What's my vintage clarinet worth?

I have been getting a lot of questions like this:
Subject: RE: Vintage/Odd Brands
My mother has a clarinet she played in high school in the late '30's. It is stamped "Henri DuBois, Paris." Our local instrument repairman is unfamiiar with the name and unable to tell us if it is worth refurbishing. He said it would probably cost from $250 to $300. Is it worth it or should we make it into wall art?

My answer:
Thanks for your visit to clarinetpages and I'm happy to try to answer your question. Your Mom's clarinet is listed on the Vintage page, as I think you saw. I haven't had a chance to review one like it yet. It is definitely a French Stencil clarinet. I assume that it is wood, being that old. Otherwise the music store would not have put that high a price on it.

I hate to tell you: Because the instrument is an odd brand, it won't sell well on eBay (which is where I sell instruments from time to time). And, if you look at the vintage instruments I have reviewed, you will see that they vary widely in quality. I won't be able to tell how well your instrument will play and what it worth without playing it. I have sold some restored French stencil instruments for as much as $224, but most of the time at less than $200. (eBay prices are half of what you would expect to pay at a music store.)

Try doing an advanced search on eBay, check “completed sales,” and search for “vintage clarinet.” I think you will see that if unrestored, you're looking at maybe a $30-50 value. I would be glad to restore the instrument (and that would give me a chance to put a review and pictures on the web site). My charge for this is very reasonable, but you would have to also pay shipping both ways. (See the Spa Treatments page.) The best time to sell your instrument is in the summer. A lower quality French Stencil clarinet— 
if reconditioned, can make a good horn for a beginner, and would be worth $140-180. A really good quality French Stencil clarinet, if restored, will be suitable for an intermediate player and might be worth $225-300.

I hate to see vintage clarinets like yours made into lamps or wall art! They're worth more than that. Use plastic and metal clarinets for that! One of the best things you can do with a good vintage instrument is put it into the hands of a young student. (Only do this if it has been reconditioned! Otherwise it will just be a discouragement.) Also I often recommend vintage clarinets for adults returning to playing clarinet. If your vintage clarinet has a wide bore, it could be great for jazz.

Where to donate your old clarinet:
For Florida: Consider Melbourne Municiple Band's summer music program for kids. 
For Kansas: Consider Scaling Barriers, which is a non-profit organization providing musical instruments to youth to participate in school bands.
For Arkansas: Consider PlayItAgain.org. (I'm not sure that org is still functioning. May2012)
For Louisiana: Consider The Roots of Music, an after school youth music program in New Orleans.


How to spot the good French stencil clarinets

My favorite stencil brands are those by Thibouville, SML, and Couesnon. I think that I am seeing a trend that the older Couesnon clarinets with chrome keys are not as good as the older ones with nickel keys.  Even those makers made some lemons, and Malerne also made some really good instruments. One problem is that we don't yet have a good handle on which stencil brands were made by who and when, and which were given more care in manufacturing.

High Pitch verses Low Pitch:

First of all, make sure your assembled clarinet measures around 23 1/2 inches, without the mouthpiece.

Starting from the beginning of clarinets until around 1920 clarinets, many were made to play at “high pitch” (A=452-456) rather than “low pitch” (A=440), which is today's standard. The high pitch instruments will be around 23 inches without the mouthpiece. The low pitch instruments will be from 23 3/8" to 23 3/4" (or an average of 23 1/2"). Some of these instruments were helpfully marked HP or LP, often on the bell. The middle one in the picture was not marked as HP. It measures 23 1/16" with a non-original barrel.

High pitch instruments are pretty useless today, unless you happen to be one of the rare people who needs to play with other antique instruments, such as in a polka band with an antique squeeze box. If one tries to pull out a high pitch instrument to be in tune with modern instruments, it makes the clarinet terribly out of tune in its different registers. (So it might work, if you were playing a piece that had a five note range.)

Left pinkie keys:
  • I like the clarinets that have the unified post for the left hand E/B and F#/C# keys,
  • and those also usually or maybe always have the pin-in-hole style, like Buffets.
  • Please understand that there are many fine clarinets that don't have this feature, and please don't infer anything because I listed this first.

Key metal:

  • I like the good quality nickel silver the older clarinets tend to have. These will often look very dull gray, but they will shine up nicely— like the picture to the right.
  • The keys with chrome finish are newer and can be very inferior. The ones made in the 1950s to 60s and often with numbers stamped on the underside of them are brittle— like the two pictures below.

This second picture: The keys of this Andre Chabot clarinet have the poor chrome finish but without the stamp on the underside.
Keys of Pruefer clarinets have numbers stamped on the underside but are still very sturdy because they are so thick.

Letters and numbers stamped in the wood under the keys:
  • I think these are batch numbers. Malerne used these, and other makers seem to use them more sparingly. [Dec2013 update: I am not too sure. Seems like Couesnon and SML frequently used them also.]

Top pad cup above the first finger on the right hand:
  • If the rib on the top of that pad cup makes a turn upward, then it can be a sign of what I think are Malerne products in the 1940's-50's. However I have seen the same feature on SML made stencils that are very good. [Dec2013 update: This is not very helpful, really. French stencil makers seem to have often used the same key manufacturers.]

Clarinets that are from Malerne in this era can be very playable, but they have not been my favorites.

Chiseled out area under the right hand pinkie keys:
  • I especially like the clarinets which have this. Absence of this trait does not mean the clarinet is inferior.

Register key:
  • I think it is fun when clarinets have the register key that curls from the back to the front of the instrument. Makers must have stopped making register keys like that somewhere around 1920. Actually, while those keys are fun, they are harder to keep in adjustment. It is hard to have enough spring pressure to close the hole securely.
Hole under the left pinkie C#/G# key:
  • I think it is interesting that sometimes this hole is not beveled like the other tone holes that are closed with pads. The reason this one is singled out to not have the bevel is that there is not room to make the standard size bevel here. It is too close to the end. Many newer clarinets have a shallow or smaller bevel here. I find that the older French stencil clarinets with this feature are often the best.
[15Dec2012 update: I have decided that I don't like this feature after all! This most often comes on Couesnon clarinets. I have found that not having the beveled tone hole makes it harder for the pad to consistently seat well.

  • The case that comes with the instrument is a surprisingly good indicator of how good the clarinet is. I find that most often instruments come to me in the original case. 

I am estimating the case on the left is from 1910 to 1920. This happens to be for a Filmore, Cincinnati clarinet. I have also seen similar cases for early Pedler clarinets.

I would put the two cases on the right perhaps in the 1930s to 40s.

These are newer, say 1945 to 1955. These cases often hold clarinets I am not as fond of.

These cases are a bit less broad than the ones just above. This one in front is almost the style of the Bundy case I had in 1959. These remind me of Penny Loafers and bobby sox.

Note the case in this 1958 ad:

Bore size:
  • I like the narrow (14.5mm) bore stencil clarinets very much. The narrow bore instruments are almost always the earlier ones. The medium bore (14.7mm) ones are the majority. The wide bore (15mm) instruments show the influence of the jazz clarinet era upon manufacturing. Unfortunately they oftenl have intonation problems. More on bore sizes is found on the Wooden Clarinets page.
Condition of the wood:
  • Even if the clarinet is a top brand, if the clarinet is cracked, it significantly hurts the value. The good news is that cracks can rather easily be fixed these days. I do this every week.
Old hard rubber clarinets:
  • I have found that the old hard rubber clarinets sound very nice and play nicely in tune. They don't sell well but are very worth reconditioning and playing.
For brand names that I have identified as good, see the Vintage Page.