Thursday, June 6, 2013

Removing Lacquer from a Brass Saxophone and Applying a Patina

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.  We have seen the same thing with identical saxophone mouthpieces, one having a "famous" name and the other having no name.

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.

A lovely touch of "red rot" on the neck.  "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"  Wait a minute.  The important part is that there is no pull down on the neck.  A little selenic acid will fix the rest.  I have yet to see any red rot that poses a problem (and I worked in the marine industry for several years and saw brass items that were salvaged from boats sunken in tropical waters).  The worst I've seen on a saxophone is just a serious surface tarnish.  As you can see below, you can polish through red rot if you chose.  By polishing, I mean hand polishing.  Mechanical buffing will likely cause more problems than red rot ever did.

Here's the name American Knight engraved on the saxophone surrounded by red rot.  Some spots of corrosion on this horn would be very difficult to remove, and, for what purpose?  Spend 14 hours polishing a saxophone that's worth $300 on the open market when it's completely rebuilt?

Polishing the saxophone did reveal one detail that I probably wouldn't have noticed.  On the neck receiver it is stamped "USSR OCCUPIED GERMANY" (click on the picture).  That provides a very small window for the date and a pinpoint location for manufacture.

I now start the simple method of rebuilding and refinishing the sax.  First, I strip it down and remove what is remaining of the lacquer.  The old lacquer tends to remain around the posts and in small crevices, areas that are difficult to reach, clean, and polish and, therefore, are the areas where a true re-lacquer looks ugliest on close inspection.  This horn was boiled in plain water.  Here's a pot of alto soup.

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.

I leave the needle springs in during this process and have had no problems with rust.  The water is so hot that, when the horn is removed, the body and springs dry almost immediately.  As a bonus, the springs have now been sanitized and you may get by without a recent tetanus shot, although I wouldn't recommend it.

(Update:  I just bought some crushed walnut shells and bicarbonate of soda blasting material and will test that for lacquer and corrosion removal.  I suspected that there is a medium with a low enough Mohs to remove lacquer with without changing the surface of the brass.)

(Update:  All of the media that were aggressive enough to remove even the old damaged lacquer left a satin patina.  That finish is something you may not want, although it leaves a distinctive bare brass "satin" finish.  For now, it looks like the hot water method is still the winner on vintage lacquer.)

Because of the chemical patina that I will be putting on this horn, there is really no further polishing of the metal.  I did clean it up a little using bronze wool, which is much less aggressive than steel wool but does remove the old lacquer.  Google "brass darkening solution" and you will find several products that add a patina.  I've used a brown patina here, but black and green are available for the adventuresome.  

The tarnishing solution works by what might be called "protective corrosion."  It is similar to the benefits of blued steel or anodized aluminum, i.e., a layer of "induced corrosion" protects the metal from further corrosion (unless your saliva is more corrosive than selenic acid, which is the active ingredient in this solution).  Sorry that the above picture is a little blurry, as this is the money shot.  The effect of the solution on the red film was that it was turned kind of brown.  In some cases, kind of a bluish-brown (if that's a color).  The dullness of the red film went away as the solution was wiped on.  

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.

Not shown in the pictures is the final waxing with spray Pledge furniture polish, which really brought out the unique patina.  A lot of people ask how to care for an un-lacquered saxophone.  Pledge.  About once a year.  That's my kind of maintenance.

Although I used an acid that tarnishes the metal, it isn't some horribly dangerous product.  You can do similar things to brass with ammonia, vinegar, and certain dish washing detergents (although those ingredients take longer and produce a more uniform or "bland" finish, IMHO).  All of these products are routinely washed down the drain when you are finished with them.  Same with this tarnishing solution.  Or, if you catch it in a dish pan, you can put it back in the bottle and use it for the next horn.  Here, I used the old solution again.

This horn was done in a laundry tub, re-using the solution by washing it over the surface until it had a sufficiently grubby vintage look.  Any existing dings and scratches are basically unnoticeable once the horn has its patina.  The same with new dings and scratches.  You can't see them.

The forced patina can be polished off in areas (or completely) if you choose.  Here, I've polished off the name of "American Knight" on what turned out to be a B&S stenciled saxophone.  The saxophone also got new Roo pads, corks, and felts in the process.  HONK.

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 six years, play it almost every day, and it hasn't changed a bit).


Here is a picture of the crappy state of the Martin's lacquer as remaining before the rebuild.  There is simply no way to make this state of lacquer loss look new and glossy again.  Your best cleaning and polishing efforts will improve the horn so that it will look "semi-crappy" after many, many hours of work.   It is possible to mechanically buff the horn in a couple of hours (likely ruining the horn), and then have it lacquered (costing several hundred), and have a semi-ugly crappy-looking horn.  It's kind of odd that that is the standard operating procedure.

The alternative is a new "zero maintenance" induced patina.*  This is my Martin tenor.  For a second Martin with a lighter patina, check out this blog.  The blog goes through what is involved in the rebuilding of an old horn in more detail.  

If you don't like this look, DO NOT DO THIS TO YOUR HORN!  Just go with the "I tried to clean it up" semi-crappy look or the "I spent $500 for nothing" ugly re-lacquer look.  'Nuf said.


  1. thank you I;m trying to buy a buesher 400 bari I'll just clean it and make sure it plays well. I wont cry over the finish. you just saved me money thanks again.

  2. "clean it and make sure it plays well" That should be the goal for every vintage horn, but "clean it and make sure it's shiny" seems to be the popular fixation. I'm not complaining. Crappy lacquer and unknown stencils makes for fantastic $500 saxophones because those horns are scorned by the shiny horn crowd.

  3. The pads are removed when the horns are boiled to remove the lacquer, so it doesn't damage the pads. I would not dip a saxophone in anything caustic with the pads on.

  4. I hope you can help me. I have a Buescher Aristocrat from the late thirties. The lacquer is in very poor shape. I had to remove the bell to repair a badly dented body tube, rebuild the Eb and the B/Bb cages, and re-solder the top ring of the neck receiver. The lacquer wasn't good anyway, and there is lots of red rot. The part about boiling it is pretty straightforward, and I've heard that before. Is selenic acid commonly available? How do I use it? How much, how long? Also, the acids you use to create a patina. Where can I get them, and how do I use them?

    Anything you can tell me about these procedures would be greatly precipitated, both my me and by my student, who will be playing the horn. It would be wonderful if you had time to email the information to me.

    I'm glad I stumbled onto your blog. It looks very interesting.

    Thanks for your help! Martin

    1. Jax brand metal patinas are available lots of places. Also, "Brass Darkening Solution" is sold at a lot of stores. If you buy it at an antique shop, you will pay more. There are also videos on home-made solutions. Bluing solutions sold at gun stores produce a patina. Most of these can be polished off with some effort, so you can try it and see if you are going to get the look you want. Keep in mind that you will have to be flexible in "the look you want." Manufacturers who add patinas to their saxophones (now a popular finish) do this in a controlled environment with perfectly clean new instruments. That's why they get the phony "new pants" look to their instruments.

      How long you leave it in the solution depends on how much patina you want.

  5. wow, did not know there were Db horns from Paraguay :)