Covey & Ramsay

Covey Oboes

Home | The Covey Oboe | New Instruments

  Repairs | Contact Us Shop Tour | About Us | How to Find Us | Links  


  Break-in & Maintenance Procedures | Selecting an Oboe to Buy

  History of the Oboe Recommended Methods and Repertory for Teachers & Students

  Oboe Orchestral Audition Lists Glossary of Oboe Terms


Catalog Index | Quick Index |  Order Form

 | Consignment (Used) Instruments




Break-In Procedures:

Maintenance & Care Issues

We at Covey Oboes are often asked the best way to break in a new oboe or English horn, as well as many other general maintenance questions.  In our repair experience, we have seen a large variety of oboe situations, some of which you might not even have thought about!  So, we have prepared this page with what we hope is helpful information on breaking-in, care, and maintenance of your oboe.  Please contact us if you find it particularly useful or if you'd like other questions/issues addressed...  Thanks for visiting!

What does the Expression "Break in an Oboe " Mean?

There are two phenomena that the term "break in"  is used to describe when speaking of an oboe. 


The first is the process by which the actual wood of the instrument is acclimated to fluctuating exposure to water, heat, and vibration.  Should too much moisture be allowed to soak into the bore and/or tone holes of the oboe while the outside of the oboe remains dry, or should the inside of the oboe be allowed to be much warmer than the outside, the wood is stressed and may release tension by cracking.  Therefore, one would "break in" an oboe carefully at first, allowing moisture to soak into the oboe a little at a time, while protecting the oboe diligently from temperature extremes.  The instructions below refer to this meaning of the expression "break in".


The second phenomenon has to do with the way the oboe tone develops as a new oboe is played. When an oboe is very new, it may feel a little tight, and may need a bit more energy applied to it for it to want to "sing" or "vibrate".  As it is played, over a period of perhaps 6 months to a year, the sound becomes fuller, more open and more plush.  Knowing that this is part of the process an oboe goes through will affect a player's criteria for choosing a new oboe.  A player may select based on good tight sound focus and good scale, knowing that the tone and response will develop and become more free over time.  This is a hard process to describe, but one which many players acknowledge and factor into their choice.

Break-in Procedures

For a non-wooden oboe, the good news is that you do not need to worry about breaking it in to avoid cracks!  It is safe from all of that!  Play it, enjoy it, lightly oil the key-work a couple of times a year if you like.  Be sure to take it to a good oboe technician for an adjustment and check-up at least once a year or any time it feels "not right".  If you want to polish it, use a soft cotton or silk cloth.  (See sections below for more maintenance tips)  ...and practice every day!


For a wooden oboe, a little care in breaking it in is well worth the effort.


The overall objective of the break-in procedure is to introduce moisture, temperature variances, and vibration to the wood of the oboe slowly enough to avoid cracking. Too much moisture inside the bore with too little moisture on the outside of the oboe, or too warm a bore in too cold an oboe will either one put the instrument at risk. We also believe that intense, unaccustomed vibration may be a contributing factor in cracking.


For new wooden instruments, or for instruments that have not been played regularly in some time, we recommend that you adhere to the following standard break-in procedures to help prevent cracking:  


1.  Warm up the instrument with your hands before playing.  Do not blow into the instrument if it is very cold, but warm it in your hands or lap a few minutes first, especially the top joint.

2.  Blow warm air through each joint to introduce a little moisture from your breath onto the bore before assembling the oboe, but only after you've warmed the oboe.

3. Play the instrument in a warm room.  Try never to play the instrument in a cold room or in a cold draft. Try not to play in hot, dry drafts either, as this will dry the wood.

4.  Play the instrument for short periods of time at first; fifteen minutes a day, no more than twice a day for the first week or so, increasing to 20 minutes, then 25 minutes, etc.  Regular, steady introduction of moisture and vibrations is the goal, so it is important to play it almost every day during this time, though the argument could well be made that skipping one day every 5-6 days to let it "rest" can't hurt!

5.  Play connecting exercises, like long tones, slow scales, and melodies, so that the oboe becomes accustomed to continuous vibration.  When doing this, pay special attention to connecting between the notes.  This is good for your playing anyhow, obviously, but it is also good for the oboe! ...and use a tuner.  Train yourself and your oboe to play at pitch!

6.  Thoroughly swab out and dry the instrument after every use.  Clear any accumulated water out of the tone holes by blowing air hard through them with the key open.  Soak up any additional water with cigarette paper, placing it between the cork pads and the tone holes.  Pay special attention to getting the water out of the octaves, the 3rd octave tone hole especially, and the triller tone holes.  Also, if you've had any notes "burbling" from water, be sure to soak the water out of that tone hole with your cigarette paper.

7.  Consider an instrument "barely broken in" in 2-3 months, and "well broken-in" only after about a year.  As you can imagine, this time table is very subjective and depends a lot on how much you as an oboist play.  

8.  Even after an oboe is well broken in, continue being careful of extreme temperature and moisture conditions.  Keep a "Damp-It" in the case in very dry weather, avoid air-conditioning drafts like the plague, avoid outdoor playing where the temperature drops below 70° F, avoid situations where strong sunlight can overly warm one side of the instrument causing it to warp... the list is long, and you can add to it with your own experiences and imagination!

