Emergency Bassoon Repair

Unfortunately bassoons seem to be especially prone to malfunction. As a private bassoon teacher with over 40 students, I routinely repair 1-2 whisper key pads, bent rods, missing locks and other small items on a weekly basis. Despite its complicated key design, the bassoon is fairly easy to troubleshoot if you know where to begin.

Issues with bassoon repair are compounded by the fact that when sent to the shop, they often are "fixed" without being fully evaluated or play tested. By having a better knowledge of the common problems with the bassoon, you can send your instruments to the shop with more specific requests and evaluate them after they are done to ensure quality work was completed.

Common Bassoon Problems

Whisper Key Pad Torn or Missing

Diagnosis: The whisper key on the bassoon used to close the nib on the side of the bocal enabling the instrument to play lower notes. The pad often gets torn by students when putting the bocal in, or when taking the instrument apart.

Repair: All you need to repair a whisper key is super glue, 11.5 mm white leather bassoon pads. This method is nearly foolproof and much more secure than the standard method. Scrape the old pad and glue out of the cup with a screwdriver. Scratch up the pad cup and place a large dot of super glue in the center. Wet the back of the pad and place lightly in the center of the cup. Press gently watching for glue overflow, until the pad is set mostly level. It should be slightly higher at the back of the cup (front side of the bassoon). Wipe away excess glue. It can be played right away but will not be completely set until fully dry.

A lower pad profile (many pads are too thick or too big for the cup) and stronger glue make it more difficult for students to rip the pad in the future.

Body Lock Loose or Missing

Bassoon Body Lock

Bassoon Body Lock

Diagnosis: The body lock holds the wing and long joints of the bassoon together. It might not seem important but is essential for several reasons: the body lock keeps the bassoon from wobbling or shifting while playing, it helps hold the instrument together while carrying, and it makes taking the bassoon apart easier because you have some leverage when removing the bell.

Repair: If the lower park of the lock is loose, simply hold the top and twist until the lock is screwed tightly back together. If the lock is missing entirely, order a replacement and install it yourself. If the lock bracket is loose, check the wood screws and replace any that are missing.

Joints Loose or Too Tight

String with Floss on Long Joint

String with Floss on Long Joint

Diagnosis: The bassoon expands and contracts with changes in temperature and weather like most woodwinds. The joints do not need to be fully inserted every single time if it will cause the instrument to get stuck. However, if the joints are truly too large (barely fit, hard to take apart, or it's winter and they still don't fit) then you can adjust the size of the string or cork. If the joints wobble side to side, or the bassoon completely falls apart at random while holding it, then the joints are far too loose.

Cork with added floss

Cork with added floss

Repair: To Reduce the Size of the Joints: For cork, use a heavy grit emery board (nail file) to gently file down the cork all over. After you get it to the correct size, grease lightly. For string, remove a few wraps of string and check the fit again. To tie off the string, wrap it once around and make a loop, then wrap the loose end around the loop a few more times before tightening.

To Increase the Size of the Joints or Fix Broken Cork: For cork and string, use waxed dental floss to wrap around the joint starting from the base (near the instrument) and working out and back as needed. Wrap more in areas that look especially thin or loose. Loop the floss around and tie it off. Trim any loose or long pieces. This method can be used to cover old string or hold cork together temporarily. Waxed floss works particlularly well because it wraps very flat and blends in with the old material.

To grease the joints, use cork grease on cork and vaseline or paraffin wax (ideally) on string. Don't overdo it as cork grease can cause the cork to swell and on string it can become waxy and sticky.

Pancake Key Doesn't Close Whisper Key

Pancake Bridge: Bend Key (Black Part)

Pancake Bridge: Bend Key (Black Part)

Diagnosis: This is an issue that most teachers don't notice, but might be the cause of many problems with the bassoon. If the connection with the pancake key and whisper key doesn't cause the whisper key to fully close and touch the bocal, students will not be able to play low notes with good response or stability.

Repair: First, make sure students are assembling the bassoon correctly. There may be two vertical lines on the boot joint and wing joint that should line up. Many times even with correct alignment the key still won't close. Also check that the whisper and pancake rods are not bent from rough handling.

Your best option is to bend the bridge from the whisper to pancake key slightly so it hovers over the thicker part of the key. You can do this easily with a pair of stripped pliers (to avoid scratching the metal). If there is nothing covering the bridge or if the covering is torn/taped/damaged, cut a piece of black heat shrink wrap and apply it to add a tiny amount of padding. If bending the key horizontally doesn't work, you may try bending the bridge slightly downward. Don't overdo this or the pancake key won't be able to close properly or will seem hard to close.

Bocal Cork is Falling Off

Diagnosis: Bocal cork is cracked or falling off. This can happen because it is old, gets wet frequently then dries out, or isn't greased from time to time and doesn't fit properly thus requiring extra force to insert. REMEMBER: the bocal does not have to be inserted as far in as humanly possible to work. If the nib lines up with the whisper key, it's in the correct position. Different bocals and bores have some variation in how far they can be inserted. 

Repair: In an emergency waxed dental floss is great for holding cork together.

