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Corrosion, Tarnish, Rust and Other Saxual Cosmetic Maladies
(a series of Qs & As on these subjects)
Q.  I have a Selmer vintage Mark VI (98xxx) that has rust inside the bell and a bluish tarnish, as well as rust, inside the bow. How can I remove the rust without damaging the instrument. I used some general rust cleaner and a wicker-type brush on the bell and removed some of it, but it also left slight abrasion marks. I did the same on the bow with little success but I did notice the tarnish turned white. What can I do? What if I just leave it? I LOVE this sax and I’m worried that the rust will some day wreck my baby. Help! Maury.

A. If you have rusted brass the news will fall just after that of the first man to give birth. Brass DOES NOT rust. No wonder your attempts have merely caused further damage & been ineffective. If you will send some pix of your problem areas I’ll try to help, but it’s likely a professional fix that you need. Please write in before you attempt a DIY project in the future. Your wonderful old VI will be very grateful that you did … ;-)

[after pix] I got some fuzzy images that were so out of focus you couldn’t see much (note: when submitting pix with an expectation of help be sure that they aren’t a waste of Bear’s time & electrons). If you’ve scoured your horn with an abrasive you’ve scraped off lacquer & scored the brass, probably in a random manner. Depending on what chemicals were in the scouring medium used, you may have a number of chemical reactions going on with your brass and with your lacquer.

Brass is composed of copper & zinc (typically about 75/25). When exposed to the air, some high copper content brass alloy mixtures turn brown – just like copper. This is called ‘copper bleed’. It is actually tarnish forming on the copper portion of your brass mixture. Tarnish is completely different from rust. Rust forms on ferrous metals as they oxidize (chemically react to oxygen in the atmosphere). Tarnish forms on certain non-ferrous metals (copper, silver, gold, nickel, and some of their alloys, like brass) as they chemically react to sulfur dissolved in the air (it’s everywhere).

Rust will completely consume ferrous metals, given sufficient time. 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. Corrosion is a completely separate malady that can accompany either rust or tarnish. Corrosion is a label applied to various other chemical reactions that metals have with different elements. Corrosion typically develops under wet or moist conditions. Corrosion is a complicating factor that is often not affected by rust or tarnish remover products. Corrosion is what causes pitting in brass. There are also various molds that can develop in conjunction with any of these other maladies. Molds imply wet conditions, and can be dangerous to people in addition to making horns quite ugly. Molds are different from rust, tarnish & corrosion in that they are living organisms – not merely dumb chemical reactions.

From what I can see you’ve caused all manner of chemical reactions in your sax bell while in the process of scratching it up. The blue stuff is doubtless the reaction of copper & something you put in there. Lacquer can be turned into a whitish film from chemical reactions. Getting some forms of lacquer (there are several different formulations) soaked in plain water for an extended period will turn it into an opaque,  whitish film. Once this happens there is no turning your lacquer back clear. The only choice is to strip it and redo a finish to the affected area. Things besides water may turn lacquer opaque, as well. Knowing that fact should keep us all from experimenting with gunk we find in our saxophone bells. You just never know until it’s way too late.

This is meant as humor, not an insult, Maury: If you want to feel dumb, you have my permission. I recommend that you take the horn to a professional to diagnose & straighten out this situation. Then go write ‘brass does not rust’ 500 times on the chalkboard … ;-)

Follow Up Question
Q.  Did I just ruin the value of my sax? Maury.

A. Probably, but without seeing the damage I couldn’t say to what extent. Your devaluation can be mitigated by the correct repair strategy. The most important thing is how close to perfect (which is the max collector premium possible) your sax was before you ‘worked’ on it. As far as playability, the impact should be minimal. Valuation is a complex issue, anyway. It always depends on why you need to know, what purpose you intend for the information, and the time horizon over which you need to act. 
Additional Comments
This is a sad commentary on the impact of a misdirected DIY effort. While I encourage our CS site visitors to do the things they can with their own horns, I equally discourage you all from attempting things that you have either not fully investigated or simply do not have the facts, skills, tools or experience to undertake. As the saying goes, it’s the discretion to know the difference that really counts. In the process of counseling Maury we learned about what can — and cannot — happen to your saxophone finish. More importantly, we learned that a thorough analysis by a professional who knows the real facts is the key to avoiding saxual heartbreak.  Once again, I urge all our CS site visitors to be extremely skeptical of what you read on the web. A few highly qualified idiots can put you in more saxual dysfunction than the handful of truly legit sax web sites will ever be able to get you out of. Be thou warned …

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