Woodwind instrument “care kits” are bad news

Congratulations on your new student-level flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, or saxophone! Your music store’s friendly sales associate (or your online retailer’s auto-suggest software) is probably insisting that you purchase a “care kit” as well. This kit ostensibly contains all the items you need to keep your new instrument working well and looking shiny. I recommend that you do not buy it, because it is, at best, a waste of your money, and, at worst, a hazard to the instrument’s wellbeing.

photo, Greg Williams
photo, Greg Williams

Here are some of the items that frequently appear in these terrible kits:

  • Polishing cloths. Chemicals or polishes (liquid or embedded in cloths) can gum up pads and mechanisms. Students can “polish” their instruments with a soft, dry cloth, like a piece of an old t-shirt. Your repairperson can remove the keys and do a more thorough polishing safely.
  • Swabs. Woodwind instruments should definitely have swabs, but beware the kinds in these kits.
    Silk is preferable for pull-through swabs (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone) because it is absorbent and compressible, so it’s less likely to get stuck inside the instrument than a cheaper felt swab. Even for a student instrument, it’s worth a few extra dollars to get silk.

    "headjoint swabs"
    “headjoint swabs”

    For flutes, avoid “headjoint swabs” that are little oddly-shaped pieces of chamois (or a synthetic version), unless you want to have to fish them out of the headjoint every time you try to use them. Instead, use the cleaning rod that came with the flute, plus a strip of fabric cut from an old bed sheet.
    The fuzzy “cleaning” brushes that look like giant pipe cleaners, that you insert and leave inside the instrument, do exactly the wrong thing by keeping all the moisture inside the instrument, instead of wiping it out like a good swab does.

  • Cork grease. Yes, for instruments with parts that friction-fit together with cork, such as clarinets, oboes, and saxophones. Flutes don’t have any corked joints (though some piccolos do). Some bassoons have corked fittings, but some have thread wrappings instead. Use cork grease on cork only—never on thread-wrapped or metal-to-metal joints.
  • Screwdrivers. Yikes! Woodwind instruments often have “adjustment” screws. Bored students and well-meaning dads can’t resist just tightening everything up, just to make sure. This leaves the instrument in unplayable condition, and only a professional can put those adjustment screws back just right.
  • Reed guards/cases. Yes! Keeping reeds in one of these generally keeps them intact and in playing condition for longer than the disposable ones that the reeds come in. Those little plastic or cardboard sleeves that clarinet and saxophone reeds come in don’t keep them flat when they dry. And oboe and bassoon reeds often come in tubes that are too flimsy for regular use, or hinged plastic cases that come apart in the instrument’s case, leaving the reeds to bounce around unprotected.
  • Mouthpiece brushes. These are basically little vegetable brushes, with scratchy synthetic bristles and the dreaded twisted-wire core, much too aggressive for cleaning clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. Instead, try a gentle rinse with room-temperature water and a drop of mild dish detergent. Stephen Howard’s vinegar-and-cotton method is good for occasional deeper cleanings.
  • Neck or bocal brushes. Probably too aggressive for use on these particularly delicate and crucial instrument parts. Plus, a strong risk of getting something stuck.
  • “Tone hole cleaners.” These are usually garden-variety pipe cleaners. Tone hole cleaning isn’t a task for beginners to do. The pipe cleaners’ twisted-wire cores can damage toneholes, the instrument’s bore, or pads.
  • “Pad papers.” It’s really tempting to use a lot of pressure with these, which can distort pads and cause leaks. Some are coated with a powder—these operate on the same principle as getting some gum stuck on your shoe, then stepping in some dirt so the gum won’t keep sticking to the sidewalk when you walk.Pad papers and other powder treatments should be an emergency treatment applied wisely and carefully by a knowledgeable musician, not a daily treatment applied badly by a student.
  • Key-dusting brushes. Gently removing some dust from the instrument’s mechanism isn’t an all-bad idea, but be advised that it’s easy to knock springs and things out of place. The brushes in these kits usually have twisted-wire cores, which can scratch instruments’ finishes. Instead, consider using cheap kids’ watercolor paintbrushes. Or, even better, make sure the instrument gets professional maintenance and cleaning at least once a year.
  • Key oil. No, no, no. This is a job for a professional to do. Besides, the kind in these care kits is usually cheap 3-in-1-type oil. Even if applied properly, it tends to drip back out of the keywork onto fingers, or worse, pads.
  • Bore oil. Absolutely not. Using this at all (only in wooden instruments) is controversial. When you bring it in for its annual maintenance, your repairperson can apply bore oil properly and safely if they deem it necessary. (My opinion: if in doubt, don’t bother.)
  • Care manuals. These are generally provided to justify the other items in the care kit.

Skip the care kit—they are a way for retailers to squeeze a few more dollars out of you at purchase, and then more when you bring the instrument back in to fix the damage you have done with your brushes and oils and screwdrivers.

Repair or buy new?

Should you have your old (woodwind) instrument repaired, or put the money toward a new one? Here are a few things to consider.

