To Oil or Not To Oil: The Care and Feeding of Your Wood Clarinet
By: Malinda Repair Shop MGR
There are many opinions out there on whether or not that oiling your clarinet is actually good for your clarinet. There are many myths out there to confuse the player on what to do. Some beliefs include: oiling ruins the pads, the environment itself provides enough humidity to keep the instrument hydrated, and that the clarinet is oiled during the manufacturing process and that is enough for the lifetime of the instrument. This technician firmly believes that oiling a wood clarinet is not only healthy for your clarinet, but it should be done on a regular basis.
Why is oiling your clarinet important? The wood that your clarinet is made from produces its own oil when it was part of a tree. When we cut the wood out of the tree to make the instrument, we are removing its natural source of oil. As a musical instrument, a well oiled clarinet is flexible when warm air is blown into it (helps to prevent cracks). The oil also acts as tiny plugs in the pores of the wood, preventing leaks through the body.
Let’s debunk some of these myths.
- Oiling the clarinet ruins the pads,
- If too much oil is used at once, it can migrate to the pads.
- When the oil reaches the pads, it will discolor them due to the black/brown dye that is used to color the body of the instrument.
- The discoloration does not harm the health of the pad. It just looks unsightly.
- When the pad soaks up too much oil, it will become soggy and unstable.
- Solution: Use oil sparingly. Proper usage will be discussed later on.
- The environment has enough humidity to keep the instrument hydrated.
- This statement is true if you live in a high humidity area like Hawaii or Galveston, TX.
- The desert environment that we Arizonians enjoy has an average humidity level of 20%, which is really nothing.
- Important note: During our monsoon season, so much humidity can be dumped on us all at once. This dumping will cause your clarinet to swell up overnight. This swelling also causes keys to bind up. If this happens to you, let your clarinet sit for a few days to dry out. Please do not let any repair technician shave your keys. Once our humidity level goes back down and your clarinet shrinks back into its original shape, your keys will be too loose.
- Solution: Both oil and humidity are important and can work together to keep your clarinet healthy.
- The manufacturer oils the clarinet during its construction and it is enough for its lifetime.
- Yes, the manufacturer does oil the clarinet before they ship it out to the stores.
- Over time, oil can evaporate. Surface oil is also removed during the swabbing process.
- Now and then, the oil needs to be replaced.
If you have decided that oiling your clarinet is good for you and your clarinet, you may be asking yourself how to go about doing this. First, let us see what your clarinet is telling you. If you look down the bore (the inside of your clarinet), a healthy clarinet will have a shiny, almost wet looking appearance. If it looks like this, no need to oil your clarinet. If the bore looks dull, it’s thirsty and can use a coat of oil.
There are several types of bore oil out there. Regular bore oil is available at your local music dealer. I find that this oil can be a bit too thin and will run all over the place. It also has a high evaporation rate and won’t completely hydrate the instrument. Thicker oil is recommended. Key oil is designed to not evaporate and makes a good substitute.
Both bore oil and key oil are petroleum based. If you prefer to go organic, this product is available online. If you want to make your own, here is the recipe:
- 6 parts vegetable oil
- 1 part olive oil
- 1/10th of 1% Vitamin E oil
Once the organic oil is mixed, it needs to be kept cold in your refrigerator. When you are ready to apply it in the clarinet, warm it up in the microwave to thin it out. The temperature should be the same as baby formula (a little dab on the inside of your wrist without burning). The organic mixture will stay good for about 3 months before it turns rancid. Once that happens, throw it away and start fresh.
Application for any bore oil: less is more. Apply a little at a time until there is no more dullness in the bore. Several applications may need to be done. Oversoaking your applicator will cause the oil to go where it shouldn’t. A regular clarinet swab will work fine as the applicator. Swabs specifically designed for bore oil are also available at your music store.
To keep your clarinet properly hydrated, sometimes oiling is not enough. This is where a humidifier comes in. It’s a small green hose that fits inside the bore of your clarinet. You can also make your own out of a small container (like a pill bottle) and a sponge. Drill small holes in the small container for moisture to come out of (drill bit #42 is a good size). For both types of humidifier, distilled water is preferred for the sponge. This will prevent scaling. Do not oversoak the sponge as this could lead to mold in the case.
A properly hydrated wood clarinet will last a very long time. A dried out clarinet will crack, tenons will shrink, and tone holes will become warped. For the long life of your clarinet, a little maintenance will go a long way.