A clarinet is a delicate instrument you must care for properly if you expect it to perform at its best. Neglecting to clean your instrument can lead to moisture build up, which can damage your clarinet.
Caring for a wood clarinet is more challenging than caring for a plastic instrument. Wood clarinets need to be kept at a consistent temperature and humidity in order to keep from drying out and cracking.
New players must learn to take care of their instruments. I’ve been playing the clarinet for over 30 years. And I’m still learning the best way to care for my instrument. But here are some specific steps to help you along the way.
Supplies you’ll need for clarinet maintenance
Below are some supplies you’ll need to keep your clarinet working like new. Giardinelli makes a useful cleaning kit if you are looking for an all-in-one solution.
- Mouthpiece brush: You’ll need a soft-bristled brush to keep the inside of your mouthpiece clean. Giardinelli makes a good-quality mouthpiece brush at a very affordable price.
- Cork grease: You’ll need to apply this to the tenon corks to protect the corks and make the instrument easier to assemble. I recommend Vandoren cork grease.
- Swab: A swab is one of the most important pieces of equipment you’ll need to keep your clarinet clean. A swab is made of a piece of soft, absorbent fabric, a cord and a weight to help you guide the cord down inside the clarinet. Look for an absorbent fabric like silk, chamois or microfiber.
You’ll need a longer swab for a bass clarinet, so make sure you’re ordering the right type for your clarinet. I recommend the GEM silk clarinet swab for a B-flat clarinet. For a bass clarinet, I recommend the Hodge bass clarinet silk swab.
- Pad paper: Pads will sometimes stick. I recommend Yamaha cleaning paper. Simply put the paper under the closed pad and pull it out gently. This is something you could potentially get away without using, since a sheet of plain paper may work just as well in many cases.
- Bore oil: If you have a wood clarinet, you’ll need to oil the inside periodically to keep it lubricated. I recommend MusicNomad Natural Organic Bore Oil or Yamaha Bore Oil.
- Cotton swabs: You’ll occasionally want to dust underneath the rods of your clarinet. An ordinary cotton swab is fine for this process.
- Reed case: Many people choose to purchase a reed case to keep their reeds in good condition. You could get away without a reed case. But it’s good to have one if you want your reeds to last longer.
I recommend the Rico Multi-Instrument Reed Vitalizer Case for the B-flat clarinet. For the bass clarinet, I recommend the Vandoren Hygro Reed Case, which also has a humidity control function.
- Hygrometer: Consider getting a hygrometer, or humidity measuring device, to keep in your case if you have a wood instrument. Keep your clarinet at about 45 to 55 percent humidity. I recommend the Micro Digital Reed / Clarinet Hygrometer. It’s small enough to fit inside your case.
- Humidifier: This is another great purchase for a wood clarinet. This will help to keep your instrument at the right humidity. I recommend the Humistat, which is affordable and easy to use.
Assembling your clarinet before playing
Putting a clarinet together is one of the first things a new player is taught to do. It can be tricky, so it’s best to follow these steps for the best results.
Greasing the tenon corks
Most people grease their clarinet’s tenon corks each time they play. Apply just enough grease so the instrument comes together without force.
Be sure not to put too much grease on the corks, or you could damage them. You could also run the risk of greasing the cork too much and having the pieces detach while you’re playing.
Soaking your clarinet reed in water
This is a useful step when you’re breaking in a new reed. Soak it in plain water for up to 10 minutes. Then run your thumb along the top of the reed, from bottom to top, to seal the reed. You should not have to do this every time. Some people prefer not to soak their reeds at all.
Cleaning your clarinet after playing
Remember when cleaning your clarinet that, except for the mouthpiece, no part of the instrument should be washed in water. Doing so could destroy the pads and corks and affect the moisture balance of the instrument.
Some of the steps that follow, such as disassembling and swabbing through the parts, are needed after each time you play. Other steps can be done less regularly as needed.
Disassembling your clarinet
Work carefully when disassembling your clarinet. Being too rough with your clarinet could damage not only the corks but also the keys.
The most crucial part of disassembling a clarinet is between the upper and lower joint. Put the instrument in your lap and gently twist it apart, being careful not to damage the bridge key. Avoid squeezing the other keys while you’re disassembling the clarinet.
