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|Q. In my continued exploration of your site in search of further enlightenment I stumbled across a query from a man that had blue stuff in the bell of his MarkVI which he turned into a DIY project without seeking the best route possible. In your explanation of chemical reactions which different metals undergo you noted that brass, silver, and gold do not rust, but tarnish. In describing this reaction you said “Tarnish is a surface anomaly that actually halts once the tarnish has become so thick it forms a barrier against further sulfur reaching the base metal.” Does this mean that by removing tarnish you are in actuality thinning out the body of the saxophone by allowing another layer of it to tarnish? Will this affect resonance, playability or intonation? Is it better just to let a good coat of tarnish form and forget about polishing my bare brass horn so that it will naturally form a protective layer? Your responses here-to-fore have been greatly appreciated and I thank you for your continued patience in helping me learn more about the saxophone world. Dan…
A. Good question, Dan. Thankfully, tarnish occurs at the molecular level. This means that even thick layers of tarnish affect only ultra thin layers of the actual finish metal – layers measured in microns, really. Most of the thickness of the actual tarnish layer is sulfur and empty space between the molecules of bonded sulfur, oxygen (sometimes also hydrogen or ozone) and the base metal. Think about what happens in chemical reactions like baking powder, where an acid substance and a base substance combine in a reaction that incorporates additional substances in order to puff far beyond the dimensions of the active agent itself. That’s how sulfur behaves when it attaches itself to your metal finish in the chemical reaction we call tarnish.
Stop and think for a moment that gold, silver, copper, zinc (brass being a copper/zinc alloy of about 80/20 proportions) and nickel are all found as their various sulfides (meaning chemically bonded with sulfur) in their ore forms. The mining industry uses chemical processes to separate these various metals from their bonds with sulfur in order to produce workable raw metals for manufacturing purposes. The simpler of these chemical sulfur-separation processes are available to the public as various dip & liquid tarnish removal products. A common example would be the Hagerty Silver Dip product that dissolves away even heavy layers of tarnish in a non-abrasive chemical process that breaks the bonds between silver, gold, copper, zinc, nickel — or alloys made up of any combination of these elements – freeing them from their sulfuric incarceration. In this chemical cleansing process only a few atoms of the base metal are lost…the ones on the very surface that had bonded with sulfur.
After these simple chemical sulfur separation processes we leave the analogy of tarnish formation & removal as it relates to mining these metals from the earth as ores. While chemical tarnish stripping agents will do a reasonable job on lightly tarnished metal surfaces, they fail to strip off all the crud
Burnishing involves rubbing a base metal surface repeatedly with a very smooth object made of material that is significantly harder than the base material. Modern burnishing irons are made of high chrome steel alloys that are carefully shaped and polished to a mirror-like sheen. The rubbing — or stroking, as it is called in the metal working trades — is a very tedious process that can only be carried out by highly skilled craftsmen. The burnishing iron must be frequently re-polished during the course of a burnishing operation to assure it stays ultra-smooth at all times.
The analogy of burnishing to grading earth is quite apropos since in a grading operation no earth is actually lost. It is merely rearranged into a smooth surface of some specifically desired contour. Likewise is burnishing, which simply smoothes out a metal surface until all light is reflected evenly from every part of it. Thus a base metal surface that is ultra-smooth is also ultra shinny. Burnishing simply accomplishes the sheen in a non-destructive manner. Burnished saxophone finishes have been the sign of utmost quality over the decades. You may recall that the burnished gold plate Conn Artist Model (pic at right) was the absolute class of the 1920s. King, Buescher, Martin & Holton all had their top-line burnished gold finishes, too. The depression eventually killed off burnished saxophone finishes as routine offerings, though certain special instruments continued to be burnished (rather than polished) on a one-off basis. The last known production saxophones to be burnished are the wonderful SML ‘Gold Medal’ models produced in the 1950-70 timeframe. Even the plain brass Gold Medal SML saxophones were burnished before they were lacquered.
The photograph below shows a variety of burnishing irons & tools. Each of the tools is available from the Ferree’s Tools catalog. The quote to the right is excerpted from Eric Brand’s ‘Band Instrument Repairing Manual’ (also available in complete form from Ferree’s Tools). The original Eric Brand copyright date is 1939, so the procedures shown for processes such as burnishing are contemporary to a time when craftsmen were actually still routinely plying this noble trade. The excerpt gives a good idea of just how labor intensive the burnishing process is. It is no small wonder the craft is seldom practiced these days.
