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Saxophone Finish Techniques
(satin – polished – burnished)
Q.  First off, I wanted to let you know that I think your site is great!  I am always checking it out constantly, awaiting the “new” arrivals and never
getting tired of appreciating your collections.  I am a vintage sax buff myself and I truly appreciate what you have done! I am currently looking for a Conn “Chu” alto in the artist series in satin gold finish.  I have only ever seen one of these horns, and ever since I have been seeking one.  I was wondering if by chance you know anything that could lead me to one of these rare beauties.  I am interested in trade if possible. Thank you for your time! Bryan …


A. Your kind words about our site are greatly appreciated. It makes all the work worthwhile when knowledgeable saxophiles notice and write. The artist series horns are quite rare, but you have a better chance of finding the alto than the other sax types. If Conn produced this model in the satin finish I’ve not seen one, but I’ve learned never to say never as concerns what Conn might have produced. Still, I’d say your chances of finding an artist Conn in satin gold are remote. The common artist model finish was burnished gold plate, which was the premium sax finish offered on Conn instruments of the period.

The challenge with obtaining a prime artist model is to find one that no unknowing shop has been tempted to buff at some point in its existence. We have a tenor artist that would be worth a fortune had some gorilla not buffed it down to where the base silver plate shows on half the horn. Of course it still plays great, but it hurts me to look at the condition of the poor beast. Wichita Band usually has an artist alto or two. I believe they have one depicting a lady drinking champagne from her slipper. I’ve seen this one up close and it has been buffed — albeit not to the point of complete ruin. They may have others, as well. I haven’t viewed their site In a month or so.

Other than WBIC and us, I don’t know where you could depend on finding an artist. If we get one we will post it on the site for all to have a fair shot. I know we have some international collectors looking for artists, too. On the web, international buyers are a market force which cannot be ignored. Otherwise, you might watch the EBAY auctions. Sooner or later everything shows up there. The trick is picking off prime horns that others may have overlooked (good luck!). Please let us know how we can help in the future.

Additional Comments
The common ways of finishing plated vintage saxes are satin, polished and burnished, and there is some confusion about which is which. Satin is the finish that has a texture that looks something like sandpaper. It is created by sand blasting thick raw plating of silver or gold. Both polished and burnished finishes are smooth and shiny. The difference is in the depth of the sheen how the sheen is obtained. Polishing is done with a large buffing wheel (usually made of many layers of cotton fabric sewn tightly together) that is dressed (called loading) with an very fine abrasive rouge. The buffing wheel removes the oxidized surface coat of a metal to reveal the clean metal underneath. Burnishing is done with a special steel tool called a burnishing iron that is mirror polished. A skilled craftsman strokes the surface of the precious metal (almost always gold) to smooth it to a very bright sheen. Burnishing does not remove any meaningful amount of the finish metal, where polishing does. Burnishing creates the deepest sheen of any metal finishing process used on saxophones. It is also the most labor intensive treatment, and is therefore the most expensive saxophone finish. 

The satin finish saxes have polished areas for the engraving and inside the bell. In the case of satin silver saxes the inside of the bell is usually lightly plated in gold over the polished silver, and this treatment is called a ‘gold wash’. Nickel plated saxes were always polished, as were the brass ones. It is unusual, but some nickel plated horns have a gold bell wash. There are some polished (smooth finished) silver and gold plated saxes, mostly from Europe. The USA builders tended to use the satin finish technique. Satin is less labor intensive than polishing, and both of these are less labor intensive than burnishing. The relationship between labor content and valuation is obvious. The keys on all these finish types are usually polished. Until the early 1930s all saxes were left bare metal, meaning no lacquer protective coat. Even the polished brass horns were left bare, though most of them have gotten lacquered sometime over the decades. If you find an original bare brass sax that has been properly stored it will have a wonderful old brass patina. Lacquer dampens vibrations in the sax body that add nuances to the sound, so bare horns sound much more ‘live’ than lacquered ones. 



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