Removing and storing the reed
Remove the reed every time you play, or mold and mildew could grow inside the instrument. Simply loosen the ligature and slide the reed free. Gently wipe any extra moisture from the back of the reed before putting it away in a reed case.
Some people choose to use the plastic single-reed sleeves that come with the reeds. But I believe it’s better to use a reed case with humidity controls. Gently slide the reed into the case, being careful not to chip the tip.
Cleaning the mouthpiece
Run your swab through the mouthpiece and wipe the outside after every playing session. Periodically wash the mouthpiece with mild dish soap and cool water using your mouthpiece brush. Take care to keep the tenon cork as dry as possible.
Cleaning the barrel, upper joint, lower joint and bell
These parts of the clarinet tend to collect moisture while you play. Running a swab through them is normally enough to keep them clean.
Maintaining your clarinet long term
You’ll need to occasionally take some steps to keep your instrument working at its best and preserve it for a lifetime of use. You could otherwise be setting yourself up for mechanical problems.
It’s also a good idea to take your clarinet to a qualified repair person about once a year for a “tune-up.” They’ll make sure your corks and pads are in good shape and realign any keys that have become bent.
Replacing your clarinet reeds
The need to replace a reed will quickly become obvious. The tip may be rippled when you remove the reed. This is a good sign that you need a new reed. You’ll also need to replace a reed if you break or chip it.
A box of 10 clarinet reeds will typically cost about $20. Bass clarinet reeds are typically $40 for a box of five (related: What’s the best reed for a clarinet?).
Oiling your clarinet bore
This step applies to wood clarinets only. Put a small amount of bore oil on a clean swab and run it through all the wooden sections. Keeping a separate swab just for oiling you instrument may be helpful.
Oil a new instrument every two to three months. As your instrument matures, you’ll only need to oil it once a year. Many novice players make the mistake of using too much oil, which can negatively impact their sound.
Transporting and storing your clarinet
Always be gentle with your clarinet and avoid bumping or dropping the case. A more durable plastic clarinet is often best for young players. Whereas more expensive wooden models are more vulnerable to damage with rough handling.
Maintain humidity at about 45 to 55 percent where storing your clarinet. It’s also best to store the instrument in an area of your home that has a consistent temperature around 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mistakes to avoid with clarinet maintenance
Apart from the tips for properly cleaning and maintaining a clarinet, there are several pitfalls to avoid. Awareness of these will help you avoid damaging your instrument.
Getting the clarinet wet during cleaning
This can be disastrous for the health of your clarinet, especially if you have a wood instrument. Your pads to become soaked and detach from the keys. Moisture can also create an atmosphere where mold and mildew can grow inside your clarinet.
Using too much cork grease
Too much cork grease can cause your clarinet to slip apart while you’re playing. Even a plastic clarinet could be seriously damaged if a part falls on a hard floor. Too much cork grease will also make your corks wear out faster.
Failing to clean after each use
If you don’t clean your clarinet every time you play, you are setting yourself up for problems. At a minimum, run the swab through the instrument before you put it away.
Too much bore oil
Make sure you limit oiling to every two to three months for a new instrument and once a year for a more experienced instrument.
Improperly storing reeds
Keeping your reeds in a humidity-controlled reed case is the best choice because a case protects the reeds better than a plastic sleeve. But anything is better than leaving the reed in the instrument and risking the growth of mold inside.
Stay on top of the maintenance of your instrument, especially if you have a wood clarinet. Even plastic clarinets need to be well cared for in order to play at their best and last a lifetime.
Taking proper care of your clarinet helps you avoid costly maintenance problems like cracks and wood shrinkage. A high-quality instrument should last a lifetime if you follow these steps.
Larry Deblinger says
What are your recommendations for cleaning mold from the surface of the wood?
Sebastian Craig says
Thanks for your comment. When it comes to mold on the surface of a wooden clarinet, typical advice is to fully disassemble the instrument and remove the pads. Wash (but don’t soak) the instrument in warm, soapy water and then wipe it down with either hydrogen peroxide or a light bleach solution (1 part bleach to 100 parts water max). Do not use bleach with silver keys, as bleach can ruin their luster.
That said, I personally prefer to recommend taking the instrument to a professional for cleaning, since moisture changes can crack a clarinet if not managed properly. Prevention through regular swabbing and properly storing a clarinet helps prevent mold from forming in the first place.