Clarinets - how to fix

Repair - Maintenance - First Aid

A thousand little things can happen that make playing your instrument difficult or impossible - and following Murphy's law these will happen just the moment before you step onto a stage for an important concert. There will be no craftsman around, and worse, there is no time. Now you have got to do it yourself; but with some know how and practising (and calmness) you can overcome a lot of what might otherwise become a show stopper.

First and foremost you must be careful not to make things worse. If later on a craftsman will have to go lengthy and expensive ways to fix your first aid measures, you'd better let it be. That is: First think whether you really can improve the situation by trying to fix the instrument yourself. Think of what might happen. But if you are ready (or have no better choice) this page will give you some ideas what to do.

What problems can you solve on yourself? These are the typical problems:

What should you carry about in a "first aid kit"?

You will find what you can do about not-so-perfect reeds in the reeds chapter.

Your instrument squeaks, tones just won't play - find air leaks

The most common problem of clarinettists (and other wood wind players, too) is the air leaking key. It results in squeaking, problems with all the tones that are lower, while the tones higher come perfectly. This is no wonder because if some air can go out at a higher tone hole that you willingly have opened, some part of the air column wants to sound at a higher tone. There can be other reasons, but this is the number one cause. Now how do you find the one (or several) untight keys and how do you fix it?

You need no tools, but one person helping - if possible another clarinettist. Put the upper and lower joint together. Let the a second person close the bore with his hands. Close all keys with your fingers with normal power (like playing the lowest tone) and start blowing into the bore, easy at first and then stronger. If you blow very strong, some keys even on a perfect instrument will bend open (usually the biggest ones far down); but in your case that should happen earlier. You will hear air coming out somewhere - but it can be very difficult to find out, where. A good way is the second person closes the keys in question by pressing on them.

Now that you have found the key that lets air flow out, you have to fix it:

Tighten shaky screws

There is a large number of small and very small screws built into your instrument, some are hard to see.

Many of these screws have been custom produced for your instrument. There are screws that go into wood and there are screws that go into a metal thread. And then you may find threads at the end of the hubs of the keys. The screws are usually made from steel and they are hard. The threads, especially the thread in wood and in keys made from German silver are softer. Therefore you must not tighten these screws with force, because that may destroy the threads.

Every now and then - like when the conductor explains a string passage again and again - you can visually or with your fingernail check the screws for tightness. If they are loose, you will need a fitting screw driver. If the screw driver is to small, it will destroy the slot in the screw! For a good B flat clarinet one screw driver might be enough, for bass clarinets you usually need at least two different sizes.

Don't overdo it - if you want to be safe, you may rather use a screw glue (locktite - hardware stores have it) - that fixes the screw, but it is brittle, so it will break of when you have to the screw easily.

Over time the hard screws will eat up the thread, and one day you may have to use a little stronger screws, or the music instrument builder will cut a new threat. That is nothing you should try yourself.

If you should lose an important screw, you have a problem, because you can't buy that sort in a hardware store. A music instrument builder will have lots of them in his workshop, so maybe you get yourself some just in case and put it in your first aid kit. If you have lost a screw just before the concerto you can try to break a piece of a match and press into the thread - but that won't hold long and reliably.

Sometimes you have to pull out a long screw/axis of a turning key. Never use an ordinary tong for that because it will flatten or scratch the screw/axis at the point you grab it. Later on the key won't turn easily any more. What you do is: You build yourself a small tool from a wire and a filing handle that you get at hardware stores. With that you push out your screw/axis easily.

Increase the power of a spring / replace a spring

Pivot pad with needle-spring

Sometimes a key being closed automatically by a spring does not close properly or quickly enough. This can be due to several reasons: First you should check whether the hub or axis needs cleaning or oiling or whether there is a mechanical obstruction. If that is not the case, you should check whether the spring is bent or has lost power. In order to increase power of a spring, carefully bend the spring into the direction it shall push. You find springs come as flat leaf springs (this are the ones where it works easier) or as needle springs. Bending just works a limited number of times. Should you break the spring, the game is usually over - sometimes you can fix this with a rubber band over the key (not reliable!!). If you succeed, you should as soon as possible have the spring replaced by a professional, because the first aid measure won't work long.

Be careful: Needle-springs are made of needles, they are pointy and not sterile...!

Bend back bent keys

Depending on the quality of the keys (forged, or German Silver, no soldering and no previous cracks or thin, sensitive parts) you can easily bend them back to almost any position, but you need to apply some power, and there always is a risk of breaking the key (and then the game is over). With some experience that is no problem, though. The German Silver can be bent well and the silver plating will stay on, too. Rather bend a little, check and then bend a little again - don't overdo it so you have to bend back! Small steps greatly decrease the risk of breaking. Before bending a key make sure you fully understand what you are doing; maybe first you want to remove the key from the instrument in order to prevent breaking wooden sockets!

