Oiling the bore
Oiling the bore of a clarinet (or any other wooden-bodied
woodwind instrument) is a tricky business, though once the technique is
mastered it's quite simple.
This page is divided into three sections, you can skip the first section
if you're confident you really want to oil the bore. It's a relatively
large document, so I'd advise you save it as an html document and read
it at your leisure.
Section One covers
the theory, and discusses the pros and cons of oiling the bore
Section Two describes
the materials required
describes the technique
Section One: The Theory:
Wood is a living material. Long after the tree has been felled, the
wood continues to move and breathe. If left to its own devices, wood will
eventually break down (with the aid of moulds and fungi) in a process
we know as ‘rotting’.
Some woods are more resilient than others, and thus we choose these
woods to make objects that will survive for long periods of time in extreme
environments. The Blackwoods (a large family of dense, hard woods) are
most commonly used for woodwind instruments - with a close grain structure
and good stability they lend themselves well to the manufacturing processes
needed to make a complex turned and bored structure such as the body of
But even these very dense woods need care and attention
if they are to survive in an environment that is usually wet and humid.
All woods contain oils, natural oils produced by the tree to protect and
preserve the cellular structure of the wood itself, but as soon as the
tree is felled the production of this life-giving oil stops. From then
on the wood has to rely on the oils stored in its structure at the time
it was cut down.
Most woods do pretty well - take a look at the vast catalogue of antique
furniture that exists today - but when it comes to musical instruments
there are other considerations. Day in, day out, the wood is subjected
to an influx of warm, moisture laden air - not to mention the assorted
acids, sugars and fats present in your breath - none of which is particularly
good for it.
When wood loses its natural oils several things happen. The wood dries
out - and if it remained dry then perhaps there would not be too many
problems, but once the oils have gone it leaves the structure dry and
sponge-like - and thirsty. What happens next is that the wood begins to
absorb moisture from the atmosphere. This moisture provides the perfect
breeding ground for the moulds and fungi whose job it is to break down
the wood so that our planet is not littered with dead bits of wood.
The lack of oil has another effect. Water tends to be more volatile
than oil - that’s to say that if you placed a drop of water beside a drop
of oil on a plate of glass it’s the water that evaporates first. And this
happens within the body of a wooden instrument too.
This constant cycle of evaporation and replenishment causes the wood to
expand and contract. An excess of moisture or dryness will result in a
greater movement of the wood when it dries or becomes wet. What then happens
is the wood splits. This is all part of the natural process of rotting.
Fine for an old log on the forest floor - but not very nice for your expensive
So if the oils in the wood were kept ‘topped up’ it follows that these
environmental swings can be minimised, and the natural processes of rotting
can be held at bay for a great many years.
There are drawbacks though.
In life, the tree carefully regulates the oils in its structure - in the
same way our bodies regulate the sugars in our bloodstream. Too much or
too little can have devastating consequences. So when we replace the oil
in the wood by artificial means we may well be guilty of ‘overloading’
the wood with oil. What this does is lock moisture deep within the grain
of the wood. Under normal circumstances the water can move freely in and
out of the pores - in other words the wood breathes. But if so much oil
has been absorbed by the wood then it is possible that this water may
not be able to escape, and in the expansion that inevitably follows the
wood may split.
Having said all that you'd really have to go some to overload the wood
These then are the basic pros and cons.
There is one other ‘con’ though, and that relates to the technique itself.
Applying oil to the bore of an instrument carries the risk that some of
it will get onto the pads and keys of the instrument. Pads are tricky
things at the best of times with regards to stickiness - so it’s obvious
that any oil that gets onto these pads really isn't going to help at all.
It is here that I must state my personal and professional reasons for
advocating the oiling of the bore.
