Taking Care of Your Fife
Notice: I admit that the following text is long but I strongly urge that anyone who owns a fife should read it all. It will be time well spent. Here is the abbreviated version:
1. Wooden instruments are subject to shrinkage, cracking, splitting, and loss of tone and playability, depending upon care.
2. The risk can be reduced through the use of the proper oil, wax and minimal additional precautions.
3. There is an incredible amount of misinformation that has floated around for centuries. Ignore it!
4. You can obtain all that you need right here. Scroll to the bottom. - Ed Boyle
Outside of questions related to learning to play the fife, there is no area where I have received more queries over the years than in fife maintenance. I have probably heard most of the hocus-pokus that has gone on for a few centuries. I know individuals who run cold water through their fife prior to performing. They say they are "wetting their whistle." Because of the water and the sudden temperature change, I cringe when I see them do it. I have heard of oiling the bore of a fife with a variety of oils including but not limited to: almond oil, walnut oil, olive oil, corn oil, and mineral oil. Some would make an excellent salad dressing! I have seen beer poured into a fife to "wet the cork." The list goes on and on. There was even a man who used cadmium oil, which is highly toxic, expecially when one often centers the blowhole of the fife with one's tongue! Then, there are various bore oils, most of which are no more than baby oil, with a few additives, to provide scent and color (and sell for ridiculous prices). External surfaces are often polished with various carnauba, paraffin and silicone based waxes or with aerosol furniture polishes. Many contain petroleum distillates that can dry out the wood, risking potential future splitting and cracking. A fife is not a piece of furniture!
Without going into needless detail, the tonal qualities of a musical instrument derive from a number of acoustical properties: pitch or frequency, harmonics, modality, and overtones. (This is why an "A" played on a trumpet sounds different from an "A" played on a fife, a piano, or a violin.) These factors depend upon physical geometry or shape, dimensions, the material the instrument is made from and the density of that material. In a wooden instrument, all of these qualities can change due to humidity, temperature, and exposure to water and other substances. Although it does not produce the tonal quality of a fine wooden fife, the Plastic Bb Fife is the unqualified best for a student because it requires no maintenance, although a bit of occasional swabbing will help. They are also very inexpensive.
In maintaining a fife, our concerns are threefold:
1. Dimensional stability - When a quality fife is properly made, the wood is cut to size and air-dried until it has attained the proper density for turning and boring. The cocobolo or grenadilla wood in a Model F is aged for years. If it were quickly kiln-dried like lumber, stresses might later develop in its structure after the fife was made. Finger holes of the proper size and position are created and, if a properly made fife is maintained with the same dimensions throughout its lifetime, it should perform flawlessly for a century or longer. The bore of the Model F is burnished by a special process, leaving it impenetrable to water, but treating it with a good oil will certainly do no harm. To protect the bore of other fifes may require the application of high quality bore oil internally and wax externally. If the density of the wood changes from when it was fabricated, the dimensions of the instrument can change over time in a number of ways: it can shorten, warp, split, or suffer bore surface damage. Even the finger hole size, shape, and location can vary.
2. Smoothness of the bore - Water is the enemy of any woodwind, from a piccolo to a oboe. When an unprotected wood surface gets wet, the grain rises, creating eddy currents in the airstream, detracting from the tonal quality. This is also prevented in the Model F, because of burnishing. Food particulate matter can sometimes accumulate in the bore, creating a similar problem. Destructive agents will accumulate wherever water collects, and an even distribution of oil prevents the pooling of water.
3. External appearance - Human saliva contains many enzymes. Their principal function is the early-stage digestion of various sugars, fats, and other foodstuffs. Byproducts of this process are a stew of peroxides and acids. If you look at the area surrounding the blowhole of your instrument, you may see a discoloration taking place. This very same etching is taking place inside the bore of the instrument! This is caused by the effects of the peroxides and acids. Skin oils can also get into the finish of the wood over time. I have a cocobolo fife that now looks like ebony because of this. It is a shame to have lost the original color and patina in this way. I know of no method to bring it back, except sanding and refinishing. Maybe not even then! A proper wax will protect it.
Maintenance is not a chore. Oiling of most fifes should be necessary no more than four times per year; the Model F, twice. They should be waxed when required. No amount of maintenance will repair a poorly made fife. If the wood was not aged properly, it was made from a soft or oily wood, or bored and turned just when the wood came off the boat, no amount of oil can turn it into a good instrument. It might have been doomed to play poorly and eventually crack on the day it was made. Some will survive no matter how roughly they are treated, subjected to sudden temperature changes, extremes of humidity or other environmental stresses. Some could go either way! It is especially with the latter that maintenance can make a big difference. When oiling the bore, just a few drops should be used and the fife should be be made to stand on end (blow hole up) to "rest" for a few hours, or preferably overnight.
Our goal in extending the service lifetime and tonal quality of an instrument is one of cleanliness and protection from water and salivary enzymes.
Many years ago, I created a system that I use personally and it has served me well. It consists of two wooden swabs, one for cleaning and one for oiling, complete with a soft vinyl case to contain any residual oil. (Never insert something made from metal in a wooden instrument!) The oiling swab has a pad of soft polymer for the even application of oil. The scrubbing swab should not be used routinely...maybe never! It has a polymer pad that is a bit rougher in texture, but it still cannot scratch the bore. However, it is to be used in only the very worst cases as sometime occur in very old fifes. It is used to remove the most stubborn materials that may have become lodged and dried inside the the bore of the fife. For example, a friend of mine purchased an Civil War era Cloos fife that had a coating of dried fungus in the bore. No amount of swabbing would remove it. Scrubbing cleaned it effectively. The swabs are stored in a leather-like vinyl case equipped with a polyethyelene oil-proof liner. To learn more about the qualities of the bore oil and wax, click on their photographs.
I have also included the finest bore oil that exists today, Bore Doctor and the very best microcrystalline wax available anywhere: Doctor's Woodwind Wax. You will receive 15 ml of bore oil and 5 gm. of wax. The kit costs $25.95 complete, plus shipping. Bore Doctor and Doctor's Woodwind Wax are also available separately. See the order page.
In stock and available for immediate shipment.
To order, click on the fife