How Often Should You Clean Your Flute (And What If You Don’t)?

Closeup of playing flute

Any flautist will surely tell you that the beauty of the flute is its delicacy and versatility and that it takes skill to truly use your flute to its full potential. When it comes to cleaning your flute, the same delicacy and skill is needed.

Although some flautists will tell you multiple daily flute cleanings are necessary while others may never clean their flute other than minor dusting procedures, the truth is that a clean and well-maintained flute is sure to last longer than one that is neglected for obvious reasons.

After each time you play your flute, you should wipe out the moisture from inside your instrument using a cleaning rod with cloth, or with a flute swab. Your breath carries moisture and perhaps even tiny food particles that can lead to bacteria growth, so removing it is good for your health as well as your instrument’s. In addition, you should wipe off the oils from fingers and any dust or debris on the flute’s exterior. Over time, these oils can erode the silver and cause it to tarnish. Each week, you should also do a more thorough cleaning.

Playing flute with orchestraTarnish will erode the layers of silver over time and can damage your flute making it lose its shine and can even affect the tone of your instrument.

While some people will tell you that the flute can still perform perfectly without this cleaning process and that tarnish won’t actually affect its sound, the main thing to recognize is that tarnish does erode the layers of silver over time, rust can occur from moisture in the air, and these things can damage your flute guaranteed. To clean your flute properly, disassemble the head and foot joints from the body, clean each part of the flute using anti-tarnish silver polish and a microfiber rag, use a pipe cleaner to clean in between keys, and place anti-tarnish charcoal strips inside your flute case to avoid any sulfur exposure moving forward.

Let us delve into the hot button topics of playing the flute further below in order to hopefully ensure that all flautists and beginners flute enthusiasts alike will avoid the pitfalls of this instrument moving forward.

How to Properly Clean Your Flute

Various silver flutesCleaning your flute is truly a fairly simple process. To begin, you will want to disassemble your head joint, foot joint, and body to separate the flute into three parts. Next, grab a microfiber cloth, a pipe cleaner that is non-abrasive, silver anti-tarnish polish, and another lint-free cloth to finish the job. For the inside of the flute, you’ll want a cleaning rod or  flute swab, which is a cleaning cloth with a pull-through string.

Start by first removing the moisture inside your flute. If you have a flute cleaning rod, thread the corner of your cloth into the end and then push it through each section of your instrument. If you’re using a flute swab, you will instead drop the swab string into the section and then gently pull your swab through each part to pick up all moisture.  For either approach, do this a few times until the interior is completely dry.

Then proceed to the exterior by applying a small amount of the polish to the microfiber cloth and rubbing the flute in a circular motion until any tarnish, rust, or dulling is gone. Once this is done, use the pipe cleaner with a small amount of polish to clean in between the keys of your flute and to clean inside your flute likewise.

Lastly, put the flute back together after a few minutes and then use the lint-free cloth to wipe off any excess polish and to remove any dust particles from the outside of your flute. Once this is done, you can return the flute to its carrying case. If you want to avoid tarnish in the future, you can also apply anti-tarnish charcoal strips to the inside of your case in order to absorb sulfur from the air.

What Happens if You Don’t Clean Your Flute?

Tarnished flute in red velvet case

Although you may agree that cleaning your flute is highly important, you may also be wondering what would happen if you simply didn’t clean your flute at all. Fortunately, the answer is pretty simple. Although tarnish doesn’t do much damage to your flute other than eroding the silver slowly, rust and key jamming are highly common results from not cleaning your instrument regularly. If your keys jam and are unable to be used, this can cause you to be unable to continue playing your instrument altogether.

Similarly, if your instrument becomes rusty, it may erode your silver to the point that holes form which will leave your instrument utterly useless guaranteed. This means that it truly is in your best interest simply to maintain your instrument and extend its lifespan and sound quality in doing so.

Furthermore, not cleaning your flute can also lead to bacterial growth and water damage which can make you ill and also lead to more rusting likewise. The vapor inside your breath is home to countless bacteria as well as water that can damage your instrument and warp it over time as well. This is why it is best to also disinfect your instrument frequently using disinfectant spray as well.

Cleaning Rod VS Flute Cleaning Swab VS Flute Cleaning Wand

When it comes to cleaning the inside of your flute, there truly are only three optimal choices out there all performing the same task but in slightly different manners. With this being said, it’s no wonder why many beginner’s flautists become highly confused about the differences between the cleaning rod, cleaning swab, and cleaning wand and need a breakdown of the pros and cons of each to decide which is best for them.

