SWAB IT! How to Keep Your Saxophone Clean

You spent a lot of money on that horn. How can you make sure it will give you great service for many years to come?
Written by Daniel “Dr. Dan” Parker

Editor’s note: Daniel “Dr. Dan” Parker is the creator of the “original swab,” the best product on the market for cleaning saxophones. Visit him at www.originalswab.com

Original Swab Logo

Swab (swab) n. [Du. Zwabben, do dirty work] 1. a mop 2. a piece of cotton vt. Swabbed, swab’bing, to use swab on

The lowliest of all musical instrument accessories, the swab. As the definition declares “do dirty work.” Pulled and dragged through the darkest recesses of musical instruments, only to get cold, wet, and grimy. A thankless task, yes, but one that can do more for the life of a musical instrument than any other single device.

The need to remove moisture from the bore of musical instruments is something that is very much overlooked by amateur and professionals alike. “Too time consuming, no need, doesn’t affect horn,” are some of the reasons used to skip the swabbing process. In this article we will cover the ins and out’s of swabbing. But before you yawn, this can result in big money savings due to fewer pad changes or replaced parts, and, more importantly, better intonation due to an unobstructed bore.

Moisture or more correctly stared, saliva generated by the saliva glands, produces an alkaline (acid-neutralizing) chemical. Saliva also contains an enzyme called ptyalin. Ptyalin changes food into a maltose, which is the first step in digestion. “Okay,” you say, “just what does this have to do with my instruments?” Most wind instruments are made up of organic material. If it has carbon, or comes from a living thing, it’s organic. If it’s organic it can be broken down by saliva. For example, leather pads on saxophones, wooden instruments, especially maple-bodied bassoons. Even the make up of the brass itself, is all subject to the ravages of saliva. What to do, what to do? SWAB IT! SWAB IT!

Without going in-depth in regards to the destruction caused by this fluid, that without which we could not digest our food, let’s just say it does absolutely nothing good for your valuable instrument. Leather pads rotting with bacterial growth from the moist environment, sticky pads, oil depravation in wood, brass dezincification (pink spots) on lead pipes, reduced bore specs: you bought a .464 bore horn, why would you want a .460? Your instrument was designed to exacting specifications. Don’t redesign it by filling it up with a wee bit of yourself. (I’ve heard or putting yourself into your music, but this is ridiculous.) If in doubt, look down your lead pipe or in the bottom crook of your sax!

All right, you’re convinced you need to swab. So what is the most effective way? Glad you asked. Today more than ever we have many options. Some good, some not so good, and some way bad. First, let’s discuss what material would be the most efficient for absorbing moisture from the bore of our instrument.

As the definition at the beginning of this article says, a swab is a piece of COTTON. Cotton is the most absorbent fiber known to man, and is totally organic. Some materials that should not be used are: poly-cotton blends, 100% polyester (yes, they’re out there), silk (not very absorbent, imagine diapering a baby in silk!), turkey feathers (the thing that turkeys like about them is that they repel water), and chamois (you need to get chamois wet before it will become absorbent). So, now that we have determined that cotton is the logical choice, how do we best deliver it through the horn? The age-old method of delivery was to drop a weighted line into the bell end of the instrument, with a piece of fabric large enough to clean the bore. Now it seems in order to save money, the swabs of today have become quite small. Manufacturers of saxophone swabs have decided that a 4 to 6-inch chamois or fake chamois, with a sponge or brush behind it would do the trick. The idea is that the brush or sponge will push the chamois out against the side of the bore, but after a few pulls past the register tube, the swab self-destructs. So much for economy. The most recent development in swabs has resulted in a swab that is placed in the bore of your instrument and remains there until your ready to play again. Let’s take a closer look at this one.

First, let me say the manufacturer of this item, if questioned, will tell you to pre-swab your bore with a conventional swab first, then place theirs into the bore. This is not stated on the package and was only discovered by a call to the manufacturer. The concept is that any remaining moisture in the pads be drawn out of the pads and into the swab. Herein lies the problem as this author sees it. The swab has no check valve! In other words, if the moisture can travel from the pad to the swab, what is to keep the moisture from traveling from the swab back to the pads? It has been my experience that pads deteriorate faster in a wet environment – which this device produces – than if you had not swabbed at all. Your instrument needs to air out. This swab is also sold for wooden instruments. Would you consider leaving a saliva soaked rag on the outside of your clarinet? Then why the inside? Enough said. Onward.

