With the change of seasons, I thought it might be a good time for a vintage clarinet care post - I've been seeing a lot of dried out, neglected clarinets here in the shop!
An older wood clarinet is going to need more care than a new one for best performance, and quite a bit more than that student plastic horn you used to abuse, so let's get to it!
1 - Swab it after you play, but avoid inserts. You want to get the moisture out - not put it back in! Those fuzzy inserts absorb moisture from the body and pads, with regular use, and then it goes...right back in the clarinet! Just swab from both ends and put it away.
2 - Bore oil is your friend. I'm amazed at the number of folks I meet that don't use it and the number of horns I receive that desperately need it! Buy a good quality brand that has some natural oils (not just petroleum distillates) and a fuzzy clarinet bore swab. Put a few drops on the swab and run it through all 4 pieces of the body until you see a light 'sheen' in there: don't soak it! If the horn is really dry, it may be necessary to repeat this a few times in the first week. Eventually, once a month or so will be enough to keep it looking healthy: this will protect it from cracks and warp-age and extend the useful life of your instrument!
3 - Humidify. While you don't want a damp insert holding moisture right next to your pads, you do want a little humidity in there, especially during the winter or if you live in an arid part of the country. Take a tip from the old pros and put a couple pieces of orange rind in the bell: it will make the case smell nice and protect the bell in particular from the shrinkage that loosens rings and causes cracks.
4 - Oil the mechanism. A lot of the looseness in old clarinet keys is the result of un-lubricated dirt between the key and the post being rubbed back and forth, thousands of times, until metal gradually wears away. A good way to improve movement and arrest wear is to buy a little bottle of key oil (I like Hetman's) with a needle fitting and hit the contact points at each end of the key with a drop, about twice a year.
5 - Watch that thermal shock! Wooden clarinets don't like dry heat, direct sun, or sudden temperature changes. Don't leave it in a car on a hot day, or march with it, or set it near a heat source. No company guarantees their horns against cracking, and I can't either!
Ironically, your old clarinet will probably withstand the rigors of use better than a new one: its wood blanks were aged longer before cutting, and it has had years to stabilize since then. I see many clarinets 80+ years old that look and play great! If you take care of yours, someone might be playing it many years from now, as well....
Recently, in a fit of bravery, I've been purchasing some no-name clarinets, mostly Albert systems. These golden-oldies have gotten harder to find, lately, and the big names are commanding big prices: a $1000 or more for a Buffet or Selmer in good, un-restored condition, which puts it out of my 'can-risk' range!
I don't buy blind, of course: I look at wood, key-work, and condition and I ask questions. And you would be surprised at some of the nice old horns that I come across! There are a number of reasons: most no-names were made by reputable manufacturers for stores, catalogs and big distributors. If it says 'made in France' and its from the 20's-50's, chances are good that it was a Buffet, Thibouville Freres, Selmer, Couesnon, Malerne, or SML. If it was 'made in Italy', a Rampone or Orsi. If 'made in Germany', a Gebr. Moennig or one of a host of excellent (if lesser known) makers from Markneukirchen - not a bad pedigree!
Also, this was the Era of the Clarinet and a poor make didn't stand much of a chance against the flood of reasonably priced, quality instruments on the market. Compare this to today's spate of First Act, Borg, and other marginal junk instruments - they wouldn't have stood a chance 80 years ago! Even some of the old French and American stencil hard rubber or metal instruments play surprisingly well, with a good overhaul and decent mouthpiece.
So, don't be scared of an inexpensive old no-name for personal use. Compare key-work for similarities to known brands (hint: the shape of the lower stack bridge key is a giveaway to at least 3 makers), look for dark wood with a tight grain and pro features (like post lock-downs) and ask Ask ASK questions : are there cracks, ugly repairs, frozen/rusted keys, etc. With practice and a little luck, you can have a fine horn for practically the cost of the overhaul and save another piece of craftsmanship from the junk-pile....