For a simple rundown, the cleaning rod is optimal for those that like tradition, prefer to use microfiber cloths that are easier to replace, and want a solution that lasts a bit longer but is sometimes a bit clunkier as well. The flute cleaning swab is for those that want more precision although it is highly recommended that you choose a silk swab over a cotton swab. Lastly, the flute cleaning wand (flute flag) is often considered the best solution but comes at a higher price because of it. 

Because this is such a common question and one that many people in the flute world rarely get an in-depth answer to, we chose to break down all three options below and give you a better understanding as to why every tool is used so you can choose wisely and determine which option is best for you specifically in doing so.

Pros and Cons of a Cleaning rod

The cleaning rod is the most common cleaning tool for a flute. There are metal, plastic, and wood cleaning rods although wood is the most highly recommended solution as it does not break easily, does not scratch your flute as easily, and can last far longer because of its sturdy build.

To use the cleaning rod, you will also need a microfiber cloth and you will want to thread the cloth through the hole at the end of the rod like a needle. This option is highly common and very cheap as well but it does not allow you to really absorb the moisture that well and can’t fit in the end of your headjoint either. It may also damage your pads and cork because of its clunky nature. This is a good solution for those that don’t take the cleaning process too seriously or those that are just beginning to play the flute.

Pros and Cons of a Flute Cleaning Swab

The flute cleaning swab is really a great option—as long as all of the particulars are met.

Do not opt for a pipe cleaner style swab made of gauze since it is unable to absorb the moisture, can scratch your flute, and won’t keep mold or mildew out of your flute’s interior.

Instead, choose a silk swab such as the Hodge Flute Silk Swab. With this high quality flute swab, you can easily clean your interior of your flute, reach the crevices within your head joint with ease, and absorb far more moisture because of it. It is also effective for polishing and removing flute tarnish as well. This is a great option for those that are more involved in their flute playing and perhaps are doing it for school, college, or even in a band.

Pros and Cons of a Flute Cleaning Wand

Lastly, the flute cleaning wand, or flute flag, is the perfect cleaning solution but it does cost more than all the other options on this list. The Valentino flute flag is ideal as it can be hand washed and reused countless times, it is mounted on a plastic stick and the absorbent fabric covers it entirely meaning that you run no risk of scratches and can actually absorb all moisture with ease, it can reach the cork plate along with the entire bore, it is long enough to fully clean the head joint, body, and foot joint, and it is effective for polishing your flute as well.

While it may cost seven times that of the standard wood cleaning rod, its effectiveness, simplicity, and lifespan alone make it the best option for devoted flautists and those that truly respect their flute hands down.

In Conclusion 

All in all, every one of these flute cleaning tools is effective and useful for the same reasons. All it truly comes down to is how much you want to put into your instrument and whether or not moisture buildup is something you are concerned about within your flute. With this in mind, any of these solutions are viable and it simply takes an understanding as to what you are looking for specifically to decide.

What can I do if I bend or Break a key When Cleaning?

Sometimes, when cleaning a flute, you may experience damage to your flute keys. This is especially likely if you are not careful or if your flute falls during the cleaning process. In these situations, a lot of flautists online have panicked and turned to various forums for help.

Unfortunately, the main thing that is recommended is to simply have a professional fix your flute. There truly is no way to fix the flute keys at home and trying to bend them back in place may actually result in more harm than good. Furthermore, gluing a key back in place, while a good solution for a temporary fix, is not something that will last. As such, if your flute is damaged right before a show or a performance, you will likely want to simply reattach the key using super glue and wait until after the event to call a local shop and find where to have your flute fixed.

If you can’t find a local flute repair tech, you can also turn to musician techs online and have your instrument fixed and sent back to you as well. There are many good options in this realm including Taylor Music and The Repair Shop from Music and Arts. The one thing to take into account is that the shipping costs may be expensive but it may very well be worth the extra cost.

In Summary

Flute playing in blackAll in all, the truth is that the frequency in which you clean your flute all depends on your devotion to your instrument. If you don’t seem to care about the longevity of your flute or whether or not it turns brown and black from tarnish, cleaning it may not even be on your mind. However, for the most effective and long-lasting investment in your flute, your best bet is truly to take cleaning your instrument seriously and do so in the manner that has been described above.

If you want to know more about cleaning your musical instruments of all kinds, feel free to check out our instrument cleaning welcome guide today. We are sure we have just the right tips and tricks for all musicians’ needs alike!


An ardant fan of acoustic music, I played the clarinet in high school band and even competed in Disneyland. As the son of a music teacher, I know firsthand the importance of keeping instruments clean and maintained. I now enjoy sharing information with others and providing answers where I can.

Recent Posts