Taking care of the key work

Handling:  Be gentle!  Don't let any part of the oboe bang against anything!  This bends keys.  Also, take care when you put the instrument together not to bend keys accidentally.


Oiling: The keys of the oboe are held in place with steel rods and pivot screws which need oil on them to work well.  Our top advice is to have your oboe serviced annually by a good oboe repairperson who will put a good quality oil in the mechanisms.  If not, we suggest that you place a small drop of oil on each bearing surface about once a month.  A bearing surface is either the place where two keys rub together or the place where a key rubs against a post (the knob that goes into the oboe itself ).  Too much key oil is not good;  it will get on the oboe body and collect dirt, or it can get on the pads and cause problems.  So oil very lightly.  Oiling can be done with a fine watch oil and a needle or the same oil and a needle oiler.


Cleaning the Key Work:  A soft paint or cosmetic brush can be used to remove dust from below the keys if you wish. To clean the keys themselves, wipe the keys with a soft cloth to remove hand oils and shine the key work.  We recommend a Goddard Polishing Cloth because it leaves little or no rouge residue, which will clog up the mechanism.  Please do not ever use silver polish on the keys, as it is devastating to the mechanism and pad-work.

Oiling the oboe bore

If you decide to oil the bore of the oboe, we recommend sweet almond oil or sweet olive oil.  Some oboists believe that new softer wood instruments, such as rosewood and violet wood, should be oiled often, possibly monthly or weekly at first. Grenadilla wood is not oiled  nearly as often, possibly once a year, starting after the oboe is several years old.  Oiling, whether to do so and how often to do so, is strictly a matter of preference and opinion, so it is your call!  We do not make a recommendation, except to say that if you send your instrument to us for servicing, we'll be glad to assess whether it needs oiling or not.


We oil an oboe this way: after playing for the day, dry the instrument's bore. Dip a small amount of oil onto the tip of a feather.  Look into the bore of the instrument to see how shiny it is and then rotate the slightly oily feather up into the bore.  With the correct amount of oil on the feather, after the first swipe, the bore should look only streaky with oil.  The second swipe should make the bore all shiny.  Too much oil will flow through the tone holes onto the pad work, which is not good, so do very little at a time.

Catastrophic "Do's" and "Don'ts"

The purpose of this section is not to be alarmist, but to make you aware of catastrophic situations which are usually very easily avoided.  These are things that many people do not think about, and so we see them in our repair shop, with sad faces....  We'd rather warn you and have us all have happier faces!

Temperature Warnings:

Please, never leave your oboe where it can get either very cold or very hot; either can be severely damaging.  Examples?  Leaving your oboe in the car in the winter, leaving your oboe in the trunk of your car while driving somewhere in the winter, leaving your oboe in a closed car in the summer (even for a very short time), leaving your oboe where the sun shines on it (or on the case) and can heat it up, leaving your oboe out near a heater vent where dry heated air can blow on it...  all of these are bad for the oboe.  Severe cold can encourage cracks and harden glues enough for pads to pop out.  Severe heat can crack an oboe, or melt glues so that the pad work becomes leaky.  Either of these can require expensive repair. A good rule of thumb is that your oboe should be as comfortable as you are.  If you'd be comfortable where it is, chances are it's OK.  If you would be uncomfortable sitting where it is, reconsider!

Stuck Swabs:

Please, if your swab gets stuck, get professional help ASAP.  It's not a big deal if removed properly, but you can ruin an oboe removing it improperly.  See the section below for more details.

Tenon Joints:

Please, take care that the oboe is not handled in some way that can break it at the middle tenon.  This is where the top joint fits into the middle joint.  That section of the top joint can be broken off in the middle joint if, for example, you sit on your oboe, or if it drops down bleachers and hits a supporting pipe on the way down.  Need more examples?  We have them.  We see an amazing number of instruments broken this way.  The only good repair is to replace the wood or plastic of the top joint.  This is an expensive repair ($500-$1800), and must be done by the original manufacturer. 

Swabs and Feathers

 (Please note the remarks about STUCK SWABS!)

We see advantages to both but recommend feathers for general drying of the oboe during its life.  The swab will probably dry better than the feather, and should certainly be used during the break-in process to remove as much standing water as possible, but extended use is believed by some to wear the bore more and leave deposits in the tone holes.  Swabs can also get stuck and break off in the oboe. If you use a swab, be extremely careful that it is straight and not kinked as you pull it through the bore....hold the large end straight as you pull the cord through.  If it seems like it is too tight,  please do not pull harder. Pulling harder will only cause it to get more tightly stuck.. A stuck swab CANNOT be pulled through the top of the oboe. You MUST get it out toward the larger end of the oboe!  Improperly removing stuck swabs has ruined many oboes;  please call only your most trusted oboe repairperson for help!  And never let anyone drill a swab out….never


Thank you, and please do not let these warnings stop you from enjoying your oboe!  Our objective is to help you avoid a bad situation caused by not knowing, so that you can enjoy your oboe more.


This article was written by Ginger B. Ramsay,

and is the intellectual property of Covey Oboes.

Please credit the author and web-site if quoting.

Please obtain permission before reproducing it.

And please mention this web-site to your oboist friends!! 

Thanks for visiting.




© Copyright 1998 - Covey Oboes
site by
TurningPoint WebSetting