The main complaint in regards to cotton swabs has been lint. Some manufacturers have gone to silk, chamois, fake chamois or turkey feathers in order to avoid the perceived problem with lint. Synthetic fibers can indeed play havoc on natural fibers which most woodwind pads are made of. A synthetic fiber caught in between a tone hole and a nice soft pad can cause a breakdown in the pad seat as there is no “give” to the synthetic lint. A natural cotton fiber, on the other hand, has properties similar to those of the pad. Thus, if contact is made between pad and tone hole, the natural cotton fiber either becomes one with the pad until dissolution or blows away once dry, which is generally the case. If lint is a concern of yours, take a look at the lining of your case. Synthetically made plush or velour linings produce many more stray fibers than does a swab. The lining also attracts dust.

Cotton fibers pose no great threat to your horn. As an added bonus, 100% cotton swabs with no seams fray around the edges. This fraying action gives you much greater absorption resulting in more efficient cleaning.

This all being said, I hope you can realize the benefit of properly maintaining your valuable instrument. Make it a habit to be ZWABBEN.

4 thoughts on “SWAB IT! How to Keep Your Saxophone Clean

  1. Great article! I have been using Dr. Dan’s swabs for over 10 years. Won’t use anything else. Glad to see this article. It makes a lot of sense.

    Like

  2. Here is another opinion on sticky sax pads which i received from England.
    By the way, i finally ended up replacing the pad on the Bb bis key. I will do the same on my Keilwerth SX90R alto sax.
    CB
    > > Stephen Howard Woodwind –
    > > The Workshop, Garretts Farm, Vinnells Lane
    > > West Meon, Hants, GU32 1LZ. UK
    > > Tel: 01730 829900
    > > Emails To: showard@shwoodwind.co.uk
    > > Website: http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk

    The SX90R suffers because of the tone hole rings..and also
    because the rings aren’t that well finished…and the horns are often
    undersprung.

    I have recently found out that ‘lighter fluid’ over there is what we call
    barbecue lighting fluid..which explains why some people said it
    didn’t work! You want the stuff that goes in cigarette lighters.
    As with any solvent, prolonged use will harm the pads…but I have
    clients who’ve been using it for years without any noticeable effects.
    It should reach a point where it’s not needed anymore…could be a
    few months?

    Give it a shot, I’ve tested lots of different methods and this is the
    only one that consistently works.

    Cheers,

    Steve

    On 13 Jul 2007, at 16:56, Craig Buhler wrote:

    > Sticky pads seem much worse with the SX90R. I don’t know if that is
    > because of the leather Keilwerth uses on their pads, the way they
    > treat them, or because the rolled tone holes have more surface area
    > with which to grab the leather. The silicone works for about 2 hours
    > of heavy playing time. I used to clean with rubbing alcohol but will
    > try the lighter fluid you suggested. Is that the kind for the
    > barbique or the kind for cigarette lighters? Does it not damage the
    > leather. Thanks for your help.
    From: Craig Buhler

    —– Original Message —– From: “Stephen Howard”
    > To: “Craig Buhler”
    > Sent: Friday, July 13, 2007 3:51 AM Subject: Re: Thanks
    > > Hi..
    > > Interesting stuff.
    > > I’ve used silicon spray myself, but haven’t been very impressed with
    > > the results. It still boils down to the fact that crud on the pads
    > > is the cause of stickiness…and that even with the application of
    > > silicon spray the crud still gets to the pads. It’s one of those
    > > solutions that requires continual use..a bit like the talc thing.
    > >
    > > As regards the swab article…mostly commonsense stuff – though I
    > > noted a few points that could bear some more thinking about…for
    > > example the suggestions that pad savers might ‘reverse wick’ their
    > > moisture back onto the pads. There’s a very fundamental flaw in that
    > > argument ( two, in fact ) which tells me that someone hasn’t done
    > > any testing. There’s also the specious argument about airflow around
    > > the pads. In a case?? I note that the big drawback of pull-through
    > > swabs wasn’t addressed either.
    > > Cheers,
    > > Steve

    Stephen Howard Woodwind
    The Workshop, Garretts Farm, Vinnells Lane
    West Meon Hants, GU32 1LZ. UK
    Tel: 01730 829900
    Emails To: showard@shwoodwind.co.uk
    http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk

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  3. That’s awesome!!! I look for saxophone for my boyfriend.And how to choose it.Which brands is the best ?I saw many web about this but your web is the best for me.Thank you.

    Like

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