Wood Clarinet Care and Preservation

Originally published to Banddirector.com and Dansr-Vandoren

Understanding Wood

Grenadilla wood is one of the most beautiful, durable and stable products of nature—hard, dense and extremely close-grained, capable of being worked to very close tolerances. Acoustically, it is an ideal material, imparting its flexibility to the tonal characteristics of the clarinet that sensitive musicians consider essential to artistic expression. 

Manufacturing process
Even a wood as stable a grenadilla “breathes,” absorbing and releasing moisture for decades, even centuries. In stabilizing grenadilla, it is allowed to “settle” and lose its moisture slowly, under the most carefully controlled conditions.

The first step is the reduction of the log into “billets”. For the most expensive woodwinds, these billets are obtained by splitting the log by hand so that each billet follows the natural grain of the wood. These are then sawed into rectangular shape, drilled and turned on a lathe into rough form.

At this point, Leblanc artisans allow time to take over—often a period of five or more years. When the wood has achieved exactly the right moisture content, Leblanc craftsmen resume the manufacturing processes that lead to the completion of your wood bodied clarinet.

Cracking and checking
Perhaps the most generally misunderstood problem in connection with wood clarinets is that of cracking or checking. It is impossible to guarantee that wood will not crack. Despite it great density, grenadilla, like any other wood, absorbs and releases moisture. It is hygroscopic. Moisture may be absorbed from the player’s breath and from the resulting condensation in the tube as well as from the atmosphere itself. When moisture is absorbed or released too rapidly or unevenly, internal stresses are set up within the wood. If these stresses are too great, cracking or checking can occur.

There is evidence to suggest that body acidity from the player’s touch may weaken wood fibers, allowing for more rapid water absorption, which in turn can cause a crack. Some performers may use a dozen or more wood clarinets without a single instance of cracking over the lengthy period of time. No one has devised a method of preventing wood from cracking without at the same time destroying the acoustical properties that make wood desirable as a material for making fine clarinets.

When properly seasoned wood is given proper care, the occurrence of cracks and checks is statistically very low—generally well under 1% during the first year with negligible risk thereafter. Even when cracking does occur, only if the cracks extends through the bore (which is very seldom) is the playing quality of the clarinet in any way affected. It is generally advisable to pin and fill a crack so that the chance of the crack spreading are minimized.

Care and Preservation

Break-In Procedure
Breaking in your new clarinet can be the most important step you take in the prevention of developing wood problems over the life of your instrument. I recommend following the below procedure to ensure the best chance of a “slow change” that your clarinet will need to maintain optimum performance and lesson the chances of checking or cracks.

1. Play the instrument for only 15 minutes a day for the first week.
2. Play for 15 minutes twice a day the second week.
3. Add 5 minutes to each playing session until you have reached your regular session length.
4. If you take a day off during the first few weeks, start the process over again from the beginning.
5. Swab Often! I recommend swabbing every 5 minutes for the first two weeks of the process and then periodically through out the session thereafter. For the best results, use a micro fiber or silk swab. When finished playing, wipe out the sockets with a clean, lint free cloth. (As the sockets usually contain cork grease, do not use your swab for this task).

General Care & Maintenance
1. Always swab, disassemble and return your clarinet to its case when not in use.
2. Avoid extreme and rapid changes in temperature. The optimal temperature for a wood clarinet is 65° to 75°. Never play a clarinet that is cold to the touch.
3. Maintain a consistent relative humidity in between playing sessions. The ideal humidity for wood clarinets is 45% to 55%. There are several methods for this ranging from in room humidifiers to in case systems.
4. Occasionally, wipe down the keys after playing with a micro-fiber or other lint free cloth. This removes the acids and oils left on the keys by your fingers and will help prevent premature wear or tarnishing.

Don’t Be “That Girl” – Keep it Clean

To clean or not to clean.  That is the question I likely get asked the most when giving clinics.  The answer is of course . . . Clean.   No matter how well you rinse your mouth prior to playing, there will still be a build-up of proteins and minerals inside the mouthpiece when your session is completed.  Over time this build-up can not only be create an unattractive white crust (or worse), but can also change the interior geometry of your mouthpiece.  These changes can affect response and pitch more than you might imagine.

