shot. Beck, my eleven year-old son, needed to select a musical instrument to play at school for the upcoming 3 years. With mild relief and tentative excitement, I dusted it off, rolled some cold, hard cash into the shaft to sweeten the deal, and proudly handed him his first musical instrument. 

Beck, heartbroken that I wouldn’t let him play my flute for school

He didn’t bite. He didn’t even blink. I fortified my stance and dug through my arsenal of subtle persuasion techniques (I have read a lot of books on the art): I said, This is the only instrument you could ever hope to be even marginally good at. Take it.” He must have been coached by his mom. With his sweetest, most angelic expression, he replied, something to the tune of, “I’ve heard you play, dad.” and walked away. It’s too bad, really. I was loaded for bear with the, “Yeah, well says you!” comeback, and had the unbeatable, “well… infinity plus 1,” waiting on deck, but he was already gone – with my money. After no deliberation, whatsoever, he chose to play the drums (I think for the sex and drugs).

Doesn’t matter. The next day I forbade him from ever playing my flute again (unless he asks, nicely. Well, unless he asks, anyway). That’ll learn him.

A Handful of One-Night Stands

During my courtship with the Boehm flute, I dallied (some might say, fooled around) with a few other flutes, some purchased on Ebay, others at Renaissance fairs from medieval-ish looking swindlers – experts in the old bait n’ switch. The flutes would sound lovely when they “played” them, but would not work at all when I got them home. David Copperfield could have learned a few things from these guys. I suspect a cunningly disguised sound system temporarily inserted into the flute, and then removed later while someone sniggered behind the register. 

These flutes came in Bamboo and various hardwoods, and in styles from Native American to Japanese Shakuhachi to Champagne. Once I finally got the hang of them, they all satisfied my dream of meditating beside a quiet, bubbling stream, just me and the flute, awash in inner peace (though technically not “awash” as I would be beside the stream, not in it, at least until Robyn found out I was playing hooky from work). Picture an oldish, less dead, David Carradine in loose fitting kung fu garb, wandering from town to town designing cool houses and playing the flute (with an occasional gig driving lemmings out of town) – but always kicking some ass.

Shakuhachi Flute

All of these flutes produced the particular sound I craved, but unfortunately had minor and major flaws: specifically, they were missing half of the minor and major notes. 

It turns out, I couldn’t play along with my favorite new age, Yanni collection unless the songs were, coincidentally, in the same key as the flute. Apparently there’s this “thing” in music called “keys,” and if your flute is made in the key of “D”, for example, you can’t play along with a song in the key of “W” (I was never big on music theory, preferring to play by ear). These “simple system” flutes, as they are called, have six finger holes, which is not enough to play all twelve of the notes upon which the “keys” are based. 

My silver Boehm flute, however, had all of the notes. Every single one of them, which explains all of  the  complicated mechanical stuff littering the shaft. You push on various parts of it, blow across the hole, and out pops the note you were looking for (or the droid, if you mistakenly push the Storm Trooper key). Anyway, I asked my Boehm flute to forgive my recent transgressions, and we were back together again.

After that, it only took a few more weeks of blowing into the darn thing, in a dismal attempt to make a decent sound, before I finally achieved aural liftoff. It was only then that I realized my mistake: the tone of the Boehm flute was pure – too pure. Too perfect. Almost cold; every note was was a triumph of precision engineering. I know that doesn’t make any sense; who wouldn’t want an instrument that plays perfect notes? 

Me, apparently. I longed for the Siren song of my mistresses in wood, the simple system flutes that provided a warm, rich and airy sound; a sound with character and depth (when played by someone else, obviously). By this time, the metal Boehm flute was cold in my hands, figuratively and literally. To add to my estrangement, the keys made me feel removed from the music. Instead of covering up the holes with my fingers, reveling in the touch of its warm body and the rising columns of air from its holes, I had to press cold metal keys, which made annoying clicking and clunking sounds (as annoying as someone chewing with their mouth open or incessantly snapping gum). The bending or sliding of notes (a slow rolling of your finger on or off a hole to play seamlessly from one note to the next.) was impossible. And the maintenance of the thing – don’t even get me started. This time, no amount of counseling could keep us together. 

Yet, I couldn’t go back to the arms (armless tubes, actually) of the simple flutes from my rather recent past. I had grown, and was beyond them, now. They would never be what I needed them to be, no matter how I tried to change them (pay attention, ladies). I suppose I could have tried to change myself. But no, that is not my way. To get the last one out of my drawers (literally this time) I resorted, ashamedly, to the old, “It’s not you, it’s me,” line. But, at least I didn’t text it. So what’s next?  Tinder?

