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Relacquering Pros & Cons
Q.  I have enjoyed looking at all the information provided in your site.  In an article “How Modern Saxophones Are Built” you have a caption near the Bell/Bow construction section in which you elaborate on lacquering (Knowledge is power…).  Therein, you have described the distinction between original vs. relacquered horns and this peaks my curiosity. I have recently purchased Selmer Series III alto and soprano saxophones from Dealer X in another state.  All Series III’s that I trialed here in California had rough engraving on them. The Series III soprano I had purchased from Dealer X too, had rough engraving.  Curiously though, the Alto has very smooth engraving.  What could this tell me about the alto? I can only hope that since the horn came from a vendor with a seemingly solid nationwide reputation that there is no suspicious past with it.  I have inspected every detail and found no apparent marks where something has been reworked.  I did have one problem (easily corrected) with the horn upon delivery and that was the lower C cup leaked.  I had the cup realigned and the pad reset and all works great now. I’d appreciate hearing any sense you might have about the above before I confront Dealer X.  I realize that my alto is not vintage but if it’s any consolation and will warrant me a response I once owned a Buescher True Tone silver that sadly was stolen from me 21 years ago.  I mourn its loss ’til this day! Dana …

A. Selmer is currently offering a number of distinctive finishes – matte, brushed, blasted, etc. – and I have to admit I do not know what implications this has on the character of the finished engraving on these newer models. Our comments in the Yani article were retrospective and obviously cannot be relied on to apply to future developments in saxophone manufacture.

I can debate either side of the issue on relacquering saxophones, though the economic reality is that relacquered instruments are penalized in their value in the marketplace. A very intelligent friend who is 3rd generation instrument repair – his grandfather having come from Europe, his father having worked for Benge in Chicago and he for Olds in California – once asked a poignant question during a debate on relacquering: when they mess a horn up at the factory do you think they throw it away?

Of course these instruments are not discarded. They are reworked, which often encompasses removing and replacing the finish. This re work could occur either before or after engraving (an instrument could be damaged in handling after it was completed), so there is a big wild card about the meaning of ‘is’ when you say a horn ‘is’ in original factory condition. These reworked instruments certainly make up a very small portion of total production, but there is no argument that they exist and that some are sold without distinction from horns that have not been reworked. If the engraving were re cut there would be absolutely no way to tell. This could certainly be the case with your sax, but the reality is that unless Selmer has the information in their records – and will tell you – you will never know for certain.

I would say this to you: if you enjoy the sax in all other regards do not let this issue concern you from a performance viewpoint. I have a pro friend who is playing a Selmer Super we found for him that we know was a factory overhaul in the 1950s. The horn is an absolutely lights out player with slick action and a sound like a 10M on steroids. From a distance the Super, with its left bell keys, looks a lot like a 10M, so other pros are constantly coming up with mouths agape to find out what he’s playing. That horn is one of the few we search for all our lives that will make heroes of any player. The fact that it’s been refinished was only relevant as regards it was indeed a bargain acquisition for our friend. Your situation is different, of course, in that you paid full price for your new Selmer, but there’s still a lot to consider about if, how and to whom to raise the issue of your suspicions. Assuming you enjoy the horn, If you raise it at all, it should be, in my opinion, only for the financial implications, and as a CPA I say ‘right on’ about getting the value you bargained for …

On the subject of True Tones: they are fabulous instruments that are so often in the ‘overlooked’ category of vintage saxophilia. We have several in our resto stacks, so if you want us to pull one out for you and put it back into pristine condition we will gladly arrange to do so. At the moment I believe the choices are brass, silver and satin gold, and all are the late TT design with full modern keywork. One of our fine old dames would be pleased to sing in person for you … :-)

Additional Comments
Reality is, that a relacquered horn can play and sound as good or better than an instrument with an apparent original finish. The Selmer Super we placed with our friend is case in point, and I personally have a King Super 20 from the late forties that I would put up against any other example for its sound and play. This Super 20 looks great, too, and if it were not for the color of the finish you would not have a clue it was relacquered. Ditto a very fine SBA alto I own. With these three horns we are citing as examples of fine relacquered saxophones, the key to their great looks and performance is the quality and care that went into the relacquer work. A great tech will chemically strip the old finish from a horn, whereas the overhaul mills very often take the instruments straight to the buffing room where they grind off the old lacquer — right along with your engraving — using powerful buffing wheels loaded with abrasive buffing rouge compounds. The buffing room is a filthy place in these mass overhaul shops, and it is often where the least skilled people are found. Under those circumstances how can you expect the buffer operator to respect the instrument in their care? These people are instructed for the most part to just make the brass shine like a mirror. As always, you get what you pay for. On the other hand, when a pro does a polish job on a chemically stripped horn they do the buffing personally and carefully, and barely touch the decorative engraving with the buffing wheel. When this care is taken the only ways to spot a relacquer job are through either the finish color or by the fact that the engraving is covered by lacquer (note: if you review the links in this visitor’s question you will learn that vintage saxophones had the engraving cut after the instrument was finished). It is hard to find ways in which a carefully relacquered sax is materially altered in the the process, and to my mind there are none, even though the marketplace penalizes them in value.