Carefully look at the part that you want to bend, look for fine cracks and places, where parts were soldered together (these don't bend well). Check whether there are more than one pad that this key operates and think in advance, what bending will mean for that other pad. It is always better to replace pads and corks than to unnecessarily bend a key!

Replace a pad

Padding or replacing a pad is a delicate job, but once you have done it a couple of times, it is simple and holds no risks. You can try it and do it again and again until you have mastered the steps. The necessary material can be found easily (you can mail-order it, too) and is inexpensive. So there are many good reasons to learn to do it yourself.

Once a pad does not close perfectly any more and this pad is from leather, you can try to moisten it and it will become soft - and soon may fit perfectly again. But this process can not repeated forever again and again. One day a leather pad will become brittle - that depends on the position on the clarinet, which translates into how much humidity it will have to stand. The higher up, the sooner you have to change pads (every one to tow years is good for an amateur) but bass clarinet pads for the lowest keys may last like five to ten years or longer, because they may stay dry forever.

Picture: fix a pad with sealing wax

The traditional method is glueing the pad into the key with sealing wax. Sealing wax becomes fluid, when you heat it over a flame. You drip it into the hot key cup, where you want the pad to sit, and then you put in the pad. Since the sealing wax becomes solid slowly, you have a minute or so to correct the pad's position. Of course you better remove the key from the clarinet when heating it because of the heat of the flame would endanger the clarinet (although professionals do that - but they have enough experience). When the wax has cooled a bit it will hold the pad in the key, there still is time to put the key back into the instrument, and you can still adjust the pad to fit exactly onto the tone hole. At least that is possible for the simpler cases, maybe you have to remove it later to get all keys back in right order.

As you can see on the picture you hold the key a couple of centimeters over the flame and not into the flame as that would burn the silver plating.

Today people (most professionals do) use hot-melt glue, which has similar properties as sealing wax (except that it may cool down a little faster, depending on the glue). You need the melting pistol and the glue sticks, but since you can buy them in most hardware stores and you will find them in many households already, there is no reason why you shouldn't try them. In my first aid kit I still have the sealing wax, since it needs less space.

There are new types of pads - for example silicon - which are useful in moist places and do never change at all, but this comes at a price: Since they don't change their shape, the trick with moistening them won't help if they don't close perfectly. And if a silicone pad falls out only special glues (silicone) will help. But that shouldn't worry us, since we can always replace a fallen-out silicon pad with a leather pad in case of emergency.

Replace or adjust corks on keys

Many keys have little pads for fine adjustment within the mechanics and to prevent noise. The thickness of the pad is crucial for tuning. Traditionally the material to do this with is cork (the same that is used for good wine or champagne bottles - but you hardly find natural cork there any more, rather a composite material, which doesn't help us much). Natural cork is easily cut (using a scalpell - you get it in a pharmacy), easily sanded and easily glued (use contact glue).

The music shop will supply you with little sheets in different strengths. What we need is a couple of sheets:

You cut the cork in the necessary measure, but leave it a little stronger than you think and glue it on the key (reading the contact glue's instructions helps). Then you carefully sand it to the correct size. You find a perfect tool for this in the beauty department of drug stores: Nail sanding sticks are just the right size for this job, they may even work when the key is attached to the clarinet (careful then, better use single-sided ones!!!). Don't underestimate the meaning of the this little cork in tuning: if it limits the distance of the pad to the tone hole, making the cork thinner will considerably make the tone lower!

Shaky joints - get them fit quickly

If the corks in the tenons become slack (this doesn't happen often and it hardly ever should come as a surprise), you can lay moist paper around the cork until it fits again (you do this when trying out mouthpieces that are too narrow, too). Be careful not to overdo it, because that is a very sensitive point of the clarinet and if you use force to push the tenon into the bore, this may crack your instrument (which is why some older instruments have a solid metal rings where you put the upper and lower joints together.

Replace the cork on joints

This is a delicate operation but still one you can do yourself, even without experience. Be aware about the risk: If the cork is too strong (too thick) and you use force to push the corked part (the tenon) into the bore of the joint, this may force the joint to crack!!!

For this job you will need the following material:

This is what you do (without much experience it may take about an hour)

