Finish differences and ocarina care

Ocarinas are commonly available with a number of different finishes including fired glazes, natural shellac, and plain ceramic. Synthetic finishes including lacquers and epoxy are also becoming more common. Of these, fired glazes are the most durable. Shellac is a middle ground, and plain earthenware naturally discolours over time.

Besides looking different, ocarinas with different finishes feel notably different to play. The main thing to note is that mirror smooth finishes trap any finger moisture between the finger and the surface. This causes the fingers to cling similar to how a glass can stick to a table. Common technique requires sliding fingers over the surface and gloss finishes make this difficult to do smoothly. I recommend trying a plain finished ocarina as you cannot judge the difference without trying one yourself.

Having a microscopic surface texture greatly reduces this problem, and textured 'matte' glazes generally feel better than gloss ones. A plain finish also does not have this problem with an additional advantage. As earthenware is porous, it absorbs any moisture on the fingers, keeping them dry. Shellac falls between the two; it is not porous but has some surface roughness. Sliding movements are thus easier than on a gloss glaze but harder than a plain finish.

I can't offer much comment on synthetic finishes as I have little experience with them. The ones that I've seen are very smooth, so I'd guess they have the same problems as gloss glazes. It is possible to work around the clinging issue of smooth finishes by applying a small amount of talc or chalk dust to the fingers. This absorbs moisture and prevents the gripping surface of the skin touching the instrument.

Cleaning ceramic ocarinas

Ceramic ocarinas should be cleaned by wiping them over with water on a lint-free cloth. Never use alcohol based cleaners on shellac finished ocarinas as they will damage the finish.

Do not clean ceramic ocarinas using scented cleaning products or anything with a strong chemical smell. Earthenware is porous and will absorb the cleaner even on glazed ocarinas, as the finger holes are rarely sealed for tuning reasons. Once absorbed, the cleaner will gradually seep out over time leaving a lingering smell that can only be removed by re-firing.

Plain finished ocarinas will discolour over time as they absorb skin moisture and oils. This can only be removed by re-firing. 600 to 800°C (1112 to 1472°F) is adequate to burn out most organic compounds. It is advisable to find the temperature the ocarina was originally fired at if possible, since firing higher than that temperature may change the instrument's tuning. The ocarinas I make should not be fired above 1060°C (1940°F).

If re-firing a glazed ocarina, to remove a chemical smell for instance, it is advisable to stilt the ocarina so that the glaze isn't in contact with the kiln shelf. Should the glaze melt during this process and it was touching, it would stick to the shelf. Stilting can usually be done using firing rods through the finger holes.

Re-firing a shellac finished ocarina will remove the finish. I have no idea what this would do to a synthetic finish, but I suspect it would also remove it.

Storing and transporting ocarinas

Many people are afraid of breaking ocarinas when they first start playing them. Ceramic ocarinas are actually a lot more robust than you may think. They will break if dropped on a hard surface, but they are not going to break from a minor bump. The risk of breakage can be greatly reduced if you do a risk analysis in your head:

  • How valuable is the ocarina to you and is it replaceable?
  • If you leave an ocarina sitting on a table, how long will it be there?
  • Is a baby or a dog going to grab a neck cord and pull it onto the floor?

Purpose made padded ocarina cases do exist, in both fabric and hard shell designs, but can be difficult to source at this time. Many players sew their own with padding between fabric, and they are also easy to improvise from zipped or snap-close hard cases designed for a variety of small objects, such as eyeglasses, toiletries or game consoles. Do not trust thin soft cases to protect ocarinas from drops though.

Padding can also be easily improvised from things like towels cut to size, thick socks or even an oven glove with some kind of closure added. Rubber, such as a swim cap, is very good at absorbing shocks. Your padding can be held in place by friction, or rubber bands. Think about the worst case impact if you drop it and your outer case doesn't hold shut.

Take care if you wear an ocarina on a neck cord as they are not as secure as you may think. An ocarina swinging around your neck can bump into things and break. A heavy ocarina dropped on a neck cord may break the cord, or the cord may break the ceramic. In any case it's going to hurt your skin.

Many beginners use neck cords to feel more secure in their playing, but this is unnecessary. There is no reason a well designed ocarina should feel unstable in the hand, if so the instrument or your technique is probably at fault.

After playing

As you play, moisture from your breath will be absorbed into the earthenware. This is desirable as it stops moisture from clogging the windway and accumulating internally. However, it is important that you allow this moisture to evaporate once you are done. The ocarina should be kept in open air so any absorbed moisture can evaporate.

Ocarinas can be washed out to remove anything which has collected internally, but note that doing so will saturate the ceramic. If you do this the ocarina must be kept in the open in a warm environment for at least a few days so the water can evaporate. Also note that doing this may damage some finishes or cause earthenware glazes to craze. Seek advice from the manufacturer.

You may occasionally want to clean the windway using a strip of folded paper or a feather. Feathers are less likely to leave stuff behind in the windway than paper, but treat them as single-use and try to get clean white ones.