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.

Here are some tips:

  • Arrange your workspace. A large, clean workbench is ideal, but I’ve done this many times by spreading an old bedsheet on the floor. That way, when (not if, but when) I drop a tiny pivot screw or something, I know it can’t have gone far. Plus I have plenty of space to…
  • Lay out the parts in the order you remove them. Put them back on in reverse order.
  • Take your time. If you’re like me, you’ll find that sometimes you put a part back on, and then have to remove it again to get another part in place. Be patient. Don’t rush it.
  • Use the right tools. You need screwdrivers that are a good fit for the screws. Using the wrong size increases the chance of scratching something, damaging a screw, or even accidental stabbing. For a few dollars, you can get a little set of screwdrivers at most any hardware store. There are usually six of them in a little plastic case. You won’t need the Phillips head screwdrivers, but the flat-head screwdrivers will meet most of your instrument-disassembly needs. Note: I’ve seen similar screwdriver sets at dollar stores, and they aren’t as good. The metal is soft and the heads are sometimes misshapen. Go for the better set at the hardware store.
  • The trickiest thing to deal with are springs. They can stab you, catch on your clothes, or even break off if you get too violent. Be cautious and everything will be fine. A small crochet hook is handy for getting springs into (or out of) place. I used a Dremel rotary tool’s cutting wheel to put a notch in the other end of the crochet hook, so now I can either push or pull on springs with it.
  • While you’ve got the instrument taken apart, clean and lubricate everything. Use Q-Tips or pipe cleaners (but be careful of the inner wires) to get the crud out of the keys and instrument body. Use a soft, damp rag to wipe the stickiness off the toneholes. If you’re comfortable with it, you can also clean the pads. I like a slightly-moistened Q-Tip for this. Some people recommend lighter fluid or other solvents; I just use water, but that’s up to you.
  • Run a pipe cleaner carefully through the tubes of the keywork, and wipe off the inner rods. That black stuff is old lubricant mixed with very fine metal dust from the gradual wear on your mechanisms. Clean it off and apply fresh oil to keep your mechanism quiet and slow down the wear and tear. Use your favorite key oil—there are lots of conflicting recommendations out there for which product to use. Personally I like to use automotive gear oil, since it gives a nice smooth feel and you can buy a lifetime supply for a few bucks. Sometimes knowledgeable people warn about the dangers of various lubricants, but those doomsday scenarios all seem to involve leaving the lubricant alone for a very long time so that it can gum up or whatever. I clean and lube my instruments minimum once a year, so I figure I’m okay.
  • Saxophone and bassoon rollers tend to be noisy, and they fit loosely enough that key oil just drips out. Try cork grease instead to keep these quiet. I like the gooey red liquid stuff from Selmer (USA?) for this. Try not to get it on your hands, because it takes forever to wash off.
  • Don’t forget to do a quick playtest when you put the instrument back together. I often miss re-engaging a spring or two. Easily remedied.
  • If you’re nervous about doing it, start with your clarinet, especially the upper joint. It has few parts and they go back together easily. (If you’re REALLY nervous, buy a junker clarinet on eBay for a few bucks and experiment on it.) I think oboes are the most complicated.

Have fun!

6 thoughts on “Take your instruments apart”

  1. Hi Bret,

    I’m a retired NYC teacher and amateur jazz musician, studying with a New York pro who just told me to get Jean Jean’s “Vade Mecum.” I stumbled onto your great website and your piece. “Take Your Instrument Apart.” I’m scared to try that on my Buffet clarinet. However, the NYC school down the street threw out 2 Bundy saxes – 1 tenor and one bary- that I’d like to get in shape, the bary especially. Local sax technicians want $$$$ to overhaul it and I’ve been thinking of just buying a new one. Would it be worth tackling the bary as a starter project? I’ve got a workbench for the job.

    I’m eager to hear your opinion!


    Brad Baker

  2. Hi Brad,

    A discarded saxophone would be a great first instrument to take apart, clean and lube, and reassemble!

    However, if it’s in rough enough shape that a school actually threw it away, it likely needs more than just cleaning and oil. A professional overhaul would probably include all new pads, corks, felts, and a number of other repairs and adjustments.

    So, it may be worth it to you to get a little hands-on experience with this horn, but it may still need some professional attention before it plays well (or at all!).

    Good luck!

  3. Hi Bret !

    Following your wise advice I just took the upper joint of my clarinet apart.

    I used some white spirit for the extra grease. I think I could use some kind of silver special cleaner to make it shiny but I’ve got no time to go to the store as I need my clarinet for this evening…

    I guess that next time I’ll have all the tools ready before I start taking it apart.

    I’ll also have to buy new Q-tips. I just left two to clean my ears for this evening’s rehearsal ;)

    All the Best,



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