  1. First you remove the old cork from its bed completely, in one piece if you can. Carefully measure the exact length, width and strength of that old piece.
  2. You then use the pencil to mark the exact size of the cork you need on the new sheet. If the old cork is more or less destroyed, just cut the new part a bit bigger in the beginning, you can always cut it to size later. If you are the exact type, use a piece of paper to determine the exact length of the piece by winding it around the mouthpiece. When you cut the cork make sure you hold the skalpell or knife with it's blade vertically so the edge of the cork is vertical in the end. The new cork should fit into the bed that the old cork was glued into. Because cork is elastic, it will stretch a bit if it has to. Check that you got it right BEFORE applying the glue. Make sure the edges that are glued together in the end are vertically cut (90 degrees to surface). The length and width of the piece should be near to perfect now, and since cork is elastic, it won't be a problem, if it is half a mm too short, because you can stretch it a little.
  3. Now you need to get it to the right strength (thickness). If it was too thin, it would be bad, because then the mouthpiece will not be held in place and you have to start again. If it is too strong, the piece wouldn't fit and - in worst case - crack the bore if you use force. So you will now very likely have to sand away some excess cork. That is much easier as long as the piece is laying flat on your desk than it will be after the cork was glued onto the mouthpiece, which means it will be round then. You will have to to the finishing touch then, but try to make it as perfect as possible before glueing. If you have got an electric sander, use it to make the sheet of cork evenly flatter. A little bit of glue will keep the cork on a board where you can sand it.
  4. Now when you are convinced it is close to perfect, then glue it in. Don't forget to glue the both ends of the cork together, too! (apply the glue there, before placing it into the bed, too)
  5. Now the cork is in it's place, but it is probably still a tiny bit too strong.
  6. You have to sand off the excessive cork. When sanding check that you sand the cork off concentrically, so that the mouthpiece still sits exactly centred in the upper joint. Be careful not to sand off the tenon, and be even more careful not to sand over the lay of the mouthpiece (you better fix an old reed on that or wrap something around it just in case!). Check that the tenon fits well, don't go too far and make it loose, but don't leave it too strong either.
  7. Apply cork grease after you are done, because once you have applied the grease, sanding becomes very difficult (and ugly). While the cork is new, it should expand a little due to the humidity, but then, too, it will be be compressed due to the pressure in the tenon.

If you can't get a cork sheet in the right strength, you can improvise with the thinnest piece that shops may sell you (usually 0,2 mm, nearly as thin as paper): You cut it into a long strip of the width of the cork bed. Then you can wrap it around several times, until it reaches the correct strength. You apply the glue to the bed and to one side of the cork strip first. You let it dry before you apply the glue to the other side or you will have a mess... Then, very carefully, wrap the cork strip around until you have the correct strength. Make sure there is no excess of glue coming out anywhere, otherwise try to wipe it off with a paper towel. When you are done, wait at lease some 15 minutes or so to let the glue dry at least that far it will not be pressed out when you push the mouthpiece in. Then carefully put the mouthpiece into the upper joint's tenon and leave it in there for 2-3 hours, so the glue will dry fully. It will be sufficient for a performance, it may even hold for a year, but the glue will harden and it may deteriorate one day, the elastic quality of this cork wrapper is less than optimal and one day it may let you down when you can afford it the least ;-)

What do you do when a key is broken?

Somebody has to solder the key (you use hard silver solder - nothing you want to do yourself if you are not really experienced in it). If it is five minutes before the concert of your lifetime and you can't find a replacement instrument, a less stressed key could be fixed with cyanacrylat (super glue) or a 2-component-glue for metal. But that will make the inevitable operation (the soldering) that has to be done later anyway more difficult for the professional. Sometimes you can close a hardly used key with a rubber band and not play the notes in question (if you play like a third clarinet), but that is a challenge in itself (keeping in mind which notes will *not* work).

What can you do with cracks in the wood?

Nothing - you shouldn't try yourself; that is a job for the professional, too. They use special super glue that will sink in deep into the crack and really holds while closing the open gaps and cracks with force but without hurting the joint. If you use some super glue yourself, you have the risk that it will dry too quickly to close the crack or too slowly and maybe the crack will open again. Then the open, once raw wood on the sides within the crack will already be covered with your hardened glue, all the pores will be closed and the professional glue will not hold as good as it could without. So: let it be - go to the professional right away.

Identify problems with the mouth piece

If there are even the smallest scratches on the lay, where the reed is fixed, this may have a serious impact: Squeaking, problems in the balance of tones etc. You can identify this using this simple test - all you need is a piece of glass: Mouthpiece test

The mouthpiece is a very delicate part of your instrument, here a hundredth millimeter counts. There is not much you can do yourself here without causing foreseeable trouble. What you can do is put the mouthpiece into an anti-calcium-solution once a year. You find that in drug stores, people with false teeth use it. One night in such a solution and a lot of what remains on the inner walls of the mouthpiece is washed away.

In order to prevent trouble you should transport you mouthpiece wrapped in a cloth or with a reed attached - both will prevent the lay from being scratched.

If the wiper sticks in the instrument?

NEVER try to get it out with hard, pointy objects like pliers or scissors, metal tubes or what ever - these are the natural enemies of the bore! Every scratch in the bore is bad for the sound, here water drops will collect - all this will affect the instrument's acoustics. Pulling is better than pushing, but if nothing else works, you can take a round wood bar of soft wood. Careful: In the upper joint (behind the B key) you often find a little tube going into the bore. This is usually the reason why the wiper got stuck. Any force into the same direction will not help much...

In the "five-minutes-before-the-concert" situation: a curtain rail will have the right size and can often be found in back-stage rooms. You can cut a piece from a leather wiper, tie it to the top of the rail and then you may push carefully - don't forget to pray before.

What I have got in my first aid kit: