Cleaning saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces
Surely there's nothing to cleaning mouthpieces
- a drop of detergent in some lukewarm water (or cold water if it's
a vintage ebonite mouthpiece - hot water will turn some ebonite
mouthpieces green, and the older the piece is the more likely it
is to be susceptible), a bit of gentle scrub with a soft mouthpiece
brush - how difficult can it be?
From the state of some of the mouthpieces I see I reckon some
people must find it incredibly hard.
But it's not only water that gets blown into the mouthpiece; there
are oils, fats, salts, starches, sugars etc. - and some of these
can shrug off the effects of your usual cleaning regime.
Calcium (or more correctly, Calcium Carbonate) is one the worst
offenders - small deposits attach themselves to the walls of the
bore, and little by little, day by day, they build up. It's exactly
the same stuff that forms in the bottom of your kettle, otherwise
known as scale (or limescale, to give it its full name).
Obviously, regular cleaning can slow this build-up process but even
the most fastidious player will suffer from some degree of scale
build up. More often than not the problem is most acute when buying
secondhand mouthpieces. You may well clean your mouthpiece out on
a regular basis, but that doesn't mean everyone else does.
Have a look at this...
This is a Boosey & Hawkes 926 clarinet mouthpiece
- it's at least 40 years old, and looks like it was played every
single day. Someone loved it enough to repair it when the tip broke
off (though they didn't love it enough to take it to someone who
could do a proper repair).
See that white stuff inside on the floor? That's the scale build-up.
It adheres to the mouthpiece and refuses to be shifted even by fairly
brisk scrubbing. Even worse, the more there is the more will form
- and it provides an excellent surface for bacteria to breed on,
plus it affects the response of the mouthpiece.
You can't attack the scale with an abrasive, or a
sharp implement - it will only result in scoring the bore of the
mouthpiece. What's really needed is a chemical that dissolves the
scale and leaves the mouthpiece untouched - but which chemical?
There are plenty of products on the market for removing calcium
carbonate deposits - but very few of these products are suitable
for use on mouthpieces and many of them will ruin the mouthpiece
altogether. Most of these limescale removing products are based
on acids - limescale is an alkaline substance, acid will dissolve
What's required is an acid that's relatively mild in action, that
will attack the scale but not the mouthpiece.
There are two chemicals commonly touted as being suitable
for the task - and both are readily available to the general public;
domestic Hydrogen Peroxide Solution (9%) and vinegar. Hydrogen Peroxide
is available from your pharmacist - it's used as a mild disinfectant
for skin wounds...if you have your ears pierced this is the stuff
you put on the wound to prevent it becoming infected. I'm going
to try both and see what happens. I'm also going to try a few other
products that I've seen recommended by various players to see how
well they perform in comparison.
I placed the mouthpiece above in a jar containing
Hydrogen Peroxide. It immediately began to gently fizz, which looked
promising. It carried on fizzing for quite some considerable time
- so much so that I got bored of watching it and decided to carry
on with the second test.
Here's a Selmer S80 D alto saxophone mouthpiece. There's about
the same amount of scale build-up as in the clarinet mouthpiece
- it looks less as it's spread out over a larger surface area, and
there's a bit in the bore than can't be seen in the photo.
And here's the same mouthpiece after 30 minutes immersed
in white malt vinegar.
You can quite clearly see that the scale deposits
have gone. What you can also see is that the mouthpiece has taken
on a dull greenish hue. This is due to the action of the vinegar
on the Ebonite that the mouthpiece is constructed of.
This does no great harm to the mouthpiece, but doesn't exactly look
terribly attractive. It's possible to remove this 'bloom', but it's
a job best left to a repairer as it requires the use of abrasive
From my observation of the action of the vinegar it
seems that it appears to soften up the scale rather faster than
it dissolves it. Obviously you could wait until the vinegar dissolved
the scale of its own accord - but by that time the mouthpiece would
be a great deal greener - and I suspect that a degree of softening
of the ebonite would take place, at least on the surface.
