Cleaning Your Instrument at Home
Besides owning and operating Mouthpiece Planet, I have also been repairing musical instruments for about 10 years. I was asked to write something for the local community band that I play in about instrument cleaning/maintenance due to the popularity of this topic over the past couple months. The information that I will provide here will be a combination of my opinions and the opinions of respected members of my industry. There is often more than one correct way to do something, however there are also hundreds of incorrect ways to do that same thing. I will tell you some things to do, and perhaps even more things that you should not do, such as Do not put your instrument into a dishwasher or laundry machine, yes people have done this. I may not be 100% correct about everything and you may not fully understand everything that I have to say, so take my advice at your own risk, as well as the risk of your instrument. Keep in mind that if your instrument is dirty, it is also likely in need of some other form of repair or maintenance as well, you just may not know it yet.
As many of you know it is not typically a cheap process to have a technician properly clean your horn. That would be primarily due to the time involved in disassembly/reassembly and the attention that a high number parts require. To properly clean a horn, it must be completely disassembled. All of its soft/organic materials should be replaced and everything else chemically cleaned. It is not feasible to properly clean an instrument at home, so I will mostly focus on what you can do at home. Every instrument is different, so I will attempt to address a few points on each one, as well as some general information. Keep in mind that this isn't a complete manual, but just some notes and ideas that may help some of you.
All Instruments should be swabbed if possible and wiped down with a soft cloth after use to remove oils/dirt that can damage the finish. It is good to open up and air out your case once in a while, especially when excess moisture is present, but Do Not let your pets lay in your case, no matter how cute it is to see your pet in your case pet hair will get into your moving parts and cause issues. Most instruments can safely be wiped down using a slightly damp cloth with either plain water or mild soapy water, and then wiped down using a dry soft cloth. A soft cotton T-shirt material is typically my cloth of choice and will not scratch, but there are many good options. I often cut up old clean clothing to use at home or in my garage for various purposes. Q-Tips, damp or dry, make excellent cleaning tools. Some people use window cleaner, if you do, use ammonia free. Alcohol is typically safe on metal, like brass or silver, it is Not safe on plastic, wood, or hard rubber and also some finishes/lacquers. Using the wrong chemical on the wrong surface may not always show immediate negative effects, but will gradually harm them. Furniture polish/lemon pledge is popular for wiping down lacquered brass surfaces, you only need a little bit and it's great for removing dried saliva and finger prints. Try Not to store your instrument in extreme temperatures or damp places.
Do not submerge any instrument without disassembly. Do not use products that contain ammonia on brass. Do Not try to forcibly remove stuck slides, mouthpieces, valves, swabs, necks, parts, etc. Do not bleach your instrument.
Brass instruments are some of the easier instruments to clean, mostly because there are fewer moving parts. Many people give their horns “baths” at home, most of whom have a lot of room for improvement. Brass instruments need to be cleaned more often, not necessarily for sanitary reasons, but for functionality. Brass can actually kill bacteria, hence brass door knobs. I’m not sure about lacquered brass, but I believe that silver also has antibacterial qualities. Regularly cleaning and lubricating brass instruments will help to prevent stuck slides and also help to prevent the wear of valves and slides. Slides and valves that are worn/loose can leak or experience poor action. Slides should be emptied of water before putting your instrument back into it's case. Do Not oil valves through an instruments lead pipe, I do not care who told you to do this, it is bad advice. The lead pipe is the dirtiest part of a horn and doing so will run dirty oil into your valves and cause wear and reliability issues.
To "Bath" Clean brass instruments at home, disassemble the instrument as much as you are comfortable doing so. The valves, caps, and slides must come off. If using gentle cleaning solutions, other parts might be alright if not removed, but full disassemble is best. Use a tub, bucket, or large container and luke warm soapy water; Do Not use hot water this can significantly harm lacquer. Original Dawn or Simple Green are popular products, but there are many other good choices. There is no need to use a surplus of soap, just like when washing dishes. Use a good set of brushes, both straight brushes and snakes are your friend, use a soft bristle brush such as nylon; Do Not use brass or steel bristle brushes. Be careful not to scratch the horn with the metal part of the brush, especially if the tip doesn’t have a cap on it. Select a brush that is snug, but not tight. Brush out all parts, especially the lead pipe and valve casings. I will sometimes squirt a little soap right onto my brush. Use a snake to reach curved areas. Do Not get your brush stuck or broken off, and if you do, Do Not try to forcibly remove it, if you do this can cause severe damage. Take extra care with valves, valve casings, slides, and slide tubes as they are easy to damage and their tolerances are relatively tight. Once you are done scrubbing, rinse very thoroughly, and if filth remains begin scrubbing again to repeat the process. Do Not expect professional results, hard deposits and build up will likely remain. After rinsing thoroughly, dry very thoroughly. Use a soft towel to dry the outside and prevent water spots, and perhaps compressed air or a hair dryer for the inside if you are careful and handy, but mostly use time and patience. Once completely 100% dry, reassemble and lubricate, I recommend Hetman products. Putting a small amount of slide grease on valve cap threads can prevent them from getting stuck.