First, you should understand the difference between having “playing condition” repairs done and having a full overhaul done. The overhaul is an expensive service, often costing a significant percentage of what you would spend on a new professional instrument. A good overhaul will make your instrument play like brand new, or better. It generally includes any necessary repairs to the instrument’s body, straightening/realigning/refitting of keywork and tenons, replacement of all or most pads/corks/felts/springs, and thorough cleaning and lubrication. The overhaul makes sense about every 5-10 years for a well-made, professional quality instrument that you love and intend to play long-term. It’s generally not worth the money for a student-quality or so-called “intermediate” instrument.

photo, Keith Jenkins
photo, Keith Jenkins

Playing condition repairs are cheaper, à la carte services to get the instrument back into a baseline playable state, maybe replacing a few pads or corks as needed, or fixing anything that is broken enough to make the instrument unplayable. If you are low on cash, a good repair shop can help you prioritize what needs to be done within your budget. Even if you are playing your dream instrument and getting it overhauled on a regular schedule, playing condition maintenance is usually needed on at least an annual basis to keep things working well.

If your instrument is of less-than-professional caliber, or if you want qualities that your current instrument does not possess, you may be better served by having playing-condition work done for now, and saving toward a new instrument. Bear in mind that “professional” is a term applied by makers and retailers to sell instruments; if you’re not sure, it wouldn’t hurt to check in with a real professional (such as your private teacher) to see if what you are playing on is really suited to professional use.

If you are playing on an older professional model, you might want to explore the improvements made to more recent instruments, especially with regard to ergonomics, intonation, and evenness of tone. (Some musicians make these comparisons and decide to stick with what they’ve got, and that’s okay, too.)

A high-quality, well-maintained instrument makes playing easy and a pleasure, and the instrument’s career might even outlast yours.

A toolkit for simple woodwind repairs

I think it’s really valuable to be able to do a few small repairs on woodwind instruments. As a doubler, I’ve found it to be a financial necessity—I can’t afford to run to the repair shop every time some little thing needs tweaking on one of my instruments—and it’s a great way to get to know your instruments better. (I do still make sure my instruments visit a real professional on a regular basis.)

There are some inexpensive and easily-obtained tools that are useful to have around. Most of these things you can easily buy locally; only a few require buying from a musical instrument repair supplier (MusicMedic.com and Ferree’s Tools are a couple of good suppliers that happily sell to non-pros). These are tools and supplies suitable for small repairs and maintenance, the kinds of things that you can do mostly with common sense or with instructional materials available online. The most expensive item on my list is a “selection” of sheet cork, which I have pegged at about $20 to get smallish pieces in a few different thicknesses. You can get my entire list for less than the cost of a decent clarinet mouthpiece.

Continue to the interactive shopping list

Do it yourself: replace a tenon cork

One of the most common woodwind repair needs is replacement of a clarinet or oboe tenon cork (or bassoon, if you have cork joints, or wooden piccolo, or recorder…). It’s an easy job, and doesn’t require much more than a piece of cork and a few minutes. Let’s do it.

A few weeks ago, I replaced the bell tenon cork on this clarinet with a composite cork product, made from compressed cork bits. It’s cheaper than traditional solid cork, so I thought I would give it a try to see how well it compares. But the cork I used was too thin, and the bell was too loose. I’m going to try the experiment again with a thicker composite cork, but you can do this exactly the same way whether you’re using solid or composite. You can get either kind from MusicMedic.com.

First peel off the old cork.

Continue reading “Do it yourself: replace a tenon cork”

Do it yourself: replace saxophone palm key pads

If you’re interested in learning to do some pad replacements on your instrument(s), saxophone left-hand palm keys are a good place to start. Here’s why:

  • The palm keys don’t have any dependencies—they don’t move any other keys and aren’t moved by any other keys. So replacing a palm key pad won’t set off a chain reaction of adjustments you have to make to the instrument’s mechanism.
  • The palm keys are sprung to sit closed when you’re not pressing them, which means that the spring will help you get the pad seated, instead of getting in your way. It will also press the pad firmly against the tonehole, overcoming small imperfections in your padding technique. With keys that sit open on their own, the padding has to be extra skilled so you can use a feather-light touch when you play.
  • The palm keys are long, so you’re less likely to burn your fingers.
  • When you’re playing, the palm key pads take the brunt of the condensation from your breath, so they need relatively frequent replacement anyway. I bet yours could stand replacing.

I’ll walk you through this. I perhaps should confess that I am not NAPBIRT certified or anything fancy like that. You undertake this at your own risk, etc.

First, remove the key by unscrewing the pivot rod and pulling it out.

Take your instruments apart

I highly recommend taking your instruments apart.

Here’s why:

  • There’s no better way to understand the workings of a mechanical device like a woodwind instrument than to take it apart and put it back together again. They’re your tools. You should understand how they work.
  • Take ownership of your instrument’s maintenance. Discover problems that need a repair tech’s attention BEFORE they affect your playing at an inopportune time. Or, even better, use your newfound confidence with a screwdriver to fix minor problems yourself, and consider learning how to change a pad, or at least a cork.
  • Keep your instrument sparkling. With your horn in pieces, you can easily get into the nooks and crannies to remove dust and gunk. Your instrument will shine like new, your mechanisms will move smoothly and quietly, and you’ll feel good about treating your precious horn with such loving care.

Continue reading “Take your instruments apart”