Ramón's Blog

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Clarinet Mouthpiece Refacing and Restoration

Jun 22, 2015


Over the years, I have received a myriad of questions pertaining to mouthpiece refacing and restoration – when should I have my mouthpiece refaced, why should I have it refaced, can my mouthpiece be improved, can my mouthpiece be changed into something different from how it is now, etc…

All of these things and more can be done with mouthpiece crafting – in the hands of a master craftsman, your mouthpiece can be adapted, restored and enhanced to play optimally for you, the possibilities are endless.

The craft of mouthpiece refacing and refurbishing is as old as the clarinet itself – there have always been individuals who have dedicated time to the study and art of mouthpiece design and refurbishment. The contemporary French clarinet mouthpiece has had a century long history and lineage of mouthpiece craftsmen around the world – players have traditionally brought their favorite mouthpiece to these craftsmen for maintenance, enhancement and restoration.

Sadly, the craft today is waning, as the market is becoming highly commercialized. Mouthpieces are seen by many as disposable in today’s world, and refacing and restoration is generally associated with vintage mouthpieces. This is a common misconception, as any mouthpiece can be enhanced or restored. Commercial mouthpieces (machine made/faced, minimally hand finished, mass produced) have come a long ways in the last century – however, in my opinion, machines cannot compete with the hands and flexibility of a master craftsman. Computers can cut dimensions fairly accurately, but cannot make the subtle changes and adaptations that a human can. There is a major focus on CNC machines and technology to completely finish mouthpieces today, which concerns me. While this is wonderful for speed, volume and efficiency of production, I believe we are at risk of losing the art of hand craftsmanship, which is the ultimate technique to realize and further evolve mouthpiece physics and design. CNC/computers are very good and a wonderful tool, but are still not to the level of precision and sophistication needed to compete with the highest standard of hand finishing.

Historically, clarinet mouthpieces were crafted from wood, which offers a beautiful flexibility and resonance. However, wood is not practical as it warps and will not hold it’s dimensions for long. Prior to the advent of modern materials and major manufacture, many attempted ways of stabilizing and prolonging the life of wooden mouthpieces, such as installing a silver or gold facing, or in some cases a silver baffle and bore. This did not solve the problem, as wood warps and the lining may change its positioning (also cracks were a problem). Richard Muhlfeld, the well known clarinettist to whom Brahms dedicated many of his clarinet works, had more than a few mouthpieces in rotation, depending on the weather, reeds, etc. I work with a number of classical clarinet players in Europe who regularly bring me their wooden mouthpieces for refurbishing, and find that the amount of change and wear can be severe when compared to that of modern materials. Wood is simply not practical, which is why near the turn of the 20th century manufacturers began to use ebonite, and eventually plastic and other materials.

Crystal/glass has also been employed, however it wears at a far slower rate than standard materials. Based on my study of the crystal mouthpieces used by some of my clients, I estimate the wear of crystal to be approximately 1/10th the rate of ebonite. The mouthpiece will wear, but it can last an entire career before needing attention. The relationship usually ends when the crystal mouthpiece is dropped, or the tastes of the player change. We also change, and I believe playing a relatively fixed mouthpiece is a different experience from ebonite or plastic, as there is only one changing factor – the player.

Most mouthpieces today are made from ebonite, plastic, or a synthetic resin. Although far more resilient than wood, these substances are not impervious and will wear with time, friction, heat from the mouth, pressure from the reed, ligature and embouchure, etc. It is the job of the master craftsman to restore the mouthpiece to its original dimensions and/or further enhance it for the player.

The fact which we clarinettistts (also saxophonists) face is that our favourite mouthpiece will not last forever, and in time will change. From the moment we put air down a mouthpiece and the reed vibrates, the process of wear begins…

Wear and tear on ebonite mouthpieces

From my studies on the ebonite mouthpieces of my regular clients, along with my own mouthpieces which I use professionally, a mouthpiece will hold its facing and dimensions for approximately two years, depending on intensity of use. At this juncture, visible signs of wear will be present, and it will be playing differently from how it did originally.

