Upon first observation, the clarinet may seem to be a combination of glossy black hard plastic and shiny metal keys. Something accounts for the large price difference between a beginning student clarinet and a professional model clarinet. That something is the materials from which the instrument is composed.
The clarinet was developed in 1698 by Nuremberg musician Johann Christopher Denner from an ancient woodwind. This woodwind, the chalumeau, was a cane or wooden tube with a single cane reed, eight tone holes and either one or two keys.
In the earliest days of the true clarinet, the instrument body was most often composed of boxwood and sometimes pear and plum wood. Some early ivory clarinets have been found. Mouthpieces were sometimes made of ebony wood.
The first clarinet key pads were made of leather strips or felt. In about 1806, Iwan Muller made pads from leather or pieces of gut or fish bladder with wool inserts. He also made mouthpiece ligatures and thumb rests from metal for the clarinet.
In 1817, a French musical instrument maker, Halari, made a brass clarinet. Other makers experimented with clarinets made of silver and Jamaican cocuswood.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the French led the way in constructing clarinets made of African ebony wood. Eventually, African blackwood became the material of choice because of its greater durability. Also in the mid-nineteenth century, ebonite or hard rubber was used for the body of clarinets.
In the 1930's, metal clarinets were mass-produced. Some were brass, others were silver-plated nickel. Metal clarinets proved to be durable in many different climate conditions and were the instrument of choice when playing in a jazz or marching band.
When the plastics industry developed, so also did the use of thermoplastic polymers to make the body of clarinets. The production of metal clarinets waned in favor of the plastic and resonite clarinets.
The material of which the clarinet body is composed somewhat affects the tone of the clarinet. Clarinets made of the different varieties of African blackwood have a mellower and richer tone than those made of plastics or resins. Metal clarinets are rarely played in public but have a brighter tone than either plastic or wood.
The clarinets most played in modern times are made of resonite or African hardwood of some type. Resonite is Selmer's trademarked name for the plastic they use in some musical instruments. A resonite clarinet is usually the initial instrument a beginning clarinetist, especially a young student, may play. Cost is the biggest factor in the decision to play a resonite clarinet.
Once the student shows aptitude and desire to go further with his training, he will often "graduate" to a clarinet made of either African hardwood, a blend of wood powder and carbon or ebonite. Semi-professional and professional models made from these materials are more expensive. Some clarinetists restore old metal instruments and use them to play in jazz or polka bands.
The body of the clarinet may be composed of metal, wood, hard rubber, or plastic but the keys are metal. Clarinet keys may be silver- or gold-plated nickel. Musicians in the past would sometimes carve their own wooden keys to replace ones that broke.
In addition, each tenon--or keyed body section--as well as the mouthpiece, has thin cork wrapped around the place where one section joins to the next. Some clarinetists doing their own repairs use waxed dental floss or fishing line to replace worn out tenon cork.
Larger bits of cork provide a small cushion under some of the keys to keep the keys from clicking when played.
Pads used to cover tone holes may be made of leather, cork, synthetic materials, or woven felt with a cow or sheep gut covering.
Mouthpieces are constructed of various materials with clarinetists having their own preferences. Metal, hard rubber, ebonite and glass are a step up from the plastic mouthpiece that comes with most lower priced student clarinets.
Every clarinet should be cleaned after being played. This means the clarinetist should thread a swab inside the instrument to remove all moisture. Build up of condensation inside a clarinet can loosen pads.
The keys should be wiped clean of grease and sweat with a chamois or professional silver cleaning cloth specially made for cleaning metal on instruments. This will prevent the keys from tarnishing over time.
Clarinets made of wood must be maintained differently than clarinets made of resin. Conditioning the interior of the wooden clarinet bore with bore oil is essential to prevent the wood from drying out and developing cracks.