Basic care – Wind instruments

In terms of care and preservation, wind instruments fall into two basic categories: those made of metal and those made of wood. Metal instruments are prone to corrosion and can be damaged by denting and bending. Wooden instruments are sensitive to humidity and can crack and distort. Like all functional objects, they will show patterns of wear with use and perhaps repairs that have been made along the way.

Before doing anything to wind instruments, always consider the implications of cleaning away possible evidence of use. Caring for such objects can be very complicated. The notes given below are basic and deal only in general with cleaning and protection. The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has a technical bulletin on The Care of Musical Instruments in Canadian Collections which contains detailed advice on the cleaning of instruments. As always with musical instruments that are meant to be played, you should seek advice and help from a specialist.

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With use, metal instruments can become tarnished quite quickly because acids and oils in the skin are transferred to the metal. Also, the breath passing through the instrument condenses inside, encouraging corrosion in places that are not easy to access. Interior cleaning is difficult to do effectively without special equipment because you often have to take apart the instrument. In general, such work should be left to a wind instrument repairer who has the necessary expertise.

Before polishing an instrument

Before polishing, consider that it might make a badly dented instrument look worse. Small dents and defects tend to blend into a matte surface, but when the surface is highly polished they reflect very differently. Assess this possibility before proceeding.

A mildly tarnished instrument can be cleaned with a jeweller's cloth. This is a piece of flannelette coated with jeweller's rouge (hematite), a fine pink-coloured abrasive. The cloth should be rubbed gently and evenly over the surface, paying special attention to low and hidden areas. A soft cloth should be used to wipe away any residual traces of the jeweller's rouge. More severe corrosion requires a more abrasive liquid metal polish. If this is considered necessary, remember that polishes remove metal. Every time a piece is polished, some metal is worn away. With this in mind, polish the instrument once and thereafter protect it from further tarnishing. The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Note 9/3, The Cleaning, Polishing and Protective Waxing of Brass and Copper, covers this topic in some depth.

Polishing the exterior

Polishing exterior surfaces is a more straightforward task. Check first that the instrument has not been lacquered. These coatings are quite durable and must be removed before any polishing can be done. In general, if the lacquer is in good condition, it should not need to be removed. However, lacquers tend to break down over time. This can cause an unpleasant-looking spotty tarnish. In this case, it will be necessary to remove the lacquer. Discuss this with a musical instrument repairer.

Metal parts of wooden instruments

The metal parts of wooden instruments, such as keys and ferrules, can also be treated in the above way. It is very important to keep polishing materials away from the wood. Protect the surface with thin plastic film cut to fit around the component being polished, and clean well afterwards. Be very careful when polishing around springs, axles and other features of the key work.

Wooden parts of wind instruments

Cleaning the wooden parts of wind instruments can be done initially by dusting. A soft paint brush can be used, brushing towards the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. If dusting fails to remove ingrained stains and dirt, damp dusting can be done if the finish of the instrument is in good condition. Intact and smooth paint or varnish can be gently rubbed with a soft cloth moistened in water to which has been added a few drops of detergent.

Musical instrument dealers sell a range of products that can be used to keep working instruments in clean condition, but these should be treated with caution for those instruments that are in storage or on static display. The cleaning fluids can build up causing staining and discolouration. It is not advisable to use any fluid preparation in the bores of wind instruments that are not being played. Like cleaning fluids, these materials tend to build up.

Other moving parts

Light lubricating oil can be applied to all moving parts, but be very careful not to spill any onto wood components. Use oil very sparingly and apply it using the point of a toothpick. Blot up any excess oil immediately with tissues.

Treat all reeds, mouthpieces and other supplementary devices carefully. They should not be left in place in the instrument because they can become stuck. Keep them in a container, either with the instrument or in another safe place.


If you have a case for the instrument, this will be the best place to keep it if it is in good condition. Check that the soft padding and lining fabrics are in good condition, and that the instrument fits the case properly.

If there are wide variations in humidity where a wooden instrument will be stored, enclose it in a polyethylene bag before putting it in the case. This will buffer sudden changes and prevent stress to the wood. You should always examine objects that are not normally exposed to ensure that all is well with them. Objects that are put away in cupboards or attics tend to be neglected because they are "out of sight, out of mind." Make it a habit to check regularly on heirlooms, especially those made of fragile materials.

Heritage objects should be handled with more care than objects that are used routinely. Try to maintain the fine distinction between the working musical instrument and the heritage object. Treat it gently, pick it up carefully and place it on a soft surface to avoid scratching.

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These resources were published by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). For comments or questions, including reproduction requests, contact the CCI.

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