The wear generally begins just under the point of where the lower lip makes contact with the reed, and spreads inward, and spreading down towards the bottom of the window. Everett Matson, the well-known 20th century American mouthpiece craftsman (one of my mentors), called this phenomenon “rail tilt” – the rails literally erode and round. As time passes, the erosion becomes more severe, and will be quite noticeable. Looking at the facing of a well played mouthpiece under a light, the wear is quite visible down the facing – shiny spots, in half moon crescent shapes. Also, the facing dimensions can change and elongate, often to one side, which will greatly change the response and playability of the mouthpiece.

Common complaints

The complaints I receive from players who come to me for help with worn mouthpieces are similar – they are having great inconsistencies with reeds, problems with response and control, the mouthpiece becomes brighter and more shrill, loses its hold and core sound, they begin selecting different reeds (usually harder) than they did originally, etc – it is simply not the same as it was, and they are having difficulties. The reason for this is that as the rail tilt sets in, there is less and less flat contact with the reed along the rails, which will give more of a freedom of attack and response, but less grounding in the tone – more uppers and less depth. The player often has to use a stronger or differently balanced reed, which compensates for the loss of body in the sound. Often times, a mouthpiece plays very well after a year or two of usage, however, beyond a certain point, as the contact with the reed and side rails reduces further and the rails round, things will change.

Another aspect generally not considered is the table, where the reed rests. This is made of ebonite (as is the entire body), and will wear as well, depending on usage, type of ligature employed and pressure/tightness when playing, etc. This is a major part of the equation – as it wears it can change the way the reed vibrates, and the angle it lies across the facing. I recommend removing the reed when storing the mouthpiece, as it minimizes friction and trauma to the facing and table.

When to reface

I know when I need to reface my own mouthpieces when I become distracted by reed problems, and have issues with response and control – usually one and a half to two years after the previous refacing. In fact, I just recently refaced my own mouthpiece, which was quite worn, and was amazed by how easy and functional it was afterwards, with much more power and control – why I had waited so long to reface it was beyond me…I was very attracted to the easy response and sensitivity of the worn mouthpiece, however the faults and limitations had grown to the point where I was hindered, making too many sacrifices with reed selection and the way I was using my air and embouchure.

Why reface?

The main issue with wear, is that once it has set in, the player adapts with the way they use their air, reed selection, embouchure, etc. This is why, for example, many players have terrible problems finding a new mouthpiece to replace their years old commercial mouthpiece. The mouthpiece production has probably not changed much, but the player and mouthpiece certainly have. The player has gotten used to the worn mouthpiece, and gradually and minutely changed their embouchure and reeds over time to suit these changes. In extreme cases, a player will use a mouthpiece for many years (sometimes decades), becoming married to that mouthpiece and its wear, which can make for a very difficult time switching if something happens to the mouthpiece. In one extreme case, a client had played a mouthpiece for 40 years, coupled with a vintage clarinet, and had completely altered and adapted their playing to that individual setup as it wore. The facing was totally rounded, and the measurements were skewed, long and contorted. The mouthpiece was an old, extinct custom design, as were the clarinets, so they were in quite a bind finding something new. They were also going through dozens and dozens of boxes of reeds a year, with great frustration. Replacing the mouthpiece with another like it was out of the question, as nothing like it exists. We eventually made them a custom new mouthpiece, with similar playing characteristics to their mouthpiece. After months of discomfort, they eventually found a way of playing that accommodated their modern equipment. I always recommend that players (especially young aspiring professionals) try to have a few good, functional mouthpieces in their arsenal, and try to rotate. If the spares are not very workable, have them adjusted/refaced, as there is strength in numbers.

All of this is completely relative, as some will happily play a mouthpiece for many decades with no complaint, while others will notice and change after as little as eight months. My observations and conclusions have been made from my experience working with many clients internationally, and seems to apply to the vast majority of players, regardless of style or ability.