Here's good news for those of you with an old Kohlert clarinet! I haven't been able to find a good serial number chart, but I just came across a post (from the Clarinet BBoard) with this list of bell logos and corresponding eras:
Pre- WW 1 (1918): “V. Kohlert’s Söhne Graslitz”. The Bohemian border region belonged to the Austrian Empire. Most inhabitants, also the Graslitz instrument makers like Kohlert, Püchner, Keilwerth, and many others, were German
1918- 38: “V.Kohlert’s Söhne, Graslitz, Czecho-Slovakia”. The region was part of the new Czecho-Slovak Republic. According to New Langwill they were among the largest firms of WWI makers in Bohemia with workforce of 400 in 1929 and a 23- piece orchestra.
After Nazi Germany had, by the Munich treaty of 1938, taken over the German- Bohemian border region, it was: “Graslitz, Sudetengau”.
After WW 2, till about 1948, when the Germans (“Sudetendeutsche”) were expropriated and expelled by the Czechoslovak state: “V.Kohlerta Synobe Kraslice” . The former Kohlert workshops were then taken over by the state owned Amati company.
At Winnenden near Stuttgart, South Germany, they started their business again. The instruments were then stamped “Kohlert & Co. Winnenden” They had to give up, as far as I know, about 1980.
After years of refurbishing Penzel Mueller clarinets, I'm still amazed at the obscurity in which they linger! From a buying point of view, great: from a selling point of view, not so good. So, here's a little info to pique your interest in this unjustly forgotten brand.
The company was started by 2 German immigrants, Penzel and Mueller, in the early 1890's in Long Island City NY. They offered a variety of clarinets and flutes, as well as some saxes and brass which I suspect were made by someone else and stenciled with the PM logo. If someone can shed more light, please do! The company operated through the late 1950's (as best I can determine), before ceasing production.
Their clarinets (especially the Artist, Studio Recording, and Super Brilliante models) were top of the line horns, easily comparable to anything coming out of Europe during the period. Woody Herman played an Artist model, in fact. The tone was more 'American' than 'French' in concept - think Conn rather than Buffet - great for Jazz as well as concert music, free-blowing, more direct than sweet. Intonation is very good on most of the horns I've tried, and the key-work is comfortable unless you have very small hands: there's a bit of a spread, which is welcome for us large fingered folk!
A customer in Texas was kind enough to forward a model/price list from their 1955 catalog:
Super Brilliante $340
Artist, new model $265
Bel Canto $185
American Professional $165
Standard Model $129.50
The only one I've worked on that I don't see here is the 'Studio Recording' model, which was a pro horn that came with 3 barrels. Perhaps it had been discontinued by 1955? Anyway, I hope this is enough to get you to keep an eye out for one of the better PM's in good playing condition. Regardless of the style you play, I believe you'd enjoy it.
I buy most of my horns on eBay and have learned, through long and expensive experience, to examine every instrument with a fine toothed comb before purchasing! I've received cracked clarinets, plastic instead of wood clarinets, broken clarinets, clarinets with damaged or missing keys or rings, and even a clarinet that was made of pieces of 3 different clarinets! So, based on my experience and some of the customer horns I've been seeing lately (also purchased on eBay) I'd say its time for an eBay buying tutorial!
First, I'd restrict my buying to the US and Canada unless you are fluent in another language and can afford to risk the high shipping. Mistakes can happen with overseas communication, and it can be much harder and more expensive to force a return if things aren't as represented!
Second, look at feedback: while feedback can't tell you everything (with one negative, ebay's current policy of basing it on only the last year's transactions can make a small seller look worse than he/she is) it is a good place to start. Numerous negatives/ neutrals and unflattering comments about misrepresented condition, poor communication, and high shipping can be a tip off that you aren't dealing with someone who is professional or honest - best to move on; lots of fish in the sea...
Third, what does the ad show and tell you? Is it full of sharp pictures and copious details or a few badly taken pictures and a very skimpy description posted from a mobile phone? Is the person obviously knowledgeable and informative about the instrument, or just a garage sale picker looking for a quick sale at the highest price?
