Curing sticky pads
Sticking pads can be the bane of the woodwind player's
life. Having said that, it's something that affects players in varying
Some hardly notice the occasional sticky pad, others find it compromises
the playability of their instrument to such an extent that it's almost
impossible to rely on the instrument in any real capacity. So what's the
answer? Well, you'd have thought the solution would be to replace the
pad - and where the pad is old and evidently worn this is often the best
recourse - but more often than not the pad that sticks is in good shape...new,
There are several factors that cause pads to stick. The first, and most
obvious, is that they get wet in use. Granted, most of the moisture found
in the bore of an instrument is condensation - but it carries with it
fats and sugars that have been dissolved in the airstream. There's also
a certain amount of saliva that finds its way into the bore too.
Another factor than can cause a pad to stick is excessive natural oil
present in the pad skin - a problem mainly confined to new pads of the
A combination of these two factors over a period of time can lead to a
build-up of general crud on the pads (and the tonehole rims).
I would consider the above factors to be 'chemical' in nature - there
are 'mechanical' factors than can lead to sticky pad problems too.
The most likely reason is insufficient spring strength. This is typically
seen on BisBb and G# keys, where the key's spring is rather too lightly
tensioned. While most of us would agree that a light action is a 'good
thing', it's possible to overdo it and have certain keys 'undersprung'.
You might be surprised at how common a fault this is, and where rolled
or wide (i.e. Martin saxes) toneholes are in use the problem can be particularly
acute due to the increased surface area of the tonehole rim. Increasing
the tension of such springs by even a tiny amount can make a considerable
impact to the problem of sticking pads, and with barely any detriment
to the overall feel of the action (in fact it can often improve it).
Other mechanical factors include rough or burred tonehole rims.
'Operator' (that's you, the player) factors that contribute towards sticky
pads are eating, drinking, smoking...and breathing. Pick three out of
that list and try not to do them before playing. A non-existent bore-swabbing
routine doesn't help matters - though ironically enough there are times
when it can actually worsen the problem. See the Lab
Test pages for further details.
There are quite a few products on the market that claim to be able to
cure or prevent pads from sticking. The most common and widely available
are the powders. Essentially these are little more than talc, the theory
being that they absorb the gunk that collects on the pad and provide a
means of dry lubrication. The truth of the matter is they make a hell
of a mess and eventually exacerbate the problem. All you're really doing
is adding yet more gunk to the surface of the pad - and once you start
using the stuff you find you have to keep using it to cure the stickiness
that the talc contributes towards.
Another popular solution is called pad dope. Typically these are oils
- such as neatsfoot. The claim here is that these products are supposed
to waterproof the pad, the theory being that if you can stop the water
from being absorbed by the pad then it won't stick. The problem is the
oil itself can contribute to the stickiness, and the goo present in the
condensation can still deposit itself on the pad whether it's waterproof
Such treatments are analogous to spilling a glass of beer on your kitchen
floor and cleaning it up by throwing powder or oil on it, and hoping it
The outlook then is bleak.
But there are one or two tricks that can help.
Cleaning and degreasing the pad is an effective solution. There are no
magic ingredients and potions involved - just plain old ordinary lighter
fluid - and common or garden cotton buds (American readers will know these
The method itself is simple too - wet the cotton bud with lighter fluid
and gently rub it over the pad, concentrating your efforts on and around
the impression made by the tone hole. I should point out that by 'lighter
fluid' I mean the stuff used for filling petrol cigarette lighters, like
the well-known Zippo (in some parts of the world lighter fluid is an entirely
different spirit). Common brands include Swan, Ronson and Zippo.
While you're there it's worth giving the tone hole itself a bit of a wipe
over, particular the bore of the hole as this often harbours dried goo
which dissolves when wet and finds its way onto the pad again.
If you find a cotton bud a bit of a tight fit, use a pipe cleaner - though
bend it in half first so as not to risk the wire core puncturing the pad.
You may have to make a couple of applications if the pad is particularly
gummed up - and if it's that bad then maybe it really is
time to have it replaced.
For flutes and clarinets you can use a piece of cotton cloth, a corner
of which you moisten with lighter fluid. Place this corner under the pad
and very gently close the key onto the cloth. Slowly and gently drag the
cloth out. It's worth pointing out that this method can shorten the life
of a skin pad - so you might well find it enough to merely press the key
down onto the moistened cloth and leave it at that.
Sax pads often suffer from an excess of dried saliva deposits, and you
might well find that a cottonbud soaked in a little saliva will be the
best cleaning method. Follow it up with the lighter fluid though.
If the tonehole rim or its corresponding impression in the pad looks a
little green then it's a given that you have verdigris contamination (verdigris
is a form of corrosion that attacks brass and other copper-based metals).
In such cases it might not be enough to clean the pad and tonehole with
a solvent, you might need to resort to a mechanical method. Traditionally
this involves slipping a dollar bill over the tone hole, pressing the
key cup lightly down and pulling the bill out. In effect the dollar acts
as a fine abrader (apparently there's a particularly quality to the paper
- but I suspect most paper currency would work).
Some people advocate the use of Crocus paper, which is an extremely fine
grade of carborundum paper.
These methods work, but are best used sparingly because of the associated
risks of damaging the pad. In any event, following up with lighter fluid
is a good bet for a 'belt and braces' approach.
I've often seen comments to the effect that lighter fluid will harm
the pads, the reason given that it "dries out the leather's natural
oils". This is easy enough to test, and in my workshop sits the skin
of a used pad which has been subjected to at least a weekly sloosh of
lighter fluid for the last couple of years*. That's a very great deal
more lighter fluid than you'll be likely to apply to a pad in its lifetime
- and yet the leather shows no sign of disintegrating.
I feel duty bound to point out that lighter fluid is highly flammable
- so please bear that in mind if you decide it would be a neat idea to
ungunk your pads before a blazing log fire. Lighter fluid is also a deeply
dangerous and unpleasant drink.
*It's been almost a decade now, and although the leather now only
gets a sloosh in passing from time to time (I got bored of waiting for
it to fall apart), it's still in good nick.