Many of my colleagues and clients who use commercial mouthpieces dispose of them after a year or so and find another. That is certainly not a reflection on the crafting of the mouthpiece, but in my mind this is a waste, as such a mouthpiece can be resurrected and kept alive for much longer than a year.

How is the wear corrected by refacing?

Countless times, people have brought me their favorite, worn out mouthpiece for refurbishing. I take precise measurements and note the seriousness of the wear, then relay the facing and table with very fine sandpaper, on a very flat surface. I have studied in great depth the designs/models and work of all makers and commercial firms, and am comfortable working with any mouthpiece. Using feeler gauges and a glass plate (Eric Brand style), I then use the sandpaper to realign and reface the mouthpiece to the original measurements, but perhaps with minutely enhanced dimensions, to correct any malformations that were in the original facing. I study the facing in great depth, to ensure proper balance of response and resonance. When calibrated properly, the mouthpiece will have a fresh table and facing which is good as new, or even better. The fresh mouthpiece will have much more of a solid, grounded feeling compared to how it was. Ninety – nine percent of people I work with switch to the fresh mouthpiece with slight adaptation of their reeds. The fresh mouthpiece is simply more reed friendly and playable than it was – the overtones are now balanced, bringing in the lower end of the spectrum which was perhaps lost a bit with the wear. Most clients comment that they change to a slightly softer reed with the freshened mouthpiece, which makes sense as there is now a completely flat contact with the reed, giving more grounding and grip to the response.

How often can I reface?

There are many opinions on how many times a mouthpiece can be refaced, when it has been done too many times, etc. For me, I believe most any mouthpiece can be restored or brought back to life, unless of course it has been traumatized seriously. Sadly, many mouthpieces have been destroyed and ruined over the years, which I believe is where this way of thinking originates. Also, many players are not very flexible with their embouchures, and cannot easily adjust to much change. There is nothing wrong with this, as it is all personal taste and approach. I work with all sorts of players, and some can change in a second to something new and different, while others need the same exact facing and style every time – we are all different in our perceptions and interests, and there is no right or wrong.

From my work and study, a mouthpiece can be refaced (assuming to similar specs) two or perhaps three times before it begins to change and play differently from how it did originally. The reason for this is that as material is taken away from the table and facing, the reed sits fractionally closer to the chamber and baffle, which changes the character of the mouthpiece slightly – also the angle that the facing sits on the mpc will change minutely – the entire balance and relation between the chamber, facing, rail thickness and window changes very slightly. These changes are an inevitable phenomenon, however the mouthpiece does not cease to play well, but begins to take on a slightly different personality than it had originally. It is the job of the craftsman to calibrate the voicing and keep the “soul” of the mouthpiece alive and intact, which can be quite challenging when working on the fourth or fifth refacing. By this juncture, many players generally have found something else, or instinctively feel the need to change – very few stay with exactly the same mouthpiece forever. However, in the hands of a skilled craftsman, a mouthpiece can be maintained for many, many years.

It is very interesting for me to refurbish an old favourite mouthpiece for a client, especially a piece they had used years prior, perhaps decades before, but have long forgotten and abandoned. Once the piece is resurrected and playing well, it is like bringing back a long departed friend – the player immediately recognizes their old mouthpiece, and in some cases it can be quite an emotional experience, especially if the mouthpiece had been ruined, damaged or wore out and the relationship was sadly cut short. In extreme cases like this, the player sometimes does not take up their old mouthpiece, but stays with a mouthpiece in their current way of playing – they have changed over time and years, and to go backwards to previous equipment does not quite work for them. As a professional player myself, I understand this phenomenon – I would not use a mouthpiece I played 10 years ago, as I was a different player then, but I would one I had perhaps five years ago. All individual and relative to our situation – we are all on our own unique road as instrumentalists and musicians.