To be continued....
One of the clarinet makers I've watched for for years is Thibouville Freres, a French company that seems to date from the 40's - 60's (based on case, design elements, etc). These restore to be some truly fine playing horns, with nice design features and a slightly larger than standard bore. I've sold them to Jazz players, Klezmer players and others of uncertain affiliation, always with happy results!
The nicest one I've ever seen was an 'Artist' model that I bought from Goodwill for about 75 dollars! It was a large bore pro horn with all tenons metal lined, a metal lined barrel, and 7 rings. After a full overhaul, it was a wonderful player with a fat, Selmer-like 'vintage' tone and good intonation, ideal for Jazz or Classical, depending on choice of mouthpiece. The 'Concert' and 'Supreme' models are also excellent.
Thibouville Freres also made nice bass clarinets (under their own name and as stencils, I believe), and was responsible for building some or all of the McIntyre system instruments that I've seen. They also made instruments in the 60's (as best I can determine) with the M. Masson name as well as Thibouville on the sections. I think they were more of a student level horn, based on the couple I've overhauled, but still decent players if well set up...
I do notice, BTW, that mouthpiece choice seems to be a factor: a customer of mine who had purchased one last year (and reported being unimpressed) called me recently, raving about its tone and playability with a change of mouthpiece. Maybe that made all the difference, or maybe he's been practicing more, who knows ?
Does anyone else have experience to report with this company's instruments and any idea why they aren't a whole lot more famous?
This idea for a post came from a customer question: 'how can I tell the difference between LP and HP clarinets?"
Its a damn good question! For those of you who aren't familiar with the terms, LP stands for Low Pitch (A=440) and HP for High Pitch (approx. A=456). The latter was a pitch system in use in Europe in the late 19th/early 20th cen, and crossed the ocean with emigres bearing clarinets. Thankfully, it died out in the 30's, as the two systems are about a quarter tone apart and little or nothing can be done, (with longer barrels, etc.), to reconcile the two!
You'll see these poor beasties on eBay with some frequency and they always have a lonely, under-appreciated look to them, generally selling for $30 or $40 to someone who didn't ask for markings or measurements and thinks they're getting a hell of a deal! Well, they are, after a fashion: I've had a couple show up here and had to sit the owners down, with a box of Kleenex, and explain the harsh realities of multiple pitch systems to them.
The sad thing is that identification is not difficult! In the 1920's, with LP ascendant and HP on the way out, most instruments were marked one or the other on the main body sections. Before that, especially with European made instruments, you have to depend on measurements. A modern Bb clarinet is 23 1/4" assembled, without the mouthpiece. I've seen older examples that varied from 23 to 23 1/2", but nothing longer or shorter than that. By the time you're down to 22 7/8 or a bit less, you're looking at a Bb HP. Shun it! Run away! It will make a wonderful lamp or doorstop, but its days as a musical instrument are sadly past, unless you like playing clarinet by yourself...
On my Blogspot page, I have provided a chart of lengths for HP and LP clarinets in all the common keys (and a couple rare ones). The URL is http://vintageclarinetdoctor.blogspot.com/p/blog-page_14.html , if you'd like to check it out....
To finish up....
OK, everything closes, seals and is properly adjusted - you're done! Oh, wait a minute; there's the play test and final adjust....do all the notes speak clearly when I play a scale or arpeggio? Might need to open a couple side keys just a little for better venting. Is the lower joint stuffy or unplayable? Better check the adjustment on that bridge key...especially if you have an articulated C# or 7th ring Eb...they are pickier. Is the throat Bb stuffy vs. the side trill Bb? This is where the cork pad helps, as does running a small round file inside the register tube to make sure there's no gunk in there.
