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Cleaning & Polishing Saxophones
Q.  I am the happy owner of a Martin ‘Indiana’. As the brass colour was faded a little I decided to use a little brass polish on a small part (as a try-out). This did brighten the colour a lot, but now (after 2 months) it looks like the brass starts oxidating. Also, fingerprints seem to bite into the metal. I get the feeling the polishing action was not the best thing to do. Could you please inform me what went wrong and how I (hopefully) can restore the previous status? With kind regards, Alex …

A. Brass polishes have two characteristics that make them inappropriate for saxophones. You first have to understand that brass is used for so many different things in various service environments that are neither decorative nor musical, and that brass polishes are formulated to deal with some pretty nasty stuff that brass on a well maintained saxophone (hopefully) never experiences. Brass polishes are therefore quite strong chemical formulations and many tend to be excessively abrasive – and neither of these characteristics is appropriate for a fine musical instrument. Brass polishes in general are meant for situations where the metal is to be whitened to the maximum extent and the properties of the polish that carry the abrasive elements needed to accomplish that goal usually form a quick drying film that is meant to be removed with vigorous action and heavy pressure. Unless you have all the keys & springs removed from your saxophone’s body you cannot apply such action and that’s why we so often see the yellowish or pinkish residue of the most popular brass polishes in the nooks, crannies and crevices of so many saxophones. 

Even if you do succeed in properly applying and removing a brass polish from your sax, what you will find is that the treated areas are a bright white-gold color that is totally devoid of any protective coating. It is not the color you wanted at all when you started your polishing effort, and now any little thing will stain & discolor the unprotected metal where it is touched. You will find that the upper area of oxidation that was on the bare portions of your brass saxophone’s finish actually formed a sort of protective coating that prevents a variety of evil from affecting the brass. After you remove this sort of metal protective ‘scab’ you have to wait for it to reform to have the same sort of prophylactic effect in place again — and live with the evil that takes effect in the interim …

After all that huffing & puffing with the brass polish your sax still has two colors: 1) the brass that is still covered by your lacquer; and 2) the brass that is bare. It’s just that while before the one was darker than the other, it is now much lighter than the other. This is the definition of unintended consequences – something for which we highly criticize our public officials for their lack of forethought, planning and judgment …:-)

You will find that the only saxophones a private owner can hope to successfully polish are those with surfaces that are not covered in lacquer at all, and never were. This describes the silver, gold & nickel plated vintage saxes (in most cases) and the plain brass finish saxes made before about 1932 (lacquer was not used on saxophones before that time). You need to do some verification before assuming your sax finish is bare metal because an originally bare finished sax may have been sprayed with lacquer during an overhaul sometime after it was built. One of the treated polish cloths (we recommend & use Hagerty products) will uniformly affect a bare finish horn, regardless of the finish metal, and you will see a sheen start to develop everywhere you rub with the cloth – even areas that were already fairly bright. If you rub these polish cloths over a lacquered surface you will remove dust and surface soiling, but the color of the metal under the lacquer won’t change at all. You can clean lacquered surfaces, but you cannot change the metal underneath with any action you take, short of removing the lacquer itself.

Now, what do you do with a brass lacquered horn that has had some lacquer wear over the years? You simply clean it the best you can and do nothing else. If you try polishing the brass (the bare parts) you will inevitably find that your very hard work will change the color, but not to any shade you want, or that will remotely match the color of brass that is still under lacquer. The reasons are that 1) lacquer breathes and over time allows the brass underneath to slowly tarnish or oxidize, imparting that beautiful old brass patina that we all love on a fine vintage sax; and 2) almost all lacquer has some degree of tint that alters the look of the polished brass underneath — even when the horn is brand new. As we said before, brass polishes to a brilliant white-gold tone, which is what is done to saxophones before applying the lacquer that serves to keep the brightly polished brass finish of your sax brilliant. This preparatory polishing is done with powerful (and abrasive) buffing equipment, and the resulting sheen is quite uniform from one brass object to another (allowing for almost undetectable shadings of difference due to the copper/zinc formulation of the brass alloy). This means that all saxes start life as bare-brassed babies of almost the exact same color, and its the lacquer formulation that a sax builder or overhaul tech applies that makes one newly lacquered sax look a different color from another. Even two instruments that go through buffing & lacquering back-to-back will look different over time because one may be subjected to different substances in the air that gets breathed through its lacquer, and storage conditions may not be the same for the two. 