To "Cloth" Clean you will need a cleaning rod or two and some cloth, cheesecloth or cotton work well. This technique can be used after a wet cleaning or on it's own, it is also geared towards piston valve instruments. Remove the slides and wipe them clean, use some alcohol on a cloth if you'd like. Remove the valve caps and valves, wipe the valves clean after squirting them with some rubbing alcohol, use a Q-tip to clean the ports. Different parts of the instrument will require a different size of rod and varying amounts of cloth, only straight tubing should be cleaned with a cleaning rod. Wrap enough cloth around the rod for it to fit snug in the tube, but not too tight, then squirt some rubbing alcohol on it before swabbing. Valve casings should be carefully and thoroughly swabbed, as well as lead pipes if possible. Typically the cloth will show some brown, black, or green residue. Reverse or replace the cloth and swab again until it comes out clean, or close to it. Wait a minute for any excess alcohol to dry, then blow out dust from cloth or loose dirt. Reassemble and lubricate.
Lead pipes can rot out fast and should be cleaned often, also build up can easily change the internal dimensions and how the horn plays. Many active players have complained that their horns played differently after a cleaning - especially trumpet players that can no longer reach certain high notes without a lead pipe full of sludge. The use of heavier oil or grease can sometimes compensate for Worn Out Valves and Slides.
Trombones are pretty straight forward, use care not to bend or dent the slide. Dry the slide thoroughly, especially the felts inside of the cork barrels which ideally should be replaced, but gentle heat on the cork barrels can help dry old ones out.
French Horns are challenging to clean well due to all of their curved tubing, small diameter lead pipe, and rotary valves. I highly recommend getting French horns professionally cleaned, especially the expensive ones, which are most of them. Tying rotor strings and balancing lever height is a topic for another day. Horn disassembly/assembly is also a topic for another day, as it is not the easiest of tasks. Horns require a lot of long specific sizes of snakes to clean at home, and they are hard to find. Rotors are just as delicate as piston valves, Do Not drop them. Perhaps use a Q-Tip with rubbing alcohol to clean inside of the rotor casing, it kind of helps sometimes.
Euphoniums, and especially Tubas are heavy and cumbersome, even more so when full of liquid. This weight can cause an injury or damage if not managed properly. A professionally cleaning may be best for those who are not up to the challenge or don't want to make a mess.
Woodwinds can be more of a challenge as there many more parts. Most woodwinds are cleaned far less often than brass instruments, in some ways they do not require it as much, as they do have holes all over the them which help them breathe a bit. Disassembling woodwinds is not recommended for the average player, this makes them difficult to properly clean at home. Disassembly is very tedious and time consuming, there is also a high risk of losing parts and getting a rusty needle spring stuck into your hand. Even if you disassemble a woodwind, you should not get the pads wet, therefore most keys will need to be hand cleaned. Pads and corks are delicate and can easily be damaged or accidently removed. Pads can be gently cleaned with a soft cloth or Q-Tip that has been slightly dampened with a slightly soapy solution, and then wiped off with a dry soft cloth. Sticky Pads are difficult to successfully clean and remedy, I could talk a lot about sticky pads and my frustrations with them, but not here and now.
Clarinets, obviously the best of all instruments, are not incredibly difficult to dissemble for the handy players out there. I won't cover the disassembly process here, but if you are inclined to do it I'd recommend cleaning wooden joints with Murphy's Oil Soap, water, and soft brushes. I would suggest cleaning plastic or hard rubber joints with dawn or simple green and water. Do Not use hot water or cold water, as wood can crack, hard rubber can discolor or even warp. Do not submerge wooden joints in water for any more than a few seconds. They can be soaked in bore oil for quite a while though. Plastic joints will often discolor once degreased by soap, to remove the white/grey coloration, rub some key oil into the body. To clean without disassembly, wipe down with a cloth, perhaps damp. Q-Tips are great for cleaning tenons, sockets, ring keys, and chimneys that are commonly caked up with dead skin and cork grease. I believe in oiling wooden clarinet joints, but not everyone does. If you do try it, avoid making a mess and keep it away from keys, corks, pads, and tone holes. Avoid using excess cork grease, it can loosen tenon corks, La Tromba is a popular cork grease. Pay attention to the humidity of where you store your wood instruments, there are many products available to help with humidity control. Swings in humidity or temperature can accelerate the risk of cracking. Many instruments dry out in the winter, this can cause loose rings and many other problems.
