Don't do this. Ever.

I made a mistake.  Strike that.  Several mistakes.  One that could have completely ruined my bassoon.  So besides the time it took attempting to fix it myself and $35 for tools and labor, I am going to write about my experience as penance.  In hopes that you can learn from my mistakes or at the very least have some resources to deal with your own.  


My bassoon had just returned from the shop for several weeks.  It wasn't in for much, but I had asked Steve to do some major work on my flute and bari, which needed to be done pretty quickly for some upcoming gigs.  So it had been a couple weeks since I had played my bassoon, as I was preparing for those gigs as well.  It was a Monday morning, and I had played through a lesson in the New Weissenborn Method.  I usually let the horns air dry in the stand for a bit, but I will also swab to remove any excess moisture as well before putting it away.  For whatever reason, I just wasn't thinking about it, I grabbed the boot swab and tried to pull it through the wing joint.

Bassoonists need 3 swabs.  One for the bocal, one for the wing joint, and one for the boot joint.  This is to accommodate the changing diameter of the tube.  Like a clarinet and saxophone, a bassoon gets smaller the closer you get to the vibrating source aka the reed.  Hence, smaller swabs for the smaller joints.

Mistake number one was using a boot swab in the wing joint.  Mistake number two was thinking I could continue to pull it through the small end.  I would twist and pull and twist and pull.  Sure, it felt like it may have been coming out, one millimeter at a time.  Eventually my repair tech instincts kicked in, telling me everything I was doing was wrong.  

A quick search of the web, I found two good articles with various methods for swab removal.  The first one, a PDF from Fox, goes through in detail of what can, and most likely will happen.  At first, you panic (which clouds judgement) which can easily lead to using force.  

It takes monumental self control to resist the urge to pull harder on a stuck swab.

The article goes on to explain why swabs get stuck.

The problem that causes both the stuck swab and the later difficulties with removing it is the conical bore of the bassoon. The bore of a bassoon wing joint reduces from 16mm at its large end to 9mm at its small end.

As well as some wisdom to keep in mind when attempting to remove said swab.

The first concept to keep in mind when removing a swab is that the swab is going to be replaced. Do not waste time concerning yourself with salvaging the swab!
The second concept is that any movement toward the small end will make things tighter. Liberation will come from moving toward the greater freedom of the large end.

The third concept is to avoid using any metal tools inside the bore. Metal shafts pushed into the bore are likely to cause scratches or other damage. It may become necessary to use metal tools later but avoid it as long as possible.

I conferred with my bassoon teacher from college, and she recommended a method similar to what was described in the Fox article.  A 5/16" wooden dowel, pushing through the bocal receiver in an attempt to move the mass towards the end in which it came.  She has had success with this method in the past.  

The second article comes from Music Trader (who I would recommend updating their website past the 1990's).  Comment aside, the article was informative, and stated much of the same tips as Fox does, though they recommended not hammering from the top.  Their first method recommended using a grabber tool to try and loosen it out.  

Being a new home owner, I now know my way around a Home Depot (and live no more than 10 minutes in either direction from two locations), and I was able to find a grabber tool with an LED light in the plumbing aisle.  The light was helpful so I could at least see inside, though I had no room to maneuver.  I attempted this bit-by-bit method, in addition to gently hammering in a dowel through the top end.  While I did extract what amounted to a small pile of lint, 6 hours in I had decided to research other methods.

Both articles referred to a specially fabricated tool, a long thin rod with a screw at the end, as another method for extraction.  It turns out two double reed speciality stores, Forrests Music and Charles Double Reeds, carry such a tool for $29 and $22 respectively.  I emailed both inquiring about the tool.  While I did receive quick replies from both, Jennifer at Charles was very thorough in answering my questions.  Not to say Forrests doesn't have good customer service, once they sent me replacement reeds free of charge when I complained on the lack of quality.

swab extractor from Charles Double Reeds

Before pulling the trigger on purchasing the tool I decided to call Melk Music, a local store with a good reputation for woodwind repair, to see what methods they may employ.  Sure enough, they had a fabricated tool for the job.  While I was fairly confident I would be able to extract it myself with the tool, I decided to let them do it.  The swab was out within a day.  Fred Melk told me he worked up a sweat.

So let this serve as a reminder:

  • Always use the correct swab, and be sure there are no knots in it
  • Don't panic if your swab gets stuck
  • Do not attempt to pull a stuck swab through
  • Stuck swabs must COME out the same way they went in, due to the nature of the bore


I've gotten a little traffic bump, thanks to Bret.  So as a treat, here's a video I forgot to include when first published.