One question we get a lot in the repair shop is what pad choices are available? Also, what are the benefits of each type of pad?
1. Cork pads – this pad option is often considered the standard option for the upper joint of a clarinet when one is considering a pro setup. In our shop a pro setup consists of cork pad on the upper joint (except for the A/D key) and your choice of pads on the lower joint. Cork pads need to be very firm, flat, and virtually pore-less. When installed properly these pads will last a very long time. One of the benefits of cork pads is that they can actually be surfaced. When a skin pad wears out and the indention becomes really deep the only option is to replace it. Cork pads most of the time can be surfaced to remove the indention in the pad and extend the life of the pad. My favorite benefit in cork pads is venting. We all have found notes that just seem stuffy. Cork pads can help alleviate and vent the air out of the pad. The way this is accomplished is by beveling the pad. We actually custom fit every cork pad in our shop. We find the correct thickness, change key angles, and bevel pads as necessary to achieve the best result. Cork pads are by far my favorite. One common dislike is that they do tend to be louder than the traditional skin pads. This is why we only install them on the upper joint.
2. Traditional skin pads – if you have ever purchased a new clarinet then you probably know about the traditional skin pad. Skin pads are actually made of a couple different materials. Traditionally, you have a firm cardboard backing, a layer of felt, and a double bladder skin wrapped around the pad. The felt does a good job to make this pad option very quiet. Skin pads when installed properly can last a long time. The problem is that in many cases skin pads are not installed properly and they will shift causing major leaks. I would blame this more on the installation than the pad itself. Skin pads are a little more difficult to install, which is why it is done incorrectly many times. A common misconception is that since the felt adds some give to the pad surface that you can over tighten the spring tensions to make the pad cover. While this may disguise leaks as a result the horn is still leaking, and you also have an instrument with spring tensions that feel awful. Skin pads are the most used pad for a reason.
3. Gortex pads (Buffet) – Gortex pads are Buffet’s premium pad. It is actually a buffet skin pad wrapped with a gortex (leather-like material). Gortex has been used in many industries. It is supposed to be waterproof as well. It looks very smooth in contrast to the porous surface of leather pads. One benefit is the gortex layer makes the pad feel more firm. When installing you can actually manipulate the thickness of the pad because the gortex layer is very pliable. When installed correctly, the gortex layer creates a nice tight seal. One down side is that they are unfortunately very expensive. You can only purchase them from Buffet.
4. Leather pads – leather pads are very similar to skin pads but instead of a bladder skin you get the leather layer wrapped around the same cardboard backing and felt. Leather tends to have a porous surface, which some repairman do not like. I think leather pads have their place though and we install them if the customer requests them. The leather material gives the same benefit that the gortex pads have when it comes to the firmness of the pad. There are several leather pad options. If you have heard of Roo pads, these pads are actually made from kangaroo leather.
5. Synthetic pads – Valentino! You probably have heard of these pads if you are a band director. The peel-n-stick pad is definitely appealing. These may work in an emergency situation but peel-n-stick is not a good long term solution. Valentino actually has come a long way. The traditional greenback valentino has a few layers. A paper backing, dense foam material, and then a sealing layer. The top sealing layer is what causes the pad to seal. If they were just made of dense foam the air would leak through the pad. A common option that we recommend to people for the lower joint is Valentino’s Master Series pad. This redesigned pad comes with many layers. It has a very hard backing and a few layers of foam. The difference is the backing and the layers within the pad, which overall make the pad more firm. You actually have color options as well: tan and white.
Have you ever seen a check engine light come on in a car? It kind of can raise your blood pressure slightly because the unknown can draw up some fear. The good thing is that usually the check engine light is a warning light that something is not right. It usually doesn’t mean your engine is about to explode, but I guess it could. Hey, I am just a clarinet repairman! The good news for clarinet players is that there are some “check engine lights” that you can look for. One of the first things you can do is to take a clean paper towel and wipe down your tenon corks. Is your white paper towel all of sudden full of dirt and grime? Did you know that the dirt buildup on your tenon corks act as an abrasive. Over time if they are not cleaned it can actually wear out your cork causing your tenon to feel loose. You can potentially lose air from the tenons as well when the cork is not sealed or the tenon cork becomes loose. It also just looks gross!
