Music aficionados can appreciate the versatility of the clarinet, but many people may not know how to build a clarinet. Like most instruments, clarinets were made carefully by hand until around a century ago, at which point machine-made instruments became possible. While the process of making a clarinet has changed over the years, the popularity of this diverse instrument has remained consistent.
The first clarinets were handmade from wood; boxwood, plum and pear wood were favorites. Like some other woodwind instruments of the 1500s and 1600s, clarinets used a single French cane reed that had to be inserted into the mouthpiece in order to produce a sound. Significant improvements to the clarinet emerged in the 1800s, when instrument makers added more keys, rearranged the finger holes and experimented with what kind of wood worked best for the clarinet. Dark African ebony wood was popular, as was cocuswood, a Jamaican hardwood. Most instrument makers turned to African blackwood, a pliable dark material that was both light and strong. The clarinet keys were usually made of silver or gold and the reed for the mouthpiece came from cane.
Today's clarinet is made of African blackwood and comes in 5 parts: the lower body, upper body, bell, neck and mouthpiece. The seasoned logs are dried, split and sawed, then shipped to instrument manufacturers in squared pieces known as billets. Each piece is inspected and approved billets are put into production.
To make the clarinet body, the billet is put into a machine that bores a hole through the middle, creating cylinders. A lathe sculpts the familiar round columns around the bore, and the pieces of the clarinet body is smoothed, dyed black and then polished. A similar process takes place with the clarinet bell and mouthpiece. To create the finger holes, the polished column is set into a machine that precisely drills the holes, which vary in diameter and distance.
The clarinet's keys are die cast metal, and made by a stamping machine that presses the molten metal into molds. The keys are turned out and smoothed. After polishing and trimming, the metal keys are matched up with felt pads. The key mechanisms are fitted with springs and then mounted on the clarinet. Careful quality control ensures that each instrument produces perfect tone and is mechanically sound.