Flutes are one of the easier woodwinds to clean, but also one of the easiest to scratch. Disassembly isn't incredibly difficult and the metal of modern flutes is typically hot water and alcohol friendly. Be aware that head joint corks should not be exposed to excess moisture on a regular basis or warping/shrinking/leaking can occur. If disassembled, soft brushes, soap, and warm/hot water will easily clean it. Do not get the pads wet, they will warp or swell up and lose longevity and leak. If not disassembling, a soft cloth and perhaps some rubbing alcohol is great for cleaning the metal, especially that crusty lip plate. A cleaning rod with a little bit of alcohol to dampen a soft cloth can clean the bore nicely. Q-Tips can clean between keys nicely. Keep tenons and sockets clean to prevent wear and damage, wipe with a damp cloth on occasion. Loose or tight fitting joints should be addressed by a technician.
Saxophones are one of the most time consuming instruments both to disassemble and to clean. Top crooks on baris and bottom bows on all curved saxophones are very difficult to clean well. Pads should be kept clear of dirt and debris, as closed keys often get things wedged between the pad and tone hole, causing leaks and wearing out pads. Key leaves is a cool product to help prevent sticking pads and wear. Keep your neck tenon and receiver clean to prevent wear and damage, wipe with a damp cloth and maybe alcohol. Loose necks can be fit by a good technician, Do not over tighten neck screws. Sax necks should be cleaned often, you cannot fathom the things that I have seen inside necks. If you were to be brave or foolish enough to disassemble your sax, clean it with brushes and warm soapy water. Do not cry if you lose some lacquer, certain lacquers come off very easily when cleaning. Keep in mind that if you clean your tone holes, removing the green crud could cause your pads to leak as the crud has been imprinted into your pad seat. To clean without disassembly, use a damp cloth with either a mild soapy solution or lemon pledge on lacquered horns. Also use Q-tips and perhaps compressed air to carefully blow away dust and debris under and between keys Do Not leave your mouthpiece on your neck, this dirty habit will damage your neck cork and give gross things a place to hang out.
Double Reeds are similar to clarinets as far as cleaning goes, just more expensive and more difficult to disassemble/assemble. Take extra care when swabbing an oboe, stuck swabs are common, but do not try to force it through, this can cause cracking. Maple bassoons can experience rot, especially in the boot, avoid excess moisture. Bocals are fragile, expensive, and difficult to clean without a specialty brush, be careful.
Percussion is a broad category, but typically is easy to clean/wipe down. Avoid getting wood or electronics wet. Wood and many finishes are sensitive to strong chemicals. The coating on some drum heads will wipe right off with pretty much anything but water. Do Not polish or sand cymbals or pitched percussion such as bells, chimes, and marimbas.
Old Cases are like carpet in an old house, they should be replaced. I understand why someone wouldn’t want to replace a case, there are many good reasons. Cases should be vacuumed and/or blown out with compressed air. Setting them opened up and out in the sunlight can help with some odors and kill things that you want dead. Aerosol disinfectant can be liberally sprayed inside cases, just give it plenty of time to dry/air out afterwards. Do not put duct tape on your case or horn, unless you plan on leaving the tape there forever, as it leaves a residue behind that is very difficult to remove. Keep in mind that not all cases will fit your horn properly, case fit is important for preventing damage.
Reeds are typically made of wood which can kill bacteria naturally, however some people soak reeds in hydrogen peroxide to be safe. I typically just wipe them off after use and replace them as needed.
Mouthpieces are last, but certainly not least. They are disgusting. They should be cleaned as often as possible. Reed players Do Not leave your reeds on your mouthpiece, players that do this experience some of the dirtiest mouthpieces as well as additional warping in their reed. Brass/metal mouthpieces can be cleaned with warm/hot soapy water. Plastic mouthpieces can be cleaned with warm soapy water. Hard rubber should be cleaned with room temp/luke warm soapy water. Do not use a mouthpiece brush without a cap on the tip, or you will scratch/gouge the baffle on woodwind mouthpieces. Soap will remove most funk, but will not remove hard deposits. To remove hard build up, soak in vinegar for a few minutes, then scrub with a soapy brush. Do not play on brass mouthpieces with missing plating, not only is it gross, but unsafe for those with brass allergies and those that do not desire trace amounts of lead in their mouth. Mouthpiece patches can help protect woodwind mouthpieces from bite marks and can help keep your teeth from slipping around; different thicknesses can also slightly alter your embouchure/oral cavity. Patches however attract gunk and break down/become harder to remove over time, so replace and clean them on occasion. Do not polish or aggressively clean woodwind mouthpieces, they wear easily and need to remain in spec.
Thank you for reading this, it may not be perfect but I hope that it was helpful to some of you. Thank you to Joel Wells, for your help in the editing process. If you have any comments, questions, or concerns please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.