how-to: Cleaning Your Flute

Here, we particularly want to visit all the aspects of cleaning your instrument - especially the stuff that's not often explicitly taught, or that's assumed to be common sense. What's common sense to one flutist is often missed by beginners on their own, and that lack is sometimes retained.


Swabbing Out Your Flute

There are three key elements to remember when swabbing out your flute.

1. Get up in the corners near the cork of your headjoint.

It's quite important to get up near the corners of the headjoint; this is where liquid often collects, and its proximity to the cork enhances the danger of mold and bacteria growth. This can be handled several ways. The microfiber pouch swab is our preferred choice of swab, being extremely absorbent (the most absorbent option here) while consistently reaching the corners. The flute wand is also quite effective, and has an extension option; this means you can quickly swab your entire flute without taking it apart during practice.
 
  
If you're using a silk swab, a flannel swab, a manufacturer's cleaning swab, a thin handkerchief, or another soft material, you need to be a little more careful when swabbing, especially if using a metal rod; you don't want to scratch the inside of your flute! After threading a corner of the cloth through your rod, wrap it over the top and around the tip so that the cloth itself will reach the corner of the headjoint at the cork.
 
 
The piccolo microfiber pouch swab, the piccolo wand, piccolo-sized silk swabs, and flannel swabs for piccolo, alto, bass, or curved-head C flutes and curved-head alto flutes are also available. Please make sure your students don't use a too-large swab or cloth for the piccolo; we have extracted many a stuck cleaning tool!
 
2. Clean your swabs.

Past a certain point, a dirty swab is introducing more foreign material into your flute than it's removing. Cleaning your swabs is fairly easy, especially the pouch swabs and the wands - they are designed to last for years of use. Every few months, or as needed, check to make sure you haven't reached Filth Level: Furious.

Cleaning: Wet the swab, pouch, or wand fabric at the sink and gently massage clear dish soap or (clear hand soap) into the material for 30-60 seconds. Make sure the soap is clear - opaque soaps include moisturizers which you won't want on the inside of your instrument, and they'll make the fabric repel liquid. Hardly ideal!

Alternatively, you can throw any of these (except the wands) into the laundry. If you throw them in the laundry, however, do not using dryer sheets - it will leave residue in your flute. We also don't completely endorse this method because the laundry machines will eat swabs just as easily as they eat socks.
 
silk swabs
 
3. Store the swab in your flute case - not in your flute.

We include this because, despite how obvious this might seem, we still get numerous flutes in every year with a swab stored in the body, damaging the pads. Make sure your students know that the moisture swabbed out of the flute goes right back into the flute if you do this - and pad replacements are expensive.
 

Cleaning the Exterior and Polishing Cloths

Use separate cloths for the inside and outside of your flute.

This is important. If you use the same cloth then you're smearing the oil and residue from your hands into your flute one way, and smearing the condensation and breath residue into your mechanism the other way.

What we recommend, and what we use for all our store flutes, are the ultrasuede cleaning clothes with anti-tarnish, though any non-abrasive non-treated cloth will still help keep your flute clean. Avoid silver polishing cloths. Our anti-tarnish cloths work due to a non-abrasive cleaning treatment. Most silver polishing cloths, however, work by abrading the surface and removing material. Please do not remove material from your flute.

For a full overview of the anti-tarnish cloth take a look at this instructional video!

As you wipe down your flute after every practice session make sure you note these points:
  1. Only gently wipe the lip plate. Applying too much pressure can cause the lip plate to pop off. A rare occurance - but it still happens.
  2. Wipe down the tenons of your flute - the places where the headjoint or the body slips into the next section. If grit or dirt gets in here it can easily scratch the flute and create fitting problems. Even worse, your flute could get stuck!
  3. Wipe the top of the keys, not the sides. Wiping the sides of the keys too industriously often moves smudge and residue into the pads themselves.
  4. Wipe down the mechanism, but don't go deep. We'll get the mechanism when you bring your flute in for a clean, oil, and adjust, but trying to polish too thoroughly on your own risks damaging the mechanism. You also don't want to work dust and dirt into the moving parts!
  5. And, of course, wipe down the tube itself.

anti-tarnish strips

A nice complement to your wiping cloth, especially if you don't use the ultrasuede anti-tarnish cloth, are anti-tarnish strips. A single strip goes right into your flute case and will help prevent tarnish from forming, especially that yellow-orange tarnish that develops on the tube between keys. (3 months per strip, 8 strips per pack, $6.95 per pack - please do your flute and your future flute technicians a favor!) We also use these in all our store flutes.


Fixing Sticky Keys

Ah, sticky keys - the bane of many a flutist. The greatest cause of sticky keys is not wiping your instrument out properly and often, though it doesn't completely prevent them. There are a couple of options for sticky keys:

Pad-Drying Papers. We use the Caccini pad-drying papers in-store; 150 sheets for $4.95. We also recommend the Yamaha pad paper (or Yamaha powder paper for teachers who prefer it); 100 sheets for $10.95, though the sheets are larger. Cigarette papers from your local drugstore will also work, but make sure they're unpowdered and ungummed - power and gum will leave residue in your pads.

pad drying papers

Please don't use dollar bills. This is a distressingly common suggestion, and the main outcome is that there's now even more gunk on your pads. Do you know who's touched that bill and where it's been?

Pad-Drying Cloths. These are much like pad papers, but reusable and washable (wash these in the same way you'd wash the pouch swab, above). There's a small version for flute and piccolo and a large version for alto and bass flute.

pad drying cloth

Using Your Pad Dryer


A very simple process! Place the paper or cloth underneath the key and gently press the key up and down a few times, moving the paper or cloth slightly each time you lift the key.

Be careful - if you pull the paper or cloth out while the key is pressed down you risk tearing your pads, and if you press too firmly you risk unaligning your key mechanism or damaging the pad.