|saxophones, flutes, clarinets, oboes
Anatomy of a Clarinet Overhaul
This is what I do on every clarinet overhaul:
Visual Inspection. The clarinet is looked over for serious problems (cracks, loose posts, dry rot inside the
bore, broken keys). Bent keys are realigned.
Strip-down. The horn is completely dis-assembled. Loose, sloppy keys are swedged (stretched) to
re-establish a nice, snug fit. Keys that bind on the steel rods are straightened so that they hinge smoothly.
All needle springs are removed and their condition noted (rusty or sound). All old pads are removed and key
cups are cleaned of all old glue or shellac. All corks, felts, plastic tubing, etc are removed from the keys, and
all glue or shellac is scraped away to the bare metal. All tenon corks are stripped off and their channels
cleaned. All rings are checked for tightness and, if loose, are shimmed with silk.
Body Work. If the instrument is cracked, it must be repaired. Small cracks can be filled with a special mixture
of glue and grenadilla wood dust. This seals the crack, but the glue is not strong enough to keep the crack
from opening up if it wants to. We're dealing with the forces of mother nature here. For larger cracks that
are clearly open and causing leaks, the only solution is to pin the crack. This involves drilling a series of
holes through the wooden "shell", at right angles to the crack. Threaded stainless steel rods are then
screwed into the holes, essentially screwing the two sides of the crack together. The crack, and the holes
where the pins were inserted, are then filled with the same glue/wood dust mixture, then sanded flush with the
contour of the body. When done correctly, the crack will never open again and the repair is almost invisible.
The posts are the little metal nubs that the keys hinge between. They are screwed into the body and they
come loose from time to time, causing the keys to bind and not work properly. They must be tightened into
the body so that they come to rest in the proper position for the key to hinge freely and smoothly.
Cleaning. The keys are dipped in a special chemical solution that removes the "green grunge", or, if they
are silver plated, they are dipped in a tarnish remover. If the customer desires it, they are buffed to a high
polish. They are then washed with a gentle dish detergent, rinsed, and thoroughly dried. The insides of the
hinge tubes are scrubbed clean with a pipe cleaner dipped in solvent alcohol. All the steel rods and pivot
screws are degreased with a clean rag and solvent alcohol. The body is gently washed with mild dish
detergent to clean off any old oil, grease or grunge before oiling. It is quickly swabbed and dried thoroughly.
Oil the Bore. The inside bore of a wooden clarinet is subjected to a lot of water when played for any length
of time. Moisture from the player's breath condenses on the inner walls and drips into the tone holes and
down to the bell of the clarinet. When water and wood come into contact, the wood generally suffers.
Fortunately, most professional clarinets are made of dense, hard, naturally oily wood (grenadilla, ebony,
rosewood) which resists absorbing the water. After a period of time, however, the wood begins to dry out,
losing the protection of its natural oils. Oiling the bore is a process that replaces these oils, allowing the
clarinet to once again shed the water without damage to the wood. We use a special penetrating oil
consisting of petroleum products and natural oils. It is swabbed quite liberally into the bore and tone-holes of
the instrument, so that it is literally "soaked" with oil. A much thinner coat is applied to the outer surfaces.
The clarinet body is then allowed to "set" for two or three days. During this time the oil is drawn up into the
pores and cells of the wood, replenishing the lost natural oils and protecting the bore for years to come.
After the oil is drawn up, we swab and wipe up any excess oil. This is a messy job, and should only be done
when all the keys have been removed from the instrument.
Re-springing. The springs are re-fitted to the body in their proper positions. Any rusty, cracked or
badly-fitting springs are replaced with the proper diameter spring, or, if needed, an entire new set of springs
is fitted. Spring tensions are set slightly "stiff" until the final adjustments are made, later in the process.
Re-corking. New tenon corks are applied and carefully sanded for a snug fit. All keys are fitted with the
appropriate size and type of cork, felt, teflon or plastic tubing. All are razor-trimmed for neat appearance and
Fitting the pads. I buy my clarinet pads from Kraus Music Products in Oregon. They are thin, Buffet-style
pads called Lucien Deluxe. The thin pads give a nice, firm seat. The cork pads, also from Kraus, are
premium grade, cross grain cut, so there are no pores. The pads are carefully glued into the cups with a
special hot-melt type glue. I stopped using the traditional glue, shellac, over ten years ago because shellac
becomes brittle when the temperature drops below freezing. Here in the Northeast, that happens every
winter. When the shellac turns brittle, the pads can easily pop out of the key cups if the horn is bumped,
even in the case. The synthetic cements are much more tolerant of cold weather. I have not had a pad pop
out since I made the switch!
Re-assembly. Here's where the fun begins! Following a specific order, each key is lubricated and fitted to
the body. I use motor oil, in several different weights, for key oil. Today's motor oils are the longest lasting,
most highly tested and refined lubricants on the market. They work great on clarinets! Next, I hook the
spring to the key and test the action. Each key should be smooth and responsive, and balanced with the
others to produce a "feel" for the player. Now, with the key fitted, I check the pad to see where it is hitting the
tone-hole, and where it is not. On clarinets this is done using a feeler gauge made from thin cigarette paper.
The pad should "tug" evenly all around the tone-hole. Using a bunsen burner, I heat up the key cup to
soften the hot melt glue, then shift the position of the pad so that it covers the tone-hole completely. Once
it's in the right position, I "seat" the pad, giving it the impression of the tone-hole it covers. Once I'm satisfied
I've got it right, I go on to the next key until all seventeen pads are seated. Wherever two or more pads work
together, they must be regulated to ensure that they all come down at exactly the same time. This is done by
carefully bending the keys. It must be done precisely, or the horn will not play. After regulating, I set the key
hight by adding or removing cork from the "foot" of the key. Key height determines how much of an opening
there is between the tone-hole and the pad. Too little and the horn feels "stuffy". Too much and the pitch
suffers. I usually set a horn up to be "medium" unless the player gives me a specific request for "close" or
"open". Once this is done, I close up all the pads against their tone-holes with wedges or corks and let the
horn settle for a day.
Final adjustments and play testing. After the horn has settled, I open it back up and re-check all my work,
making any final adjustments that may be needed. Then I play it for a half hour or so, checking for even feel,
intonation and resistance. If I make any adjustments, I play the horn again to check them. Once I'm satisfied
that I have it right, I swab the instrument out, put it in its case, and call the owner to come pick it up. I then
work with the owner to make sure the horn feels right to him/her. Everyone plays differently; a softer or
harder touch, a softer or harder reed, classical or jazz. These variable can effect how the horn responds, so
there are often some player-oriented adjustments that must be made. When the player is fully satisfied that
I've got it right, the overhaul is complete! Then it's on to the next one.....
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