How to clean a saxophone

As a private music teacher, I am often asked by my students how do you clean a saxophone.  We do cover things such as swabbing after use, wiping the neck tenon dry after use, and cleaning the mouthpiece regularly.  One thing I don't often get to go into detail is how to clean the exterior (i.e. the keys and body) to give it a shine.  Well I've noticed that my alto has picked up some grime lately, so I figured I would document the experience and do a blog post about it.  The techniques I use are the same that was taught to me in my training as an instrument repair tech.

What you'll need: 

  • Cotton Swabs (a lot)
  • Water                                          
  • Furniture Polish

I like to begin with the cotton swabs and water to get the hard to reach areas.  Those areas include between the keys, around the tone holes, between the rods, behind the keys, etc.  I prefer to start at the top and work my down the horn.  The cotton swab does need to be wet, but not soaking wet.  This helps pick up the dust and debris that has collected in those small spaces.  I use a sprayer that that trombonists use to wet their slides, but you can use whatever you think will get the job done.  Be generous with the cotton swabs, and don't think it will only take a couple.  I used 25 cotton swabs on this round of cleaning.  Be sure to be meticulous and go over spots more than once.  Some areas you might not realize pile up dirt are around the octave key, between the palm keys, behind the side and right hand keys.  You can also get inside the Bb/B/C/Eb key guards.  Be careful not to get the pads wet.  A little moisture won't hurt them, but it could cause an unwanted pad swelling.  

Once you've gone through and gotten the little spots, it's time to shine up the lacquer.  And for a standard cleaning, you can use something as simple as furniture polish.  I like to use the pretreated cloths, but the spray cans and a cloth will work just as well.  If you're using a spray can, just be careful not to use too much, and be sure to spray a light amount on the cloth, not directly on the instrument.  This time, I prefer to start at the bell and work backwards up the instrument, trying to cover as much of the larger surface areas as possible.  You can use the furniture polish on the lacquer, key guards, and keys (both nickel and lacquered).  Again, be careful around the pads.

Below are some before and after pictures.  I will be the first to admit I am a better saxophonist than photographer and that I know I have thing or two to learn about lighting and framing.  These pictures were taken on my new iPhone 4. 

before   after












 Look at how nicely the bell cleaned up.  All that remains are the few sctratches.















You can see how much dirt collected on the large keys, bow section, and around the tone holes.


before    after













Dust and debris also collects around the alternate F#, high F#, and side keys.

Questions?  Concerns?  Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

(Updated for clarification on furniture polish application)