The oiling of recorders
Regular oiling is one of the most important measures in the preventive care of your valuable recorder. On the one hand it will protect the instrument against damage from moisture and temperature changes. On the other it will improve the tonal characteristics of various woods, particularly the softer ones.
Which recorders require oiling?
There is really only one kind of recorder that does not require oiling: plastic recorders. All wooden recorders will at least benefit from oiling, but for most of them it is an essential requirement. Many simple school instruments, usually made from maple or pear, have been impregnated with paraffin which offers a certain protection from moisture and is essential to enable the wood to sound at all. Instrument makers used to claim that these instruments do not require oiling or, indeed, that they must not be oiled. But even if the paraffin offers protection of a sort, regular oiling will help these instruments to maintain a better appearance and produce a more attractive sound.
Hand-made recorders and, generally, recorders made from harder woods such as rosewood, grenadilla or European boxwood have usually been oiled at the time of production and will continue to require oiling at regular intervals.
Which oil is best?
Like many other recorder makers I use linseed oil in the manufacture of my recorders to impregnate the wood. This offers optimal and long-term protection for the wood especially as the oil hardens as it becomes dry.
For this particular reason I do not recommend the use of linseed oil for regular recorder maintenance. Depending on the material, any previous treatment of the surface and even depending on the weather, linseed oil dries more or less quickly, and the extent of this might not be so easy for you to work out. The result is all too often a bore covered in oil residues or finger holes diminished in size due to remnants of oil. I have ways of cleaning such instruments in my workshop – but you might not have these at home.
Much easier to use is almond oil, or to be more precise, sweet almond oil. This can be obtained as recorder oil in specialist shops or from any pharmacy. It offers practically the same protection as linseed oil but doesn’t harden as fast and is therefore not as tricky to apply.
The so-called woodwind oil in use for “classic” instruments with quite complicated mechanisms, however, is not really suitable for the oiling of recorders. It is used for the oiling of the mechanics; usually these are mineral oils unsuitable for the maintenance of wood.
How often do I oil my recorder?
A new recorder should be oiled very regularly in the first few months. Depending on the type of wood this should be done every three to four weeks. It is much better to oil more often but little at the time rather than drench the recorder in oil only once in a while. Later after 3 to 6 months it will be sufficient to oil the instrument only every 3 to 6 months depending on the material and the amount of use. It is good to regularly inspect the instrument. If you notice that the upper tenon or the labium loses its fresh colour and becomes grey and lacklustre, then it’s really time to oil the recorder. On the other hand if the wood hardly absorbs the oil you can assume that next time you can delay oiling for a bit longer.
What do I oil?
Once there was a famous recorder maker who claimed that you must never oil the headjoint of a recorder. That must have been the biggest nonsense I have ever heard on this topic. It is the headjoint that particularly requires the protection of the oil as it is very much affected by moisture. Also the plane of the labium, one of the most stressed areas of a recorder, the sides and the upper part of the window should be oiled lightly using a little brush.
Only the block must not be oiled. Its task is to absorb moisture from the breath, and it cannot do so if it is covered in oil. Generally no oil should enter the windway. This would lead to the formation of droplets and as a result the instrument would be prone to hoarseness. Thus all parts of a recorder should be oiled from top to bottom. But care is to be taken where an instrument has got keys; the keys must not be oiled using oil suitable for wood as this hardens and the keys would then not function reliably.
Whether the outside of a recorder requires oiling depends on its surface. If the instrument has been varnished this surface does not really require oiling, but it can nevertheless be recommended to maintain the recorder’s looks and to help prevent cracking.
How do I oil?
The following tools are useful for the oiling of a recorder: an old recorder swab, a little brush and possibly also a board with wooden pegs to stand the instrument parts up after treatment. The instrument should be dry before oiling. Some people remove the block and then oil the entire headjoint. I generally advise against this for several reasons: firstly it is not certain that the block will easily go back into its original position, secondly if the windway is oiled droplets will form and lead to annoying hoarseness.
Using the recorder swab, oil the inner bore of all recorder parts, then the outsides. When oiling the headjoint it is important to prevent oil getting onto the front face of the block, though a tiny little drop doesn’t matter too much. For this reason it is useful to use a recorder swab with a small plastic cap at its end. At the headjoint, the surface of the labium, its sides and the upper window (to within 1-2mm of the top chamfer) should be oiled lightly using the small brush. Afterwards, all parts should be left to stand horizontally.
After about an hour check whether the oil has been absorbed by the wood in some places. This will often happen at the labium or the tenons. These parts can be re-oiled again lightly. The instrument should then best be left out overnight.
Next day any oil residues should be thoroughly wiped off using a cloth or possibly a soft brush for the bore and cotton wool buds or pipecleaners for the finger holes. It is important to clean any oil from the holes in order to avoid nasty surprises with sudden changes in tuning.
You can now play your recorder again. Occasionally a recorder may sound a little dull and faint after oiling. This is sometimes due to the slight downwards movement of the labial edge. It usually corrects itself after half an hour or an hour’s playing. It is something to be aware of and so one should avoid oiling the instrument immediately before an important performance.