This article is part of a new series called Clarinet in the Time of COVID that aims to help clarinetists find the most recent and important information regarding the evolution of our field as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. If you have information that you would like to share as a part of this series please contact Jenny Maclay at email@example.com.
Clarinet in the Time of COVID Series: Deep Cleaning the Clarinet
by Katherine Breeden
Clarinets spend a great deal of time in our hands being used, and they accumulate dirt and germs. It is important to maintain a thoroughly clean and well lubricated instrument to facilitate ease of playing, longevity of the horn, and to prevent illness, especially in the era of COVID-19. This guide provides safe instruction for taking apart the clarinet completely, cleaning and oiling each of the components and reassembling the instrument.
- Screwdrivers (2); one with a .070 blade and one with a .085 blade
- Spring hook (a bent paperclip will also work)
- Flat nose pliers (brass lined to not scratch the metal)
- Screw board
- Needle oiler (for high viscosity lubricant)
- Pipe cleaners (the fuzzy, crafting kind)
- Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol with a high percent
- 30 or 50 weight synthetic motor oil
- Paper towels
- 0000 Steel Wool
Note: avoid silver polishing cloths, since they remove silver from the keys. If tarnish is a concern, purchase 3M anti-tarnish strips and lay them in your case on the clarinet to prevent and remove tarnish.
Before beginning, note the following:
Components should eventually be put on in essentially the same order they were removed, since some keys must go on before others. Do not mix up which screws go with which keys, they are not interchangeable. Have a system! Using a screw board and following the printed order is most effective for avoiding errors.
The following keys must be un-sprung with the spring hook before removal, and subsequently re-sprung after they are replaced. It may be necessary to use a screwdriver with the spring hook when maneuvering the springs back into place on the lower joint.
Upper joint: L.H. ring keys
Lower joint: R.H. F/C and Ab/Eb keys, R.H. E/B key, R.H. ring keys
On the upper joint the trill key cluster must be assembled and disassembled as a unit.
On the lower joint, the left-hand E/B and F#/C# keys must also be assembled and disassembled as a unit.
Pay attention to the needle springs while cleaning the clarinet to avoid getting stabbed.
Begin steps 1-5 with only the top joint, then repeat with the bottom joint
- Remove All Keys
Remove keys one at a time, working over a table-space. Use the largest screwdriver head that will fit to prevent stripping the screw.
First, unscrew the key, then place the key to the side. Wipe the corresponding screw down on a paper towel and place the screw in the correct space in the screw board. If a label seems ambiguous, use a pen to write a clarification next to it on the screw board (ex. RH sliver).
Repeat this process, one key at a time, until all keys are removed. Make sure every screw is placed in the correctly labeled, designated spot on the screw board.
C/F Thumb Ring
Side C Trill (removed with Bb trill)
Side Bb Trill
A/D Ring (un-spring first)
F# Ring (un-spring first)
L.H. E/B Lever (removed with F#/C# lever)
L.H. F#C# Lever
Ring Key (un-spring first)
R.H. F/C and Ab/Eb (un-spring both first)
L.H. F/C Lever
- Clean the Body of the Clarinet
For a wooden clarinet: use a Q-Tip dampened with water, isopropyl alcohol may be used sparingly for areas the water alone will not clean
For a Greenline or other non-wooden clarinet: use a Q-Tip dampened with isopropyl alcohol
Wipe down the entire body of the joint with Q-Tips. Clean inside each of the tone holes, making sure to get inside the undercut spaces. Keep the Q-Tip wet, and do not force it inside a tone hole if it will not go in. This can damage the tone holes!
Use a dampened section of pipe cleaner to get inside any screw holes and to carefully clean the register vent. Do not push the pipe cleaner all the way through the register vent, this will scratch the bore of the clarinet! Wipe away any fuzz the pipe cleaner may leave behind.
- Clean the Keys
Use a Q-Tip damp with isopropyl alcohol to thoroughly wipe down the keys. Be careful to avoid getting any on pads or corks, since this can damage them.
Use a clean Q-Tip damp with water to gently wipe down pads and corks.
A segment of pipe cleaner dampened with rubbing alcohol should be used to clean inside where the screws and rods will eventually be. Make sure to wipe away any fuzz.
Examine the springs on the keys, such as the right hand Eb side key for rust. If there is any, pinch off a small amount of the steel wool and rub it along the spring, then discard the wool.
- Clean the Screws
These should be cleaned one at a time, being careful to return each screw to its properly labeled spot before moving on. To clean them, drop the screw into a small glass of alcohol, remove it using the pliers, and dry it off with a paper towel before replacing it in the board.
- Reassemble Clarinet
Reassemble going in the reverse order of disassembly. Some keys must be replaced before others. Note above which keys must be replaced together, which springs need to be hooked while replacing the key, and which need to be hooked with the spring hook after replacing the key. Do not force anything, just adjust the alignment of keys and screws/rods until they slide into place.
Before replacing keys, using a Q-Tip with some motor oil, gently run the Q-Tip along the length of each needle spring to prevent rust. Just a little oil is sufficient, they should not be soaked.
Each screw/rod should be given a drop/three or four, of oil along its length before being replaced.
Turn the screw left before screwing it in, and wait until you hear or feel the click of the lacing catch and restart. After hearing/feeling this click it is safe to screw it in. This ensures the screw is properly placed and will not be cross laced.
After the key is placed, wipe away any excess oil from the screwhead with a clean Q-Tip and if applicable re-spring the spring hook with the needle spring. Press the key to make sure it has tension. Repeat this with each key until the instrument is reassembled.
Play the instrument to make sure it works and the spring tension/key action is as it should be.
- What if mistakes have been made?
Was the incorrect rod used? Unscrew the rod completely and remove it. If the rod is too short and is stuck inside the key, using an unbent paperclip, find the hole on the opposite side of the key and push the rod out from this side.
Is the key tension too high/low? First make sure the spring is hooked properly. If it is not, either use a spring hook to hook it if possible, or else remove the key and make sure to catch the spring before replacing it. If the key is hooked properly on the spring, it is likely the screw/rod has been under/overtightened. The tension on some keys is controlled by the tightness of the screw/rod it moves on. Adjust by quarter turn until the tension is satisfactory.
When in doubt take the instrument to your local repair shop. They will sort it out, do not force anything to work!