In high school, my band teacher drilled into my head how important it is to keep my clarinet clean and would inspect each instrument. It wasn’t until years later that I fully understood why you should keep it clean and how to deep clean it. I’d like to share that information now with you.
Your clarinet is a finely crafted instrument that needs proper cleaning to stay in top playing condition. Here are the 10 steps to properly clean your clarinet and then we’ll go into each of these in more detail.
- Take clarinet apart
- Clean reed
- Clean mouthpiece
- Swab each segment
- Check pads and tone holes
- Inspect and oil keys
- Check joint corks
- Inspect body and apply bore oil
- Wipe and polish exterior
- Clean case
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into deep cleaning a clarinet but we’ve broken it down into easy to follow steps and we’ll explain each step along the way. You’ll be surprised at how quick the whole process goes. Of course, the first time you do each of these steps, it’ll take a little longer but you’ll be a lot faster each time you deep clean your clarinet.
Why you should clean your clarinet
By cleaning your instrument, you’re removing any buildup and possibly bacteria growth and mold. Over time, the moisture from your saliva and breath builds up and provides the perfect environment for bacteria and mold to grow and thrive. Not only is that gross, it can smell disgusting, and can get you sick over time.
The moisture can also cause damage to your clarinet by changing the airflow within your instrument, can increase the chances of a crack forming, and can cause the pads to not correctly. These can all affect how your instrument sounds.
The oils from your fingers can cause discoloration and damage to your keys over time.
Over time, your clarinet just needs a little love to stay in top playing condition.
You should deep clean your clarinet monthly.
Tools and supplies needed
Before we get started, let’s get all our tools and cleaning supplies together. We don’t want to get into it and find out that we’re missing something. If you see anything that you’re missing, you can find them on our clarinet supplies page or can pick them up at your local musical instrument store.
Here’s what you’ll need:
|Polishing cloth||Key oil|
|Pull-through swab||Instrument sanitizer|
|Mouthpiece brush||Cleaning (pad) paper|
|Key brush or baby toothbrush||Vinegar|
|Small screwdriver||Hydrogen peroxide|
|Cork grease||Small container|
If you are missing any of these items, click on the links above or you can pay a visit to our clarinet supplies page where you can find more information, including kits to save money. Or, you can find the clarinet accessories at your local musical instrument shop.
Great, now that you have everything ready, let’s dive into cleaning your clarinet!
Step 1: Take clarinet apart
This step seems obvious but did you know you can damage your clarinet if you dissemble it incorrectly? If you too much pressure on the keys, you can bend them since the hinges and metalwork can be fragile.
Starting with the mouthpiece, gently twist as you separate each section: the mouthpiece first, then the barrel, the upper joint, and finally the lower joint from the bell. With the mouthpiece, you’ll want to loosen the ligature screws and then lift the ligature up over the reed. You can then remove the clarinet reed.
If you have any question on clarinet parts, please see the Clarinet Anatomy section below.
Step 2: Clean reed
After loosening the ligature screws, you can remove the ligature and your reed. Inspect your reed. Does it look clean or do you see spots or some other kind of buildup? If you do, you may have mold starting to grow on your reed and should sanitize it.
- In a small bowl, soak any reeds you’ve been using in a solution of half water and half either hydrogen peroxide or mouthwash. You can find either of these at your local department store or drug store. Hydrogen peroxide is the same solution many people put on their cuts that’ll bubble up when killing germs. You can also use mouthwash like Scope or Listerine, since it’s an antiseptic that kills up to 99.9% of germs. Mouthwash is usually preferable since it smells better.
- After soaking for 10-15 minutes, rinse the reeds off with cool water.
- Dry with a cotton or microfiber cloth, starting at the base going to the tip in one movement. This will wipe and dry the reed while being careful not to chip the tip.
- Allow reeds to air dry and then place back inside breathable reed cases.
Note: after you play each time, you should rinse your reed in clean water and then dry it with a cloth. Also, by putting the mouthpiece cover on while not playing, you reed will be protected.
Step 3: Clean mouthpiece
The mouthpiece is the dirtiest part of the clarinet. As you play, your saliva coats the inside of your mouthpiece (called the chamber) where it can build up and create an environment where bacteria and mold can thrive. This can be especially bad if you just ate or drank soda before playing since tiny food particles or sugars will be within your saliva – extra food for bacteria. Because of this, many clarinet players have had odor issues with their mouthpieces.
If you play regularly, your mouthpiece should be cleaned and sanitized weekly but is also an important step of this monthly deep clean.
- Grease the joint cork. To protect it from possible water damage over time, grease the cork to provide a barrier while you soak it in the next step.
- In a small container, big enough for the mouthpiece, put together a solution of half water and half either vinegar or hydrogen peroxide. For the mouthpiece, I’d recommend vinegar because it will break down limescale, that white chalky stuff that builds up over time. Place your mouthpiece in this solution and allow to soak for 5-10 minutes.
