When Johann Denner first invented the “improved chalumeau” in 1689 or 1690, he took the earlier instrument and added a register key while improving the location of the tone holes.
About 100 years later, the clarinet Mozart had when he composed the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, and the Concerto, K. 622, for Anton Stadler, the instrument had only six keys on it.
That included the register key. The modern clarinet has 20 or more keys. (See related post: What is a Clarinet?)
It requires lots more attention and repair than Stadler’s model.
How often should a clarinet be serviced? Key’s need to be adjusted yearly. A complete re-pad is recommended every 2-3 years. The Bore and body require oil once every 8-10 years. In general, pads, keys, springs, and tenon corks are replaced or adjusted as needed.
Caring for Your Clarinet: A Labor of Love
The Bb clarinet, just like Stadler’s model, separates into five pieces when disassembled: the mouthpiece, the barrel, the upper joint, the lower joint, and the bell.
Each of these might require repair from time to time, but the two joints have the most problems.
Students are forever bending keys, chipping tenons, or otherwise damaging their instruments. Clarinets are tough, but they’re not indestructible.
Wooden clarinets are fashioned from different woods, including grenadilla wood, rosewood, boxwood, and cocobolo. Boxwood clarinets are usually older than the others.
Grenadilla wood, which comes from the mpingo tree in Tanzania, is an incredibly hard wood that is spun on a lathe to put in the tone holes and to make the tenons.
Interestingly, the wood sinks like a stone. The other woods are durable but not nearly so much as grenadilla wood and require extra care.
Clarinets made from artificial materials can be plastic, Resonite, or even metal.
Metal clarinets are old models and fell out of favor when plastic and resins became viable.
Metal clarinets were prone to catastrophic damage because they were usually made in one piece.
A major dent spelled the end of the instrument because it would play out-of-tune forever even if repaired.
These clarinets made from artificial materials have many of the same issues when it comes to repairs.
What Does a Clarinet Need When it’s Serviced?
There are four things clarinets need serviced periodically: pads and tenon corks, keys, springs and screws, and the bore and body.
A clarinet has 17 or more pads of different sizes.
Each pad must be leak-proof and secure so that the clarinet has a beautiful tone and plays as well in tune as possible.
Cheap pads wear out quickly whereas custom-fitted cork pads will last almost the life of the clarinet.
Some pads are coated with kangaroo leather in the same manner as saxophone pads.
Most pads are compressed felt of different types. They come with single, double, or triple bladder skins, with the double and triple pads having greater durability.
Cork pads must be cut by hand to fit the pad cups. Different clarinets will need different cork pads.
They last nearly forever and are very popular for all of the pads on the upper joint. Cork pads aren’t generally good for the larger pad cups on the lower joint.
The tenon corks must also be custom-fitted. They should provide a firm enough grip that the clarinet doesn’t fall apart from its own weight, but they cannot be so thick as to make the clarinet stick together in certain kinds of weather.
The keys and springs must be adjusted periodically even if they’re not bent or broken.
Springs that have lost their “spring” will cause leaks in the same way as bent or misaligned keys will.
Leaky clarinets are out-of-tune, and the tone is poor. If the leaks are bad enough, certain notes won’t speak at all.
Sometimes, the keys will look fine, but as soon as air pressure is applied through playing, they will leak like sieves.
It’s crucial to make sure that the springs are tight and that the keys are properly aligned.
All of the clarinet keys rock when pressed, so the screws and posts that hold them together loosen. Many of these are tiny, so finding them is quite difficult if they fall out.
It pays to check them visually every time you play.
The bore and the body of a wooden clarinet doesn’t require much work at all unless it cracks. Some cracks can be fixed with an epoxy made of glue and powdered grenadilla wood.
A repair person will also pin cracks to help hold them in place. If the crack goes all the way through, however, that part of the clarinet is done for and will need replacing.
It is not necessary to replace an entire instrument because of one crack, fortunately.
How Often Should You Have Your Clarinet Serviced?
Not every clarinet will need the same service as other clarinets, and some might need some things more often or less often.
