Many people look at the $100+ pricetag their local music store asks for a professional cleaning of their instrument with horror. They start to ask the questions:
What do they do, and is it possible to do it at home, on your own, safely?
This article will go through how to clean a piston-valved tuba or euphonium at home.
This process can range from the very simple to something closer to a professional job, depending on how hard you want to make it. We’ll talk about these differences in each step, and then end with a discussion of what a professional job can do.
Why Bother Clean Your Tuba?
Brass instruments should be cleaned regularly. People’s definition of “regular” varies. I’d say at least once a year, but probably more like once a month, if we’re being honest.
There are three main reasons to regularly clean your instrument. If you think about the conditions that are best for bacteria, it’s warm, dark, moist environments. This exactly describes your instrument.
The same is true for mold. These things can pose a health risk. You blow some relatively harmless bacteria into your instrument, and then it festers and changes into a huge colony of harmful bacteria. You don’t want to be breathing that in.
Rust is another common problem and gunk build up in the valve casing are other reasons. We’ve all been there after a break away from an instrument to find that you can’t even move some of the tuning slides, and the valves gets stuck down.
Whether it be bacteria, mold, yeast, or rust doesn’t matter. These processes are all at work on your instrument. Even eating sugar too close to playing can cause some to deposit and cause internal corrosion. It’s best to regularly stop these from doing longer-term damage.
If you want an instrument that sounds and performs its best, you need to keep it clean. Fortunately, this is a pretty easy process!
Before the Tuba Bath
First, brass instruments dent and scratch easily. It’s important to remember this as the first step.
You’ll probably want to set out everything you’ll need next to a bathtub. This way you aren’t running back and forth between rooms. Leaving your instrument unattended while slick and wet is a recipe for damage.
Here’s a checklist:
- Cleaning snake (optional).
- Valve casing brush (optional).
- A towel to dry: microfiber or specially made for your instrument if possible.
- A towel to set parts on.
- Gentle antibacterial soap: dish soap made to be used with bare skin will work.
- Valve oil
- Tuning slide grease
Now take your instrument completely apart. This means all slides and valves. These should not be submerged like the rest of the instrument, because water can ruin the felt on the valve and the cork of the slides.
Important: Play close attention to the order of the valves and the direction and order of the slides. You’ll be able to figure it out if it gets messed up, but there’s no reason to add that headache to an otherwise easy process.
In addition, take the springs out while you take the valves out one at a time and place the spring next to the appropriate valve. It’s not a huge deal if this gets messed up, but some models use different tension in the springs for different valves.
Make sure the tub starts clean. I know this sounds silly, but I used to do this in a community sink at college, and you never knew what people had previously used it for. Sometimes there would be remnants of bleach. You just never know.
Now fill the bath with lukewarm water and a small amount of the antibacterial soap. The soap is there to kill bacteria, but you don’t want the water to be flowing with bubbles. That will make things difficult later.
Make sure to never use hot water. Hot water can strip lacquer off some instruments, and due to metal expanding in heat, can also lead to precision issues when putting the instrument back together.
In 99% of cases, hot water won’t cause problems, but there’s no need to risk it. You weren’t going to make the water hot enough to kill most germs anyway, so heat doesn’t really add anything to the cleaning process.
During the Bath
Here’s where it can be as simple or complicated as you want. Completely submerge the instrument.
Warning: The instrument starts empty, and so it can require some downward pressure to submerge it. But as soon as it fills with water, it becomes quite heavy. Surprisingly so if you’ve never done this before. Just be careful in this step to not drop the instrument.
The simplest cleaning method is to just slosh it around and/or rub the instrument with a cloth. If you don’t have any of the tools to get into the tubing, then I’d recommend at least running water through the instrument from the faucet or a shower head.
It’s far better to use a snake and valve casing brush. These will gently brush away any of the crud or buildup you have inside the tubing. The key place to do this is to push the snake through the lead pipe toward the main tuning slide.
This is where there will be the most buildup. You’ll also want to get the valve area. The inside of the valve casing tends to get buildup.
Do not forget the cap on the bottom of the valve casing!
Many times a sticky valve can be traced to that. It’s very easy to forget those exist if you took your instrument completely apart like I said to. Scrub that. It will probably have black crud on it, so it needs it.
For the slides, you can run water and the snake through them. A little water won’t hurt the cork. You just don’t want to fully submerge it (again, it’s likely nothing will happen for such a short amount of time, but I see no reason to risk it).
For the valves, do not use the soapy water!
Just run lukewarm water over them and pat with the towel, making sure to not get the felt at the top wet.
Don’t forget to do your mouthpiece, too. But you’re cleaning that every week, anyway, right?
After the Tuba Cleaning
You’ll want to rinse out any parts you used soap on. This isn’t strictly necessary, but I always do it as a precaution against soap that might have been too strong. You don’t want the dried soap corroding the metal.
Do several revolutions of your instrument over the tub in both directions. This will move the water stuck in various low parts of the tubing out of the tubing.
Pat everything dry. Unless you’re using a cloth designed for your instrument, you don’t want to rub the instrument. That could cause scratches.
But you also don’t want to let it air dry, because water droplets can leave water marks as they evaporate.
Do not reassemble the instrument until it is fully dry. I’d recommend waiting until the next day to let it finish drying. Liberally reapply your valve oil before putting the valves back in.
If you need help determining the best valve oil, see my Best Valve Oil article.
Use a towel or paper towel to reapply tuning slide grease. Do not touch the tuning slide with your skin to do this. The oils from your skin are bad for the slide and can lead to that red dezincification:
Should I Use a Professional?
That depends. If your instrument is in good shape, and you clean it regularly, there’s no pressing need to have it done by a professional (unless, you want to support your local music store, of course!).
The main times I’d seek a professional is if something is very wrong. This might mean a valve or slide is completely stuck.
Do not ever force a slide or valve that isn’t moving!
They will have safe ways to get it moving. And if they damage it, they will be able to fix it right there at no additional cost.
The other thing is if you have serious deposits that you cannot get to or you start to get red spots or rusting. Your home cleaning method is not going to fix these, and they can turn into a problem if you let it go.
Music stores will either do a chemical clean or an ultrasonic cleaning. They might do both, but if not, you’ll want to ask which they do.
This means that you’ll be paying for a service that isn’t something you can do at home.
A chemical clean is what it sounds like. Your instrument will basically be submerged in one or more chemical solutions designed to break down the deposits. They will still use brushes to scrub the instrument, but overall it is a much more thorough process than can be done at home.
An ultrasonic cleaning does the same thing, but bombards the instrument with sound waves. This basically acts like a brush scrubbing the inside of the instrument everywhere at the same time.
This is the most thorough of them all, and nothing will be missed, no matter how hard it is to reach. But the intensity can be too much for some instruments where the corrosion is so bad as to create serious weaknesses in the brass.
If your instrument is old and you think there could be serious corrosion, make sure to ask about this before paying for an ultrasonic cleaning. They need to be able to patch such an instrument.
Both of these cleaning types use acids as part of the cleaning solution, so it is a common misunderstanding that the ultrasonic is pure sound wave.