- Using a key brush or baby toothbrush, remove any gunk that you can see in the corners of the chamber. Both of these brushes are gentle enough to not cause scratches but will do the job.
- Rinse and inspect. If you see any spots that you missed, you can use a cotton swab (yes, like Q-tips for ears) to get the tricky spots.
- Sanitize your mouthpiece with either mouthwash or Sterisol. You can either soak your mouthpiece in these, or to use less, pour the mouthwash or Sterisol over and down into the chamber so that everything gets saturated. There’s also a spray version of Sterisol that works great.
- Using a soft cloth or paper towel, wipe everything dry. Allow to air dry for a bit.
Step 4: Swab each segment
The swab is a cleaning cloth with a cord or string on one end so you can pull it through each clarinet segment, except for the mouthpiece since you already cleaned that. Also though, you shouldn’t swab the mouthpiece since it has a smaller opening and the cloth can get stuck and possibly cause damage.
You may notice water within the bore, or inside, of each segment after you take it apart. Some of this will be spit but most will be condensation from the warm air you’ve been blowing into the instrument meeting the cooler inner walls. That moisture if not removed, can cause mold, affect how the clarinet plays and may even cause the wood to crack over time.
First, make sure that the swab is spread out and not bunched up or have any knots in it. Then, with each segment, drop the cord portion through the hole and then pull the swab through. This will wipe and dry at the same time. Do this for each piece until you don’t see any moisture or spots. You may want to pick up any extra moisture that you see on the keys while you’re at it.
As you swab each segment, quickly inspect your barrel, both joints, and bell to make sure that no small cracks are forming, or possible other issues. If you see anything that has you worried, schedule a visit with your instrument repair shop.
Step 5: Check pads and tone holes
With this step, you’ll remove moisture and buildup from your pads and check your seals.
To get rid of moisture from the pads, insert some cleaning paper in between the pad and tone hole. Press the key lightly several times and repeat until no moisture or color shows on the paper. Be careful not to pull out the paper while you’re pressing down on the key since it can damage the pad, or its seal. Regular white paper will work for this as well if you’re in a pinch.
Next, we’ll need to check the pads for leaks. Over time, small gaps can form between the tone holes and the pads allowing air to pass through. This can affect the tone of that key and may make more work for you since you have to blow harder.
To detect a leak, you could play the scale and listen if you hear any notes that are a little off. Of course, you’d have to do that before you take your clarinet apart.
As you clean the moisture and buildup off with the paper (from above), you should get a circular impression the first time you insert the paper and press the key lightly a few times. If, after you remove the paper, you see that it’s an open circle, you may have a leak where that circle is open.
Another test is to cut off a thin slice of paper. A paper receipt or tobacco paper (for hand-rolled cigarettes) are both thin enough. Cut out a strip that’s roughly 1/4 inch wide and 3 inches long. With this thin paper slice, put it under the outside edge of the tone hole. Lightly press the key and lightly pull on the paper. If it comes out easily, you’ve found the leaky pad.
Now that you’ve found the leaky pad, it may be time to service your clarinet with an instrument repair professional. A good pad set should last 10 years but can wear out quicker if exposed to too much moisture.
If you see any dust or other matter in your tone holes, you can remove them with your key brush or a cotton swab.
Cleaning Step 6: Inspect and oil keys
In this step, we want to make sure that all keys are working correctly. Work each key to make sure the hinges are moving smoothly. Also check for any dents or bent metalwork. With your key brush (or cotton swab), clean off any moisture or other residues from each key. If you have anything that’s more persistent, you can dip a cotton swab in a little vinegar to help loosen it up.
For areas under the metalwork that you can’t get to, use your key brush to remove dirt. You can also remove any rods or keys to get to those areas.
Next, check each screw and tighten as needed. These may loosen on their own over time.
Now apply a little key oil to the small gap between the ball and the hinge for each key. The oil will spread out on its own to lubricate the moving parts and provide an invisible barrier against the air and moisture. This will also protect your keys against corrosion and stop any sounds the hinges may have been making. For a clarinet, you’ll want to use an ‘M’ oil (for medium).
Wipe off any excess oil with a paper towel or cleaning cloth.
Cleaning Step 7: Check joint corks
At each segment joint, there’s a ring of cork that makes it easy to put your clarinet together and seals it for proper airflow. Over time, the cork can dry out or break down. This can make it difficult to take apart your clarinet and if the cork becomes brittle and breaks off, can affect the sound of your instrument.
By applying cork grease as needed, the joint corks are protected and makes it easy to take apart your clarinet. Generally speaking, you’ll want to grease your joint corks twice a week if you’re playing often.
Start off by applying a a few dabs of cork grease directly on the cork. Then, with your finger, smooth it out so it’s applied evenly all the way around that cork seal. You don’t need a lot, just enough to cover the cork. If you use too much, it’ll just make a mess.
Do this for all clarinet corks – for the mouthpiece, both ends of the upper joint, and the bottom of the lower joint.