The best thing you can do to maintain the appearance of a brass lacquered sax is just keep it clean. If you’re not stout enough of heart to risk taking your sax partially apart to get under the keys you can run cloth strips under there to remove dirt & oily residues (knitting yarn works very well for this purpose, doesn’t snag or shed badly & is quite cheap). If you want to step it up a notch you can dampen your cleaning materials (after removing the oily stuff) to get things off that dry from your body fluid deposits (sorry ladies & gentlemen, but we all leave them in and on our horns), and some players even apply a finish coat of good old Lemon Pledge furniture polish – sprayed on a rag first …. not sprayed directly onto your horn — to leave a shinny look that lasts a while longer. This is the best you can do. Like we said before, you can change the color of that bare brass where your lacquer has worn off, but it won’t be to anything you want to see as a final result.

$2 worth of sewing notions and a
small length of knitting yarn can
change your life. The plastic needle
makes handling the yarn a snap.
Thread your yarn into tight
places – under/over any key
or post. Work the yarn like a
shoeshine rag. A needle threader
takes the tedium out of setting
your rig up. Woolen yarn has
the perfect texture for picking up
dirt, grease or grime – cuts tarnish
away, too.

For silver, gold and nickel plated saxes with no lacquer on them you can do wonders with a Hagerty’s Silver Duster and some elbow grease. If there is dirt & oil residue, remove it first (following the techniques described above) before you start with your polish cloth. Remove as many keys as you’re comfy doing, work diligently with your polish cloth, and you can make the sax look like Mom’s heirloom silverware in a night or two’s effort. Hagerty’s even has some special gloves (under $10 in most fine housewares stores) that are treated with a dry silver polish. You put the gloves on and every part of your hands becomes a polish cloth. These gloves are both therapeutic AND effective. :-) 

After you finish your polish work be sure to put a couple of the Hagerty’s Silver Protection Strips into the case with your sax (3M makes a similar product) to help absorb the air borne sulfur (which is the cause of tarnish on silver, gold, nickel and brass). If you want to maximize the protection for your investment of time and effort in that nicely polished horn we have special wraps available of Silversmith’s cloth, which is the stuff used to make the bags your Mom stores the sterling platters & teapot in between the holiday seasons. We can quote wraps of Silversmith’s cloth for any sax – sopranino to bass. Just call or go online. We can also recommend other Hagerty’s products & techniques for a scope of polish work that’s beyond regular maintenance, say when a plated finish needs to be rehabilitated from extended periods of inattention. You can do the job yourself in most cases, and we’ve developed some techniques that are both effective and feasible to carry out at home that we will share with you — even coach you a bit — for a small consulting fee.

A note on taking your sax apart for cleaning & polishing: while we do not recommend that you frequently disassemble your instrument – nor approach the prospect of doing so in a frivolous manner – this is not the daunting task that it may at first seem. Especially if you leave the major groups of keys alone (called ‘stacks’– that are strung together on long rods down the front of your sax) there is not much harm you can do by simply taking keys off and reinstalling them. A sax that plays well before you remove and replace one or more keys will play the same when you put them back on. That’s provided that you don’t accidentally loosen or remove any of the corks or felts that buffer between touch points (to dampen noises & provide proper clearances so your keys interact as required). You can get a set of precision screwdrivers and a few assorted crochet hooks (to hook & unhook needle springs) at the local discount retailer, and that’s all you need take a sax apart & put it back together. I’ll add an editorial comment that this assumes your sax is reasonably clean and in good mechanical condition to begin with. You would need better equipment to disassemble a damaged or badly corroded instrument. Keep in mind we’re talking about routine maintenance here – NOT a do-it-yourself restoration. 

