Everyone keeps telling you to get a clarinet swab but what the heck is it and why do you need it?
A clarinet swab, commonly called a pull-through swab or cleaning swab, is a cloth used to remove moisture from inside the instrument. It has a string with a weight on the end so that the string can be dropped into the clarinet and the cloth pulled through. Clarinet swab cloth is traditionally made from absorbent cotton but silk is becoming more popular since it is highly compressible, reducing chances of getting stuck.
Pull through swabs are essential for any woodwind instrument, not just clarinets. As you’re playing, moisture builds up and you may have noticed water dripping from your instrument or from the keys. A clarinet swab will remove that moisture in between playing sessions but should also be used as part of your regular instrument maintenance and cleaning.
In this guide, we’ll go over how to use a clarinet swab properly, what kind you should use, how to clean it, and even how to make a clarinet swab yourself.
How to use a clarinet swab
Or perhaps the better question here, is how do you swab a clarinet? You’re thinking just drop the string in and pull it through, right? Yes but there’s a technique to it and a few things to watch out for too.
Quick swab during playing
As you’re playing the clarinet, you may get too much moisture and need to get rid of it. In interest of time, you probably don’t want to take apart your whole instrument. If the string on your cleaning swab is long enough, you can simply remove the mouthpiece from the barrel joint, turn the clarinet upside down, and lower the weight into the bell until you see it on the other end. Then, pull the swab through, making sure not too pull to hard or quick. Make sure that there are no knots in the string or in the swab.
For the mouthpiece, you can tap the cork end lightly on your knee to knock out some of the moisture. You can worry about drying out the mouthpiece later, after you’re done playing.
Swabbing after you play
After you’ve finished playing, you’ll want to dry out each section of your instrument before putting back into the case. It’s important to remove the moisture completely since the moisture can cause bacteria or mold to grow, or can damage your instrument.
As you take apart each piece, swab it a few times until the bore (the inside) is completely dry. Some people recommend twisting the swab as it’s pulled though but that’s not needed.
For the mouthpiece, you’ll want to take extra care. Many people won’t even swab the mouthpiece since the cleaning swab can get stuck in the smaller opening, or the metal weight could scratch the tip of the mouthpiece. We’d recommend only swabbing your mouthpiece if you have a small swab, or if the swab is made from silk, since it will be more compressible.
To swab the mouthpiece, gently thread the weight into the mouthpiece from the bottom (cork side), making sure your reed is off first. Then gently pull it through.
The alternative to swabbing the mouthpiece is to use a mouthpiece brush, then rinse out with water, and air dry. We have a whole article about cleaning and sanitizing the mouthpiece, if you’d like to read more.
So what kind of cleaning swab should I buy?
There’s a couple of different things to look for when buying a cleaning swab for your clarinet:
- Fabric of the cloth: The drying cloth needs to be absorbent but lightweight. The best fabrics are cotton, silk, synthetic chamois, and microfiber. Pull through swabs can also be made with felt but can be too bulky and even fall apart over time. The cloth should be big enough to sufficiently soak up the moisture. See below for a more in-depth comparison between these fabrics.
- String: The string (or cord or ribbon) attached to the cloth should be durable and lightweight. It should also be long enough to go all the way through the bore of your clarinet, from the barrel (section under the mouthpiece) to the bell. Note: if you have a bass clarinet, you’ll want a longer string.
- Weight: The weight should be heavy enough to easily drop through the instrument but small enough where it won’t get stuck. Make sure that the weight doesn’t have hard edges since it could scratch the bore of the clarinet.
- Overall quality: How well is everything stitched together? Will the weight come loose from the string? Will the string stay attached to the swab, or cloth? Overall, you want a clarinet swab that will work for years without issue.
Cotton, silk, synthetic chamois, or microfiber?
It really comes down to these 4 fabrics. Traditionally cotton is used for cleaning swabs since it’s lightweight, absorbent, and is easy to clean. Cotton is also really cheap.
However, silk, synthetic chamois, and microfiber swabs are all excellent alternatives to cotton swabs. They are all more absorbent, meaning they’ll wick up the moisture in your clarinet faster, so you don’t have to swab as much. They all cost more, especially microfiber but the cost is worth it considering that a good cleaning swab will last you for years and is the most essential clarinet accessory. So better to spend a few extra bucks!
Here’s a quick comparison of the pull through swabs made from these fabrics.
|Fabric||Absorbance||Weight||How to Wash||Price||Notes|
|Cotton cleaning swab||Absorbent||Lightweight||Machine wash||Around $4|
|Synthetic chamois cleaning swab||Highly absorbent||Lightweight||Hand wash||Around $7|
|Silk cleaning swab||Highly absorbent||Extremely Lightweight||Hand wash||Around $12||Very compressible|
|Microfiber cleaning swab||Highly absorbent||Lightweight||Machine wash by itself||Around $18||Longer to dry|
Go with the silk
While the synthetic chamois is a great deal for the price, we recommend the silk cleaning swab since it’s more compressible, so it has less chance to get stuck inside your clarinet. Also, it won’t leave any lint in the key holes.