The bulk of my work for the last ten years has been the restoration of
period woodwind instruments. I have had to restore instruments that go
back to the 15th century, made in a variety of materials. Perhaps the
most common restoration work involves the rejuvenation of 18th and 19th
century flutes and clarinets, typically made in Boxwood, Cocabola and
It’s very common to find that the wood is bone dry - devoid of both water
and oil. This makes the wood brittle, and prone to chipping. Rather more
seriously it makes the wood extremely susceptible to humidity - so much
so that tenon joints can lock solid on humid days, and fall free on dry
When a joint locks it exerts considerable pressure on the socket - which
is why splits and cracks are a common sight on old instruments like these.
It’s really quite something to see when a drop of water is placed on the
bore of one of these ancient instruments - it soaks into the wood in no
time at all, and any attempt to play such an instrument could do untold
damage as the wood would absorb all the moisture it could get. But with
careful and patient oiling the wood can be revived and stabilised.
There's another good reason for oiling the bore. Many old clarinets that
haven't seen a lick of bore oil for years often have a dull white coating
on the bore. This is essentially scale - much the same as you might find
in your kettle. It serves no purpose in a kettle, so you can imagine how
useless it is in the bore of an instrument. It blocks the pores of the
wood, fouls up the tone holes and affects the tone - and the tuning in
If this has happened to your instrument then you will need to have this
scale removed - it's pretty impervious to bore oil.
The worst example I have seen of the wood drying out was a Serpent that
was given to me for ‘restoration’.
A Serpent is a ‘double S’ shaped instrument, made of wood wrapped in leather
but blown with a brass mouthpiece - this instrument had dried out centuries
ago and was little more than a leather shell enclosing a pile of dust.
Had the instrument been oiled down the years then it would probably have
been in respectable condition - but without the protection of oil, time
and nature had taken its course. The only way to preserve the instrument
was to inject the bore with a resin to bond the dust together. The instrument
is now on display in a museum.
Obviously, such degradation is an extreme - but even a clarinet of some
ten years of age may exhibit slight rotting, particularly on the bevels
of the tone holes.
Wood has a ‘feel’ to it. Over the years, if you handle wood on a day-to-day
basis, you get to understand it - and there’s many a time when I pick
up an old clarinet and note that it doesn't ‘feel’ right. It feels too
light. Too dead. Too cold. Oil brings the wood back to life, restores
a sense of ‘body’ to the instrument - and best of all it makes it playable
again without risk of damaging the wood.
If I felt that oiling the bore damaged the instruments entrusted to my
care then I wouldn't do it - but until I have positive proof that oiling
is detrimental then shall continue to advocate the process as a part of
the care regime for woodwind instruments.
Section Two: The Materials:
It is not economically viable (as far as I know) to extract natural
oils from wood on a large scale - it would destroy the wood, which defeats
the object of cutting the tree down in the first place - so a substitute
must be found, and ideally the oil must closely match the properties of
the natural oil.
Vegetable oils are the closest match, but not all such oils are suitable.
Some have certain properties that render them useless for our purposes.
Linseed oil is one such example. It is a ‘drying oil’ - which means that
if you were to place a drop on a sheet of glass and leave it for a time
it would harden into a resinous blob. Imagine that on the bore of your
Over the years the layers would build up, closing up the diameter of the
bore and blocking the pores of the wood.
I cannot stress this strongly enough - Linseed oil must not
be used. Walnut oil too is a drying oil.
There are two oils in common use for our purposes: Groundnut (or peanut)
oil and Sweet Almond oil.
I used to recommend Lemon oil, but it seems that standards vary as to
the composition of this oil - with some brands containing mineral oils
and spirits. In some cases this oil can react with existing oils to form
a greasy skin. Because there's no 'standard' for this oil I can't be certain
you'll buy the right stuff - so it's off the list.
You can also buy Bore Oil from most music stores - but these can often
be mineral based oils, which are nowhere near as good for the wood. Mineral
oils may have a warning on the bottle saying ‘do not ingest'*. Also, you
may not know what additives such bore oils contain.
If you are allergic to nut products then seek medical advice before using
Groundnut or Sweet Almond oil. Either of these may be purchased from most
general food stores. I use Groundnut oil. It's worth bearing in mind that
a peanut isn't a nut - it's a legume...a bean, in other words. However
I am advised that the factories that produce such oils may well process
nut oils too, so there is a risk of cross-contamination.
