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Oiling the action

What follows are details of how to go about the process of oiling the keywork (or the 'action') of a woodwind instrument. I have divided this guide up into three parts:

1. The Basics - an explanation of the terminology and the reasons for lubrication
2. The Materials - the things you'll need
3. The Technique - how to do it and not make a mess

Part One: The Basics

In order to successfully oil the action of a woodwind instrument it's necessary to know where to place the oil. The action is made up of the keys, which are held in place on the body by means of pivots supported between posts (known as 'pillars') sticking upwards from the body of the instrument. The keys themselves are made up from many components, but the part we're interested in is the 'key barrel'. This is a length of round rod or tube that sits between the pillars - it's this tube that's pivoted, and it's here where the wear takes place which leads to a sloppy action and noisy keywork.

The pivots can be of two types - either a rod or hinge screw (a straight steel rod that that goes through a hollow key barrel), or a point or pivot screw (a small, pointed screw that sits in the pillar - the point of which extends out of the pillar and sits in a corresponding hole in the solid key barrel), and you'll often find point screws in pairs - one in a pillar at each end of the key barrel.
Oil should be applied wherever a key barrel meets a pillar.

Where to oil

In many cases you will find that there are several keys that sit next to each other on a single rod screw - and where this happens you must apply oil where the two key barrels meet. On some woodwind instruments there will be what are known as 'compound keys'. Although these are usually held in place with point screws, they have an internal rod running through all the keys in the group. Again, oil may be applied at the joins between the individual key barrels. The right hand keys of the flute are a good example of a compound key. The last four cups on the main body are joined together on one key.
So, hopefully you now have a rough idea of some of the terminology - on to the interesting bits.

There are two very good reasons for oiling the action; in the first case the oil is needed to prevent undue wear and tear on the mechanism. Without oil the screws and pivots will rub against the barrels of the keys, and over a period of time this action will cause the barrel of the keys to wear. As the screws are usually made of steel the wear will be seen in the key as opposed to the pivots. Such wear is repairable, but it tends to be labour intensive - so it's expensive. Point screws are fairly easy to adjust, but rod screws require rather more complicated procedures to tighten them up.
In the second case the oil provides a lubricating medium which on the one hand prevents noise from the keywork as it moves, and on the other hand increases the speed of the keys themselves as they move on their pivots. So oiling the action is pretty much essential.

Part Two: The Materials

Although the choice of oil to use is not critical, there are some ways in which it is possible to make the job of oiling the action a great deal easier, a less frequent pastime and a lot less messy by choosing an appropriate lubricant. Thin oils are to be avoided. By thin I am referring to what you might know of as 'sewing machine oil' or maybe even 'clock oil' - i.e. a general household oil.

These oils have a consistency ('viscosity') that is almost the same as water. The problem with thin oils is that they are, well, thin - and therefore runny. Whilst this makes them good in terms of penetration it also means that they tend to 'migrate'. Migration describes how the oil, over a period of time, will flow out from the key barrels, down the pillars and onto the body of the instrument.
In most cases this won't do too much harm other than to make a mess - but then again this excess oil can dissolve adhesives and lead to your key corks dropping off - not to mention providing a nice gooey surface for dust and grit to stick to. Furthermore, thin oils don't have that much 'cushioning' potential, and you may well find that the action remains relatively noisy.

As a general rule you should avoid using the typical key oils you can buy over the counter at many music stores, no matter how distinguished the name on the bottle. These are often far too thin and runny. That said, Yamaha key oil is of the right sort of viscosity. If in doubt, give the bottle a shake and watch how the oil moves - if it sloshes around like water then it's too thin, if it moves more like olive oil then it's likely to be about right. Incidentally, you should never use vegetable oils (olive, corn, groundnut etc.) as an action lubricant - and clarinettists should never use bore oil on the action.

Key oilsThe oil I recommend for maintenance is synthetic gear oil, of the type used in cars. There are a variety of such oils on the market, but all you really need to look out for is that the bottle says 'Synthetic' (or sometimes 'fully synthetic) and that the grade of oil is 75W90 (there may be other letters before and after these numbers).
You can also use non-synthetic oil (plain mineral oil), in which case you should look out for an oil that says EP80. It's no better or worse than the synthetic oil, but it does tend to have more of an 'aroma'.
If you can't find this oil, you can get away with using a 20W50 engine oil - which is a standard engine oil made for older engines.

