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Silver & Gold Plate Maintenance
Bell Washes: Types & Techniques
Q.  I recently polished my silver plated Conn C-Melody & now I see it’s beginning to look a little ‘brownish’ in some areas.  I’ve been leaving it out on a sax stand when I know I’m going to be able to practice several days in a row and I think that may have been a mistake. Also, my gold bell wash doesn’t seem to have the same intensity as some of the Conn saxes I see in pictures on your site and on others around the web. Why is that? Is there anything I can do about these problems with my C-Melody? I love your site, especially the Q&A section. I would appreciate your advice. James …

A. I see you haven’t been to our front page lately, James. We are currently running an article under the ‘Today’s featured instrument’ heading that discusses more than you probably want to know about the questions you’ve raised on plating care & bell washes. Please let me know if you have additional questions after reviewing this material … 
Additional Comments
The featured item article to which I referred James has now been swapped out with a new feature. This important information is reproduced below as a permanent record for the reference & benefit of all our CS friends & visitors.

Beautiful Bell Washes & Fine Silver Plate!

The gold bell wash was standard on silver plated saxophones made in the USA before WWII. There are two techniques for achieving it. A yellow gold effect is achieved simply by briefly plating a highly polished silver inner bell in 24 karat gold. The plating  bath isn’t maintained long enough to make the surface layer so dense in gold to be ‘gold plated’ – merely ‘washed’ over with a lovely golden tint. The second method results in a ‘rose gold’ effect, used primarily by Buescher on its silver plated saxes made after about 1925. ‘Rose gold’ is gorgeous, but really not gold at all. The ‘rose gold’ effect is achieved by laying on a copper wash (thin layer of copper plating) instead of a 24K gold wash. Our composite picture compares these two types of decorative bell washes so you can become familiar with the differences. Both are breathtaking when the wash is in fine original — or restored — condition. 

We restore bell washes here at CS using special spot plating equipment. The Conn alto in the pic was restored from a ‘no wash’ condition that had been caused by excessive buffing. It’s easy to buff off the thin wash layer in the overhaul process if a plated sax is buffed. That frequently happens when fine vintage horns are subjected to cheap overhaul mill work. Plated saxophones should never be buffed at all – merely gently hand polished like your Mom’s heirloom silverware. Unfortunately, buffing plated horns happens all to frequently, and these poor instruments are then also almost always lacquered over by the misinformed perps who think that’s the only way to protect a silver or gold plated sheen from tarnish. 

That’s hogwash, of course. Your Mom’s silverware isn’t lacquered. She merely stores it in a closed chest (analogous to a sax case) with silver protection strips inside, then gently touches it up periodically with a soft, treated polish cloth. Her large silver pieces are wrapped in a special cloth called Silversmiths’ Cloth – or maybe zipped into a bag made of this material. The cloth is treated with chemicals that absorb air borne sulfur, as do the treated paper protection strips. When Mom takes her prized silver pieces out of her chest or Silversmiths’ Cloth for use, the fine silver shines like new – tarnish free. These exact same techniques that Mom uses protects fine silver & gold plated saxophones from tarnish, too. Airborne sulfur is the lone culprit that causes tarnish, though moisture & other substances can cause corrosion on a saxophone that’s not kept clean & dry. The barbaric practice of buffing & lacquering is totally unnecessary, considering how accessible and affordable quality silver care products are today. Lacquer doesn’t protect from corrosion, either — not for long, anyway. Proper cleaning, maintenance & storage are the only real safeguards against most of your saxophone’s worst nightmares.

If your silver vintage saxophone has no bell wash it may have been buffed & lacquered over, though overly aggressive polishing (or using the wrong abrasive polish) will wear bell washes away over time, as well. You can check for lacquer on your sax body by rubbing your silver or gold plated finish (gold tarnishes just like silver) gently with a treated silver polish cloth (like the Hagerty Silver Duster). If no black marks are left on the cloth your sax is lacquered. There is always some tarnish present on a silver surface, whether its visible to the eye or not. You may need to rub over several areas to get an appreciable amount of tarnish residue to show on the cloth, but if you go over a large portion of a sax & no tarnish at all shows up the horn is surely lacquered. Ditto if your sax has discolored marks around scratches, but the rest of the finish remains bright. Over time lacquer wear & scratches permit air through to the silver underneath in a random way, causing tarnish and corrosion to be sporadically distributed over the silver finish. In extreme states this discoloration is mistakenly diagnosed as ‘bad plating’, when the beautiful glory is often quite nearly 100% intact once the lacquer is stripped and the silver is again lovingly hand polished to a uniform sheen. If you doubt the results, both the saxophones pictured above came to us under coats of aftermarket lacquer. The beautiful Buescher tenor actually had a badly peeling coat of colored lacquer that looked more like a mangy mongrel than the beautiful sax flesh underneath. Faith & a little loving labor revealed the truth — as depicted in the brilliant images above.

Here’s the best argument we have for using commonly available products & simple techniques to hand polish fine silver plated vintage saxophones — and to leave ‘em bare so their beauty shows as their builders intended …

159xxx Conn Csop currently in our restoration process

If your great old silver sax has been lacquered over you may be missing out on more than artful beauty. That’s because lacquer dampens vibrations, which makes a big difference from the way a plated vintage sax can sound. Here at CS we believe that these vintage jewels sound their best when left bare — like their builders intended. We prove that point over and again each time we set another abused old warrior free. Please click here to view & enjoy the above picture full screen. In full view you may note that when we were restoring the 24K gold bell wash to this Conn 6M viii alto we went ahead and made the elegant ‘naked lady’ a blonde …

CS currently accepts prime vintage saxophone carcasses for professional restoration in our fully equipped resto shop. Completion time is subject to shop load & varies, depending on how much detail work is required to do a quality job. This detail work can often not be anticipated until an instrument is torn down, cleaned up & polished out. The twin saxophone antagonists, time & grime, are often quite skillful at hiding their handiwork. Suffice it to say that quality of output always trumps expediency here at CS. We would be pleased to issue a provisional quote on your treasured vintage saxophone restoration, subject to examination once the sax is received here at CS. We specialize in the silver & gold plated horns, and also in instruments built in the key of C. We stock both Conn Res-O-Pads and Buescher Snap-Ons (which is Buescher referred to this pad innovation in their literature), plus we have the equipment & expertise to replenish faded or buffed out bell washes (either 24k or rose gold).

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