Polishing always involves smoothing a metal surface by removing material in an abrasive process of either more, or less, of an aggressive nature. Because polishing wears away the fine, smoothed layer of finish metal created by the burnisher’s patient strokes, a burnished saxophone must NEVER be polished with anything more severe than a very soft cloth. Sadly, we see all too many cases where these great vintage burnished treasures have been aggressively polished – even subjected to barbaric buffing wheels & severe abrasives. A finish treated in such a manner can no longer be classed as burnished because the burnish treatment placed there by skilled craftsmen has been ground away. Even milder polishes intended for silver care remove a burnished finish, leaving it with millions of minuscule scratches that can be seen under bright light. Polishing or buffing a burnished metal surface is analogous to flossing with a weed eater…something no one in their right mind would ever consider doing.
While it is possible to burnish a smooth surface that was previously polished, that is highly impractical. Even if one had access to the equipment and skills necessary to burnish a saxophone, the time and cost factors involved in burnishing make it unfeasible today. Most repair techs do have burnishing irons they use for smoothing after dent work, but few of us have the skill, time or patience to actually do more than a minimum amount of burnish work. I’ve experimented with burnishing here at CS, so I know of which I speak. So burnishing is fast becoming one of those lost arts from the days when quality was king and the great craftsmen were the most prized employees of any American saxophone builder.
I hope you’re still with me, Dan. I’m about to answer the question you directly asked. Polishing encompasses a wide variety of techniques. Simply rubbing your sax down with a treated polish cloth is, in fact, a polishing operation. What makes polishing cloths ‘treated’ is that they have infused into their fibers both a chemical agent that dissolves the sulfur bond and an extremely light abrasive. This light abrasive is often no more than talcum powder, but when rubbed vigorously or repeatedly over your saxophone’s bare metal surface, even talcum powder will eventually break stray particles of tarnish residue and unruly metal molecules loose to smooth your metal’s surface into a sheen. If all you do to your sax finish is wipe it down with these treated cloths, Dan, you will not live long enough to wear away a significant amount of actual surface metal. If you don’t believe that just get yourself a piece of stock brass plate about 25 to 30 thousandths of an inch thick and see how long it takes you to rub through it with your polishing cloth. Your brass experiment may gleam like a diamond, but your cloth will be in shreds and you still won’t be able to see any negative effects to the metal from your rubbing.
What is true is that the aggressive wear that high powered buffing equipment causes to a saxophone will eat away significant metal if buffing is carelessly done. But there is no comparison between your polishing cloth and a 2 to 5 horsepower electric motor spinning a wheel of perhaps a foot or more in diameter at 1,000 to 3,000 revolutions per minute. I’ll leave the math to you, but how many strokes of your treated polishing cloth do you think relate to even one minute of operation on a buffing machine? [Hint: pi is about 3.14, so the travel of the surface of your 12" wheel is over a yard per revolution.] And that buffing wheel is loaded with an abrasive compound considerably more potent than mere talcum. Why so much horsepower? Because the buffing operator presses the instrument against the wheel with enough force to stop a weaker electric motor. Long story short, any manual polishing you do to your saxophone is never going to remove more than a few microns of the finish…even if measured over your entire lifetime. On the other hand, a buffing wheel can wreck a saxophone’s engraving in a few careless seconds. There is simply no parallel between any polish operation you can do by hand with the metal erosion caused by commercial buffing equipment.
Of course there is one more kind of polishing that is applicable to your saxophone: That’s the hand polishing we do in our restoration efforts here at CS. In our hand polishing we always strive to use the least invasive methods that will work for any particular application. The protocol goes like this:
1) Strip any lacquer that is present, then clean with either a chemical or detergent based degreasing agent.2) Apply a dip product.3) Rub the instrument down with treated polishing cloth.4) Apply a polish product such as Flitz or Hagerty All-Metal Polish per package directions. Repeat as necessary.
We stop at whichever level of the above protocol yields the desired result. An authentic, undamaged burnished gold plate finish often responds at step 2. Many silver plated horns are finished at step 3. Tougher finishes like brass and nickel require the full protocol, often with repeats of step four. While this may sound as if it is potentially abusive, keep in mind that these metals are much harder than silver or gold. While that additional hardness requires more aggressive polishing techniques, it also means you are working on a surface that is proportionally more resistant to wear. I would propose that the amount of surface material removed from any particular one of your saxophone finish metals in order to polish it to a satisfactory sheen measures about the same in terms of microns of thickness lost. That proposition of course assumes the starting conditions of each finish were tarnished in a similar way. In English: the stout rubbing required to polish brass removes no more metal than the light rubbing required to polish gold or silver.
