Preserving History and How to Handle the Survivors

I was invited to make a presentation at the January, 2014 meeting of NAPBIRT (National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians) at Yamaha's Buena Park, California facility.  This is a large and impressive complex that includes their parts department for all of the US, warehouse space for new products and Bob Malone's home base. Bob has there all the tools and equipment needed for all repairs, modifications and prototype work for Yamaha products.  

I was thoroughly impressed by the three other presenters, Ed Kraus, Shelly Tanabe and Wayne Tanabe and felt very welcome by the audience of about 60 men and women in the repair business.  Below is much of what I presented there, edited to fit this format.  This is addressed to those in the repair business, but I suspect that there are a few other brass fanatics out there that might find this of interest.  Much of my 90 minutes in front of this group involved lively participation by the audience in which we also discussed specific restoration projects, techniques and tools.  I will continue to cover these specific topics, but here the subject is mostly general experiences in the business, my views of the industry and a few items that are specific to restoring and preserving antique brass instruments.  

Almost all of us in the business of repairing musical instruments have been asked, and agreed, to repair an antique instrument or two and perhaps you have sworn that you’ll never make that mistake again.  While it is probably a good business decision to avoid the complications involved with dealing with ancient brass instruments, you may have good customers that you want to continue to please with your willingness and ability to carefully bring their instruments back to beauty and functionality.  

Brass instruments made in the last 100 years, for the most part, will not really require repair techniques different than used with newer instruments, but the older an instrument is, the more likely it is to have extra challenges.  The vast majority of old instruments do not have the monetary or historical value to warrant the cost of the labor to repair or restore them.  You could carefully reproduce a replacement mouthpipe and braces for the broken or missing originals on a Conn Victor cornet, but the cost would exceed the amount that a very nice original and complete instrument could be purchased for.  

Certain instruments were made in such large numbers that there will never be a shortage of excellent originals in private and public collections, even another hundred years from now.  The vast numbers of cheap, imported instruments may never have much value, but similarly, putting aside those that have survived intact is all that can be expected of us at this point.  If you find out that the instrument that you are entrusted with might be very rare or even one of a kind, a whole different ethic comes into play.  

The particular model might not be rare, but the individual instrument might have been owned by a well known player or been used in important performances or recordings. Both the historical and monetary value will be higher if the instrument is kept as original as possible.  Perhaps a worn original silver plated finish and badly damaged parts are worth the effort to save them.   You might decide that it isn’t worth the extra effort and possible unpaid time needed to preserve this piece of history, but the satisfaction and appreciation that you will be rewarded with might just make it worth your while.  

I look back with some mixed feelings at some of the earlier projects that I worked on before having developed the skills that could only have come from years of experience.  Even in my teens, I was interested in old brass instruments and their history and I had the great luck to get a job at a music store that specialized in old and unusual instruments.  Unfortunately, when a profit had to be made, I was pressured into getting the job done quickly, even as I was being told that the quality of the work was important.  

It was only a few years later that I was at work in my own shop and I was making all the decisions.  Even though the bulk of my work was for schools in my early years, my focus was on learning to make high quality repairs while preserving the history as best I could, when the antiques came in.  I collected all the books that I could find and borrowed others from libraries to educate myself of the history of brass instruments, a task made much easier today by the use of the Internet.  

  In the last 25 years, I’ve often been approached by younger repairmen with ambitions for doing higher quality repairs.  I feel obliged to be of help and pass on what I know about this business.  When I was young, I pestered the older guys, Larry Minick, Burt Herrick, Don Heaston, Dan Rauch and others, with questions about specific problems and they were always helpful.  I’ve tried to do the same with these younger guys and gals, but often, I’ve been frustrated to find that they have not put what I told them into practice.  In spite of this, I believe that every repairman can improve the quality of his or her work and I know the secret for achieving this: practice.  Not just practice, but practice doing good quality work and keeping your focus on the goal of producing the best quality possible.  

The state of the art in this industry is work that is just good enough to get past the band director or Junior’s mom.  If you practice doing work that is just good enough, then that will continue to be the state of your work.  The most valuable advice that I can give these aspiring young repairmen is to always do work that exceeds the requirements of the band director or Mom and keep your focus on that goal.  Before you know it, your own personal standards will exceed those of all of your customers and young repairmen will be coming to you for the secret.  

