Wood Clarinets in Cold and Dry Climate: A first hand experience
We are located in New York, and this 2014/2015 winter has been a brutal one. It was exceptionally cold, exceptionally dry, and the weather persisted far longer than normal. This weather has wreaked havoc on our display model clarinets.
I’d like to share what happens when clarinet wood shrinks from dryness and cold combined, and how we handled rectifying the situation. I’ll start by saying this is not a typical scenario for a clarinet player. Most clarinet players are playing daily, or several times a week, and this regular practice schedule maintains moisture and humidity in the instrument.
Not Practicing Clarinet Regularly?
Let’s pretend you don’t keep the practice schedule you should, and perhaps your clarinet was left under your bed for the last six months. This is similar to our instruments on display in our store, they are kept in a display case. Here and there a customer comes in and plays them for a few minutes, but for the most part they just sit there and while we do our best to maintain the humidity in the display case. even the best humidification systems are challenged by cold and dry weather.
To our surprise, one of our display models recently had some binding keys. After sending the instrument through our repair shop it was found the wood had shrunk to a degree where it was causing the posts to push together on the rods causing friction on the keys. After seeing this, we checked all of our clarinets, and lo and behold there were several with similar problems.
With seven years of retail, we never had issues with our display model clarinets. Sure, sometimes bell rings will loosen, or tenon rings might fall off in the winter, but never have we had keys binding.
Stabilizing the Environment
Wood is very delicate and sensitive to environmental changes, so we wanted to correct the situation without causing any quick or dramatic shift to the wood. The clarinet was fully disassembled and the pieces were simply placed in a plastic bag with a small glycol (cigar humidor) humidifier and left to rest for 72-hours.
The instrument was reassembled and is now perfect, with no binding and no issues. The rings all fit snugly as they should. Allowing the wood to slowly rehydrate itself over the course of several days prevented any cracking or splits that might occur by quickly trying to repair the problem.
Rehydrating and Humidifying a Dry Clarinet
The point of this article is if you have not played your clarinet in a long time and some keys are binding, there is a good chance it’s not a mechanical issue but the constriction of the wood itself. You should VERY slowly allow the instrument to humidify and expand then re-evaluate the situation. Perhaps you will save on a repair bill, and at the very least you’ll save by preventing a potential crack by blowing warm and humid air into an instrument in this state!
Rehydration can be accomplished by applying specially made clarinet bore oil into the bore (inside) of the instrument, as well as leaving a damp (but not dripping) sponge in the case, but do not allow any of the actual clarinet to get wet. You can achieve the same thing by putting the pieces in a small box and leaving a damp sponge in the corner to humidify the box. Give the instrument 2-3 days to slowly expand and start by playing for only a few minutes a day, than slowly building up over the course of a week or two to your standard practice schedule.
There are never any guarantees if or when a wood clarinet could crack, but taking time to slowly acclimate the instrument to new environments will greatly reduce the potential for cracks.