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Plating a Saxophone by Curt Altarac

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Historically, players are fearful of re-plated and re-lacquered horns.  They have their saxophone reconditioned and it comes back to them looking beautiful but laden with strange issues and doesn't play well anymore. Even though it was just overhauled, the player is left saying the sentence players and technicians fear most: “It played better before”.  In the marketplace, people inspect the instrument, scouring the engraving looking for signs that the engraving has been buffed, or for signs that the engraving was re-cut, and they look at the body bands and the serial numbers, looking for evidence of heavy buffing, and search for lacquer on pearls and even on leather pads. Many of us have become experts in spotting re-lacquered horns because we all know if it's re-lacquered, the chances are very high that the condition is worse than it looks.

There are a number of reasons why these reconditioning jobs have earned a bad reputation, but it's a complicated issue.  Before I figured out a way to incorporate re-plating into the assembly line style Uberhaul, I used to discourage customers from getting their horns refinished.  What really mattered was that the horn played great and felt great. However, my customers kept asking for silver plating, so that led me to do a lot of research and experimenting until I could figure out a way to do it that didn't affect the quality of the Uberhaul.  Incorporating the plating process helped us zero in on the exact points where issues occur. In this article, I will discuss the issues with refinishing and what I did to mitigate those issues when I incorporated it into the Uberhaul assembly line.

If you are a technician, you may want to modify the process to fit a one-person overhaul. However, as you know, the order of things has a reason and I believe it may be the secret to doing good work. Please understand the order listed below and know why a particular job is not in what might seem to be the obvious place before moving that job in your course of overhauling a saxophone.

The Tradition of Refinishing

No doubt, the artistry and aesthetics of a saxophone's design and finish can be powerful.  Whether they realize it or not, the audience's perception of the sound can be influenced by what they see.  Some players love their saxophone to shine like a jewel from the stage, while others appreciate that their horn looks aged, well and often used, with battle scars to prove it.

Aside from aesthetics, some players have theories about whether lacquer chokes the vibrations and overtones of their instrument, so they will have the lacquer stripped or will leave it bare after existing lacquer wears away.

I personally believe that it's not healthy for your hands to be in frequent direct contact with bare brass.  It's also not great for a bare saxophone to be in contact with hands.  Bare brass will tarnish over time, eventually leading to corrosion, pitting, and wear, which compromises the integrity of the brass.  Depending on the pH balance of the player's sweat and saliva, this corrosion and pitting can be sped up greatly as the acids interact with the brass.

It is preferable for these reasons to not have a bare brass horn, but lacquer is not always preferred by players. In addition to sonic concerns, the process of buffing the entire body of a saxophone prior to refinishing removes brass, which can affect the overall stability of the body and potentially affect the sound of the instrument.

This thought process can lead a player to consider plating with a precious metal. Plating is both more expensive and more challenging to get right, which is why many saxophones were originally offered in both bare brass or lacquer as the more affordable option, and silver or gold plated for the artist models.

When considering re-plating an instrument that has been used and is in poor enough cosmetic condition to warrant consideration for refinishing, the decision to have the finish in smooth or satin is very important. Consider that brass is metal and a scratch is a long gouge in the surface of the metal. To remove the scratch is impossible: you must actually remove the metal from the scratch as deep as the scratch. You removed the scratch by removing the metal around it.

The purpose of buffing is to remove the scratches and leave the surface smooth and shiny. Think about a soft wheel packed with an abrasive substance working down the surface of the brass. It will also remove metal from the base of the scratch. Because of this imprecise nature of buffing, more material must be removed than just that which will eliminate the scratch. The result is a thin and sometimes wavy surface. To combat this, a good buffer will make sure to use a course buff and quickly remove surface metal and then at the right time, switch to a softer wheel and a milder abrasive. This is better but it still has the problems of buffing. Instead of this, many use a large belt sander. This will not remove metal from the base of a scratch or from the low spots on a rippled surface. It will only remove the top of the brass and work it down to the base of the scratch or level off that rippled area. Somehow taking a belt sander to your instrument suddenly seems like the safe approach.

