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
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
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 it.
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 compounds.
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 spot.
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
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 piece.
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
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 acid.
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 again.
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 acid.
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
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
For the final test I tried a dental product - denture cleaning
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 tablet
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
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 hard plastic).
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 mouthpiece.
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.
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 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