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What's the deal with cork grease?

...something that many musicians don’t think twice about, but an essential step in maintaining your instrument.


Did you know that there are different formulations for cork grease? It’s true! I discovered this by accident when I purchased a new instrument in 2020 and the cork grease felt smooth, not sticky at all, and didn’t have any scent to it. Compared to the old cork grease I’d been using (I don’t know where I got it, but I assume it came with an older instrument), it was a dream to use and didn’t leave a gross residue on my fingers.


I adored the new cork grease that came with my oboe from Hannah’s Oboes, and as I was reading through the paperwork that came with the oboe, I learned that the cork grease is not petroleum based.


What’s cork grease made of?

That’s a great question, and I wasn’t able to find a good answer because it’s often a proprietary mix of waxes and oils. In the quick searching I did, I found two companies that offer a petroleum free natural cork grease, and Doctor Products even has the tagline “A proprietary blend of fine exotic oils to nourish natural wood” as part of the logo on their website. The BerpBio cork grease is listed as being “plant-based with beeswax” on their website.


According to “CleanMyInstrument.com”, (I consider this a sketchy source with no citations, but at least a person is acknowledged as the author, so it seems…halfway legit) cork grease can be a mix of different kinds of wax and oils including paraffin, beeswax, mineral oil, petroleum, coconut oil, and mink oil. I’ve been told in the past that I can use plain petroleum jelly if I’m in a pinch, but it turns out that I may be harming my tenon corks’ longevity that way.


Polling the experts

In addition to googling, I reached out to two woodwind repair pros and got their input.


Sean Gumin addressed petroleum jelly directly: “I’ve had students use Vaseline and even seen it suggested in band director articles. Please don’t. It doesn’t penetrate the cork and eventually just gets everywhere. Cork grease, if used in moderation, will eventually penetrate the cork and keep a slick layer for the joints to work. You don’t need much cork grease. Maybe on a new cork you’ll use some every time you put the instrument together for a week or so.”


He also noted: “A common repair is because of excessive cork grease build up (you should clean it up every so often). The cork grease will commonly get to the G# or F# pads and tone holes, clogging the tone holes and/or disintegrating the pads.”


Angela Wells told me “Corks are glued onto the instrument body and grease dissolves the glue over time. This happens fastest with petroleum grease (most of the generic chapstick tube ones). Most of the synthetic [cork grease] options are best. My current favorite is Alisyn.”


Angela went on, “Most of the "natural" cork greases contain beeswax which becomes a caked-on sticky mess that makes the instrument harder to assemble over time. So, go with synthetic when possible. Use [cork grease] sparingly only if the joints are hard to assemble. Cork grease is supposed to act as a lubricant and does not protect or "feed" the cork.”


“If the instrument is still hard to assemble, it's a good idea to visit a repair technician. There is a condition that I call "binding tenon" that cannot be addressed with grease or home remedies.”


So, if we want our tenon corks and our staples to last as long as possible, we should avoid using petroleum-based cork grease when possible, and clean any excess cork grease off our instrument frequently!


I can’t say if the cork grease I fell in love with from Hannah’s Oboes is one of the natural products, but I can say that it’s scent-free, not sticky, and gets the job done.


So, if you can afford a teeny little upgrade like petroleum-free cork grease, it’s worth it, and will help your corks last longer!


NOTE*I’ve not used Alysin, BerpBio or Doctor Products cork grease, and am not affiliated with any of the companies.


 

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