With this in mind, I repeated the experiment - but
this time I concentrated the effects of the vinegar in the appropriate
simply soaked a wad of cotton wool in the vinegar and placed it
in the mouthpiece's window. I then propped the mouthpiece up so
that the wad lay flat and the vinegar didn't dribble off into the
bore and left it for ten minutes.
I then removed the wad, and with the aid of a cotton bud soaked
in vinegar gently rubbed off all the scale deposits.
There was a very slight greening of the ebonite in the bore - but
by no means as much as the previous experiment. I found that ten
minutes was quite sufficient to clean this moderately scaled mouthpiece
- more heavily encrusted examples would need another dose with the
wad. Confining the vinegar to the bore meant that the exterior finish
of the mouthpiece remained untouched.
two hours have passed since I placed the clarinet mouthpiece in
the Hydrogen Peroxide. I took it out and examined it.
This chemical has a different action to the vinegar - instead of
softening the scale it seems to slowly dissolve it. I wonder how
much of this is due to the small amount of Phosphoric acid the product
contains? Compared with the photo at the top of the page you can
see a considerable reduction in the scale deposits. I tried rubbing
the deposits off with a cotton bud, but to no avail - this chemical
simply has to be left to do its work in its own time.
You may notice too that the ebonite hasn't really gone any greener
than it already was. I did notice a very slight greening effect,
but it wasn't anywhere near as much as seen on the vinegar treated
Just out of curiosity I cleaned the SA80 piece and popped it into
the Hydrogen Peroxide. After 15 minutes or so it had gone green
again - so it appears that some types of ebonite are more susceptible
to discolouration than others. It could also just be that ebonite
tends to deteriorate over time depending on what environment it's
been kept in - a test piece of new ebonite showed no discolouration
after 60 minutes immersed in the vinegar.
then tested a few other cleaning products.
The first of these was a kettle cleaner. This came in a small bottle,
priced about £2, and contained a solution of 40% (w/v) formic
The instructions required the solution to be tipped into a kettle
with a cupful or so of boiling water. Clearly this isn't an option
for an ebonite mouthpiece - so I used the solution neat and cold.
And here's the result on the remaining deposits on the 926 mouthpiece
after ten minutes.
Pretty much all the scale has gone - though it worked in much the
same way as the vinegar, requiring a little gentle help from a cotton
bud. There was no noticeable greening of the mouthpiece.
Much more noticeable though were the fumes given off - they were
really quite unpleasant (there was a warning about this on the bottle).
I did the usual with the poor old SA80 mouthpiece - it went green
Baking soda has been suggested as a means of cleaning
mouthpieces, which seems rather counterintuitive to me as it's an
alkali (in fact it's less acidic than water) but I tested it anyway.
Here we can see a rather dirty Otto Link baritone sax mouthpiece
with a modest coating of scale. A paste mix of water and baking
soda was made up and then drizzled onto the scale and left for an
hour. As you can see from the before and after shots there's hardly
any difference at all, even with a saturated solution of the stuff.
If there's any merit in using baking soda it probable lies in its
action as a scouring agent when used with a small brush.
Another popular suggestion is cola. Cola contains
phosphoric acid, and many other fizzy soft drinks contain citric
You may well have tried that old trick of dropping a dirty old copper
coin into a glass of cola overnight in order to clean it up - when
you lift it out in the morning it's all bright and shiny (well,
less dirty anyway).
drinks should work in the same way as vinegar, though less vigorously
as the concentration of acid is slightly weaker. It should be noted
that, in general, diet fizzy soft drinks are less acidic than their
full-sugar counterparts (and are about as acidic as red wine).
To see how effective cola is when compared to vinegar I rigged up
a simple test. I've sealed up the bore of the mouthpiece with adhesive
tack and divided the window down the middle. The left side was filled
with fresh non-diet cola, the right with plain malt vinegar. The
piece was left to soak for an hour at room temperature.
you can see it's a clear win for the vinegar - the section on the
right is completely clean, the section on the left is little better
than the dividing line which was covered during the test and received
no treatment at all.