When we sandblast an instrument for a satin finish, there is no buffing on the blasted parts, which is more than 90% of the surface area of the body. It is unnecessary because surface imperfections are lost in the satin finish. After blasting many saxophones, the media in the blasting unit shows no sign of brass dust or any brass loss. Buffing wheels, however, can easily get “loaded up with brass”. For this reason, I purchased a sandblaster and recommend a satin finish.

Traditionally, a saxophone is prepared for plating by one of two methods.  The first is that the technician does all of the bodywork, key fitting and sends the body, neck, and keys to the plater.  The plater does the preparation work: the body and keys are stripped of any remaining lacquer, cut buffed, and color buffing. The bell is engraved either in-house or sent off to an engraver and returned. The body and keys are then electroplated with silver or gold, wrapped up, and sent back to the technician.

The other common way is that the technician does the preparation work, including stripping the lacquer, buffing, sending the horn off for engraving, and then packing the body and keys up to send to the plater.  The plater simply electroplates the keys and body and sends them back.

What Goes Wrong?

There are a number of problems that can and often do occur during that process that damage the instrument.  During the first scenario where the plater is doing the prep work, buffing damage is the biggest issue.

Damage to Keys

The very process of buffing after key fitting was completed effectively undoes a lot of the key fitting work.  Keys get bent if they get caught wrong by the buffing wheel or if the person doing the work is handling them with force. Large pad cups are distorted by the pressure of the buff. The ends of the keys, which have already been carefully fit, get rounded off or shortened during buffing.  These problems are left because the plater has neither the time nor the money to check the fit of the keys after buffing.  In fact, they don’t even have any of the screws or rods to assemble the horn.

Damage to the Body

Next, when the body is buffed, damage occurs.  Posts get moved and postfaces get altered, level tone holes become unleveled, and the body can, and often does, get bent.  These problems are also not addressed at this point. Identifying these problems is not within the scope of the plater's job.

Engraving Damage

The process of engraving involves holding the horn in your lap very securely or putting in into a jig or pressing it into a stand. A variety of metal engravers are used, sometimes even by tapping with a mallet to cut the design into the brass bell. These processes can bend the body, move posts, unleveled tone holes, and bend or oval the bell.

Other Problems

Even if the technician does all of the preparation work themselves, checks it, and corrects any issues before sending to the plater, things can still go wrong.  The keys can get bent during shipping if not packed well.  A key could get dropped or scratched while at the plater and they will buff it to fix it, making it susceptible to buffing damage.

After the plating, the horn and keys return from the plater looking like beautiful jewelry, glistening in silver or gold.  The springs must be reinstalled at this point, which requires using metal tools and force which can cause posts to move.

Reassembling the Saxophone

Now the technician must reassemble the saxophone.  Inevitably, keys are not going to fit perfectly as they did before going to the plater. Some are bent and they bind once the rod is inserted through.  Silver now covers the key ends, so some keys no longer fit between the posts. Silver has coated the threads inside the posts, so screws no longer fit.  Silver is inside the hinge tubes so the rods no longer fit in their keys. Posts have often been moved or the body has become bent by buffing, further complicating the key fit.

The technician can find their self in a predicament: doing the work to make everything fit properly again and fixing the buffing damage will mar the fresh silver plate and the customer will notice.  Many times a technician is forced to choose to not cause cosmetic damage. So now, the technician is left installing bent keys over unleveled tone holes on a slightly bent body and trying to make it all work.

It's no wonder that when the player picks up the instrument after all this work, they might have complaints about how it plays.  A frustrated technician might blame the plater, but even if they cared about issues like key fitting and level tone holes, the plater has little they can do to check the work as a technician would. It's clear from this synopsis that refinishing doesn't work well with traditional methods.

Developing Our Plating Process

Knowing all of the pitfalls of the plating process helped us to incorporate plating preparation into the assembly line process of the Uberhaul.  Our goal was to put every step in an order where no job would undo work that was already done. This is something that required some trial and error, but after running a number of saxophones through this process, we have a great working order that nearly yields the results we were after.