It’s what many concert musicians use too.
Where to buy?
We recommend these two swabs on Amazon:
You can find clarinet cleaning kits and other supplies here too, where we have done all the research so you can cut through the crap. A local musical instrument store would also be a good place to buy.
How to clean a clarinet swab
Over time, your pull through swab can build up gunk (food particles, sugars, cork grease etc) or grow mold, so you’ll want to clean it every month or when it needs it. You’ll know when it needs a cleaning because you will visibly see build up or it’ll start to smell.
Cleaning your clarinet swab really depends on what fabric it’s made from. If it’s cotton or microfiber, you can wash it your washing machine. If it’s made from synthetic chamois or silk, you’ll want to hand wash.
Washing a clarinet swab in your washing machine
For a cotton cleaning swab, you can wash it with the rest of your laundry. However, the string may get wrapped around your other clothes, or can get stuck in the agitator. To prevent that, wrap up the string and tie it off. I recommend doing this by wrapping it around 2 of your fingers, pull it off and then tying a single knot on it. I’ve seen others wrap the string around the clarinet swab but that makes it harder for it to be washed.
For microfiber, you should run a load with just the microfiber swab in the washer by itself, or with other microfiber cloths. If you run it with regular wash, it’ll pick up lint from other fabrics.
For cotton, you can dry it in your dryer. For microfiber though, you’ll want to air dry.
Hand washing a clarinet swab
For synthetic (man-made) chamois and silk, you’ll want to hand wash. The washing machine is just too rough for these fabrics.
You can hand wash the silk or synthetic chamois swab in your sink with lukewarm water and a few drops of liquid dish soap. Woolite would work as well. Lightly agitate for 3-5 minutes and then rinse well.
Afterwards, wring it out and let them air dry by hanging up, like over your shower curtain. Check the instructions or care label that will come with your clarinet swab though since it can differ from brand to brand. If the label indicates that machine washing is OK, choose a gentle, cold water cycle.
What if you get a swab stuck in your clarinet? How do you get it out?
First off, don’t panic! And don’t keep tugging on the pull through string. You don’t want to damage your clarinet.
Most likely, the swab fabric got bunched up and is stuck in the upper joint. The string may have knotted up as well.
- We need to back the swab out. If the end of your cleaning swab is still poking out the end that you put it in, gently pull on it to reverse it out of instrument.
- If it’s further in, take apart the clarinet between the upper and lower joints. You should then be able to work the swab back out.
- If the swab is all bunched up, twisting it may also spread it out more, allowing it to release from its stuck position.
If these steps don’t work, make sure to not yank on it or to stick other objects into the bore of your instrument. Both of these actions can cause damage. Instead, it’s probably time to call a professional instrument repair technician to get the swab out.
To minimize the chances of the swab getting stuck in the first place, follow these three recommendations:
- Use a silk cleaning swab.
- Make sure the swab is all spread out before you pull it through, to reduce chances of bunching.
- Remove any knots in your string.
How to make your own clarinet swab, DIY style
Maybe you’re trying to save a little money, or you need a cleaning swab now so don’t have the time to order one, or go pick one up. Whatever the case, here is how you can make your own clarinet swab yourself.
- Start with an old silk handkerchief or silk tie. You can probably find one of these at a thrift store for $1 and you’ll probably have some fun designs to choose from. A light cotton handkerchief would work as well but silk compresses more so less chance of getting stuck.
- Find a cord. You want about 50 inches and a shoelace would work great since the end is already sealed so you won’t have to worry about fraying. A nylon or cotton braid would work as well.
- Stitch one end to your fabric. To make sure it stays in place, stitch it about 2 inches in, and up to the edge of the fabric. That way there’s not a single tear point and your swab will stay together.
- For the weight, to have gravity help pull through the string, take something thin and metal like a couple of short nails with small heads (finishing nails) or bobby pins and wrap them on the end with duct tape. What you’re looking for here is a little bit of extra weight but not too bulky so it’ll be able to fit through the barrel of the clarinet.
This is a quick way to create your own cleaning swab and you may even have all these items around your house. Of course, you can also improvise. If you want a nicer DIY swab, check out this DIY $2 Microfiber Clarinet Swab video on Cally’s Clarinet Channel.
As a musician, if you don’t already own a good pull through swab, you need one to keep your clarinet in top playing condition. It’s essential to keeping the inside of your instrument dry and clean. If you already have one cleaning swab, we’d recommend picking up another.
You should have all the info you need now on how to use your clarinet swab and what to look for when you buy. On our Clarinet Cleaning Supplies page, you’ll find our recommendations for chamois and silk cleaning swabs.
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.
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