In the first article, about basic care of your recorder, I mentioned the great importance of keeping your instruments clean. However, I did not explain how to clean your wooden recorder, because it requires extra care compared to the process used for the resin or plastic ones.
Always keep in mind that it is better to be safe than sorry: if you care for your instruments — keeping them clean, oiled and safe from damage — you will rarely need the techniques described here.
When should I clean my wooden recorder?
First, we need to know how to tell when a recorder really needs cleaning. After that, we need to know how to best remove each type of dirt.
The most common reasons to clean your recorder are to remove:
- Dust and dirt
I will explain each procedure in the following sections.
Dust and dirt
This is the most common material that demands a serious instrument cleaning, and also the easiest to remedy. I am talking about an instrument that is left much of the time sitting on a desk or somewhere else open, or that was used with dirty hands.
The dust is easily seen: the instrument looks dirty. When the dust is recent, it can be rubbed gently with a dry, very soft cloth. The longer your recorder has been dusty, the harder it is to clean, because the dust will stick to the surface.
When the instrument becomes dirty because of your hands, it will be marked with fingerprints or spots, especially on the holes. When this happens, we need to clean with a dry, very soft cloth, like a very old T-shirt or towel. Rub the entire instrument with moderate pressure, being very careful to avoid the window and the labium, because these parts are sensitive to touch and pressure. All superficial dust and dirt will be removed using this method. This procedure will also make the wood more glossy and shiny .
If the recorder remains dirty after cleaning with a soft cloth, we can move on to the next step: using oil. The procedure is the same as in the earlier steps, but in addition the cloth must be oiled. Use the same oil that we would normally use (linseed, almond, olive oil, etc.; see my last column on oiling your recorder), or use an antiseptic oil, like turpentine oil.
Put some drops of oil on a cloth, and rub the instrument until the spots are cleaned completely or partially. Never use pressure. Be patient: the recorder is a delicate musical instrument; if you use too much pressure, you can damage the wood. It is better to spend more time rubbing rather than to use your strength to rub harder.
After rubbing with a cloth and oil, we need to clean the oil off with a dry cloth or towel — I prefer using a towel. There will be some spots that will not be removed using this procedure. Please don’t rub too much or too hard. Don’t worry: a spot will not affect the recorder’s sound.
This condition is very common, especially in cold weather climates, or when the excess oil is not completely removed after an oiling session. It also can happen after an abrupt temperature change — when warming the instrument, the oil from inside the wood melts on the surface; when the instrument becomes cold again, it becomes sticky.
In this case, a dry, soft cloth will not be sufficient for cleaning. We must use oil, as before — but in some cases using oil still will not clean thoroughly. However, you must first try to clean with oil before moving to the next step.
If you have already rubbed the instrument with oil and cleaned off the oil—and the instrument remains sticky—you should remove all the old oil from the instrument (which removes the oil’s protection, as well). Then allow the instrument to dry, and oil it again after a while. This is also what must be done when the dirt is widespread and penetrates the wood’s pores.
To remove all of the oil, we will use ethyl alcohol (concentration above 90%), or isopropyl alcohol. Do not use varieties with low concentration, because they cannot remove the polymerized oil from the surface of the instrument.
To apply the alcohol, use a soft cloth or towel, and rub it on the entire instrument. It is not necessary to use strength, but again you must use patience! During this process, the polymerized oil will melt, while the cloth and the instrument will become sticky and yellowish as the oil is absorbed by the cloth. Change the cloth if necessary, until the recorder is clean. The recorder will look very dry and whitish, with the wood grain more noticeable — and, in some cases, it will seem as if the wood will crack . Let the recorder dry by itself, until the alcohol evaporates completely; it dries faster than oil, so you don’t need to wait an entire day.
After that, the recorder should be clean, with no stickiness, because all of the old oil has been removed. At this point, you must oil it again, as explained in the previous article about oiling.
You can use another method, if you do not feel secure in using alcohol to clean your instrument. You can use toothpaste instead of alcohol, either on a towel or on a toothbrush . In both cases, you need water, because the toothpaste will not clean without water.
After cleaning the entire instrument, remove all toothpaste from the recorder. Wash it under running water, rubbing gently and avoiding water that is too hot or cold. Then let the instrument dry by itself. Apply oil again.
As I have mentioned, wind instruments are very vulnerable to fungus, which is very resistant and difficult to remove. In some cases, it can damage the wood structure; because of that, it is always better to avoid fungus, keeping the instrument clean and dry.
Different kinds of fungus include:
- Random black or dark spots. They can “grow” or populate like a virus.
- Dark smudges on the wet parts (tenons, mouthpiece, window— as in the photo at right)
- White or grey “bubbles,” especially on parts that we don’t touch — that is, inside the instrument. These can be hazardous if they grow in the windway, and we don’t act immediately to remove them.
For fungus cases, there are two substances we can use: sodium hypochlorite (used to purify water, also the main ingredient in laundry bleach), or chloride (such as you can find in an antiseptic mouthwash). If you choose the first one, please mix it with water in a 50% solution, because it usually comes in a very highly concentrated form.
Only use these substances if nothing else has been successful. If done more frequently than necessary, this can change the wood’s characteristics — and if the procedure is not followed strictly, you can damage your instrument.
Both chloride and sodium hypochlorite must be used in the same way as a cleaning agent: put some droplets on a cotton swab, then use the swab on the part of the surface with fungus.
When fungus has affected the windway, put droplets of the cleaning agent in the windway by way of the window, as we do with anticondensing solution. Immediately after that, remove the excess by blowing air through the headjoint. Let the recorder dry in a vertical position. The substance should not penetrate the wood, but only clean its surface. If the recorder had plenty of oil before the fungus appeared, it will be easy to clean — the oil itself will prevent the cleaning agent from penetrating into the wood.
Important: never soak your recorder in chloride or sodium hypochlorite. It will bend, warp and damage the wood grain, eventually destroying the instrument.
One or two hours after you have applied the product, the recorder should be dry, with no spots. If it is not dry yet, use a fan to speed up drying. When it dries completely, oil the recorder, as explained in my last article.
Do not over-clean the instrument. Occasionally there will be persistent spots or marks that do not affect the recorder’s sound — and the sound is always more important than aesthetics. After all, some spots may stay on the instrument even after you have followed all of the steps, but they should not affect the sound.
The recorder in the photo that illustrates fungus removal (on the Fungus subject at right) is more than 30 years old, and the dark regions in the window may be caused by fungus and humidity from long ago. Everything was cleaned, but the spots remained — yet this recorder is really excellent. I took the instrument to the recorder maker who built it. He cleaned the windway, block and window — still, spots remained. He assured me that, if we take care of the instrument, the fungus will not return.
If we don’t take special care to avoid getting oil on the keypads, they may become sticky over time, and their operation may be compromised. In these cases, we must carefully clean the keys and keypads with a cloth and alcohol, removing all oil from the keypads’ leather .
After this procedure, put talcum powder on a napkin . Then put the nap- kin in between the wood and the key- pad, so that the powder touches the entire surface where the keypad touches the wood .This procedure must be repeated every time it becomes sticky.
The next article is about tuning recorders while playing in a group . If you play in a recorder group or in one with other instruments, you must read it!
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