THE COMPLETE RE-FINISHING OF VINTAGE SAXOPHONES
In the world of saxophones, one can hardly fail to notice the obsession that musicians and collectors have for maintaining the original lacquer finish on vintage saxophones. It is often implied that the instrument's “voice” will be detrimentally affected if one were to strip the instrument of its original lacquer. Not to mention the effects of the subsequent dent-removal, buffing, and refinishing of the instrument. As a consequence, the resounding perception seems to be that the value of the saxophone is diminished significantly. In this case, perception and truth may indeed be at odds with one another.
Personally, I find this belief to be counter-productive to the longevity and well-being of all fine brass instruments (woodwinds and brasswinds). I feel that a great disservice is done when a fine old saxophone is left exposed to the elements, where its' further deterioration and eventual demise will be accelerated. First of all, the common belief that the tone quality of the saxophone will be adversely affected by simply refinishing the instrument is not supported by any scientific evidence; that is, as long as the manufacturer’s original specifications are not altered in any way during the finishing process.
Arguably, the removal of dents, subsequent buffing, and re-lacquering of the instrument could affect any number of aspects with regard to the instrument, however, I do not believe that the acoustical properties of the sax, as it was originally manufactured, is among them. I make the point of "as it was originally manufactured" because there are, in fact, any number of empirical aspects of the saxophone that are likely to affect the acoustic nature of the instrument, other than the relative condition, or specific variety of finish present.
As an example, the relative condition of the bore of the instrument could play a role in the acoustical nature of an instrument. In new condition, an instrument's bore is very smooth, free of "grunge" and without evidence of corrosion. Adversely, many sax players will neglect the routine cleaning and maintenance of their instrument’s bore (especially the neck) to the point where the slow, eventual buildup of residue will begin to occlude the bore, leading to detrimental acoustical affects. I recall one instrument of an otherwise excellent musician, where his neckpiece was inhabited by a colony of writhing maggots. When his Mark VI was returned to him fully cleaned and adjusted, he was rather shocked at the difference in the response (and taste) of his horn. Initially, he was quite perplexed by this ‘change’, however, after a short period of time, he was able to appreciate the renewed flexibility and voice of his instrument.
Another element which may affect the acoustics of a saxophone might be the specific type and brand of pad one uses. For example, a pad that is harder and equipped with a resonator may affect the vibrating air column a bit differently than a softer, more acoustically absorbent pad. Depending upon your personal concept of tone, either configuration might be more desirable to you personally. In turn, the relative key-heights (above each tone hole) can affect one’s sound and pitch considerably.
The brand and size of the mouthpiece, reed, and ligature can affect the sound of one’s horn; the actual size of one's oral cavity even comes into play. My point being, if one really wants to affect the way their instrument sounds acoustically, there are any number of real, scientifically proven ways that the average musician will commonly overlook that can affect the acoustics of their saxophone; the relative finish not being one of them.
Perhaps, changing the saxophone acoustically isn't the reason why some musicians and collectors are insistent upon keeping the original finish intact. I know that most players love the color and patina of a beautifully-aged original lacquer; the antique character that the old worn finish displays. It’s rather like an old broken-in pair of blue jeans; they just look and feel great. This is really a more valid reason than anything having to do with acoustics. Never-the-less, there comes a time in every saxophone's life when the existing finish is so diminished that the entire finish should be stripped and replaced. And when is this time to refinish? I would say as it approaches when only 50% remains. Until that time, I am a great believer in preventive maintenance by touching-up bare spots with a matching lacquer. This touch-up applys to keys and body.
In some instances, repair tech’s may be inclined to perpetuate this myth of NOT refinishing a vintage sax because they don't want to complicate the repair process with the stripping, dent removal, and re-lacquering steps of a complete overhaul. Or perhaps, they simply aren't able, or willing to set up their shop to perform complete overhauls on brass-bodied instruments. It should be noted also that finishing with nitrocellulose lacquer is a 75+ year old technology. Today, most manufacturers use a baked-on epoxy finish which outlast nitrocellulose lacquer 10 to 1. To me, it makes more sense to provide musicians with the very best protective coating when the saxophone is first manufactured, and later, when the finish needs to be replaced.
I believe that old Selmer Mk VI’s, King Super 20’s, Buescher 400’s, SML’s, etc., are treasures that should be preserved for future musicians to play, hear and enjoy. I think that it is nothing less than tragic that the remaining examples of these extraordinary instruments are being allowed to slowly disintegrate before our very eyes. And worse yet, at the direction or acquiescence of the so-called experts.
Today, the responsible restoration of vintage instruments is available throughout the world; restoration services which would allow these instruments to be maintained and playable for many decades to come. Attractive, faithful antique finishes are certainly possible with modern epoxy finishes. As it is, those instruments that do remain unprotected will eventually wear and corrode beyond use, perhaps in our own lifetimes. Personally, I feel that to stand-by and allow this to happen to these fine examples of engineering and beauty would be a crime. Now, I realize that what I am lobbying-for goes against traditional restoration practices in museum science, however, I would like to see a shift in the prevailing attitude with regard to the responsible maintenance and restoration of the finishes of ALL old vintage musical instruments that are meant to be played, and aren't already in museums. And, hopefully, the value and desire for these properly maintained and refinished vintage instruments will not suffer.