An Uberhaul with Full Cosmetic Restoration

  1. Disassemble the instrument.
  1. Straighten body, remove dents, correct any body damage, align the top and bottom stack posts, and level the pad cups.
  1. Complete any modifications that might affect the bow or bell keys.
  1. Buff around and in the engraving on the bell where no satin finish will be applied. Do not remove all scratches as we consider these little imperfections in the shiny engraving “vintage charm”. Leaving vintage charm in the shiny engraving saves the instrument a lot of buffing or worse, sanding. Coarse buff and color buff the inside of the bell leaving vintage charm as needed.
  1. Remove the bell and send to engraver if applicable.  Removing the bell prevents the engraver from unwittingly damaging the body or posts. We do a lot of our engraving in-house now.
  1. After the bell is engraved, mask it off the engraving to protect it. We prefer Nitto tape.
  1. Assemble the bell and bow, checking for alignment and roundness.
  1. Complete the rest of modifications.
  1. Cut buff the keys- this is the most invasive buffing process, and is ideal to do before fitting the keys.
  1. Dryfitting- This is where a lot of the major key bending will occur to set up the timing, as well as orienting the pad cups over the tone holes, and setting the keys up to leave the appropriate amount of room for the selected materials.
  1. Key fitting- This station will be completed in two phases, so certain steps are not brought to a finished state before the plating. The final fitting, such as facing the key ends and posts, will occur later.
  1. Check tone holes for levelness, and correct any serious issues that require dentwork, but do not level the tone holes at this point.
  1. Cut buff and color buff all parts of the body that will be bright highlights with a handheld buffer: the receiver, thumb rest, guards, body bands, etc.  This gentle process will help avoid posts getting moved.
  1. Color buff keys.
  1. Check all keys and make corrections if any keys got bent, followed by a touch up color buffing.
  1. Mask off all bright highlights, post faces, and double check that the engraving is masked appropriately.
  1. Sandblast- We choose to finish horns by sandblasting because it removes very little if any, brass from the horn.  It also helps mask minor imperfections in the brass that would otherwise need to be sanded and cut buffed.
  1. Level tone holes.
  1. Remove the masking and reassemble keys to make sure they still fit and make adjustments as needed.
  1. Keys and body are cleaned, wrapped, and sent to the plater with instructions.

Post Plating: 2 weeks later, the horn comes back from the plater looking beautiful.

  1. Key fitting- the key fitting process is continued at this point.  Silver plating will have added some length to the ends of the keys, added material to the post faces, coated the inside of hinge tubes, and coated the threads inside the posts.  Post faces and keys are faced, hinge tubes are reamed and lapped, threads are re-cut.  Anything that might have gotten bumped or bent at the plater is fixed, even at the potential expense of using a tool on fresh plating.  This portion of key fitting takes a full 8 hours.
  1. Tone holes are rechecked- the plating does not always go on evenly, so some light leveling may be necessary to bring the tone holes back to perfectly level.

This is the point where our Technician Plating Special ends- the horn is returned to the technician to finish the job for their customer.  We offer this to technicians so they can complete their customer's overhaul without the hassle and pitfalls of the plating process.

  1. Springs are reinstalled.  This is the one step that has a potential to move posts, but we have yet to find a way around that.  Keys are checked for fit after the springs are installed, and any slightly misaligned post is corrected. We only install gold plated needle springs in new silver instruments because they are so beautiful.
  1. Now the Uberhaul continues as normal.  Materials and pads are installed, the pads are leveled, the horn is set up and then tuned and toned.

More Thoughts On Replating

It’s interesting to consider some of the things that refinishing does to an instrument. You may think of things that you think change the instrument such as removing metal, cleaning, the application of more metal on an instrument, the sound bouncing off silver and gold, buffing, thinning, changing metal hardness by sandblasting, changing the inside and outside surface by sandblasting. This list goes on and is only limited by your thoughtfulness and imagination. Many have asked me if adding plating changes the sound of a sax; more than most people alive, I should be capable of answering that question. Many players report that their instrument plays better than ever when it's returned, and many blame the plating for this. We are unsure of why these instruments play so well and assume it’s the work that goes into them. Certainly, they are more valuable and their life is extended and not compromised by this work. All that said, I can tell you that this process of plating in this particular order definitely improves the tone and response of an instrument, in addition to the type of work that goes into an Uberhaul. With this comprehensive process, we have created a safe, reliable way to offer to refinish. It is a process that continues to evolve as we seek to always improve our execution and further streamline the process.