Lesson 2 – Kaval Maintenance – Oiling and Care
That’s a question that I get quite often both from my students and other kaval enthusiasts. I looked online, and to be honest, I didn’t find anything that could give clear answers and directions on that topic. I myself have cracked a few very good instruments because I didn’t take proper care of them. I remember buying a new kaval a few years back. It was an amazing kaval made of cornelian cherry wood. That’s actually the most common material for kavals and old luthiers used mostly that material to make kavals. I was so excited that I had it, that I would not stop playing for hours and hours every day.
One day I decided to take this kaval with me in Austria. I went there at the invitation of Juan Garcia Herreros (an amazing bass player from Colombia, based in Austria) to participate in the recording of his new album. Of course I took the new kaval with me and I decided to use it for the entire record. The location where we were recording was high in the mountains in Austria. I came from Bulgaria so the climate, altitude and humidity were different. During the recordings I had to play even more on the new kaval. Until… on the fourth day of the recordings I heard a strange sound from the kaval. At first I didn’t pay attention to it, but then I reached out to clean it and felt a new weird texture on the surface of the top joint of the kaval. It was a HUGE crack. I was so devastated, I didn’t know what to do. I taped it with some duct tape and finished the recordings. When I got back to Bulgaria I tried to fix it, I glued it but nothing worked, the crack was too big. Terry Pratchet once said that every instrument has a soul. If the instrument breaks then the soul dies and even if you fix the instrument the soul is still dead. I guess he was right. That kaval never played the same way.
So how do we avoid cracks like that? Well, in this lesson, I will give you some very useful tips that will help you keep the kaval in good condition so that it can serve you for a long time.
Oiling the Kaval
Here’s what the process of oiling the kaval looks like. First of all you need two cleaning rods. You could just use regular flute rods. The first one is with a clean cloth and the second one is for oiling. The kaval should be oiled periodically. If the kaval is new make sure that every time you take the kaval before playing, it’s as oily as possible on the inside. That’s very important because that way the oil prevents the moisture from absorbing into the wood and it simply drains out of the kaval as you play. If the kaval is more than a month old you can oil it less often. I try to oil mine at least once a week.
So here’s what the everyday playing routine for a new kaval should look like. I recommend doing that for a month after you buy the new kaval.
- Take the rod with the clean cloth then gently pass through each joint of the kaval. Make sure that the kaval is as dry as possible. I often replace the cloth with a napkin or just a piece of it, because I simply throw it away after using it.
- Take the oiling rod, oil the piece of cloth on the top and just pass it through each joint of the Kaval. For now we’re only oiling the inside of the kaval.
- Play the kaval as much as you want. If the kaval is less than a month old, I recommend playing it less than two hours a day.
- Repeat Step 1 and Step 2
- Oil the kaval on the outside by using either your hands or the same cloth you used for oiling the inside of the kaval.
- Leave it in a shady place, on a napkin or paper towel.
- Wait for at least one hour and put it in the case.
Old kaval makers use only olive oil. Nowadays different kinds of oil can be used. I myself use almond oil. It’s very good both for your kaval and your skin, has no smell and keeps the kaval in a good condition.
For kavals that are more than a month old that procedure is much simpler. Do all the steps I described once a week and just make sure you wipe the kaval on the inside with a clean cloth or a napkin after playing. You don’t want to leave too much moisture inside the kaval after playing.
Assembling and disassembling the Kaval
The most important thing about assembling the Kaval is to really be careful, because it’s wooden (in some cases not but most of the time it’s made out of wood). The wood can be very fragile and you should never force it in any way.
The first step is to take the head joint (the first Ekleme) and the body joint (the second Ekleme). Then slide the first Ekleme’s tenon into the socket of the second Ekleme with a gentle twisting motion. Be careful not to press the head joint to the body joint at an angle, it just needs to go in straight on. Slide it all the way into the socket.
The second step is to take the foot joint (the third Ekleme) and do the same with it. Then, line up the holes on the body joint with the ones on the foot joint so that they face up.
I often see people assembling and disassembling their kavals while keeping their hands too far away from each other. Never do that! Especially if you played for a longer time and the wood is already expanded. That’s very dangerous and not healthy for the instrument. The proper way to do that is to keep our hands close to each other and then carefully twist the two joints to opposite directions. I’ve seen kavals break so you should be very gentle.
Thread lapping replacement
Most woodwind instruments use cork to keep the joints tight. This is not very common with the kavals, although I’ve seen kavals with cork instead of thread lapping. The kavals in my store use thread lapping so I’m going to speak about that kind only. Let’s go through the process of replacing the lapping.
I’ll first start with the kind of thread I use. It’s just a regular cotton thread. I use mostly black but you can pick any colour you want. There isn’t a rule of how often we should replace the lapping but I personally advise you to do that every few months, mostly because of hygiene reasons.
Here’s the process broken down into steps:
Remove the old lapping. That’s pretty easy, just find the end of the thread and take it all off. If you can’t find the end of the thread use a knife but watch out, because you can scratch the kaval.
Take a new thread, take the end of it and gently lay it onto the tenon. Usually the tenons have grooves and the first layer of thread should go inside them. Hold the end of the thread with your thumb and with your other hand take it around the groove. Lay it across itself into the next groove and then release the end that you were holding with the thumb. Lap it tightly around all the grooves so it doesn’t slide off next time you take the flute apart, then fill the gaps between the grooves and add as many layers as needed. It needs to fit tightly but not too tight. Check the fit and if it’s tight enough, cut the thread. Bear in mind that the thread will compress.
The last step is something that I do to lubricate the connectors. I use regular cork grease. It also “glues” the threads to the connectors so that they don’t flutter all over the kaval.