Basic Recorder Care



recorder parts

I have heard recurring questions among recorder players about how to care for the instrument, how to clean it, when to oil it and which oil should be used, what to do when the recorder clogs, and many others. This article is the first of a series dealing with various subjects, to clarify some of these questions.

First, I shall distinguish among the recorders themselves, because the care differs for plastic and for wooden ones. All care applied to plastic instruments also applies to wood instruments, unless stated otherwise.

Plastic or resin recorders

All wind instruments tend to condense water inside when played. This is due to the temperature difference between the air being blown and the air outside the instrument, as well as the temperature of the instrument itself. It is the same phenomenon that happens on the outside of a cold glass bottle, on the bathroom wall when one takes a hot bath, or on a window when it fogs up after blowing on it. In these three examples, the hot air, in contact with a colder surface, causes the moisture to condense and to form water droplets.

The environment inside the instrument—high humidity, low light and warm air temperature—is ripe for bacteria, germs and fungus to proliferate, if we do not take proper care of the instrument by cleaning it. These are basic precautions we must take:

Keep your recorder clean and dry

  • Brush your teeth before you start to play. Although spittle is not the main cause of water accumulation in the instrument, we cannot say that no spit will collect inside the instrument when it is played. The largest number of microorganisms in the human body lives in the mouth. Even a tiny piece of food, if trapped inside your recorder, directly compromises the sound quality, and can carry disease.
  • Wash your hands before playing.
  • Cut your nails, especially that of the left thumb, which is used to close the hole on the back of the recorder. If that nail is not well-trimmed, it is impossible to produce clear high notes.
  • Do not wear lipstick. In addition to dirtying the recorder, in such a way that makes it impossible to remove after a while, lipstick accumulated in the mouthpiece becomes a deposit of microorganisms, made worse by the lipstick’s viscosity.
  • Keep your recorder dry and clean.

After you finish playing, always dry the recorder inside and out before storing. Drying can be done with a thin, absorbent cloth, or even by leaving the recorder in a vertical position in open air for 30 or 40 minutes. Storing the recorder while it is humid or wet prevents it from drying out, and will cause bacteria and fungus to accumulate inside the instrument.

Wash the recorder with water and detergent regularly (read below about doing this with a wooden recorder). It is important to wash the recorder inside and out, but special care is needed when washing the mouthpiece, the window (or labium) and the air channel. These areas should be clean—but they are the most sensitive parts of the instrument and, therefore, must be very carefully cleaned without abrasion or pressure.

If the recorder begins to smell, wash as described above—but, ideally, it needs to be washed before you notice a smell. If the smell continues, even after washing, apply a few drops of an antiseptic mouthwash (containing a chloride compound) or sodium hypochlorite (the main ingredient in laundry bleach) into the channel before washing, leaving the drops there for 5-10 minutes.

Then wash with soap and water. These products should only be used in extreme situations; usually washing with water and detergent is enough. After washing, dry the recorder completely before storing.

Other care

Protect the window (also called labium) from careless hands, falls or bumps. This is the most sensitive external part of the recorder. Any damage in this region will certainly affect sound quality.

If your recorder clogs with condensation, first try blowing strongly through the window. This causes the accumulated water in the channel to be expelled out of the instrument rather than into the instrument. Moreover, using this method avoids the possibility of putting a finger in the window, which would damage the area (as explained above).

Always use white Vaseline or the grease that came with the recorder to lubricate the joints.This practice decreases friction, increasing the life of the instrument, and also helps to seal the joints when they are no longer new.

When the recorder is old and the joints become loose, you can wrap cotton thread (or for plastic recorders, a strand of hair) around the joint to keep it tight until you can have the recorder repaired (see photos).

Warm up the instrument before playing. Keep the recorder’s headjoint in your pocket, or slowly blow hot air in the window for few minutes before playing, or even hold the recorder in your warm hand, especially at the top near the channel and the window. This is very useful, on cold days, and will help you stay in tune while playing the recorder—and it also prevents water accumulation inside the instrument. If the recorder is the same temperature as your body, water does not accumulate by condensation.

