Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pad Bugs

I come across the problem of pad bugs on average once a week. When a customer brings an old musical instrument into the repair shop for an evaluation, my suspicions are on high alert. Instruments purchased in a pawn or antique store, or that flute that “mom or even grandma used when they were young” are likely cases. Sometimes when an instrument case is opened, it is very obvious. And then there are times the problem is not easily detected. A typical visual inspection may lead me to believe that the instrument is in great condition but only when the instrument is fully disassembled, can I finally see the damage of pad bugs.

What instruments are susceptible?
All woodwind instruments, string instruments, and pianos are easily affected. Pad bugs are most commonly found in clarinets, oboes, flutes, and bowed string instruments.

What are pad bugs and why do they like clarinets and flutes? 
I have heard them called many names: hide beetles, fabric pests, pantry beetles, but the carpet beetle is the official name. There are a few types of carpet beetles. For musical instrument purposes, the varied carpet beetle and the black carpet beetle are most prevalent. The adult carpet beetle is a good traveler and flier. Sometimes it is mistaken for a ladybug because of its ability to fly and its round shape. Their size can range from 1/8 to 1/10 inch long. Colors vary from black to brown. As full-grown adults they are mostly harmless but problems occur when eggs are laid (up to 100 at a time) and larvae hatch. The most destruction occurs during their larval stage which can last 150-630 days.

Larvae thrive in temperatures between 70-85 degrees F and higher humidity levels of 60-80 percent. Perfect breeding grounds are dark, humid, and undisturbed areas like under beds, attics and for a musician, stored instrument cases.

The adult beetle will deposit eggs in areas of high organic material such as felt, wool, carpet, animal skins, furs, feathers, animal horns, hair, silk, dried plant products, glue and organic material with perspiration or saliva residue. Although the adult beetle will leave eggs in areas with a high food source for the larvae to thrive, larvae can and will travel to survive.

There are many signs to look for when suspicious of bug infestation in an instrument and/or case.
The first sign is the performance of the instrument.
-Does the instrument play with a stuffy or weak tone quality?
-Does it seem like pads are not sealing?
-Are some notes stronger than others?
-Does the instrument not play at all?

Next is the visual inspection of the case and instrument body.
Things to look for:
-Messy case: stray hair, cork grease stains on case liner, and dirt or lint

-Age of case and accessories: crackling and yellowing paper, old reeds, stale and moldy smell, tarnished, greying or green instrument keys, and old sticky key oil

-Dandruff: tiny, white flakes the size of salt grains much like talcum powder left on the instrument and case

It is questionable what this actually is. It is said to be the fecal matter from larvae. But it also has been said to be uneaten flakes of the bladder skin, leather, cardboard, and wool from which woodwind pads are constructed.

-Larvae casings: suspicious brown or cream dirt flakes or lint
It is highly unusual one will find live larvae, but they will leave plenty of dried skin casings that are shed as they grow. The larvae can be mistaken for silverfish but their size will never match the silverfish. At most they will never get any larger than 1/8 inch in length. Casings will at first glance look like dirty lint but closer inspection will reveal a shell of a tiny caterpillar-like bug.

-Holes or chunks in pads and felts: inspection of pads while assembled may not reveal any damage
While assembled, pads and guard felts may have chunks eaten on the sides. During disassembly, holes or chunks in the middle of pads are easily detected.

In a string instrument case (i.e. violin, viola, cello), it is a rarity the bugs will get to the wood but it’s not unheard of. Carpet beetles are drawn to organic materials like glue and perspiration residue left on musical instruments. So a violin well played but never cleaned and then stored indefinitely is a great draw for carpet beetles. The bugs regularly get to bow hair. If you open the case and the bow looks like it’s having a “bad hair day” with stray loose hair around the case, it’s likely been attacked by bugs.

Carpet beetles like vintage cases especially if left dormant. The leather binding, natural glues, wood structure, case lining materials like silk or cotton, dark and musty insides, and perspiration and saliva left behind on instruments make instrument cases perfect breeding grounds for carpet beetles.

More reading material on carpet beetles:


Once I confirm the presence of pad bugs, I recommend complete disassembly, cleaning and pad replacement for a woodwind instrument. With string instruments, I recommend the instrument be cleaned, the non-synthetic strings replaced, and the bow re-haired.

As for cases, chemical cleaning can be very dangerous for one’s health because of left-over residue. It can also be very time consuming with the need of numerous cleanings.  And on top of that, a very fragrant odor will remain from the chemicals used to eradicate carpet beetles. Just vacuuming the case cannot guarantee eggs and larvae will be completely eliminated. It is best to discard and replace the case.


-Play the instrument regularly.
-Wipe down the instrument regularly.
Use a soft flannel cloth to prevent perspiration and saliva accumulation.
-Keep the instrument in an area that is frequently trafficked and regularly cleaned.
-Avoid storage in attics, storage rooms, under beds, basements, ect.
-Vacuum case regularly.
-Use small cedar balls.
A few of these stored inside the case and replaced every few months can keep the humidity in control. If the instrument/case is going to be stored for long periods of time between playing, this is highly recommended. Mothballs can be overly fragrant and will overtake the case instrument. Even the mothballs labeled “cedar scented” should be avoided. http://www.householdessential.com Cedar Fresh® products

-Cedar lined drawers, cabinets, or closets are also recommended in storing an instrument.

-Store in an airtight container. If a airtight container is not available, placing the case in a sealable plastic bag or wrapping in plastic wrap (i.e. Saran Wrap) is a viable option.