How It’s Made: Clarinet

Clarinets are a musical instrument in the woodwind family. This single reed instrument comes in different sizes, which provide varying pitches. Modern day clarinets are made up of five parts. The mouthpiece, barrel, upper joint, lower joint, and bell. The mouthpiece also includes a piece known as a reed.

clarinet

Mouthpiece

Let’s start at the top of the clarinet. The mouthpiece is a cylindrical, stout piece flattened on one end. The mouthpiece is typically made from ebonite, a type of rubber, plastic, crystal, or sometimes metal. The mouthpiece is then fitted with a reed, which is attached using a ligature. The ligature is made from either silver or a cheaper alloy.

Reeds

The purpose of the reed to to create vibrations when blown, which gives the instrument its sound. The reed is quite possibly the most important part of an instrument such as a clarinet. The only problem is that the reed also happens to be the most temperamental part of the instrument. Reeds will actually change as they are played and worn out. Temperature factors such as humidity will also change the reed, affecting the overall sound produced.

Clarinet reeds are made from reed grass. After reed grass is harvested, it is stored in a dry place for about two years. During this time it becomes the yellowish color that instrument reeds have. It also hardens almost to the point where it is as hard as bamboo.

From the cane wood, rectangular pieces are cut in order to make the reeds. These pieces are then polished down to extremely precise sizes, however no two reeds are exactly alike. Reeds are classified by hardiness using a scale of one through five. Reeds are considered a one if they are soft and five if they are hard. The perfect reed will vary from player to player. Some players have a play style that is better suited for softer reeds while others are more suited for harder reeds.

Barrel, Upper Joint, Lower Joint, and Bell

Most clarinet bodies are made out of African blackwood. Cheaper models, usually reserved for students, can be made of plastic. For the lining and joints cork or wax is used, but we’ll get to that later. The body of the clarinet is made up of the barrel, upper joint, lower joint, and bell.

In the case of the wooden clarinets, the logs are seasoned to prevent warping. These logs are cut down to approximately the size of the piece it will be built into. These small pieces are known as billets.

The billets are then drilled into creating a hole known as a bore. This provides the inner barrel of the clarinet pieces in which the air passes through.

The rough pieces are then turned on a lathe, rounding them into cylinders. These still rough pieces are then seasoned again and finally perfected to the finished size.

Tone Holes

Tone holes are creating through a similar boring process as the body. However, mass-produced clarinets usually involve placing the body pieces in a setting machine to create precise bores.

Not all tone holes are created equal. They are spaced at a variety of intervals to affect tuning. The diameter of each hole also plays a part in affecting the tune of the instrument.

Keys

The process of creating and attaching keys starts while the tone holes are bored. Tiny holes are created in which the keys will be attached.

The keys are forged through a die-casting process from molten alloy. Keys are then fitted with padding. The padding for the keys is to reduce the strain of contact between the keys and the clarinet body when pressed down. It also helps to keep this point of contact quiet so that you don’t hear the clinking of the keys hitting the edges of the tone holes.

The pads are made up of layers consisting of material such as cardboard, felt, and/or leather. These pads are then cut to the right size and glued onto the keys.

The next step of the key installation process involves placing keys on “posts”. These are small pillars that are placed in the small holes that were bored alongside the tone holes. The posts are screwed into the holes which have been threaded. Next the keys are screwed onto the posts.  

Cork Tenons

One of the final phases of making a clarinet is constructing the cork tenons. Cork is carved and fitted to the inside of the clarinet. The cork is then lined with wax so that it can slide more easily, in and out of the various pieces. This allows for easily dismantling and assembling of the instrument.

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