Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

The stripper



What makes a particular saxophone a particular saxophone? What is it that makes, say, a Yamaha YAS62 a YAS62 and not a Selmer SA80?
Well, you have the design for a start - the profile of the body, the shape of the bore, the keywork. You also have the design of the fittings, such as guards and braces - and, most importantly, you have the way the horn plays.
But you can sometimes also include the way a horn is finished as part of the overall specifications.

Let's say, for example, someone produced a range of otherwise identical horns, but one of the horns in that range was called 'The Zebra', on account of a rather unusual black and white striped lacquer finish. What would happen if you took that finish off?
Not a lot really (unless you're one of those people who believe the finish contributes to the tone) except that your 'Zebra' horn would now just be a plain horn. No big deal maybe, unless the 'Zebra' range turns out to be a design classic in later years and people start trading them for obscene sums of money - or unless all you ever wanted in life was to own a sax that looked a little bit like a zebra...which is fair enough, if a tad worrying.

What caused me to ponder this point was the arrival in the workshop of a Borgani Vintage tenor saxophone.
Borgani make some fine and unusual horns, and in recent years they have developed a range of unusual finishes to match - such as that seen on the Pearl Gold range. I don't mind admitting that such finishes aren't really my cup of tea - my personal view is that the sax is an elegant instrument on its own and doesn't really require anything much more than a decent coat of clear or gold lacquer, or perhaps a coat of silver or gold plate.
But that's just me, and plenty of people prefer horns that have a more overstated visual impact.
The Borgani in question started off life as an unlacquered horn, to which various potions were applied in order to accelerate the natural ageing of the metal's cosmetic appearance. A finish on bare metal that has come about through a period of time with help from exposure to air and moisture, plus a degree of handling, is called a patina - and to some extent it serves as a protective finish as it presents a relatively inert surface to the environment. It's essentially the same finish as seen on the Ponzol Borgani.
Because it takes time to produce a patina (especially on brass, which can often end up just going green with verdigris), such finishes are valued - and there's a ready market for any methods than can speed up the process of tarnishing without the associated risks of wear and corrosion.
These finishes rarely look 'the part' as far as I'm concerned, but I can easily see the appeal of being able to buy a brand-new, modern horn that (almost) looks like it's been around for at least a couple of decades. This is exactly the sort of finish you'd find on a Borgani Vintage model horn - a sort of warm yellow/brown effect with a bit of sheen to it. Not something that was all that easy to achieve, I suspect, and probably took longer to apply than the usual coat of lacquer.
So, you can appreciate my surprise when, on opening the case, I found a...well, you'll find out in a moment...

Actually, I don't think 'on opening the case' does justice to the event, and in no way describes the build-up that so often accompanies such dire revelations. I can always tell that something's afoot by virtue of the client being obviously reluctant to allow me to get my hands on the case - there is a story be to told first, in which the client lays out the mitigating circumstances or the comedy of errors that have led to the current state of affairs. Although I doubt it's been researched or documented I reckon it's a safe bet to assume that the longer the story, the more bizarre or extreme the problem that lies waiting for me in the case. In this instance there was also an element of guilt to be purged as the client was already 'on my books', as they say, but had been somewhat cajoled into having this work done by someone else.
I do tend to resist saying "Well, I told you so", or allowing myself to fall into schadenfreude - but the payoff for this level of discretion and compassion is my rubbing my hands together saying "This is soooooo gonna make the Notes section!". See - I'm all heart.
And so the story builds until the client has set the scene and almost, but not quite, described the outcome and all that's left is the, by now, ceremonious opening of the case - shortly followed by ten seconds or so in which time and motion seems to grind to a halt in perfect, dreadful silence...broken only by sound of the traditional 'Sucking in of the breath'.
The horn's finish was gone - all that remained was plain, unadorned bare brass.

Now, I've heard of people removing lacquer from horns - even done it for clients myself, it's quite common...but why on earth would you want to remove a finish that, effectively, relies on there not being a finish at all?
Well, it seems that the horn was looking rather grubby - and whilst on a local jazz course my client had been advised by the lecturer that the various patches of green gunk dotted all over the horn were spots of verdigris, which had to be removed with some haste lest the horn disintegrate.
He was right, after a fashion - though he might at least have mentioned the time-scale involved, which at a very conservative guess would have been about sometime after the owner of the horn had shuffled off the old mortal coils.
Verdigris tends to be more of a problem on lacquered horns because it forms beneath the lacquer and eventually causes it to fall off (which doesn't look very pretty), and because the verdigris is protected to some degree it can retain moisture which tends to make it rather more corrosive.
On an unlacquered horn though it's more unsightly than it is damaging.

So, the advice from the lecturer was to have the verdigris removed as soon as possible, and as it happened he knew just the man for the job.
Now then, had that man been me I would have first applied some warm soapy water to the verdigris to see just how much it would take off. Had that failed I'd have resorted to something a little stronger in the form of cigarette lighter fluid. More often than not this is all it takes - but had the stuff been really stubborn I might have considered treating it with vinegar and a bit of elbow grease.
Unfortunately it wasn't me, and what was previously a rather expensive Borgani Vintage tenor was now, well, just a Borgani tenor I suppose.
It was a thorough job, I'll give him that - and judging from the pattern of fine scratches on the brass I'd say that a medium grade wire wool had been used (where wire wool is used in such a manner it should only be the ultra-fine 0000 grade, also known as quadruple 0), which did nothing for the aesthetic appearance of the horn.
In some ways I can sympathise to a degree - the first time I ever saw a 'fake vintage' finish it fooled me, but a closer inspection revealed brush or swab marks that would never have been seen on a horn that had aged naturally. I guess the guy must have sat there for a couple of days or so, diligently rubbing away with the wire wool, smiling with satisfaction as the grubby patina gave way to clean (albeit now rather scratched) brass - perhaps picturing the horn owner's face as they opened the sax case to reveal a nice, clean horn...

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