Another small element is the material – over time, some ebonite mouthpieces experience fatigue in the material. It can begin to soften, which can change the resonance. Not to say it will be worse, but only play differently from years before. I recently refaced a vintage Chedeville mouthpiece for a client who had owned it for a few decades, however it had been ruined and was left in a drawer for a long period. Once restored and playing well, their comment was that it played extremely well, better than originally, however did not quite have the sort of resonance and overtones that it did from memory. Many factors play into this, but the material was soft, so I believe something happened to the ebonite, which influenced this. I do not believe that the exact composition of the material is crucial for resonance, however if the material itself softens, it will indeed change the way the mouthpiece resonates.

Regarding plastics and synthetic moulded pieces, the wear time is generally much quicker than ebonite. Some synthetic pieces I have encountered have exhibited severe amounts of wear after only a few months of play. These substances are ideal for moulding and creating specific designs, but one must be aware that they may not last as long as ebonite.

Playing with vintage mouthpieces

Something to consider with vintage mouthpieces applies to many things vintage – wristwatches, automobiles, bicycles, etc. These were made many years ago, for a different time, and to expect them to perform and function to modern 21st century standards, without proper restoration and care, can lead to disappointment. The mouthpieces from the “golden era” (1910 – 1940s) are true acoustic pieces of art, not because of their material, but their craftsmanship and engineering – however they need adapting from their original state. The reason is simply that modern playing and ensembles have grown to an extremely high standard – the player must have maximum dynamic range, balance and spectrum of tone, flexibility, intonation, and most importantly, response and control. These standards were simply not realized 80 years ago. This is where modern mouthpieces can win out – they function out of the box. This is not to say a vintage mouthpiece cannot be adjusted to perform as well, if not better, while retaining the beautiful resonance and colours that attracts so many to them. This type of work is far more than just with the facing, but adjusting the internal chamber, baffle, window, bore, etc. The study required for each style and make of mouthpiece is daunting, much like that of a watchmaker, studying dozens and dozens of movements from the past. Also, without a personal understanding of the concept and style of the piece, the craftsman is basically shooting in the dark. That being said, one’s expectations must be realistic – for example, one cannot make a vintage Bundy mouthpiece play like a Henri Chedeville. We can probably make it into something beautiful, and perhaps similar, but it will be a major undertaking, with lots of surgery needed. We are ultimately limited by the internal dimensions, and if the mouthpiece was born to sound a different way, then there isn’t a lot of hope in changing it radically. It is always best to work with a design that was created for that style of sound and voicing. Sadly, many are misguided and buy vintage mouthpieces which are simply of not good quality, and often pieces that are completely wrong for their playing style and aims. So, with vintage mouthpieces, one must do homework when buying and selecting.

Adapting, enhancing and improving mouthpieces

In the hands of a master craftsman, almost anything is possible with mouthpiece improvement. Many bring me their new and used commercial mouthpieces for enhancement, custom designs for altering, vintage mouthpieces for restoration, spares for changing in a different direction from their favourite, or copying, etc.

Another added bonus of refurbishing is it is a fraction of the cost of a new mouthpiece. This is especially ideal for students or those on a budget, as their favourite commercial mouthpieces can be adapted and enhanced to play very well, at an affordable cost.

Many who come to me are inexperienced with mouthpiece crafting, and uncertain of which direction to take their mouthpiece. Using my extensive experience with players of all styles and walks of life, I enjoy helping people finding their path. For me, I study many factors before any work is done – the player’s past, schooling, style, embouchure and voicing, reed, clarinet and ligature choice, etc, but also I ask what they are missing from their current approach and want with their playing. Often times, college students are very uncertain of what equipment they need. This is completely understandable, as no one in college is a finished player, no matter how talented or hard-working they may be – we are all on an individual road as instrumentalists and musicians, and must find our way, but it takes time. College is a period of intensive study, practice and growth. In college, I myself played a very wide range of equipment before settling into my own way of playing, which is still changing. However, I did have very fine mouthpiece craftsman guiding me, with good, flexible and approachable equipment. My job is to provide a setup which is tailored to the player’s needs, and offers a broad palette of flexibility and functionality, so they can make music and find their voice.