If you go a little overboard, just wipe off any excess.
If you don’t have any cork grease, you can use lanolin – many swear by it. There’s other alternatives to cork grease too. However, don’t use lip balm.
Cleaning Step 8: Inspect body and apply bore oil
For the upper joint, lower joint, and bell, you’ll want to inspect each piece and then apply bore oil as needed to give the wood inside the clarinet a protective finish. Follow these steps:
- Starting with the upper joint, hold it up to the light to see if there’s any light reflecting, or wetness. If the bore or tenon is dry, you’ll need to apply bore oil. As you’re looking for dryness, also inspect for any cracking. Cracks start small and can be remedied if caught quickly.
- With a pull-through swab that’s dry and clean, apply a few drops of bore oil near the string (this is where having a second swab comes in handy).
- Pull the cord through and pull the cloth through, twisting it along the way. This twisting motion will more evenly distribute the oil.
- Without applying any more oil to the swab, pull it through 2 more times, again with the twisting motion. This should provide a protective finish throughout for the wood.
- Allow the upper joint to sit for a few hours.
- After that wait, inspect it again and if you don’t see wetness within the bore, that means that the wood soaked it all up and it’ll need another application. So repeat the process with a few more drops of oil and pulling the swab through.
- Wait another couple of hours and if you see wetness within the bore this time, the wood has saturated as much as it can. With a dry swab, pull the cloth through a few times to pick up any excess oil.
Do this for the upper joint, the lower joint and the bell.
Cleaning Step 9: Wipe and polish exterior
Wiping and polishing the body and metalwork isn’t just about making your clarinet shine and look its best. It’s also about protecting your instrument.
Wipe down all the body and keys with a polish cloth to get rid of any dust, moisture, or oils from your fingers. These will all add a little wear to your instrument over time. Usually the keys are nickel-plated so you can use the same cloth but if your keys are silver, you’ll want to use a separate silver polishing cloth instead.
As you polish the keys, make sure to leave the pads alone. You don’t want to disturb them.
Cleaning Step 10: Clean case
After you’ve done such a great job cleaning your clarinet, you don’t want to put it back into a dirty case. Your case needs to be cleaned out from time to time too and you might as well do it while you’re cleaning your clarinet.
Remove any garbage, old reeds, phone numbers (nice job, you!) etc. Also remove items that you want to keep in the case – just set them aside. With the case open shake it upside down over the garbage or outside to get rid of any free dirt or lint.
Next, use a vacuum on anything still left in the case. A lint roller can also work to pick up specks from the velvet interior.
Now that it’s looking pretty tip-top, put the case contents including the clarinet back into the case and close it up.
A quick wipe down on the exterior of the case is a nice touch to finish up the whole process.
You’ve finished deep cleaning your clarinet. Doesn’t that feel great?
Did you find any problems?
As you’ve cleaned your clarinet from top to bottom, you may have spotted some problems with your instrument. If you’ve spotted any of these issues, you’ll want to pay a visit to your local musical instrument repair shop.
- Pads not sealing correctly
- Pads need to be replaced
- Crack in body or bell
- Need new reeds
- Metalwork or hinges damaged
Tips for cleaning your clarinet and maintenance
Here’s a few additional tips that you may find useful.
- For cleaning the mouthpiece, instead of using a mouthpiece brush, a baby toothbrush works just as well since the bristles are softer than regular toothbrushes.
- When buying cleaning products, buy a kit that includes several products rather than individual supplies. You’ll save money.
- It’s recommended to have 2 pull-through swabs. That way you’ll have a back up when if you’re washing one. Or, when you’re applying bore oil.
- Except for the mouthpiece, don’t ever wash any part of the clarinet with water since it can damage your instrument and can cause mildew.
- Never leave the reed on the mouthpiece. The reed won’t be able to properly air out and may warp.
- Take care when storing your clarinet and when traveling. Even though your instrument is in its case, it can still be damaged by heat and moisture depending on where it’s stored. When driving, be mindful that the trunk can get hot. If you need a new case, check out our clarinet gear page – we have a few recommendations.
Where to buy cleaning products
If you’re missing any cleaning supplies or accessories, visit our clarinet product page. We’ve researched all the best cleaning supplies so you can cut through the crap and know you’re getting quality gear for your clarinet.
You can also purchase cleaning supplies at your local musical instrument store.
Here’s some other useful articles that you may want to read:
- The Cost To Clean Your Clarinet: Professional or DIY?
- How Often Should You Clean Your Clarinet? What If You Don’t?
- Cleaning Your Clarinet Mouthpiece: Full Cleaning In Under 20 Minutes
Honestly, I played for years without knowing the names for each part of the clarinet so this section is a handy reference so you’ll have that information.
We hope you found this guide useful and that it’ll make it easier to clean and maintain your clarinet, so you can enjoy it for years to come. Happy playing!
PS, please share this guide with others…it’s a good thanks to us and we’ll really appreciate it.