It might seem surprising to be recommended a motor oil for use on your instrument's keywork, but the harsh truth is that the action, in engineering terms, is really a rather crude mechanism - and aside from the need for the lubricant to be sufficiently viscous (so it stays put), long-lasting and non-damaging, there's very little else that's realistically required.
Such oils also have an advantage in that they're readily available, and cheap. Putting off oiling the action because you don't have the right oil to hand is just going to mean more wear and tear to the action - and that means a less reliable instrument and some quite expensive repairs down the line. As for the concern that motor oils are full of additives or that they gum up the action - I've been using them for over three decades now, and I'm still waiting to see any adverse effects in spite of some fairly exhaustive and ongoing testing.

You can, of course, buy specialist oils for the job - such as those sold by Musicmedic (the Ultimax range), Hetman, Alysin and The Doctor's Products. Such oils are usually offered in a choice of grades (i.e. light, medium and heavy). Light oil will be suitable for high-end flutes etc, medium for clarinets and heavy for anything larger.
These specialist oils are fine - if you can find them and are prepared to pay a premium - but it's worth bearing in mind that many of the claims made about their enhanced properties will be largely negated unless you're prepared to completely strip and degrease the action before applying them. In short, you've probably no idea what lubricant's already on the action, and putting a super-duper oil on top of it is rather like pouring a shot of fine malt whisky into a glass that's still got the dregs of last night's lager in it.
Granted, it won't do any harm - but there's not a lot of sense in it.

It's also the case that the lubrication system on a woodwind instrument has the seeds of its own destruction built in. Unlike many lubrication systems that are 'closed' (i.e. they have seals and gaskets to prevent the ingress of dirt etc.), the action is open to the elements.
In my article 'Oiling The Action - For Geeks' I noted how oil is pumped out of the key barrels and sucked back in with every key press, and how it collects in a small 'reservior' at the ends of each key's barrel. This means that any particles of grit small enough to fit into the gap between the pivot screw and the key barrel may be drawn into the action - and any grit that small will be light enough to be carried airloft by a faint breeze...such as that made as you walk by your horn as it sits on its stand.

House dust collected in key oilMost of this dust will be pretty harmless, being made up of relatively large but soft soft particles such as cloth fibres, hair and organic matter (dead skin, bits of insects etc.) - however, some of it will be tiny, tiny particles of sand and dirt...which is abrasive. Once this gets in the action it's likely to stay there until such times as the keywork is dismantled and degreased.
As for how much dust might drop onto the action - here's a shot (left) of a sample of house dust, collected over just 10 days on a sheet of clingfilm smeared with a drop of oil and left in a variety of positions in the room I practise in. The section shown comprises an area just 30x20mm (roughly a square inch), and despite the magnification of the macro lens I'd say you can only see about 70% of the particles.
There's not a lot you can do about this - as soon as you take your instrument out of its case, dust will fall on it. The more air that moves over it (such as on stage at a gig) the more dust will stick to it - which is why I tend not to take much notice of the claims that certain key oils will do more to protect your horn than others.

It's worth noting, though, that if you're in the habit of leaving your instrument out on a stand between practise session, it's a good idea to keep it covered. A piece of well-washed cotton sheet will be fine for the job.

Some people advocate the use of grease for lubricating the action; indeed, many manufacturers use grease for their new instruments. This is fine, though care is needed to select the appropriate grade of grease otherwise it may be too heavy. The biggest disadvantage of grease is that you will need to entirely dismantle the instrument in order to apply it.
Grease is also more likely to be affected by extremes of temperature - and playing outdoors on a cold day may well make the action slightly sluggish. I wouldn't recommend grease for fine flutes or oboes. Grease also tends to hold any grit it finds - so you need to be extra careful that your workspace is scrupulously clean. One speck of hard grit in the grease when assembling the instrument can lock a rod screw solid in a key barrel.
That said, grease is less likely to be 'pumped' in and out of the action, and may well be better at limiting the ingress of grit.

High Tack silicone greaseSilicone greases are popular these days and make sense for lubricating rollers - and joints where two keys rub together (though not where felt is used as a buffering material). If you're prepared to do a little dismantling, such greases can be used to lubricate the keys that pivot on point screws...and to quieten the ball and socket or fork and pin links typically found on the side Bb/C keys on most saxes and on most octave mechs. MusicMedic make a range of such greases, but I think you'll find ordinary High Tack (or HT) silicone grease to be just as effective and rather cheaper. It's widely available from plumber's merchants, hobby shops, ebay etc.

Having chosen our lubricant we need to be able to apply it. I oil instruments every day of my working life - so I need a system that can deliver a suitable amount of oil as quickly and as cleanly as possible. For this I use a glass syringe and a large hypodermic needle (with the tip squared off - unmodified hypodermic needles are extremely dangerous). It's ideal for the job, but glass syringes are expensive and fragile. Plastic syringes are unsuitable as the oil degrades the rubber plunger - and as the action of these syringes is a little unpredictable you can end up squirting a lot of oil over your keys. Some hobby shops sell little plastic 'oilers' - little flexible plastic bottles with a thin hollow tube sticking out of the bottle. These are ideal.