A Pad or Rod is Loose

Often times pads and rods will work their way out just from regular use. In a pinch, use a lighter to reheat the glue in the pad cup and re-stick the pad until you can get it to the shop for replacement. If there isn't any glue, apply a thin layer of rubber cement on the pad and the cup, wait until tacky, and apply. Try to line up the pad exactly as it was originally placed if possible. These are temporary options for use in emergencies only. 

If a rod is loose, tighten or replace screws as needed. Check that the spring is in place and working correctly and you're all set!

Maintenance Schedule & Cleaning

Every Year

  1. Visually inspect each joint for dust, loose screws, loose or shredded string/cork, broken or slipped springs, loose pads, bent rods and bent keys. Assemble the bassoon and check that the joints fit together properly. Make note if they are loose (wobble side to side or bassoon falls apart) or tight (barely fit in the joints, really difficult to take apart) Inspect the bocals for cracks, leaks and loose cork. Play the instrument, testing mid/high/low to make sure it is decent in all registers. Use compressed air to get dust off the keywork.

  2. Check the key heights especially on the flick keys (they should be relatively even all the way across) and pinky keys. These keys are some of the most likely to be damaged or bent and any problems with alignment will create technical problems for students. If they are uneven heights, either gently bend them down or make note and have them repaired.

  3. Visually inspect your bassoon cases. Dirty and broken cases will result in dirty and broken bassoons. Vacuum dust and debris out and use wood glue to set loose case blocks. Add bike handle tape to the handles to cover damaged leather and make them easier to carry. Use black duct tape to repair loose or torn exteriors.

  4. Check the seal of the bocal by closing the end and nib with your fingers and blowing in the front. If you can feel air coming out, it's leaking somewhere.

  5. Check the seal of the boot joint and wing joint. To check the boot joint, cover the keys and rest the side of your face on the larger hole at the top, turn your head and suck in through the smaller side. You should be able to get a vacuum, if not try to notice where air might be sneaking in. To check the wing joint, plug up the bocal hole with one hand and tone holes with the other hand. Suck in through the larger end and you should feel a vacuum.

  6. Make note of all the issues and send to your repair person with a specific list of problems to fix.

Every Semester

  1. Check your bocals for cracks, dents and leaks. If the bocal is damaged or leaking, everything on the bassoon will be more difficult.

  2. Check the whisper key pad, pancake key connection and joint cork or string. These items routinely break or cause problems.

Every Month

  1. Have students clean their bocals with a bocal brush and slightly warm, soapy water. Build up in the bocal adds resistance, makes notes crack and affects intonation.

  2. Check your students' reeds and have them throw out any damaged or discolored reeds. If you don't have a private lesson teacher to buy reeds from, I sell handmade reeds to students here (or discounted for teachers). Bocal Majority also makes excellent student reeds.

Method for Diagnosis

It can be overwhelming to try to fix a bassoon. With over 20 keys, it's hard to know where to start. Here is my "order of operations" for diagnosing a problem.

  1. Play the instrument or have a student play. Make note of what is or isn't working. Listen for air leaking from pads.

  2. Check the reed, if it is discolored, cracked or chipped or really old throw it away. If it is too open or too closed, adjust the tip opening by using pliers on the first wire (nearest to the lips). I'll be doing a separate post on how to adjust bassoon reeds in detail.

  3. Check the bocal, it should look like a normal bocal and not be bent, dented, cracked or leaking anywhere.

  4. Visually inspect the instrument working from smallest to largest piece by piece to see if there are loose or missing pads, loose or missing screws, or springs out of place. Look inside the bassoon to make sure nothing is stuck in the instrument. Press the keys to make sure they all open and close.

  5. If you don't see anything wrong, make note of what specifically isn't working and have someone else play test the instrument for good measure. Send the bassoon along with those notes to the repair shop and be sure to test it when it returns.

Trouble Shooting Shortcuts

Here are some common problems and their most frequent causes.

High notes are hard to play

  • The reed is too new, too wide, or too open.

  • The student isn't using enough air support or the correct vocalization for these notes.

  • The bocal is clogged. Check the nib on the side and clean with a small wire, nothing bigger than the hole!

Low notes are hard to play

  • The reed is damaged, too closed, or too old.

  • The bocal is leaking/cracked or not fitting properly.

  • The pancake key isn't closing the whisper key fully.

  • A pad or spring is out of place higher on the bassoon causing air to leak somewhere.

Nothing below Bass Clef C comes out

  • The bocal is leaking or damanged.

  • One of the flick key pads has fallen off, causing a leak in the wing joint. Replace with cork pads.

Everything is hard to play and feels resistant

  • Problems with response or cracking are almost always a problem with the reed or the bocal. Check the reed for cracks, discoloration etc. and check the bocal for cracks, dents and leaks.

One or two notes seem off but everything else is fine

  • If everything is essentially normal except for a few random notes, a pad is probably loose, stuck or missing from the boot joint. Pads in the boot joint often get stuck closed due to moisture from playing (and not swabbing). Check the pads at the very bottom of the boot (G, A-flat, F-sharp keys) and unstick as needed. Use cigarette paper to dry the pad, add a bit of baby powder if you'd like to help prevent sticking.

If you have questions or would like more information please feel free to contact me directly!