The “dirty cork” philosophy also holds true to the oil within the hinge tubes of your clarinet. The more you play the instrument the more that the oils will break down. Over time the oil can actually harden. When we remove the keys in the shop they actually look like they have sticky black goo all over them when the oil has broken down. Not only does this make the instrument feel sluggish, but it also has the same effect as the cork theory. Over time this hardened dirt/oil build up acts as an abrasive. It can actually enlarge your hinge tubes (or wear out the rods) in different spots causing the key to feel loose. This is why we would recommend overhauls to some clients. In the overhaul process we actually “swedge” the hinge tubes. Swedging is the procedure used to tighten the keys back. In some cases the rods actually have to be “oversized.” When they are really bad we drill out the hinge tube and make a brand new “oversized” rod that tightens the key. Probably even tighter than when it was new to be honest. Now, with regular maintenance (we recommend annual cleanings) the keys are cleaned and lubricated. Check with your repairman to make sure they are actually cleaning the hinge tubes on all the keys, not just adding oil and removing only a few keys. All the keys need to be removed, cleaned, and reoiled when assembling the instrument back together. At Onks Woodwind Specialists, we specialize in Clarinet and Oboe repair. We always recommend a full service/cleaning annually.
You may be wondering what you can do though? My first recommendation would be to schedule annual cleanings with your repairman. Specifically ask for them to remove all the keys and to clean the hinge tubes and reoil them. We would also be happy at Onks Woodwind Specialists to do this for you. If you feel comfortable, you can actually remove a couple keys. An easy one to get to is the register key and the LH E/B & F#/C# levers. Unscrew the rods and remove them (do not use pliers with jaws). If the rod feels stuck then you have your answer. If the rod comes out, and looks like it has oil then you should be fine. The oil is going to look dark but as long as it is still oily you will be fine until your next cleaning. If you remove the rod and find it is really dry, especially dirty and dry, then a full cleaning is recommended. To get by you can use a needle bottle to insert a drop of oil into the hole in the post, then push the rod back in to the key and the oil in the post will be pushed into the key as well. We do not recommend oiling from the outside of the clarinet without removing the keys. You would need a very fine oil for it to even work, and most of the time the oil just drips down and causes more problems. For example, sticky pads, loosening key corks, and just creating a mess.
Now you can look at the chimneys/main finger holes on your instrument. Do you see that sticky dirt buildup? This can be removed with a q-tip but this along with dry rods can be a sign that you need to have your instrument serviced. Q-tips are your friend when it comes to cleaning up your clarinet. The buildup you see is also in the tone holes that you can not see. Buildup in the tone hole actually decreases the size of the tone hole. This will cause the instrument to possibly have intonation issues. For example if your F# (1st finger) tone hole is clogging up then you can expect your open G to play flat. While I am talking about intonation it is important to remember that the instrument heavily relies on the pad sealing the tone holes. When pads leak it causes tuning issues because air is lost. This means if you find your instrument not only having response issues but it has some tuning issues as well then you can bet the cause is most likely from leaking pads, bent keys, dirty tone holes, etc. We always try to blame the reed! You might find if you follow a few of these suggestions that your reeds play better,….just saying! If you ever have any questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
I will leave with you some pictures. This is a before and after of a rod on a clarinet that had not ever been serviced. The rod actually was completely rusted. Luckily, I was able to remove this one and clean it up. The one before I took the photo was not so lucky. I actually had to cut it off……yea, you read that correctly, I cut it off. Am I trying to scare you? Not really, but I would like to inspire you to have your instrument serviced regularly. 🙂