Leblanc “Paperclip” Contrabass Clarinet Overhaul

The clarinet family is one of the most diverse instrument families, with instruments of many different sizes. Here we’ll discuss the Leblanc contrabass clarinet, specifically model 340, also known as the “paperclip” model.

Leblanc BBb contrabass clarinet, model 340 "Paperclip"

Leblanc BBb contrabass clarinet, model 340 “Paperclip”

These models were introduced in 1964, in two sizes: the EEb contraalto (a fifth below the bass clarinet) and the BBb contrabass (an octave below the bass clarinet). This instrument is designed with a more compact wrap, making it more convenient to play than a conventional contra clarinet, which stands much taller.

Leblanc offered several options for the low range – instruments extending as far as low C are available. The instrument we overhauled (and featured in this article) was made during the first year of production (1964) and built with a range to low D.

One notable characteristic of this instrument is the abbreviated trill key section. Rather than the customary array of four trill keys for the right hand, only the bottom one (for Eb/Bb) is present on the paperclip. This means that several trills are unavailable on this instrument, along with the chromatic F-F# fingering.

As with any overhaul, disassembling the instrument is one of the first steps. With an instrument of this magnitude, it’s useful to take it apart right away so we’re working with sections of a manageable size.
The neck, bell, and floor peg all came off the instrument without incident. The connection between the “top” and “bottom” sections, however, was a different matter. These two largest pieces, which comprise well over 95% of the length of the instrument, were frozen together. Not helping matters was a stripped screw (with a mangled slot) holding it all together.

After trying every trick in the book to remove the stubborn, damaged screw, it became obvious that I was going to have to drill out the old screw and re-tap the threads for an oversized screw. So I drilled out the old screw and was ready to pull the sections apart…

Except that they wouldn’t budge! The clarinet was completely frozen. Metal tenon frozen inside a metal receiver…time to enter “stuck tuning slide” mode. Oil, heat, and patience, followed by more oil, more heat, and more patience – for a while. Finally I was able to remove the two sections.

New tenon screw

Next, I removed the keys from the instrument, sorting them into bins. These clarinets have many more moving parts than a Bb clarinet. For example, while the Bb clarinet has one single key for the register vent and throat Bb, there are well over a dozen moving parts that govern the operation of the register key system on a “paperclip,” far more than even a conventional double-vent register key on a bass clarinet. Needless to say, it was important to keep tabs on each key.

Once the keys were off the instrument, it was time to remove the pads. With the pads out of the instrument, it was possible to measure the pad thicknesses and key cups to order pads of the proper size for this instrument.

The pads on this instrument are not glued with shellac. Rather, like a flute, they are inserted into the pad cup over a centered stud and attached with another threaded part. Flutes typically have female threads in the stud, which accepts a screw. This clarinet was the opposite – the studs on these instruments have male threads, and a nut with internal threads is screwed onto the stud. Retaining washers are used in between the nut and the surface of the pad, and these have the secondary effect of acting as a resonator.

Keys, pad screw system, old pads

This is a viable system – until the studs develop stripped threads. One stud on this instrument had stripped threads and needed replacement for the pad system to function; a new section of threaded rod was silver-soldered to the back of the pad cup to restore the original function.

Another interesting detail – several of the pads had shims to fine-tune pad alignment, similar to how flute pads are aligned. One of the shims was clearly cut from a page of a calendar – printed in French! It’s possible that this shim was cut at the Leblanc factory and that these pads were the originals from 1964.

Other parts of the overhaul were straightforward. Body work was minimal – a few tiny dents that were too small to document with pictures, minor leveling of otherwise excellent tone holes, no dented posts or distortions in the body tube. Cleaning the body and keys felt very similar to performing these procedures on a saxophone. Ditto for key fitting, except that there are many more moving parts to fit. Many of the keys are held with pivot screws, so those posts were countersunk to the correct depth to eliminate all lost motion. Other keys were arranged in stacks, meaning that a substantial amount of swedging was in order.

Before and after cleaning

Reassembling, padding, and regulating the instrument was an interesting mix of familiar territory and unique key interactions. I chose Roo Pads from MusicMedic – their bass clarinet sizes are exactly the right thickness for a “paperclip” and they don’t stick as much as conventional pads, which is an important consideration here in Florida. With these pads, this clarinet could very well go another half-century without another overhaul.

Key corks on this instrument, with few exceptions, were very thin. Most of the contact points used 164” sheet cork, and I found myself shaving some thickness off of those in a few locations. Normally, I prefer to use alternative materials for some specific locations (teflon, tech cork, ultra suede, etc.), but there simply wasn’t room to do any of this without removing metal from the key feet. More importantly, there wasn’t a need. The mechanism functions perfectly with conventional sheet cork.

Here are some pictures of the more unique areas of this clarinet:

Register key system
Pinky keys and their linkages
The final result

Have a “paperclip” or other big clarinet that needs some TLC? We have the experience and know-how to restore your instrument to its proper function. Contact us today to get started!

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