A Bit o' the Irish

Skip Healy Keyed Flute
Skip Healy 6-Keyed Irish Flute

Say hello to the Irish flute, classical predecessor of the Boehm flute (this is the type of flute that was ubiquitous before Boehm came along and ruined everything). It’s a wood flute with six finger holes, like a simple system flute, but with 4 to 8 keys. Yes, it has keys. But, unlike a Boehm flute, the keys aren’t pressed to play notes, but rather lifted off the holes (a subtle, but important, distinction). It’s a great compromise between simple system and Boehm flutes. So I bought one, or two, or… Let’s just say I collected a few and leave it at that. I thought I had found my true love. I was wrong. Again.

But I wasn’t far off, and that’s why I’m writing this. I stumbled upon a secret that few others have. No, it’s not eternal life, nor a cure for hair loss (not sure which I would prefer). I discovered Skip Healy and his flutes.

Healy’s flutes are a flute player’s dream. I have owned or played many of the finest wood flutes made in this and prior centuries (I haven’t actually time-traveled, just played some really old flutes), but have never met its equal, not even the one made for the six-fingered man. “Hello, my name is…”  

The sound of a Healy flute has a commanding presence, loud, but not harsh, with a beautiful warm resonance. The weight and balance are suburb (I find most Irish flutes to be long and a bit awkward). Skip’s are shorter and lighter and more comfortable. Often the keys on Irish flutes are placed slightly too close to the holes, unintentionally getting in the way, especially if you use a piper’s grip (cover the holes with the middle of your fingers rather than the pads). Not Skip’s. Unless you are using the keys, you hardly know they are there. Finally, the aesthetic styling is fresh and modern yet  elegantly nods to the flute’s classic past. 

But that was not the secret. This is: One day I was in Skip’s studio in Rhode Island picking up a 6-key flute he had just completed for me (the one pictured above), when my eye happened to glimpse a lone flute lying on a workbench. It didn’t have any keys, but did have a couple more holes than a typical, 6-hole flute. I asked him if his hand had slipped and accidentally drilled some errant holes (a credit to his self control that his hand did not slip across my cheek). What he told me rocked my world, like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull jamming on Aqualung. 

Skip Healy 10-Hole Chromatic Flute
Skip Healy 10-hole, Fully Chromatic D Flute

The flute was a keyless, 10-hole fully chromatic flute. That means that the flute could play in any musical key without the need for physical keys! Yes, you heard that right – a fully chromatic wood flute without keys. To my knowledge, no one else in the world makes one, or ever has.

When I regained my composure, I asked him, “So, what’s the catch?” He said there was no catch, except you need to use all of your fingers and thumbs. Oh, and covering the holes is a bit of a stretch. 

Bit of a stretch, indeed. I picked up the flute and tried to cover the holes, but couldn’t do it. For a brief moment I thought about bringing in a few toes to help. Back in my school days, they once showed us a motivational film about a woman without arms who did everything with her feet, from driving to washing dishes. She was amazing. Too bad she wasn’t in the shop with me. I bet she could have played it. Skip said I would get used to the flute, and he was right. It took a few months, alternating between Skip’s keyed and non-keyed flutes, but one day it all came together and I haven’t looked back. 

By way of scale, I’m 5′-8″, weigh 160 lbs, and have normal sized hands for my height (although I am told I have dainty, effeminate feet, for those of you interested in those things). My hand measures 7″ from the tip of the middle finger to the point where the wrist and hand join together. 

Honestly, it may be the hardest flute in the world to play; at least, I haven’t found one that’s more difficult. That said, it just takes a little more time and patience and finger stretching (I considered building a smaller version of a rack like you might find in a dungeon, but ended up not needing it). I wouldn’t recommend it as a first flute, or if you need to play exceptionally fast, because of the somewhat trickier fingerings, but if you are like me and appreciate a challenge, Skip Healy’s 10-hole chromatic flute is a minimalist’s dream. 

So, there you go. I finally found my true love (and I rarely cheat on her, and then only with her sister).

Skip doesn’t make flute cases, and I needed one for my travels, so I designed the one below. It is constructed of zebra wood with inlaid wood strips and features magnetic closures plus a flush, wood locking button (you can see it on the end). It is my first attempt to build a wood case, so I have to admit, I am pleased how it turned out.