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.
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.
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.
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.
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.