Some branded key oils come in a bottle with an oiling needle built in - but if you're a bit of a cheapskate (and why not?) you can simply use an old jam jar lid and a large sewing needle. You will also need an artist's flat-headed paint brush (I find one with a head about 15 millimetres across is fine - any old cheap one will do), and a quantity of kitchen towel, or tissues.

As for grease, I find an effective way of applying it is to decant some into a disposable 5ml plastic syringe. It's a little messy trying to get the grease into the tube (use a thin stick), but thereafter it keeps the grease clean and free from grit, and the nozzle helps when trying to force grease into small holes. Silicone grease is fine in a plastic syringe...petroleum-based greases will degrade the rubber seal eventually.

Part Three: The Technique

There is a potential problem when applying oil if the action is covered with dust.
What will happen is that the dust will absorb the oil and things will get very messy indeed. Use the paintbrush to carefully brush away the worst of the accumulated dust and then wipe the joint where you wish to oil with a tissue. Be careful that you don't knock any springs or corks off. If in doubt - leave it out, and put up with a little mess. Better that than no oil.

Start at the top of the instrument and work methodically downwards. Take your oiler, or pin, and get a small drop of oil on the end of it. By small I mean a drop about the size of, well, a small raindrop perhaps. In time you'll get the hang of this and you'll instinctively know whether you are using too much or too little. Too little is best at first - it's less messy. Experiment, if you like, with a key that is easily accessible, so that you can clean up afterwards.

Oiling the actionApply a drop of oil at the junction between each key barrel and the corresponding pillars (or the next key barrel in the case of keys that sit next to each other). The photo shows just the right size drop being applied to a joint on a sax key stack.
Having applied a drop of oil to each end of a single key barrel you must then work the key in order to draw the oil into the barrel. Work the key up and down as though you were playing it. This will pump the oil into the action, and on a particularly noisey key you might notice it becoming progressively quieter as the oil works its way into the barrel.

You can also grip the key and try to move it from side to side along the barrel, and back and forth across the barrel (be gentle). There perhaps won't be a great deal of movement here - which is good - or there might be quite a bit - which is bad, and indicates that your action is either worn or out of adjustment (bad luck). Remove any excess oil with a wipe of the tissue. Continue down the instrument.

While you're doing this, take a peek at the springs that power the keys - the thin, blue-black line at centre-right in the above shot. If you see any spots of rust on them it might be a good idea to wipe a little oil on them too - it might just help to make them last a little bit longer. Not too much mind, just a smear (use a cotton bud or a pipe cleaner), and the tiniest drop of oil applied to the spring post (or cradle) at the end of the spring can quieten a squeaky spring. For saxes in particular don't forget to oil the little rollers on the bell keys and the low C/Eb keys. You'll be amazed at how noisy these rollers can be - and equally amazed at the difference a small drop of oil can make. For old Selmers, make sure that you also oil the little side Bb and C pegs on the ends of the cup arms. These are very prone to wear and a little oil here helps enormously. Similarly, for Yamaha saxes with the nylon pegs on the side keys, a drop of oil will help to quieten the mechanism.

For those of you with counterbalanced (or see-saw) octave key mechanisms, a drop of oil on the central pivot and on the tips of the balance arm will make the action here a great deal quieter. If you're feeling really brave you might like to place the tiniest drop of oil on the feet of the flat springs that power the top D, E and F keys (the 'palm keys') of a saxophone. Don't forget to oil the crook key too - and a little drop on the thread of the crook screw wouldn't go amiss either.

And that's about it. As for how often this job needs to be done, well, it depends on how much use the instrument gets...how worn the action is...what environment the instrument is used in etc... The only risk from over-oiling is the mess from excess oil running down the pillars; the risk from under-oiling is wear and tear on the action. Bear in mind too that most oils are not meant to be ingested, so it's a good idea to ensure you clean up afterwards. Wash your hands before handling the mouthpiece, and if you do contaminate the mouthpiece wash it in warm, soapy water and dry thoroughly.
A good quality oil ought to stay put for at least six months. So let's say once every three months for hardened pros, once every six to eight months for keen amateurs, and once a year for anyone bringing up the rear. If, in the meantime, you find the odd key that rattles - then oil it. You need to learn the characteristics of your own instrument.
Some, like my Yamaha saxes, may not require any further lubrication for years, others may need it more frequently. Only you can decide - unless you take it to a repairer.

If you're feeling decidedly geeky and wish to know more about the science of oiling the action, have a look at the article on Oiling The Action - For Geeks...but be warned, it'll be ten minutes of your life you won't get back...

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015