Any specific techniques that I might show you can be accomplished carefully and neatly or without much care in hopes that it will be good enough to get by the customer.  More information is available now than ever and you can access it without getting up from the couch, but this information will not make you a good repairman.  I’ve watched through a number of videos on the Internet and find that the basic ideas for the techniques are correct and would be instructive to somebody wanting to learn this business.  

There are bound to be some ideas that you will be able to determine are not compatible with the best quality work and any particular worker can evaluate the results of his or her work and decide if it is good enough.  If you are never quite satisfied, you will try a little harder the next time and continue to improve with each successive attempt.  Also helpful, is to keep in mind the tools that you use.  Some shops have all the latest tools and devices intended to make this work easier, but it is more important to concentrate on the tools that are most useful for the work that you do and aid you in getting the results that you insist on.   You might find yourself modifying tools that you have purchased or making new tools completely to your ideas.  I’ve very often come up with tools that don’t quite give the desired effect and I must either modify them further or toss them aside and start over.

Most difficulties encountered are with nonexistent replacement parts, deterioration and previous unskilled repairs.  If you don’t already have some skill in using a lathe and other machines, you will find great advantages in exploring these.  Every brass repair shop will need a lathe occasionally to make parts and when dealing with antiques, you will need it almost every day.  I made many mistakes on the lathe before I acquired several manuals on the subject.  One of the best is “How to Run a Lathe” published by South Bend Lathe and these days you can learn just about anything you want on the internet.  There are videos on YouTube on every subject that you can think of and you can learn how to make almost anything and you can apply the knowledge towards making valve caps, pull knobs, screws and the like.  Many parts, such as valve levers, stop arms and tuning devices have to be built up from small parts that you must make and take a lot of determination and practice to get them just right both mechanically and cosmetically.

More important than finding and making parts is evaluating the instrument for deterioration, damage, originality (incorrect replacement parts) and details of construction that you are not accustomed to.  If the goal is to restore the instrument as close as possible to the way it was originally, then you will need to find out if the correct parts are mounted properly.  With experience, you will be able to quickly recognize details that are right, don’t look like they belong or perhaps are mounted wrongly.  Occasionally, something looks wrong in the first viewing, but further investigation indicates that it is correct after all.  

It is a good idea to make a plan before getting started.  Notice if the instrument has significant deposits of solidified oil and grease, inside and out.  It is often necessary to soak instruments in a hot detergent solution to remove this before giving it an acid bath.  The grease will prevent the acid from doing its job properly by masking portions of the surface.  All slides and valve parts should be removed before treating with detergent and acid.   When we’re lucky, this is done quickly, but sometimes can take an hour or two to free these parts without damage and sometimes no amount of care prevents some damage.  

Decide ahead of time what portions of the instrument will need to be dismantled to make the repairs, such as access to dents, repairing braces and remounting parts that were mounted incorrectly in past repair attempts.  Great care must be taken while removing soldered parts.  Ancient, deteriorated solder along with other mineral deposits are harder than brass or nickel silver which become even more weak and brittle when hot.  Check very carefully for steel parts such as screws and springs; steel parts should never be put into an acid solution.  

Very important: There is no advantage to treating antique brass instruments with bright dip.  It may seem like a shortcut in removing tarnished surfaces, but does this by etching away much more brass than necessary, disqualifying its use as a tool for restoration or preservation.  Similarly: filing, sanding and heavy machine polishing for the sake of making the instrument look "new" cannot be considered a good practice if you care about the value of the instrument.  

While old repairs are part of the history of an old instrument, they are often unsightly and are often difficult or impossible to completely correct.  Metal that is stretched from heavy handed dent removal is impossible to completely shrink back to where it was and making small improvements is very time consuming.  When too much heat is used in removing parts or remounting them, the brass is annealed making it overly soft and any soft solder in the area crystallizes and becomes harder than tool steel.  In this state, the solder can only be scraped off with a carbide tool and, of course, some brass will be lost in the process.  If the work is being done carefully, these sorts of mistakes shouldn’t be made more than once or possibly twice in a career.  I am happiest when a battered antique comes in that hasn’t been repaired before.    

There is much more to learn about restoring and preserving brass instruments and there is no reason to believe that it is beyond you or me to grasp.  A little care goes a long way in planning our work and avoiding unnecessary damage to the rare or valuable instruments entrusted to us.