For the final test I tried a dental product - denture
I bought the strongest tablets I could find - they claimed to remove
heavy staining from dentures in 10 minutes.
I filled a small jar with hand-hot water, popped a cleaning tablet
in, then added a mouthpiece.
Things fizzed for quite a while - but this turned out to be the
After ten minutes I examined the mouthpiece - no effect whatsoever.
I gave it another half hour. Nothing.
I gave it another hour - still no effect.
I'm still checking it even as I write this article several hours
later. There's some brown scum on the surface of the solution, but
the scale deposits are looking solid (if perhaps a little whiter).
To sum up then: Hydrogen Peroxide, non-diet cola and
vinegar did the job. Hydrogen Peroxide took by far the longest to
achieve a clean mouthpiece - and because of this it's fair to assume
that the whole mouthpiece would need to be immersed in the solution.
A stronger solution might work faster...though I'm still inclined
to think that it's the acid in the solution that's doing the work
with regard to the scale.
Cola had a slightly better effect and acted faster, but plain malt
vinegar beat everything else hands down.
Vinegar also acted fast to soften the deposits, and because of this
it's possible to limit its contact with the mouthpiece by using
a wad of cotton wool soaked in the solution to get things moving
and then use a cotton bud (or Q-tip) to rub the scale off.
Proprietary limescale removers do the job - but the production of
noxious fumes and their generally poisonous nature makes them risky
and unpleasant to use.
The dental products and baking soda simply didn't work.
Another conclusion that can be drawn from these tests
is that the well-meaning advice to 'dunk the mouthpiece' in various
solutions is something of a risky proposition.
Plenty of people have reported no apparent harm coming to the mouthpiece
when left in a cup of cola, but a great deal depends on what the
mouthpiece is made of and what the state of the material is. Some
ebonite seems more susceptible to greening than others, and prolonged
exposure to light and heat tends to exacerbate this tendency (so
older pieces are more likely to suffer). My advice is to play it
safe - don't dunk - take the time and trouble to used soaked wads
that can be placed in the mouthpiece's window unless you're absolutely
and 100% sure that your mouthpiece will not be affected by complete
immersion (such as a basic Yamaha mouthpiece, which is made of a
said, there is one advantage of complete immersion, and that is
that it will ensure complete coverage of the bore. This is important,
as there can be just as much - if not more - scale build-up in the
areas you can't easily see. As you can see here, the scale deposits
in the window are scattered around...but just inside the bore they're
starting to form a more solid coating. The simplest solution is
to poke some cotton wool down the bore before you fill the window
with it, and this will draw your chosen solution right inside the
Although I used white malt vinegar I can see no reason
why some other sorts of vinegar would not work just as well - such
as common brown malt vinegar, as found on your chips (or fries,
depending on where in the world you are) or cider vinegar. If in
any doubt look on the label for the acidity - it will usually be
in the region of 4% to 6%. Balsamic vinegar is not suitable.
As for metal mouthpieces, I did try a couple in both the Hydrogen
Peroxide and the vinegar. Obviously colour change is not an issue
- but metals tend to react adversely to acids, and with this in
mind the speed with which the vinegar softens the scale makes it
a viable proposition.
You can also use citric acid in the ratio of one heaped teaspoon
of powder to 110ml of water (or two teaspons per cup of water).
For more details, see the article on brass
& ebonite versus acid.
If you're more concerned with sterilising your mouthpiece
then I would recommend washing it in lukewarm water with detergent,
and if you're feeling particularly fragile you can give it a sloosh
with some antibacterial mouthwash. Rinse off after a minute or so.
(This stuff is good for slooshing out sax crooks too, which can
get just as gunked up as mouthpieces.
I've used some of those antibacterial surface cleaners with success
(Dettox is a good one) - though care should be taken to avoid the
ones that contain bleach or 'grease-busting' agents...they may be
rather harsh. There's no need to be any more fastidious than that
- the risks of catching something nasty from a mouthpiece are the
same as those in sharing a cup, just use your common sense.
If you're still worried, think about what's on all those
coins in your pocket...and have a read of this