For many people new to the clarinet, they may want to clean their instrument and wonder if they can simply put it in the dishwasher to clean and disinfect. Under no circumstances should you do this.
Never put your clarinet or any part of your clarinet in the dishwasher. The water and heat from the dishwasher can cause the body to warp or crack, or melt if you have a plastic resin body. Mouthpieces are typically made from hard rubber or plastic, so could melt or warp. The pads that seal each key could be ruined simply by getting too wet. Clarinets should be cleaned with care to preserve their sound quality and longevity.
Now that we’ve established that you should never put your clarinet in the dishwasher, let’s go into some more details why you shouldn’t, the proper way to clean your clarinet, and how to sanitize your instrument.
The dishwasher can warp or crack your clarinet
Typically the clarinet body is made from a hardwood, a material that will expand and crack when saturated with water, such as in a dishwasher. Then, during the dry cycle, it would further crack and perhaps warp with the heat, making it unplayable. Many inexpensive clarinets are made from a plastic resin. While this material would be more water resistant, it would also melt with the heat.
Mouthpieces are generally made from hard rubber or plastic, making them susceptible to heat damage as well. Each key will have pads to cover the holes. These are usually made in part with cork, leather, and sometimes Gortex. The high pressure spray within a dishwasher could unseat or damage these pads, making it so the pads do properly seal. Even the ligature and keys could be damaged within the dishwasher, even for short periods of time, as the plating could chip off or become tarnished.
Many are tempted to use the dishwasher since it’s such a quick way to clean dishes. However, your clarinet is a finely crafted instrument that needs to be treated with the ultimate care. Luckily, cleaning it properly doesn’t take that much time and within a few minutes you can get the job done. Let’s go over the quick way to do this.
The quick and safe way to clean your clarinet
To keep your clarinet in peak playing condition, it needs regular cleaning. The following steps are quick and will preserve your instrument and its components.
- Take off the mouthpiece and clean it.
Since this is where all the spit is at, it usually needs the most cleaning. Remove the mouthpiece from the body, then the ligament and reed (the ligament is the metal clamp structure that holds your reed tightly in place). Rinse the mouthpiece in lukewarm water and wipe it out with a cloth. If you have buildup, you may want to use a gentle brush like a baby’s toothbrush. Wipe off all moisture and allow to dry, especially the cork before storing. Note: using a mixture of vinegar and water instead of just water can work better to loosen buildup.
- Wipe and dry your reed.
Your saliva has food particles and bacteria in it. After playing, wipe off the reed with a soft cloth and dry it before storing it in its case. The playing end of the reed is especially fragile so take care as you wipe it, starting from the back and coming forward. Be especially careful not to chip off or damage the reed since it will affect how you can play. I’ve heard of some people soaking reeds in vinegar but personally I wouldn’t be able to get past the taste! You could use mouthwash as well.
- Swab your clarinet.
Swabbing just means to clean the inside. You can buy a specialized clarinet swab that has a long string with a weight at the end of it – this makes it easy since you can drop the string in and pull the cloth through. You’ll want to do this a few times until the interior is clean and dry. As you look down through the interior, it should look clear. You should separate each clarinet joint before doing this.
- Clean up buildup on finger holes.
Use your cloth to wipe out each finger hold of any debris or grime as needed. If you have some troublesome ones, use a cotton swab or a soft brush.
- Wipe off any dirt or residue.
Lastly, wipe down the outside of the clarinet with a separate cloth to remove any dirt, dust, or residue. The oils from your fingers can tarnish or wear down the metal over time, so simply wiping down each key will minimize this.
Note that this isn’t a deep clean, it’s just a quick clean to keep your clarinet in top working condition. If you’re in an absolute hurry, you can just wipe out your mouthpiece, dry your reed, and swab your clarinet a few times. This can be done in about a minute, as you’re already disassembling your clarinet and putting it in its case.
Not really part of the cleaning but more of maintenance, check your tenon corks – these are the rings of cork that help connect the clarinet joints. Apply a small amount of cork grease if the instrument is getting hard to assemble and disassemble. By keeping these greased, you’ll also maintain the air seal and condition the cork to last longer. Wipe off any excess grease. Cork grease can be found online or at an instrument shop, and looks like a chapstick.
Make sure to wash your cleaning cloths regularly since they can build bacteria and odor over time. The washing machine is fine for this.
How to sanitize your mouthpiece
Every so often, you should sanitize your mouthpiece as well, especially if you’re sharing your instrument with someone else! To get rid of bacteria and fungus on your mouthpiece, you have a couple of different options. After you clean your mouthpiece as described above, soak your mouthpiece in either mouthwash or Sterisol for a few minutes. Sterisol is a germicide that is regularly sold for instrument cleaning. Make sure to wipe off and dry completely before putting it back in your instrument case.
Can clarinets get wet?
Clarinets get wet all the time, from your saliva as you play it! However, that’s in small amounts and usually dries pretty quickly. Do not soak your clarinet or allow excessive moisture over time. If your instrument does briefly get wet though, no problem. Simply dry it off with a cloth and allow it to air dry. It’s extended exposure that will cause harm to your instrument.
If your clarinet has been exposed to damp or wet conditions for an extended time, it may be ruined. If it still plays though, you may be able to replace the pads or mouthpiece. For this, you’ll need to take it to a specialized instrument repair shop.
Other things to stay away from:
- Do not boil the clarinet mouthpiece.
- Do not microwave the reed or any other part.
- Do not use bleach.
- Do not use any other toxic cleaner on your mouthpiece.
Under no circumstances should you ever put your clarinet in the dishwasher. There are safer ways to clean and sanitize your instrument that will not harm it. When properly maintained, a clarinet should last for decades.