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
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
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".
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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
So oil very lightly. Oiling can be done with a fine watch oil
and a needle or the same oil and a
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
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
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
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
in our repair shop, with sad faces....
We'd rather warn you and have us all
have happier faces!
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!
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.
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
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
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.