How To Clean Tuba Rotary Valves For Peak Performance

holding tuba showing valves

The valves are the “keys” of the tuba, the part that the player presses with their fingers, in different combinations, to produce different pitches. Tubas are made with either piston valves or rotary valves, and rotary valves are the more popular choice because they require less maintenance than piston valves.

Rotary valved tubas still require maintenance, however. Brass instruments manufacturer Wessex Tubas advises players to give the inside of your tuba’s valves a good flushing every 6 months.

To keep your tuba’s rotary valves working correctly, flush your tuba every half year with soapy water. After you drain your tuba and let it dry overnight, oil your tuba by applying oil to the central bearing, each rotor’s front axle, the rotary valve linkages, and down the leadpipe.

playing tuba, zoom on valvesAs you play your tuba, you are continually filling it with saliva and whatever food or drink particles that were recently in your mouth. It’s quite gross when you think about it and it can accumulate quickly. Even with the 2 spit valves to help get rid of sloshing liquids, your tuba can get buildups of bacteria or mold that can affect your health or your instrument’s performance over time. Flushing your tuba will remove that gunk to keep your keys working correctly.

Before we get started, you’ll need to pick up a few supplies. You can find all of these at your local music store or if you’d rather order online, just follow the links below.

diagram of tuba partsFlushing Your Tuba

The flush will remove particles that are trapped deep inside. Because this flush involves a lot of water, you’ll want to do this cleaning in your bathtub. To flush the inside of your tuba’s valves:

  1. Get a half-liter of warm, soapy water – just a few drops of mild dishwashing detergent will do the trick.
  2. Pull the tuba’s main tuning slide out.
  3. Pour the soapy water into the tuba.
  4. Wobble the valves a bit as the water circulates through the tuba.
  5. Turn the tuba so the water drains out of it via the leadpipe (also called the mouth pipe).
  6. To fully drain the tuba, remove all of its tuning slides.
  7. Clean the inside of the leadpipe by brushing it with a flexible brush or pipe cleaner.
  8. Rinse everything with warm water.
  9. Let the tuning slides dry out overnight before reattaching them in the morning

When you reattach the slides, you’ll need to perform another type of maintenance: oiling the tuba.

Oiling Your Tuba

tuba rotary valvesOiling a tuba involves applying certain oils on both the inside and outside of the tuba to keep it lubricated. Apart from the flushing, a tuba should be oiled approximately once a month. If you play in a band, your band’s director should give you good advice on how often to lubricate the valves. You will need rotor valve oil or sewing machine oil for the external portion and piston valve oil for the internal portion. Or some musicians will use just the valve oil for both.

To perform the external lubrication:

  1. Unscrew the rotor’s back plate.
  2. Put one drop of the thick rotor valve oil on the central bearing.
  3. Screw the plate back on, be sure not to overtighten it.
  4. Put one drop of oil on each rotor’s front axle.
  5. Put one drop of oil on each moving joint in the rotary valve’s linkages.

After this simple adjustment, you’re ready to apply piston valve oil to the inside of the valve.

To lube the inside of the valve:

  1. Remove the tuba’s mouthpiece and tilt the tuba so the leadpipe is vertical.
  2. Pour three drops of piston valve oil down the leadpipe.
  3. Reattach the mouthpiece and blow into the tuba while quickly pressing the valves up and down, so the oil fully covers the valve’s insides.
  4. During the lubing process, make sure none of the tuba’s screws come loose.

If you’re flushing and oiling your tuba as recommended, you’ll often find that you won’t need to perform much other serious maintenance on it. Additionally, oiling a tuba is the best way to prevent its valves from becoming stuck.

How To Unstick Tuba Valves

Tuba valves getting stuck is usually the result of the tuba not having been oiled in a long while. A tuba gathering dust in the corner of an attic or basement will often have stuck valves. When the valves are stuck, it can ruin the overall sound of the tuba and make it impossible to play.

Don’t worry though; it’s an easy fix. What you can do is:

  1. Turn the tuba horizontally.
  2. Pour a few drops of valve oil into the tuba’s mouth piece.
  3. Quickly press the valve keys while the oil moves through the tuba
  4. Gently rock the tuba back and forth as you press the keys, this will increase the area that the oil covers, helping it to reach areas that it might otherwise be unable to get to
  5. Once you’ve done this for a few minutes, remove the tuba’s slide and carefully pour the dirty oil into a trash can
  6. Piston valve oil is an excellent as a lubricant, but it’s not the only thing you can use. You can pour a cup of warm-to-hot water into the tuba, through the mouthpiece to achieve similar results. Use the same technique you’d use with valve oil.

Once the valves are unstuck, simply perform normal maintenance on the tuba and they’ll usually remain unstuck from that point on. Other than that, the only major cleaning problem you’ll tend to run into is if your tuba has water in it.

How To Get Water Out Of Your Tuba

There are generally two reasons that you might have water in your tuba. They include:

  • Saliva from your mouth has made its way down into the tuba as you play it
  • Water that was used to clean the tuba hasn’t been fully drained

tuba playerWhen you play the tuba regularly, saliva will gradually accumulate inside. If there’s too much saliva in the tuba, the tone of the instrument will become watery and unpleasant. Thankfully, your tuba has water keys (also known as “spit valves”). On his website The Tremendous Tuba, Paul Johnson, elementary and middle school band director for 25+ years, advises tuba players to deal with the saliva issue in the following way:

  • Tubas usually have two water keys, one at the first valve and one at the third valve. Note: the key at the first valve is attached to a removable slide. Pressing these keys down will open the tuba up, allowing it to release its collected saliva
  • Empty your saliva after every rehearsal as a rule of thumb. If you hear that unpleasant bubbly sound during rehearsal, you’ll want to take a break and empty it before continuing the rehearsal.
  • Carry a small towel with you whenever you’re using your tuba, and use that to wipe and hold saliva. You don’t want to horrify anyone by emptying spit directly onto the floor!
  • Rinse out the removable slide when you’re emptying the saliva

If you flush a tuba but fail to get all the water out, it can cause the brass of the tuba to weaken, leading to permanent damage. To prevent that from happening, Johnson says that, while flushing the tuba, be sure to detach every possible slide to maximize the number of drainage points, and also to rotate the tuba several times, so that water deep in the coils of the instrument can make its way to the horn, and drain from there.


You should flush your tuba twice a year to keep the valves working correctly and to keep your instrument clean. Follow up the flushing by oiling your tuba.

To further maintain your tuba, make sure to wipe down the outside and inside (swabbing) after each time you play. You should also clean your mouthpiece weekly.

Happy playing!


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.

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