Wooden recorders

Wood is a living, breathing material. Besides all the care used for plastic instruments, wooden recorders require some extra attention—but the superior sound quality compensates for the necessary precautions.The care for wooden recorders differs from that outlined above for plastic recorders:

  • Since wood is a porous material, all precautions regarding cleaning must be observed strictly because dirt, bacteria and fungi can penetrate the wood. To prevent this, we must oil wooden instruments, but I will not discuss how to do that in this article; oiling a recorder is the topic of another article in this series.
  • It is not advisable to wash a wooden recorder in the same way that you would wash a plastic recorder. This makes it even more important to take special care as described above, preventing the instrument from accumulating dirt of all kinds, and also preventing excessive moisture from damaging the wood. Cleaning a wooden recorder will be covered later in this series.

Extra care for wooden recorders

A new wooden recorder has to be “played in.” In order to stabilize the wood with breath, temperature and humidity, it is necessary to “play in” a new recorder every day, not exceeding 20 minutes per day. Some makers even recommend that you play for five minutes per day in the first week, 10 the second, 15 the third, and so on until you reach an hour per day. Then you can use the new recorder to its full capacity.

The same care is needed to “play in” a recorder that is very old, after a long period in which it has not been played.

The wood of a recorder tends to change when the instrument has not been used for a while or is new, causing changes in the sound. Makers know this, and often make the channel a little bigger than it should be, with the block slightly lower than the ideal point. When “playing in” a recorder, the block rises and swells, thus reaching the required point. Sometimes the block goes higher than expected; in this case, it is necessary to make a small adjustment, which can be made by the manufacturer or the maker.

Protect your recorder from sudden temperature variations, or extreme temperatures (below 50 and above 95 degrees Fahrenheit or below 10 and above 35 Celcius). Temperature variation causes the wood to change its dimensions, which can cause cracking on the recorder body. Depending on where these cracks appear, they can make the instrument unusable. In addition, very high temperatures (such as those inside a vehicle left in the sun) can melt the paraffin used in the treatment of the wood, in the case of factory recorders.

Each handmade recorder should be sent back to its maker after one year of use. The wood warps and changes its dimensions with time, in response to the effects described above. Even if these changes are imperceptible, they affect the sound of the instrument. The maker will do the necessary adjustments to the recorder to restore its best sound.

When traveling by air, it is better to carry instruments disassembled in your hand luggage inside the cabin. If you have to ship an instrument, store it in sealed plastic bags (like Ziplocs) inside an impact and temperature-resistant case. I know more than one situation where a friend of mine, traveling with recorders in checked luggage, has reached the destination to find that the recorder was cracked—yet there was no evidence of the luggage being dropped or hit.

Recorders should always travel disassembled. It is very common for the expansion or contraction of the wood due to change in temperature or pressure to crack the instrument’s tenons.

recorder keysThinking about tenons: they must be tight, but easy to handle—that is, easy to assemble and disassemble, but without gaps and without any risk that they may come apart while playing. If the socket is too hard to assemble, use cork grease or Vaseline. If it is too loose, wrap cotton thread over the existing cork. Always take care that the tenons are not too tight, as this may cause cracking. When the thread is in place, use beeswax or paraffin to make it waterproof, because the thread swells when wet—which can also crack the tenons. Grip the tenon with your hand, and your body heat will melt the wax into the thread.

On a recorder with keys, special attention must be paid to them so they are not forced in any way. We must also take care not to put anything oily on key pads, as there is a risk that they can stick to the instrument.



To keep your recorder from becoming clogged, use an anti-condensing agent. Rather than buying a commercial product, make one yourself: 1 part liquid detergent to 10 parts water. Put the solution into a bottle with a dropper. Before playing, turn the recorder upside down (with the mouthpiece at the bottom), closing the channel with your finger. Put a few anti-condensing drops through the window in the channel, then open the mouthpiece and the window to allow the excess to flow out.

Using an anti-condenser will help avoid droplets being formed by the condensed water in the channel. Instead, the water forms a thin layer of liquid, which does not interfere with sound. This method can be used in both plastic and wooden recorders.


7 Comments to "Basic Recorder Care"

  1. Parabéns pelas explicações. Sou iniciante na Contralto Barroca e com toda certeza seguirei tuas instruções. Muito obrigado.

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