(* Not that many people would consider drinking bore oil - but guitarists
often use bore oil for treating fingerboards...and some guitarists will
drink anything that comes in a bottle, even industrial-grade mineral oil).
There has been some debate as to the risk of such oils going rancid.
In theory all vegetable based oils will break down over time - but this
assumes a quantity of oil left standing for a considerable amount of time.
I have never found this to be a problem once the oil is applied to the
bore - but you'd be well advised to ensure you use fresh oil in the first
place. Choosing an oil like groundnut makes good sense in that it's a
culinary oil...you can use it in the kitchen, thus ensuring a regular
turnover of fresh oil.
Specialist oils are also available. These are very much a cut above the
generic oils often sold in music shops, and most are only available via
mail order online.
Companies such as The Doctor's Products
sell a range of high-quality bore oils, including one made from Grenadilla
wood oil - it's suitably pricey. Naylors
is another company that sells a good quality bore oil.
These oils are absolutely fine for the job - if there's a drawback to
them it's only that you have to order them specially and that they work
out a bit more expensive than culinary oils. They're a good choice if
you want to do a proper job but you're a bit uncertain about buying oils
from a grocery store.
Section Three: The Technique:
There are several methods of oiling the bore - but the one I am going
to describe is, I feel, the safest for players who are oiling an instrument
that has not been stripped down.
What you will need:
Your oil: You can decant it into a small bottle and mix in a little
methylated spirits (wood alcohol) in the approximate ratio of seven parts
oil, one part meths. Shake very well. This helps to thin the oil slightly,
and disinfects the bore.
Clean up stuff: A few sheets of tissue or kitchen roll - to wipe off
excess oil - and perhaps some lighter fluid and pipe cleaners, in case
any of the pads get contaminated with oil.
An applicator: There are many alternatives. Given that I most often
work with stripped down instruments I tend to favour an old clarinet 'Pad-Saver'.
(Incidentally - whilst I think these are brilliant for metal bodied instrument,
I tend not to advise their use on wooden instruments as they may soak
up the oil from the bore as well as the water - not what we want).
For maintenance 'in the home' I feel that using one of these could end
up being rather messy. Alternatively you could use an old clarinet mop
- one of those brush things on a length of twisted wire.
The problem here is that the filaments of the brush may run into the tone
holes whilst you're oiling the bore - and you then run the risk of fouling
the pads. If you prefer to use one of these then go for the denser variety
- the ones that look like a roll of wool.
In this instance I'll show you how to make use of a oiling rod.
Essentially it's just a thin rod, about a foot long, with a slot cut into
the top. A flute cleaning rod is ideal. Get a wooden one if at all possible
- metal ones are fine, but you will need to exercise a little more care
in use. You may well find your local music store sells a similar rod in
plastic, for use with recorders. These are ideal.
You will also need a length of rag - about three inches wide, and a foot
long. It has to be reasonably thick - an old, thick cotton bedsheet is
In any event, it ought not to be too fluffy, you don't want to coat the
bore with bits of old sheet.
You'll need to wrap this strip around your rod. Simple enough, but you
have to ensure two things - 1: that the tip of the rod is covered (not
so critical with a wooden rod) and 2: that the cloth will not unwind.
If it does so it may get wedged into the bore.
Start by threading a corner of the cloth through the slot like so...
Now roll the rod over into the cloth....
To protect the tip of the rod fold the top of the cloth
down over it...
Now continue to roll the rod, feeding the cloth tightly
down the rod as you go...
And you should end up with this...
The reason I specified strip of cloth about a foot long
is that you'll now be able to keep hold of the end of it as you use the
stick to oil the bore. This'll prevent the cloth coming loose.
This is what you do:
The object is to place a small quantity of the oil onto the bore of the
instrument. The skill lies in not getting too much oil on the bore - or
you risk fouling the pads. If you are using the Oil/Meths mixture, give
it a good shake up first to combine the ingredients. What you now need
to do is apply some oil to your applicator. Do not ‘dunk’ it in - you
hardly need any oil at all - just dribble a little oil into the cup of
your hand. Put the head of the applicator in the hand, clasp it and work
it back and forth through your fist.
