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 …