It depends upon each clarinet’s characteristics.
One thing is certain. Bore and body repairs on wooden clarinets are rare as long as the player keeps the clarinet properly swabbed after playing and oils the bore properly after the break-in period.
The player should drop one or two drops of bore oil down the lower side of the inside of the bore to create a “channel” that will shunt water down and out of the clarinet.
Contrary to popular opinion, this is not spit.
It’s water that condenses when the hot air from the player’s lungs hits the colder body of the clarinet.
It’s the same thing as breathing on a window. Ideally, a clarinet will never need bore or body repairs.
Repairs to the keys, springs, and pads will depend on how much the owner plays and if the owner plays outside, particularly if the player plays during inclement weather.
People who participate in marching or pep bands will need pads far more often than those who play only in concert bands or orchestras.
Freezing can cause even well-seated pads to leak and need replacement. Rain is bad for pads too.
It’s not uncommon for a clarinet to need complete re-padding after one marching show in the rain.
Springs can become weak and either not work correctly or simply break. Sometimes, they just come off the keys for which they’re supposed to supply tension. Fortunately, that’s an easy fix.
Keys need adjustment from time to time, too, and not just when they become bent. As before, those who play more will need adjustments more often than those who play less. When it comes to keys, too, some players with acidic skin can eat the silver plating off of the keys.
In these cases, the keys must be buffed and covered with a thin layer of clear lacquer to protect them.
Usually, though, the characteristic dulling and mottling of the keys where the fingers touch don’t actually affect the tone or play.
The dull mottling is just unsightly. Sometimes, screws and posts can become marred with gunk. Removing the screws and posts one at a time and cleaning them will restore good key function.
To help with smooth key action, oil the screws and posts with a light coating of sewing machine oil.
Lastly, the tenon rings on a clarinet should be tight enough that they do not move.
It is these rings that keep the clarinet from splitting when assembled. A loose tenon ring requires immediate attention so that the clarinet is not damaged, perhaps even beyond repair, inadvertently.
Differences Between Wooden Clarinets and Clarinets of Artificial Materials
Clarinets of artificial material need all the same repairs and maintenance as their wooden counterparts except for the bore.
Obviously, you don’t need to oil the bore on a plastic or Resonite clarinet.
Cracks in these clarinets can be fixed in a pinch with superglue. Even if the joint cracks in half, it’s possible to use superglue to put it back together in an emergency.
Of course, such jury rigging should only ever be temporary, and the broken joint should be replaced as soon as possible.
The “Other” Clarinets
There are other clarinets than the Bb clarinet: Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, alto clarinet, contra-alto clarinet, and A clarinet.
The general repair guidelines for these instruments are roughly the same, but each presents a different challenge to the repair person.
The Eb clarinet is half the size of the Bb clarinet, and the work on the keys is just that much more demanding than on other instruments.
Also, even wooden Eb clarinets have no upper and lower joints, so cracks can be more devastating.
Bass clarinets and contrabass clarinets have much larger pads and much longer keys than other instruments.
They are prone to becoming out-of-adjustment quite easily and require rigorous attention. Also, contrabass clarinets are often still fashioned from metal. Despite their size, therefore, they must be treated delicately.
All musical instruments require maintenance.
Clarinets don’t require as much as flutes or piccolos, but they require enough that it would be a good idea for every player to take a basic music instrument repair course.
Players can then do simple things themselves, such as oiling the keys or using spring hooks to put popped springs back into place.
Adventurous players can take further courses and learn to do all repairs themselves.
Either way, caring for a clarinet is a labor of love!
Other Clarinet Articles You’ll Enjoy:
How to put together a clarinet
How to clean a clarinet
What is the difference between the B flat and A clarinets?
Charles Dalmas is a professional Clarinetist with over 20 years of experience and holds a Master's degree in Music Performance and Music Education from Crane School of Music. He also has a Bachelor's of Science in Music from SUNY New Paltz. He is the Music Director of Sarnia Sea Cadets and also the former Principal Clarinetist in the International Symphony Orchestra.