Cleaning Brass Instruments

It’s important to clean your instruments. When you play, you’re blowing a good amount of saliva and hot air which condenses in the tubing of the horn. Saliva is acidic; if it wasn’t, it would take a lot more chewing before you could swallow your food. So when that saliva gets blown into a horn, if it isn’t cleaned out every so often, it will cause calcium deposits.

Calcium deposits inside a horn appear as flaky, green, material that’s stuck to the surface of the metal. They’re actually little crystal formations growing on the brass. When they get built up enough, they will disrupt airflow inside the horn and in severe cases, they’ll make parts that move, like the rotor valves in a french horn, slow down and eventually seize completely.

Another issue that can come up if you don’t clean your horn is the dreaded red-rot. Brass is an alloy, that means that it’s a metal made up of two other metals that were mixed together in certain proportions. The two metals in brass are copper and zinc. Over time, your saliva will carry away the zinc in the brass leaving the copper behind. This is why we call it red-rot: Because once the zinc is removed from the brass, we can see little spots where only the red colored copper is left. Without the zinc, the copper is pretty fragile. In time, the structure of the copper will break and little holes will develop that let air escape and make the horn harder to play. The only way to fix red-rot completely is to replace the rotted part.

So how do you clean a brass instrument?

Many shops will use a mixture of acids and rinses to clean out a dirty horn but the best method for your horn is ultrasonic cleaning. An ultrasonic machine uses sound waves, soap, and water to clean, not acids that can damage a horns finish. Transducers on the bottom of the ultrasonic tank create very high frequency sound waves that cause millions of tiny cavitation bubbles that vibrate the dirt off a surface. The beauty of ultrasonic cleaning is that it gets into every tiny space on the object being cleaned. Ultrasonic cleaning is also much safer for the environment because it doesn’t use any harsh chemicals that have to be disposed of later.

After the instrument is cleaned, whether ultrasonically or chemically, it is then cleaned mechanically with various brushes and hones that get any remaining material out and leave a smooth finish inside the tubing and the valve casings. (Different repairmen use different methods to achieve this but the end result is similar any way you do it)

If you can’t have your instrument professional cleaned, fear not! You can clean your brass instruments at home with some simple tools you can buy at most music stores. Actually, it is advised you clean your instrument yourself periodically between yearly visits to the shop. Here are the items you’ll need to clean your own horn at home:

  • tub that can fit the instrument
  • warm water
  • snake brush with plastic bristles
  • plastic bristle brush that fits valve diameter
  • (dawn) dish soap
  • flute cleaning rod
  • thin rags

Here’s what you do:

1. Disassemble the instrument completely

2. Fill the tub up with warm water (enough to submerge the instrument as much as possible)

3. Mix dish soap into the water until it is nice and bubbly

4. Use the snake brush to get into all the tubes and scrub them out as well as you can. Let the scrubbed tubes sit in the water after you’re done.

5. Use the bristle brush to scrub out the valve casings

6. Rinse everything off in clean water

7. Dry thoroughly with a hair dryer set on the cool setting

8. Attach the rag to the end of the flute rod and rap it around so you get a nice snug fit when you rag out the slides and valve casings.

9. Reassemble your horn and oil and lube it as necessary

By doing the above, you will ensure that your horn stays clean and you will prevent calcium deposits and red-rot!


2 thoughts on “Cleaning Brass Instruments

  1. what about the felts and cork? won’t the bath hurt them? Were you bathing the whole valve apparatus with the horn?

    • When I’m cleaning a horn, i throw out the old felts and replace them with synthetic washers. If you were cleaning your instrument at home, just remove the felts before cleaning.

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