Introduction: How to Clean and Seal a Harmonica

This is a brief description of how to clean a harmonica. Harmonicas, understandably, do get full of saliva, food, drinks, fungus, germs and corrosion. If you play regularly you should clean them regularly and if you only pick it up once a year you should clean it before you play it. You never know what may have grown in there.


***** You will, at some point, destroy a harmonica if you do this process enough times!*************
****** Your reeds may break. They may need re-tuning. They may need adjusting after.***********
*******This process works well if you are careful but accidents happen. ***********************
********I take no responsibility for any damage your instruments may incur.*********************

I will be posting other Instructables dealing with problems that may arise but they are not on yet. You can contact me and I will try to help you with any difficulties.

Step 1: Take It Apart. Carefully!

1. Use a small, bladed instrument like a pocket knife or something similar and gently push the blade between the cover and the reedplate. You should do this close to the first nail and stay away from the reeds. If yours is screwed together then I'll trust you to get on with this step in an appropriate manner but still be very careful of the the reeds.
Try not to pry them apart but just use the thickness of the blade to push the nail out slightly and then use pliers to pull it out. Only do the top plate for now. Leave the other plate to protect the reeds on the underside.

2. When you have exposed the reedplate, push the blade under the nail head and then use pliers as before. If this is difficult then you can insert the blade between the reedplate and the comb. BEWARE! This is dangerous. If you twist the blade you can damage the comb beyond repair. Use just the thickness of the blade as before (don't twist) but be immensely careful. When you do the draw reeds on the underside, you will have to be even more careful as the reeds themselves will be facing up and any slip could knock them off or damage them. I will post an Insructable on how to replace reeds but a little care now saves work later. Again if it is a screwed model then undo them. Take care that your screwdriver doesn't slip or you can take out a reed. Be careful not to sheer the top of the screws, they are often made of brass and can be quite soft.

3. When you have stripped one side, go ahead and do the other. The harmonica in the picture is about 40 years old and looks absolutely disgusting but I know that it hasn't been played much and when it's done it will sound great!

Step 2: ALCOHOL!

Get a suitable container and place the parts carefully inside. Pour on enough Isopropyl Alcohol (I use 99%) to cover them. Put on the lid and leave them for as long as the manufacturers instruction stipulate. An hour is usually fine. I left mine while I did the comb.

Step 3: The Comb.

The comb can't be cleaned as easily as the metal parts. The wooden comb will soak up and fluid that touches it. This is a major problem when playing a wooden comb harmonica. The tines swell with saliva and can prevent the harmonica from playing properly. They may not return to their original size for some time, if ever! You can see this effect on the intro pic. Don't worry we will fix this so it doesn't happen anymore. If you have a plastic comb then you can use alcohol but it will strip off anything thats printed on it and may affect the plastic itself if you leave it a long time. You can just use soap and hot water and give a decent wash. A good antibacterial soap may help. Skip to the next step.

1. Using a piece of double sided tape, attach the comb to a block. Use a second block or a perfectly flat surface with sandpaper and sand the comb flat. You must make sure that the faces of the comb are as flat and even as possible. Check often that it is sanding correctly. You will see lots of saw marks from when it was made, you should try to get rid of most of these. A flatter comb gives a better union between the comb and the plate. When you have finished both sides and you are happy that they are flat and the comb is even, then you move on to the edge. If you want to keep the original finish then just give the comb a wipe over to remove dirt and sawdust. If like me, you want a different look then sand off the original varnish back to bare wood. Be careful of the tines as they can snap pretty easily (especially with old harmonicas). Don't go too mad, we don't want the comb to be too small for the plates.

2. Use a file or sandpaper to remove any dirt from the inside of each slot and make sure they too are nicely flat. Again, be careful of the tines as they can snap. You can glue them back on sometimes but not always.
There are a few websites where you can buy replacement combs or you could make one yourself. Just copy the dimensions. You will have to ditch the nails in this case and convert it to screws. This is something I will show you in another Instructable but it isn't hard.
File the corners of the tines very lightly so that the tine is more rounded at the end, this makes it more comfortable to play.

3. Now we will seal the comb and prevent it from swelling ever again! I use a mixture of 50/50 vaseline and beeswax. Melt them together, be careful they can be volatile. Use a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Once made, put it in a suitable container. You need enough depth to immerse the comb(see pic). Put it in and give it 5 seconds or so, any longer and it will soak up to much wax and swell. The wax will cool and dry quickly on the comb. Use your pocket knife to gently scrape the excess wax off the surfaces. Again, not to hard or you'll damage the comb. Polish the comb with a suitable cloth and you should be left with a really nice looking piece of wood.

Step 4: The Metalwork.

1. Remove your reedplates and covers from the alcohol and give them a good rinse off. Lay one of the plates(reeds up) on a cloth with plenty a newspaper under it. Take some Brasso or any other decent metal polish and pour on a generous amount. I pour it on the plate not the cloth I use to rub it in with. It has the effect of lifting some of tarnish without even touching the plate. This is good, the less we touch the reeds the better. Take a cloth and rub gently on the plate. Go in the direction of the reeds from rivet to free end. Don't go any other way. I will take a little work to get all the tarnish off so don't bother. Get most of it off away from the reeds, the ends of the plates and the back. These are the visible parts. The tarnish doesn't effect the way the reeds play so if it won't come off easily, leave it. Turn the plate over. Do the same thing on this side. Move the cloth in the same direction. Even though there are no reeds on this side, they are now on the cloth, so any strong movement can damage them. Do both plates.

2. Polish the coverplates. If the are rusty, you may be able to remove this with a high grade sandpaper and then polish out any marks. Do this on a machine if you have one. If they are pitted the just do your best. I haven't found a really good way of fixing a highly corroded and pitted plate yet (any suggestions?).

3. Wash everything with soap and water. Use an old toothbrush and work across the plate from one end to the other. Careful over the reeds. You need to get all the excess polish off. I use an antibacterial soap and plenty of running water usually. The tub of water was just for the picture.
Jason Ricci, who is a fantastic harmonica player uses Purple Kaboom( for those in the U.S.) for this. Check out Jason on Youtube or his own site I tried to put links in here but it wouldn't let me).

Step 5: Re-fitting.

When you are satisfied that everything is clean and prepared then go ahead and put it all back together. The best thing to do is throw away the nails and convert it to screws which I will post in another Instructable. If you want to put the nails back you may find that the holes are now to large and the nails to hold so well. You can use a sliver of balsa or matchwood to pack the hole slightly. Don't use toothpick it is too hard and can force the comb to split when you drive the nail in because it won't give. It has to be soft and a very small amount.
Try to push the nails as far as they will go and just tap them home. Star with the blow (upper) plate. This way when you turn it over to do the other side you won't have reeds rubbing on the table. Put on the reedplates in the same way.
You now have a playable harmonica. You may find that it needs some adjustment or re-tuning. I will post these in other Instructables but you can find lots of info on Youtube and other harmonica websites.