There are a zillion saxophones out there that suffer from conditions that drive the price down. These conditions don't necessarily effect the playing characteristics of the horn, but they can greatly effect the value of the horn. Two of the biggest "flaws" that don't effect the playing are the condition of the lacquer and the brand name engraved on the horn. The lacquer can be a "re-lacquer," meaning that somebody thought the original lacquer was in such bad condition that the horn would be improved by cleaning it up and re-applying lacquer. The results of a re-lacquer tend to be like the results of an Earl Scheib paint job (that's a "recent" commercial, it used to be $49.95). Re-lacquers can look okay from a distance and, like an Earl Scheib paint job, are guaranteed for 4 years (or less).
It is possible to do a proper re-lacquer. For that, you should figure on paying at least $500 for a quality job. So, if your horn cost $400, or even $1,000, what's the point? Well, the horn will be shiny again. And a shiny horn will make you more popular. I'm not sure that's the reason. In fact, I'm not sure that there is a good reason for re-lacquering a horn.
The second "condition" that drives down the value of the horn is the brand name engraved on the horn. Of course, the reverse is also true in that the name can drive the price up for no good reason. If the horn is engraved "Selmer," the value of the horn could be well beyond it's intrinsic value as a saxophone. Again, I'm not sure of the reason.
Welcome to the world of vintage stencil saxophones, where a saxophone built by Buescher and engraved (i.e., stenciled) with the name "Bundy" will sell for much less than a Buescher-built sax engraved "Selmer." It does not matter that the horns are identical. In fact, it wouldn't matter that the Bundy is in better physical condition, has more accurate intonation, and sounds better. When you "see" Selmer or you "see" Bundy, that controls what you think you are hearing. It gets even more confusing when people learn that some Selmers are Bundys, or vice versa.
With that in mind, we begin the rebuilding of a "no-name" saxophone, including removing the lacquer. As you can see on the example below, the lacquer was completely missing in most areas. The engraved name is "American Knight." It's not an American horn, but appears to be post-war European, probably German. It seems well made, but has fallen into disrepair, probably because of its bad cosmetics and off-brand name. Most repair technicians would say that this horn has lived a good life and is now not worth fixing up. Unfortunately, these are often in such poor condition that it isn't even possible to test them to see whether the horn is not worth fixing up. That's why horns in this condition end up selling for under $150.
I have a general theory for purchasing a sax to completely rebuild (what I will call a "carcass"). First, if I can determine that it is a stencil from a known manufacturer, that helps in calculating what I want to pay or bid. A few manufacturers simply did not make second-rate horns even though they produced lots of stencil horns. Second, if the sax was made by an unidentified manufacturer, but I can determine the date and general area of production, that helps. For instance, if the horn appears French and between 1935-1955, I'm interested. True junker horns from that era and area are rare. If Czech-built and 1920s, I'll pass. Keep in mind that my goal is producing a playable horn. If I were a collector, a 1924 horn pitched in Db and made in Paraguay might interest me.
The one that I'll be working on was under $140, including shipping in a perfectly functional hard case. Here's what it looked like when UPS delivered it. Click on the picture to enlarge.
The nickel-plated keys looked a little rough, but they actually polished up okay. The saxophone body was a different story. I could see that polishing the brass would take forever, plus, once polished I would get to continue polishing it forever if I wanted to maintain the clean brass look of a lacquered finish. Or, I could go through the tedious, costly, and time consuming process of a re-lacquer. No thank you.
After a few minutes in boiling water, the horn gets reversed. This is an older formula for lacquer and is quite easily removed. Even if some of the lacquer appears to remain, removing the horn from the water and allowing it to cool down causes a "thermal shock" and the lacquer will come loose and flake off like giant dandruff. Yummy. You can see what it looks like on this blog where I removed the lacquer from a ligature. Here is another blog where I put a similar patina on a horn and boiled both the horn and the keys to remove the lacquer.
Later lacquer formulas can be helped to release by adding something caustic to the water. Here, I've added ashes from my wood stove to create a weak lye solution. Since the horn is bigger, I used a metal garbage can on a hot plate.
The best method is to pour the solution over the saxophone, catching the solution in a dish pan and pour it over again and again until you get the effect you want. Using a paint brush also helps. Adding a drop of dish washing soap breaks the surface tension a little and gives a less mottled look to the tarnish. I'm happy with the grungy mottled look. The more variation you have in the finish, the more dings, old repairs, and scratches disappear.
Here's basically the same refinishing job on a Martin Centennial. Lovely horn, but the finish was shot. In many places, the finish on the body of the horn was similar to the keys (picture below). It was just not worth trying to make this saxophone shiny again. Like the horn above, I've had this one for several years now and the patina finish does not change (except in the polished spots). I stopped purposely polishing my unlacquered horns anywhere. The do get naturally polished on the thumb hooks from being played so often. (Update: I've now had the horn five years, play it every day, and it hasn't changed a bit).