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Oboe 101: How to get your sticky keys un-stuck

Earlier this week at a lesson, one of my private students had a dramatically stuck Db key. Like stuck down so hard we had to press the other end of the key firmly to get it to pop up like it should normally. We tried the different steps to get a key un-stuck, and noticed that there was something on the pad, so I had to take the key off the oboe to clean the pad and the tone hole. 


Then later in the week, I was on Instagram and one of my IG-oboe-friends posted a story asking for advice on how to help a sticky pad be less sticky. So I’m taking both instances as a sign that this week we need to learn about how to un-stick a sticky pad! 


Why is the pad sticky? 

Before we try any remedy, we want to make sure that we know why the pad isn’t reliably coming up like it should. There are three types of sticky pad issues:

  1. The pad sticks down for a moment, but eventually rises on its own. (This is the most common) 

  2. The pad has something stuck on it (sticky goo, a foreign object, etc.). You may be able to see it, or you may only notice its residue left behind on a piece of clean/fresh cigarette paper. 

  3. The key is binding - this is a problem with the mechanism which you won’t be able to see. If you’ve recently dropped your oboe, you might have this kind of sticky key. 


How to un-stick a pad that eventually comes up

The classic sticky pad is one that sticks for just a moment but causes a little blip in sound. These are super annoying, but also (most of the time) remedied with some easy steps. 


Dollar Bill method

Place a dollar bill (denomination doesn’t matter) under the pad that’s sticky. Gently apply pressure to the pad as you pull the dollar bill out from under the pad. 


Why it works: The dollar bill leaves some of the natural oils from hands behind on the pad. (Money is full of oil from people’s hands) 


Cigarette Paper/Graphite Method 

Being gentle, use the pencil to generously shade a section of the cigarette paper that’s larger than the pad you’re trying to un-stick. Place the cigarette paper under the pad, so that the pad is coming in contact with the section you shaded with the pencil. Press gently on the pad and remove the cigarette paper from under the pad - if you press too hard, the paper will rip! Repeat 2-3 times. Then flip the shaded part of the paper upside down, press the pad closed firmly. Release the pressure or open the pad and remove the paper. 


Why it works: Graphite (pencil lead) is a great lubricant. You’re leaving a small layer of graphite on the pad and the tone hole, so hopefully they won’t stick together. 


How to un-stick a pad that has a foreign body or goo on it 

Typically for a case where there’s something in your oboe or sticky residue under your pad, you should visit a professional. The keys need to be taken off, the sticky pad and tone hole cleaned, and the oboe reassembled. Your band director may not be comfortable with disassembling an oboe, but many professional oboists are comfortable doing that. So, your local oboist or oboe repair specialist would be the person to go to. 


NOTE: You can often keep playing despite a sticky pad, but you may have to leave out the notes that are affected by the pad sticking. 


How to un-stick a binding key 

The least common type of sticky pad happens when the key itself is binding or getting stuck. This isn’t something that you can assess with your eyes, you need a screwdriver (and I recommend having some supervision by an oboist). You can try loosening the rod screw that the affected key is attached to.


WARNING: Turning the wrong screw even a little bit can cause your oboe to stop playing! 


Only loosen the screw a tiny bit at a time - we don’t want to negatively affect other keys or cause the rod to fall off completely. If this step doesn’t work, you’ll need to take your oboe to an oboe repair specialist. 


When turning any screws on your oboe remember that there are TWO kinds of screws: adjustment screws (that point down at the body of the oboe) and rod screws (typically run parallel to the body of the oboe). DO NOT touch adjustment screws unless you know exactly what you’re doing, why, and how to un-do it if you go too far OR if you’re under the supervision of an oboist or repair technician. 


Adjustments should always be done a little at a time, so think of the screw as a hand on a clock face. Only move the screw one number on the clock face at a time.

 

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