Is the springing even? There's nothing worse then light/heavy/light/heavy springing for throwing off your fingering. Time to get out small pliers and a spring hook to adjust the tension on a few keys. Now, do you have large or small hands/fingers? Might be a good time to think about the position of the Eb banana key on the upper stack, the C# spatula, the B alt on the lower stack, and the relative height of the LH pinky spatulas and Alt F...you shouldn't have to fumble for them or bump other keys by mistake...
I could go on, but I think you get the general idea why you might not want to 'Do It Yourself' on a vintage clarinet. There's an incredible amount of fine detail work, specialized tools and carefully honed skills....thanks for sticking it out!
OK, everything is buffed, clean and corked: now, pads.
I like tan kidskin (with cork on the register key) instead of the traditional fish bladder: they last longer, seal better on older (uneven) tone holes, give a feel that is more similar to a fingertip and don't show dirt/wear as quickly. I separate out the pile of keys and start sizing new pads. Then, a dab of hot glue in the key-cup and the pad is pressed evenly into place. It takes practice to use just enough glue to get it far enough into the cup to close, but not so far that the back is open when you go to adjust! This will vary a lot from brand to brand, so make a note in your head when you tear down: what was in there, how thick, and was it a good fit...if so, go ye forth and do likewise...
A final check of bodies, posts, springs, etc. and then I start reassembling, generally doing both stacks at the same time, working on one while the other has a pad clamped and cooling. I put the key on the instrument, making sure that its a snug fit but not binding and that the rod/screws are clean and oiled. Also, make sure that the key-cup is centered over the tone-hole and isn't higher on one side than the other; you'd be amazed what these go through in half a century! Heat the pad cup for a couple seconds with the torch, use a pad slick to give the pad a twist and level it, check for even coverage with a feeler, then clamp lightly (I like flute pad clamps) for a minute and on to the next key.
Once all the keys are on and the pads are seated, I do simultaneous adjustments: upper A/Ab, (screw adjustment if you're lucky, otherwise find some sax pad leather), crows foot on the lower body. Removing lost motion while allowing pads to close at the same time with exactly the same amount of pressure is the trick. Sometimes more or less cork is called for...
To be continued....
OK, the previous blog covered tear-down and preparation, now let's cover cleanup and rebuild:
I have a box full of body parts and keys in front of me; time to clean them! I use solvent to get the buffing compound residue off the keys, and give a final polish with a silver polish cloth. Strips of the same cloth are used to get in and around the posts and remove schmutz from the wooden pieces, as well. Don't forget to clean (and, if need be, polish) the bore and give it a light oiling!
Once all is clean, I go over the body to see if any tone-holes need attention: if they all look crisp, I'm good to go. If any show dings, nicks, or roughness from the original cutter being a little dull, I take out a special set of re-facing tools and take just a couple thousandths off the tone-hole, removing any damage and restoring the sharp, clean edge. This really helps with pad seat and seal, especially on older horns that've received a few (less than ideal) overhauls!
This is also a good time to check posts again for tightness, make sure all the springs are good, and re-gild the logos if they look worn - it really sharpens up the look of the finished job!
The next step is re-corking the keys and body: if you've buffed, those corks are toast! Sort those keys into piles for the right thickness of cork, clean off traces of old cork and adhesive and hit the appropriate spot with a coat of rubber cement. I use 4 or 5 different thicknesses of cork to get the keys to open and close to the proper degree - this is important! Not open enough and the note sounds stuffy and plays flat; too open, and the note sounds harsh and plays sharp. This is a critical part of assuring that the finished horn has good intonation and even tone, and every brand/model of horn is slightly different!
For corking the body tenons, I measure the inside diameter of the opposing socket and the outside diameter of the tenon slot with vernial calipers and figure what thickness of cork will provide a snug fit without being thick enough to risk cracking the body when I put it back together! Oh, did you remember to tighten those body rings if they were loose? They often are from wood shrinkage, and that's where many body cracks come from....
To Be Continued.....
The Licorice Shtick Blog is the creation of the Vintage Clarinet Doctor, a Winston Salem, NC based woodwind instrument repair shop specializing in vintage and antique clarinets, saxophones, and the occasional flute.