The Bb and A clarinets consist of five pieces each: the mouthpiece, barrel, upper joint, lower joint, and bell.
Bass clarinets generally have three or four pieces. They don’t have a barrel, and the upper and lower joints are sometimes molded in one piece. A bass clarinet will also have a peg that screws into the bottom of the bell so that the player can adjust the height.
Eb and Ab clarinets also lack the upper and lower joints. The middle portion of these clarinets is one piece. Contrabass clarinets made of metal are fastened together as one large piece but still have mouthpieces.
Standard Clarinet Assembly
It is usually a good idea to assemble the Bb clarinet without the mouthpiece to prevent accidentally banging the delicate tip and rails. First, it must be stressed that you should never jam the pieces together. Instead, twisting the tenons gently into place is the best method. You must take care, too, not to bend the bridge key or keys between the upper and lower joints.
Grasp the two pieces to be fitted together firmly but gently. Insert the tenon into the opposite space and twist gently until the two pieces are together correctly. The bridge keys between the upper and lower joint must align so that the key rings on both joints function correctly. The bell and barrel have nothing to align. Finally, attach the mouthpiece and then align the flat portion of the mouthpiece, called the facing, with the register key on the underside of the clarinet.
When assembling smaller clarinets, the procedure is the same except for the middle joint being one piece. When assembling larger clarinets with the middle being two joints, you must be even more careful not to bend keys. The keys of the bass clarinet are exceptionally long and prone to bending and misalignment. Nevertheless, it is a fairly simple task to assemble such a bass clarinet.
When setting the peg at the right height for the bass clarinet, insert the peg into the provided hole and then use the hand-driven tightening screw to fasten the peg in place. Contrabass clarinets have the same kind of peg system, but it’s larger. Alto clarinets are usually fashioned in one piece in the middle.
These larger clarinets have necks rather than barrels, but the process of putting them together is the same. In some cases, though, you have to take extra care because the connection is metal to metal without a cork. The metal is quite thin, too, so it’s easy to bend out of shape or to chip.
Here’s a video showing how to assemble a clarinet:
Care of Tenon Corks and How to Replace Them
Especially with wooden clarinets, the joints can swell in certain weather conditions. Tenons can become locked together, and when that happens, you must take the clarinet to a professional repair person. One of the easiest ways to get the tenons to go together is to use cork grease. It’s inexpensive, and you don’t need much to make it easier to assemble your Bb or A clarinet. In fact, using too much will cause the clarinet to fall apart. A thin film is all you need.
That thin film of cork grease will also keep the corks from becoming too dry and cracking. Cracked corks must be immediately replaced. They won’t hold the clarinet together, and falling clarinet sections can crack even grenadilla wood tenons.
Sometimes, the corks become worn out even if they’re not cracked and falling apart. Replacing them is not difficult. Using a metal implement, pry and peel the old cork off of the tenon. Be sure to get all the bits off of the wood or plastic. Measure the width of the slot in the tenon meant for the cork. The best cork to use is 1.5 mm or 1/16-inch in English measure.
Measure the tenon and cut a strip of cork about 3 mm, or 1/8-inch, longer than the circumference of the tenon. Use something very sharp like a fresh razor blade or a modeling knife with a fresh blade. Make sure it’s exactly as wide as the tenon indentation, however. Using a small bit of sandpaper, sand the edge of the end of the strip you just cut to make a “ramp.”
Apply contact cement to the indentation of the tenon and on the side of the cork away from the ramp. Beginning with the ramp, wrap the cork around the indentation in the tenon with the ramp facing out, massaging the cork into place. Place the end of the cork on top of the ledge. The contact cement bonds instantly, so be sure to keep your fingers from touching the cement. Also, if you misalign the cork, you’ll have to remove it and start over.
Sometimes, the cork will be too thick, and the clarinet won’t go together easily. That’s not usually a big issue, however. You can use fine sandpaper to shave small grains off of the cork until the clarinet fits together the way it should.
The process for bigger clarinets that have tenon rings is about the same. The only real difference is that you have to use thicker cork and bigger pieces. Fortunately, this kind of repair is not difficult, and most intermediate and professional players can do themselves with a minimum of fuss.
Assembling the clarinet and caring for its tenon corks are important techniques to know. Eventually, assembling the instrument will become second nature. You won’t need to change the tenon corks all that often. Usually, once every couple of years is enough.
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