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 the standard Martin case (Martin was one of the few that made cases in house).  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 vintage saxophone instead of 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 hoping to fix old lacquer.  It's just another one of life's disappointments that ultimately doesn't matter.

** A good topic for a subsequent blog.


  1. Hi there, it's uest from Italy, I am in the process of doing your exactly type of work in a 70 Borgani...I am an noob in doing such things but I would like to know better my any advice eould be appreciate...ah the Borgani Sunday was completely tear Sunday I will make a soupsophone...then acid bath...but which acid soap? I don't know, maybe ammonia...thanks and regards

    1. If you have already taken it apart, you can't use this advice, but others can. On your first several complete tear downs, take pictures and notes. Then when you put it back together, you can do it in reverse order. Pictures will show little things that you didn't notice when taking it apart. Putting it back in reverse order will save you from finding out that you put on several keys that prohibit putting on the next key. Some horns are worse than others and you can save a lot of time by just doing everything in reverse.

      Ammonia and Pledge dishwashing detergent can darken brass. Both are easy to find, but I thought the finish they left was too uniform and bland. There are several "brass darkeners" available. One brand is "Antique Black" available on Ebay (and doesn't actually turn brass black). There is a "Brass and Bronze Aging Solution" available from Amazon. I usually use "Brass Darkening Solution" also available from Amazon. When applied with a paint brush, it gives the mottled look shown in the blog. IT TAKES TIME FOR THE ACID TO WORK.

  2. Sooooo many thanks man!!! I have already take the pictures...but I think will be a real battle to put everything together! Oh more thing...what's about the inside...I mean...what happen there when you strip down the external lacquer (boiling, acid...) you need special care (protect or inhibit acid there...)? Are things there turn bad faster if you didn't pay attention?
    Thanks and are a very smart and funny guy, it is a real pleasure to read your adventure and thoughts

  3. I talk about cleaning the inside a little in this blog.

    I think that it is very important to clean out the inside, and it really can't be done without the sax being taken completely apart. Shining a light down the bell can show you whether there is corrosion and gunk sitting in the bottom of the bow, but taking off all of the keys gives you a better view and access to clean up the whole area. If you look at the pictures in the "Keep It Clean" blog, you can see that many old saxophones have a crusty-dusty coating in the inaccessible areas. How can that not mute the sound? Sometimes it is from not being cleaned after playing and sometimes it's just that it's been played for 70 years.

    I use an expandable wire brush and bronze wool to clean out all the corrosion and crust. Both of these would be too aggressive on the exterior, but aggressive cleaning of the interior and getting it down to clean brass is the goal.

    The acid bath tarnishes the inside as well as the outside. The tarnish is a protective layer that actually inhibits further corrosion of the brass. No more verdigris on the inside.

  4. I bought a '40 Committee II alto that was filthy, so I tore it down and used dishwashing liquid, my hose, and a toilet brush from Dollar General that just fit down into the bell and bow. It cleaned up nicely, but as I began I realized the thing had been relacquered. From a distance it looks ok, but has lost a lot of the relacquer, but you can't read the name and barely see the lion and crown, the relacquer was so heavy.

    So, can I boil off the newer lacquer, or does that work mostly on the thinner and older original lacquers?

    1. I don't know how to tell what the second lacquer is other than just trying a few things. If it's ugly, then you can't really do any harm, right?

      Was the silver key work also relacquered? Try taking one off (a piece without a pad) and boil it. You might also just try pouring hot water on it. Some lacquers will absorb acetone a little, so you can wipe it down with acetone and then pour boiling water on it to help start the lacquer flaking off. Denatured alcohol will also soften some lacquers. Newer types of lacquer can be removed with paint strippers. The latest "lacquers" are sometimes epoxy and there isn't a simple way to remove that stuff, but epoxy is rarely used on a relacquer. If your relacquer is falling off in places, it's not likely epoxy and should be easy to remove. Even if it requires boiling, cooling, wiping acetone on it, boiling again, etc., remember, that is so much easier and less destructive than mechanical removal that it is worth the extra time.