The most common argument raised by critics of relacquering is that the material removed from the instrument body in buffing changes the tone. In the case of a horn dragged through an overhaul mill the part about removing some material is fact. Whether the tone is materially altered is another discussion. As a first defense I will go back to examples of instruments we have owned and played over the years — empirical evidence, which has the most weight in any scientific study. There was a Pan American (made by Conn) tenor from the late 1930s that we picked up from a rental operation about 5 years ago. You could barely tell from the engraving what it was since only scattered letters were visible. I took the horn outside, and in bright sunlight enough of the pattern came into view as I twisted and turned the bell to different angles to decipher the Pan American brand name. It was a lot like working the Sunday crossword puzzle, but without a hint. We put it in the ‘buy’ stack and brought it back to Tulsa. When I stuck a mouthpiece on the old horn and blew, an instant smile came on my lips. It had a big, booming voice and would whisper all the way down to the bottom. The pads were terrible and the keywork sounded like a kindergarten rhythm band, but the old tenor would wail. Keeping in mind my prime directive of “never mess with a good playing horn,” we wrote an honest description and posted it for sale at a bargain price. A young sax major from Canada who was Summering in NYC and just needed a tenor for his theater pit gigs took a chance on the horn. His report on receiving the horn read like my first experience with it. He said his buddies frowned when he opened the case, but man, when he blew that horn the smiles came out. The sax had probably been relacquered more than once already, but the next Summer the young man apprenticed in a repair shop, where his personal project was relacquering that old Pan Am yet again — and it’s still wailing.

This past Summer we got in a 12M from a West Coast pro friend who had owned the horn 20 years. The only reason he let it go was that he was feeling because it never got played. It was a low s/n RTH horn as bright as a new penny. We called it ‘the faded lady’ in our description cuz you really had to study to make her come into view. This was another multiple relacq horn that had even suffered the indignity of having its keys nickel plated. Were it not for the rolled tone holes — and the second s/n under the G# spatula — one would probably think it was some sort of garage restored mongrel. Its story probably was, though, that it had tutored innumerable budding high school bari players over its 70 odd years on the good Earth. The old bari was simply a beast to play, whether you commanded raspy Rock ‘n Roll riffs or smooth, cello-like lullabies, it whispered or roared at its master’s whim. A sax quartet back East went in together and bought it cuz their bari player had left & taken his horn with him. They could not stop praising the old beast when it arrived.

The point of these ramblings is that both these horns had undoubtedly had mucho material ground off them during past tortured overhauls. You can bet the school sent that bari to the lowest bidder, and the store that had rented the tenor to kids for decades put the least into its maintenance as possible. So what does that do for the assertion that removing material during buffing changes the horn’s sound? Maybe something, maybe not. We don’t know if they sounded that good before, but we certainly know that they sounded and played great after material was removed. If you recall my 3rd generation tech friend from the answer way up there, he asked another thought provoking question during our relacquering discussion: how consistent do you think the thickness is of the brass sheet that these horns are made of? Excellent point. Brass sheet is a commodity item that is usually bought from jobbers (middlemen) who in turn buy the sheeting from mills the world over. These jobbers buy almost exclusively on price, which is the definition of commodity goods. 

My friend’s point was that if the brass sheet that you start with cannot be of a standard thickness from horn to horn, then why is it relevant if you remove a little layer of brass from a finished saxophone by buffing it? Is a certain horn made from sheet stock a little thicker than ideal or a little thinner? Of course you can’t know, so how can you say that if you take a little material off a given sax body are you moving it farther from perfection? You could actually be moving it closer to a theoretical ideal body thickness — if there is such a thing. I don’t have the answers, but in a past existence I spent a number of years as a financial exec in manufacturing — specifically metal forming and fabrication — and I can tell you that work is not done to perfection. That isn’t even a consideration because no one can afford perfection in a common manufacturing processes. The goal of production management is to make things to within a certain range of tolerance that represents acceptable results. If you don’t believe that get out your micrometer and precisely measure the length of a box of 1/2″ screws. With today’s advanced measuring devices and computer controlled processes, tolerance ranges are shrinking, but there is still a range that represents the acceptable. Of course in the past, tolerances were greater, and not even measurable in most cases in a modern sense. Fifty years ago the 100 meter dash record was stated in terms like 10.7 seconds. Today it would be more like 10.732 seconds. Since the same trends hold for linear measurements, how could you make brass sheet to a tolerance you couldn’t even measure? The one thing that you can be sure of is that the wall thickness of vintage horns varies a lot more than horns produced today, so why sweat taking a little brass off a sax body if it’s done in a quality way? The point isn’t to go out and refinish every vintage sax in sight — just don’t throw any blanket assumptions over instruments that you know have been relacquered. In all likelihood you will get a bargain on a really good horn if you shop wisely and end up with a refinished sax. Of course vintage saxophones have a collectible component to their appeal, so condition and originality will always command a premium — but there is clearly no practical reason to generally malign relacquered instruments. 

We don’t relacquer saxes at CS — and we don’t recommend it to clients who ask, either — but we also don’t generally malign the horns that have already been refinished. What we advise when asked about improving an ugly or corroded horn’s appearance is to chemically strip the remaining finish, lightly hand polish the sax to an even look, then leave it bare to evenly tarnish to a great old bare brass lustre. The added benefit of leaving the metal bare is an extremely free vibrating sax that has subtle, luscious sound nuances. Until the depression our saxophones weren’t lacquered anyway. Silver, gold, nickel, brass — whatever finish … all were left bare. Part of the reason for the very live sound we hear when we listen to our plated vintage saxes is because they are bare metal, with no vibration-dampening lacquer coat. Why is it so many musicians drag around those ugly old horns without a stitch of lacquer left on ‘em — and that make such wonderful music? The fact that they’re mostly bare metal is a big part of the mystique. Maybe that they’re full of forty years worth of crud has something to do with it, too. What if it wasn’t the buffing that really what changed the sound of a relacquered horn? What if the real problem was that all the crud got boiled out of it in the cleaning vat? That makes just as much sense as saying a few microns of brass makes a difference. Sometimes questions provide more insight than answers, huh?

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