So why does anyone buff saxophones at all? Quite simply: Cost. The guy that makes saxophones shinny for the lowest price gets to make a lot more saxophones shinny. Of course there’s a catch — but under-funded school districts simply don’t care about anything but cost, and by the time an individual customer learns the dread truth, the damage has been done. Why stop here, huh? Below is my spiel to prospective bare brass restoration clients on tarnish management. I hope you enjoy your reading assignment…
Keep in mind that bare metal saxophones include those plated in silver, nickel or gold, in addition to a bare plain brass finish. Tarnish on all of these finish metals comes from the same source – sulfur in our air – so the tactics we employ to execute our tarnish control strategy are the same for any bare metal finish with which we deal. Let’s go over the possible approaches and their indicated player actions:
At tarnish strategy level one you simply let nature take its course. At some point your tarnish will become thick enough to stabilize the appearance of your instrument. That point could be years away, depending on how often your sax is out in the open air. At strategy level 2, your usage patterns are the real key to how long your saxophone really looks spiffy. I’ve put freshly polished silver plated saxophones away with just a couple Hagerty strips in the case & come back after up to five years to find them looking as sharp as the day we stored ‘em away. Of course instruments that are actively played will not have this same experience because they are constantly being exposed to new sulfur-laden air. Unless you are a stickler for top appearance at all times, level 2 will probably keep your sax looking reasonably sharp between repads. Your tech can update the hand polish at those times when the sax is already apart to return it to a pristine sheen for you. If you have adhered to level 2 your hand polish updates will be much easier than the first hand polish during initial restoration.
Level 3 is for the purists, or for the discerning performer that simply wants their tools to make a snazzy stage appearance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to stage 3 if you have a good reason. If you are simply exercising your AR tendencies, though, give yourself a break. Level 2 is really quite effective for the average hobby player that does an occasional paying gig. Of course you can mix & match among these basic strategies – for instance, adding a protective wrap or anti-tarnish strips to level 1 or 2. The point is: Decide up front on your tarnish management strategy and stick with it. Each approach is right for some individuals. Adopting the right strategy minimizes your work, and assures your bare metal saxophone is not a source of poor mental health. These are noble accomplishments in and of themselves. If you can live with the cool old blues horn look then level 1 is a reasonable choice for you. Bear’s conscience is now clear if order a bare metal finish restoration from him.
A. The first thing to understand about that ‘green spot’ issue is it can’t happen absent moisture. I could tell that you play hard from the original condition of your horn, and that moisture (actually water droplet spots) traces were all over. You can minimize this spotting by thoroughly drying the sax after you play (even leaving it out on a stand to dry completely, if you can). Other than prevention, as you say, these green moldy spots are quite tenacious.
If you have a Dremel tool, the best way to remove ‘em quickly is with a tiny wire brush (brass, or even the steel brush for really tough spots – like were on your key cups before). Especially with the brass brush, you can’t do any damage to your horn’s surface (soft brass wire won’t scratch brass sheeting cuz they are the same hardness). Even the steel wire on those tiny Dremel brushes is thin enough that it won’t scratch solid brass unless you really bear down hard. If you can easily get to the spots without touching pads, corks or felts with the wire brush that’s your best bet – but be sure to wear safety goggles cuz the spinning wire can ‘shed’ as it works. As the attached pic shows, you can also mount these brushes in a small pin vise for more control (but less effectiveness than when spinning in the Dremel tool). The unbranded versions of these brushes cost is about 1/3rd that of the ‘real’ Dremel product, but are just as effective.
On areas where you can’t get the wire brush at the spots cleanly – or if that method simply scares the BeJesus out of you – you can (eventually) remove these spots with small amounts of polish (Flitz or Hagerty’s All-Metal Polish) applied on a Qtip and then rubbed vigorously with your polish cloth (you may need to repeat several times). Flitz is available at some hardware stores and auto parts stores, while the Hagerty line is typically associated with jewelers and the silverware sections of large department or home stores (Bed, Bath & Beyond or Linens & Things). Another technique that I discovered by accident is that WD40 will remove SOME of these spots. I’m not sure why it works on some and not on others, but it does sometimes dissolve these green spots. Maybe it’s the degree to which the spots have festered or ‘dug in’, or perhaps it’s that mold is a living thing and I’m sure there are different varieties of these pesky lil’ buggers. Lemme know if you need more hep, k?
Saxophone Materials Bell Washes Cleaning & Polishing Saxophones Saxophone Finish Techniques