If you decide to do the deed go slow at first — and kids, talk with your parents BEFORE you ever touch your sax with a tool of any kind. Take off one or two keys & reinstall them as a start (low Eb/C is a good place to start as a confidence builder cuz they are isolated & don’t interact), then move on to maybe the palm keys, side keys and finally the left pinky complex. You’ll find that sax keys are placed in rather obvious & well planned groups, and you can do a polish project in stages, reassembling your sax completely for play between each step. On the horns that are likely to be gold or silver plated (older Buescher, Conn, King, Martin, etc.), the mechanisms are both sturdy & simple. That means they’re relatively idiot proof — a fact in which you should find of some degree of comfort … :-)

You can find more information than you ever wanted to know on disassembling & reassembling a saxophone in this related Q&A article:

Tips on Disassembling and Reassembling Old Conn Saxophones

(and maybe a few other brands & models)

The 1921 & up Conns have some tiny set screws that hold keys fitted with pivot screws in adjustment, and these horns require a bit of extra care, but the others are pretty straight forward. On the Conn set screws never take them all the way out. Just loosen them enough the get the pivot screw out and run them back in until you replace that key. On pivot screw keys (all the brands) just take one end loose if you can get the key off that way, and put the screw you removed back into its hole while you have the key off. That way you won’t loose a screw or mix them up among your keys. Keep the rods inside the keys they go with, too. These things may look the same but there are wear patterns that develop on moving parts over time and it is best to keep screws & rods with their mechanical buddies. 

That’s about it on disassembling your sax for clean & polish time. Use common sense & ordinary care, then if you don’t tackle anything way out of your experience & confidence you should be fine. A bit concerned is a healthy state for the first time you put a screwdriver to your sax … scared silly means STOP. Get a full set of precision screwdrivers so you can match the blades exactly to the screw slots, and don’t force anything that seems stuck without consulting further with us. If you’re tackling a horn made after the early 1930s (which means extensive mechanical revisions) you might better write us first. Some of these later saxes have mechanical quirks and all the designs became more complex over time. Saxophones are also a lot less likely to be silver or gold plated over time, as well, so we’re probably talking mostly about the 1920s plated saxes that you would even be considering tackling for a DIY polish job. If you run into something not described here already stop right there and write or call us. Best of luck with your vintage sax polish project …

Additional Comments
If you do decide to take your sax apart it’s a good idea to wipe off any excess oil from screws & rods and clean off any sticky residues with a little solvent such as WD-40. Spray the solvent on a paper towel & then apply it to the rods & screws one at a time. If there is a lot of oil or gunk you may also want to run a chenille strand (the kind that looks like a fat pipe cleaner & has a wire center) sprayed with some solvent. You can very lightly oil the rods & screws before you reinsert them. We use a very handy (and inexpensive) self dispensing fishing reel oiler made by Zebco, but applying oil on a QTip or paper towel works, too. Just remember a little oil goes a long way, and if you get your sax lightly lubricated when re assembling it there should be little need to oil the keywork for a long, long time. Once you see your sax apart you will understand the futility of trying to oil it externally anyway. When you squirt oil on the outside of your keywork about all you’re doing is adding to the residue under your keys to help collect grime and dust. That’s about as helpful as pouring engine oil around the edges of the hood on your automobile.

Substances like acetone (fingernail polish remover), its close relative M.E.K., mineral spirits and many other solvents will take the lacquer off your saxophone, so unless that’s your intent, keep these things away from any surface you know has lacquer on it. Some very early lacquer finishes can be damaged by extended contact with water, so to be safe, thoroughly dry the lacquered surfaces of your sax after you sponge them off with anything moist . If you get a lot of water on your sax also run a chenille strand through the post holes to remove the water that will be trapped there. It’s a good idea to lightly coat springs that get wet with a little oil on a QTip to discourage rusting.

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