Saturday, January 21, 2017

1939 Martin Handcraft Tenor Rebuild

I've been wanting to rebuild a older Martin tenor for a long time.  I have a 1943 Martin that is my main horn.  I tried a newer Martin ("The Martin") and wasn't too impressed, but then it needed some work and I wasn't certain that I wanted to invest the time, given that they tend to sell at a $500 - $1,000 premium compared to the older Handcraft models.

What I like about the older Martins is the German silver key work.  German silver is harder and lighter than brass key work.  It is also "harder" to work on because the keys are almost impossible to hand swedge compared to a brass key rod.  But once swedged and straight, they tend to stay that way longer.  I think that it's worth the extra effort.

First, I look for the ugliest horn I can find on Ebay.  I don't want the ones that say that they were just repadded and regulated at Joe's Music Store.  Or "plays well on older pads."  I'm going to tear the horn apart and replace the pads.  I want the horn that looks bad, plays bad, and smells bad.  That can all be fixed.  What I don't want is a horn that has been "repaired."  Or a horn with "dents removed."  Prior repair work is always much more difficult to fix.  Better is a horn that has ugly pads and slight, but obvious, damage.  And a smelly case.  Best is one that the pictures show has its original bug-eaten pads.  That's the one I want to bid on.

This is the second vintage Martin I've bought that arrived in a Pullman case.  These cases probably weren't standard Martin cases.  This type of small case supposedly fit better in the overhead storage on a Pullman train car and were considered the choice of travelling professional musicians.  It's probably all hooey.  Anyway, you can see that the case is barely holding together.

The horn was in much better shape.  The seller (probably a pawn shop) had shined up the areas where the lacquer was completely missing.  That's almost a standard maneuver for the sellers of old saxophones.  Unfortunately, the residue from the polish is difficult to remove and often makes the pictures on Ebay look like the horn has some kind of mold around the keys and posts.  And as we all know, it's difficult to get an ugly horn with failing lacquer to look like anything but an ugly horn with failing lacquer.  Click for a closeup.
A polish job that didn't improve anything.

Look closely, the high Eb rod is bent.  Hard to do with German silver key work, but possible.  Little things like this get discovered and fixed.

Typical Martin lacquer.

As I said, the old Martins have German silver keys.  Like brass, German silver doesn't stay shiny if it is not protected with lacquer.  The lacquer wears off and the keys become spotty and tarnished just like the body of the horn.  Actually, not quite as bad.  They turn a dull, but uniform, satin gray color as shown in places on the keys above.

The first order of business is to remove all of the key work.   Here is a close up of some of the keys.  On a few keys, the lacquer is completely gone.  On some it's partially gone.  The lacquer had discolored, peeled, bubbled, etc., making the keys fairly ugly.

Areas of failed lacquer can cause pitting in the German silver.

Old yellowed lacquer can be polished off (left), but there is an easier way.

I've found that the quickest way to remove lacquer of this vintage is to boil it off.  Old lacquer softens in hot water and then the thermal shock of cooling down causes the lacquer to flake off.  I also do this to the entire horn, but it takes a big kettle for a tenor.  The good news is that it is possible to just pour lots of boiling water over areas that can't be submerged and the lacquer also loosens and falls off from the repeated hot-to-cold.  Here's what lacquered keys look like when removed from boiling water and the lacquer begins to fall off.


The lacquer even fails in the little nooks and crannies.

Now the good part.  This is what they look like when polished after the lacquer is removed.  They won't likely stay like this, but I now have a uniform surface instead of the grungy half lacquer look.  The reflection shows the handle of the pot it was boiled in and the ceiling light.  That's how much of a difference was made in cleaning up the key.

The body of the horn gets the same treatment.  Because the seller had polished some of the brass and left polish residue on the horn, I had to clean it up a bit.  All was hand polished and takes an hour or more.   The important part is to make sure that all the lacquer is off because I am going to acid wash the brass as I did in a prior blog.

I know, I know, if you click on the horn, it looks real pretty with the raw brass all polished.  Please daddy, can we just keep it like this?  Unfortunately, no.  It will tarnish in strange ways and, unless you strip it down and polish it every year, it will never look like this again.  I'm going to cut to the chase and throw acid on it.

I should note that one of the acids I'm using is the same as used to "cold blue" firearms.  That's good for a couple of reasons.  The springs on this horn had a little rust in a few places.  Boiling the horn didn't make the rust any worse because the hot water dries off so fast.  Then I polished the rusted spots down to bare metal so that, when washed with acid, the springs would be re-blued and perfect.

Here is another benefit.  The flat spring seats on these horns, like vintage Kohlerts, have a tiny insert of steel machined into the seat.  They can become rusty and gunked up.  To clean them, wrap a piece of emery paper around something thin (like a feeler gauge) and shine up the steel insert.  Now, when you wash the horn in the "bluing acid" you will blue needle springs and the flat spring seats, which helps prevents corrosion and, for the seats, reduces friction.  Here's what a blued steel spring seat looks like after being wiped with oil.

Okay, you've probably notice that the brass around the spring seat now has a patina.  But before we get there I'm going to show you what else you can blue.  Key rods.  I don't play my horns in the rain, but I've rebuilt horns that probably were played in the rain.  Water gets down the tubes and can leave spots of rust and that causes excessive friction.  I clean the rods with bronze wool and then the rods also get acid washed or blued.  Bluing doesn't save steel from ever rusting, it just adds a little protection.  When oiled it will have the gun barrel look.

Blued steel to the left and polished steel on the right.

This horn got a lighter wash of acid that the Martin shown in a prior blog.*  I wanted to see if it would also stay exactly the same over the years without any maintenance.

If you click on the picture below, you can see that the lion, the crown, and the word Martin have a much lighter forced tarnish.  I cleaned them up a bit between acid baths (actually, I did all of this with a cheap paint brush and about 4 ounces (100 cc) of acid wash).  I'm going to see if even these really light areas still have enough acid-induced tarnish to stabilize them and remain a distinct patina from the surrounding area.

I love these key guards.  Conns of the same era have a plain wire chicken foot.  No contest.

So what does the completed horn look like?  Just as I finished, the sun came out.  It's a sign (of something, hopefully something good).

The look I wanted was for a little of the purplish patina to show, but remain fairly light all over.  A Purple Martin, so to speak.  You can see the effect if you enlarge some of the pictures.

The periscope view.

Of course, boiling the horn requires that every cork and felt are replaced and the horn completely regulated.  Pads were replaced with black Roos so that I can compare it with my other rebuilds.  New neck cork.  Neck tenon adjusted, body tube straightened,** etc., etc.  Looks better.  Plays better.  It even smells better.

* My first blog about adding a patina to a saxophone instead or trying to repair the lacquer gets more hits than all of my other blogs combined.  The search terms used are always something like "how to keep sax shiny" or "fixing old lacquer on saxophone."  Sorry to all who are looking for fixing old lacquer.  It's just another one of life's disappointments that ultimately doesn't matter.

** A good topic for a subsequent blog.