What you are trying to do is spread the oil evenly throughout the applicator
and gauge whether you have too much oil. Perhaps the best way to ascertain
the right amount of oil is to test the applicator on the barrel - where
there are no keys present.
The applicator is inserted into the bore of the barrel -
slowly and with a twisting motion. Take care to twist it in the same direction
as the cloth was wound on...otherwise it may unwrap and lodge in the bore.
Work it back and forth - gently. Examine the bore of the barrel - you
are aiming to just dampen the bore evenly. Any obvious drips and runs
mean you have far too much oil on the applicator. Run it through a kitchen
towel to remove the excess oil - or work it out on the exterior of the
barrel, or have a go at the bell. It is very important that you gauge
the amount of oil on the applicator carefully - the aim is to smear the
oil on, not slosh it. Then do the bell. Again, as this has no keys you
can’t do any harm if you have too much oil on the applicator. Once you're
sure you have the right balance of oil you can proceed to the main joints.
Wash or wipe your hands first to avoid getting oil on the keywork.
Now the hard part. Start with the lower joint. Very carefully
insert the applicator into the bottom joint from the lower end (AKA the
bell end - no laughing at the back...). Don't apply too much downward
pressure - the applicator ought to be a loose fit in the bore, and if
you press it down onto the bore you run the risk of forcing excess oil
out. Keep a very careful eye on the lowest tone hole. As the applicator
passes the tone hole the edges of the hole might force oil out of the
applicator. If oil runs into the tone hole then you could be in trouble.
Keep the instrument level, with the keys uppermost, so that if any oil
does dribble it won’t head straight for the pads.
Push the applicator all the way in. If it feels too tight, withdraw and
wrap the cloth tighter. Repeat this a number of times, twisting the applicator
round a little each time so that you cover the entire surface of the bore.
Tricky, isn't it?! The golden rule is to use as little oil
as possible. Better to have to push the applicator in half a dozen times
than risk it oozing oil everywhere. You'll be surprised at how 'dry' the
applicator appears at first - and yet it also surprising just how much
oil it can hold, which you usually find out too late.
Once you’re happy with the oil job - leave the clarinet
to stand for an hour or so.
After an hour or so, inspect the clarinet. You should find
that the oil has been absorbed into the two main joints. Excess oil in
the bore can be cleaned out by threading a clean piece of cloth on the
rod and repeating the above directions, but without any oil. Clean up
the bell and the barrel, and check the tenon sockets for any excess oil.
If you've got the odd dribble onto the pads (naughty!) you can clean it
off with a pipe cleaner bent double, soaked with a little lighter fluid.
Any oil that gets onto the body will not do any harm, simply wipe it off
with kitchen towel. If you so wish you can wipe a little oil onto the
exterior of the instrument - but watch the keys and pads!
And that’s about it really.
As for how often you need to oil the bore - well, it depends on how often
you play, how ‘wet’ a player you are, and what your local climate is like.
Hot and damp places will mean there is more moisture in the atmosphere,
so oiling will need to be done more frequently. Similarly hot and dry
areas will tend to desiccate the wood. If you’re a hardened pro then you
might want to oil the bore every four months or so - a student will only
need to oil once a year.
Bear in mind that it’s unlikely your instrument will fall
apart if you miss out an oiling or two - it’s really a preventative and
preservative technique. If your instrument is very old and hasn't been
oiled for many years then you may need to oil it very lightly
once a week for a month or so. Don't try to do it all at once - the stresses
it can impose on the wood may lead to it splitting. New instruments will
not need oiling in the first year - in fact you'll probably find that
your pads get discoloured as the wood's natural oils leach out.
Bear in mind that some manufacturers do not recommend oiling the bore
- and if you do so during your warranty period you may invalidate it.
It's up to you to weigh up the pros and cons as to whether you oil or
not. Above all - remember, use as little oil as is possible, and take