What I Wish I Knew: Cleaning My Flute

Developing a good relationship with your instrument repair technician is so important to getting the most mileage out of your instrument. As a result, you can become aware of the tendencies of your particular instrument (what is the first thing to go out of alignment? What little things should you be taking note of that could lead to bigger issues?), how to preserve your instrument (ie. brushing your teeth/rinsing out your mouth before playing), and what cleaning tools are helpful or harmful to your instruments.


The Beginning

Like most beginning flutist, I started with the cleaning rod that came in my flute case and an interior cloth to swab through the flute. . . That was it.

At the basic level, that is all you really need to keep the flute from rapidly becoming worn out. HOWEVER, you must not leave the cloth and rod INSIDE the flute.

Why? Because leaving the rod and cloth inside the flute – the moisture that your just swabbed out (with the rod and cloth) will be sitting in the flute as if you didn’t even both to swab which is problematic for the flute’s pads which will – as a result – collect moisture and start to stick and deteriorate. Likewise, you do not want to take the interior cloth and place it OVER the flute for the same reasons. So what do you do with it?

SOLUTION! If you are working with a standard student flute case – that would be one that does not have a separate case cover or exterior pocket – this is one smart way to store your rod and interior cloth. The rod already has a spot in the flute case (typically this is at the bottom edge adjacent to the case latches).
If you take the interior cloth and tie it around the case handle – the cloth will be able to dry much faster than it would in the case and it will not be damaging the flute.

It is also IMPORTANT to note that for the interior swab there are two options that DO NOT work well with the flute. Avoid these swabs types with your flute:

  1. A weighted swab – these work well with instruments like the clarinet or saxophone – however, given the thin diameter of the flute and delicate keys: the string and weight can cause damage to the flute.
  2. The caterpillar or fuzzy swabs (you’ll know them when you see them) – these are problematic for two reasons.
    1. The fuzzy fibers can pill off and get stuck on the pads or within the mechanism (causing it to become worn down).
    2. The tendency with these swabs is to just leave them inside the instrument. As mentioned earlier, this will allow moisture to collect and can cause damage to the pads.

A good interior cloth will not have any frayed or loose edges that can get caught on the small parts of the flute. Likewise, the material should be able to absorb any moisture inside the cloth with 1-2 pass throughs; and should be thin enough that it is not getting stuck in the instrument. Interior swab suggestions:


Moving On Up

These are cleaning supplies I found useful as I started to play more.

Pad Paper

Pad paper was the first addition to my cleaning accessories – if you do not have a case with storage or a case cover, I would recommend keeping these in a separate bag. Pad paper does not need to be used after every playing – if you hear a sticky key or feel like key is leaking you can place the paper under the key, press down for several sections (DO NOT PULL THE PAPER OUT WHILE THE KEY IS DOWN) and then lift the key and remove the paper. Repeat on a different area of the paper becomes soaked.

Things to be aware of:

  • NO DOLLAR BILLS!!!! You may of heard of band directors using dollar bills as a quick fix… it would be better off if you did nothing at all than use a dollar bill. Ask your repair tech, a dollar bill may absorb some of the liquid, but can very easily add gunk (dust, bacteria) to your pads.
  • You CAN use cigarette paper though.
  • I will say it again, DO NO pull the paper out while the key is pressed down – this can tear your pads (to replace your pads can get expensive real fast, ask your tech what their rate is for pad replacement and the number will amaze you how much those tiny things cost).
  • Be wary of powdered pad paper, sometimes okay – I prefer to er on the side of caution and avoid it.
Anti-Tarnish Strips

Look at the body of your flute – particularly where you place your right hand (behind those three keys). What do you notice? Overtime, you may see what appears to be dust and gunk build up. Whatever you do DO NOT attempt to clean it with Q-tips or even think of sticking anything near the rods. Ask your repair technician and they will warn you to proceed at your own detriment. So if you can’t go in and clean it – what are you meant to do?

In this case, there are 2 solutions you can use in tandem:
(1) You can blow a quick stream of air to loosen or remove the visible dust. You don’t want to spit on your flute, but using your air to dislodge the dust is the first step.
(2) This is a preventative step. What you are most likely noticing is tarnish, hence, placing anti-tarnish strips somewhere in your case – usually underneath the flute. Please know, there is not anything you can do to fix it on your own (please DO NOT try to DIY this at home), you would need to bring your flute in to get a full COA to remove the tarnish – do not worry so much about tarnish because it is a cosmetic issue that in most cases does not effect the mechanism.

Anti-tarnish strips can be placed in the case with your flute. Read and follow the directions for the specific strips you buy – typically, they will need to be changed out every 6 months (and one pack of anti-tarnish strips will be more than enough; especially if you end up cutting the strips to fit into the flute case).

Exterior Cloth

Exterior cloths are like pad paper – they do not have to be done after every use. Although with the exterior cleaning cloth, many of us may prefer to wipe down the flute to get rid of finger prints.

Microfiber is the standard material for cleaning cloths. The wonderful thing about these exterior microfiber cloths is that you only need ONE because you can just wash it once it starts to get dirty and it can last you years!

Like interior cleaning cloths you want a cloth that does not have any frayed or loose edges that can get stuck on the flute. Be aware that a cut up shirt or piece of old fabric WILL NOT BE EFFECTIVE because this material tends to unravel (making it very easy to get snag on the flute) and usually can’t fully remove grime.

Here are some exterior polishing cloths:

When using the exterior cloth be sure to avoid going near the pads and rods. When cleaning the body and foot joint with the cloth: just stick to the top of the keys, and parts of metal that are easily accessible. You DO NOT to stick the edge of a cloth into the mechanism and risk moving something out of alignment or tearing a pad!

Isopropyl / Cotton Ball

The days before COVID-19 when conventions and fairs were safe and instrument vendors brought dozens of flutes to try – isopropyl and cotton ball/pad where used on the lip plate to disinfect between players. Of course, currently, instrument sharing is not happening, but it is good to have these on hand. For example, when I get sick, I’ll clean around the lip plate just out of precaution.

REMEMBER you do not want to submerge the head joint because there is a cork that will need to be replaced if submerged (the cork should be replaced annually anyway), but you DO NOT need to apply the isopropyl INSIDE the flute, only apply it (if you feel so inclined) to the lip plate/exterior of the head joint.


Finally…

Flute Flag (Interior Swab)

If you own a case cover or have a case with a separate pocket, I have found the Valentino Cleaning Flag to be an efficient way to swab my flute during and after practice sessions. First, it’s only one piece so I don’t have to worry about threading a cloth through a cleaning rod. It’s easy to just grab and go. And like the exterior microfiber cloths you only need ONE – these are very easy to clean (I usually just do soap and hot water, and let it dry for 1-2 days).


What do you use to clean your flute? Has it changed since you started playing? Do you use any of these tools? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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