I once had a young student who could not play up to pitch to save her life.  After working on air focus, tongue placement and embouchure, I finally looked through the bore of her mouthpiece and discovered a clogged mess that would frighten even the most experienced plumber.  After several vinegar treatments and some serious excavation, she could finally find her way to 440.  (I may also suggest that her overall health improved after removing the proverbial petri dish from her piece).

The moral of the story?  Simple daily cleanings will help you avoid becoming “that girl”.  Below is a list of Dos and Don’ts that I’ve collected over the years.  These will not only help you keep your piece in excellent performance shape but help prevent premature problems.

DO: Rinse mouthpiece at least once a week with lukewarm water and maybe a bit of soap to cut through the proteins.
DON’T:  No matter how tempted you are to get that mess clean, do not use hot water.  The temperature can cause the hard rubber from which your piece was made to shift or warp.

DO:   Use a very soft cloth (micro fiber ) to provide a bit more scrubbing power if needed.  Sometimes a SOFT bristled toothbrush works as well.  Just be careful to keep the head from striking the walls or baffle.
DON’T:   Use any product called mouthpiece brush sold in care kits.  These have bristles that are far to hard and the unprotected, wire stem is just a major scratch waiting to happen.

DO:   Allow your mouthpiece to air dry after cleaning or playing.
DON’T:  Run a swab through the mouthpiece to remove any excess moisture.  Continual swabbing can  erode the interior of the mouthpiece causing a change on response, color and intonation.

How to Clean and Sterilize Your Mouthpiece

Working as I do with many used and vintage mouthpieces, I come across some pretty interesting things growing in, on or around the piece.  Since they need to be clean and sterilized when they are sold or returned to a client, it is important to have a cheap, easy and chemical free method of both cleaning and sanitizing the mouthpieces.  In most cases, simply a little warm water and mild soap with do the trick but for those more extreme cases, you can follow the process below. 

You’ll Need:

  • A small glass or vial.  (I use a prescription bottle that just fits the mouthpiece but leaves the cork outside of the bottle)
  • White vinegar
  • Water
  • An old toothbrush (medium to hard bristles)
  • Antiseptic mouthwash

Process:

  1. Partially fill the vial with a mixture of 3 parts white vinegar to 1 part water and place the mouthpiece in tip down.  Be careful to keep the cork well out of the vinegar unless you enjoy your mouthpiece smelling like a salad. 
  2. After soaking in the vinegar for 3 -5 minutes, remove the mouthpiece and gently scrub with the toothbrush to remove any build-up in or on the mouthpiece.  Repeat if necessary. If the build up is really stubborn, switch to an undiluted vinegar. 
  3. Once the piece is clean, rinse well with water and place tip down in a similar vial partially filled with antiseptic mouthwash for about 30 seconds.  Again, be sure to leave the cork well out of the vial. 
  4. Remove and rinse with clean water.  If you need to dry the piece, use a soft micro-fiber cloth or swab.  

Wood Clarinet Care and Preservation

Break-In Procedure
Breaking in your new clarinet can be the most important step you take in the prevention of developing wood problems over the life of your instrument. I recommend following the below procedure to ensure the best chance of a “slow change” that your clarinet will need to maintain optimum performance and lesson the chances of checking or cracks.

1. Play the instrument for only 5 minutes at a time for the first week.  You can do this several times in a day but be sure to allow the wood to rest and air dry in between playings.
2. After the first week, add a minute of play time a  day to each session until you reach about an hour .

General Care & Maintenance
1. Always swab to remove excess moisture from the bore of your clarinet.  I recommend a microfiber swab as they are lint free and easy on the wood.
2. Avoid extreme and rapid changes in temperature. The optimal temperature for a wood clarinet is 65° to 75°. In general, always allow the clarinet to return to room temperature before playing.
3. Maintain a consistent relative humidity in between playing sessions. The ideal humidity for wood clarinets is 45% to 55%. There are several methods for this ranging from in room humidifiers to in case systems.
4. Occasionally, wipe down the keys after playing with a micro-fiber or other lint free cloth. This removes the acids and oils left on the keys by your fingers and will help prevent premature wear or tarnishing.
5. If you are to store your clarinet for a long period without playing it, place your case on end so the tubes stand vertically.  This will help prevent the wood from settling into the bore which will cause the shape to become elliptical as opposed to cylindrical.