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Chemical Cleaning Old Brass and Plated Musical Instruments


Q. I'm a dad of 5 and former Trumpet player (school band, nothing more), and have started to collect old and vintage Cornets & Trumpets as a hobby and to encourage my kids to play an instrument. I've spent hours surfing for information about cleaning and repairing old brass musical instruments, and there are several other hobbyists that have great sites telling how to brush plate parts, etc.

My question is this: what can I use at home to chemically clean an old brass instrument? Many times there is vintage saliva that comes with the horns, which results in crunchy chunks inside the tubing (who actually knows what is causing the chunks, but they are often there). I have used a vinegar [in bulk on eBay or Amazon (adv.)] solution, but I was wondering how strong an acid could be used safely for the more difficult horns. The challenge is to make it strong enough to allow the crud to be rinsed out or brushed with a mild snake brush.

Secondly, some horns have a silver plate, and the older horns have a german silver plate (which I guess isn't silver at all). What are the restrictions on acid cleaning to prevent ruining the surface?

Finally, some horns have what appears to be nickel or nickel-plated ferrules connecting the tubing. Again, does this constrain what could be used?

One more point -- these are not lacquered -- so we are dealing directly with the metal.

I appreciate any help from you professionals out there who know your stuff. We're working on myths and old stories right now.


David Stumpf
Hobbyist & Dad - Elmhurst, Illinois, USA

A. You can use next solutions:

for brass and nickel plated brass or copper or nickel silver:
50 gm citric acid
1 lit water add some ammonia (25%) -- pH must be 9 cold immersion (up to 8 hours, hot solution (80 °C) works faster, rinse well, pure citric acid is also usable for silver or silver plate:
300 gm sodium thiosulphate [on eBay or Amazon (adv.)] /1 lit water solution, cold immersion, rinse well

Good luck!

Goran Budija
- Cerovski vrh Croatia

A. Just so you know "German Silver" is also known as Nickel Silver or White Brass. Nickel Silver is a mix of Copper (60%), Nickel (20%), and Zinc (20%). Just thought you might want to know.

Marc Banks
- Elizabeth City, North Carolina

A. The professional method is this:
muriatic acid [affil links]. Block the lead pipe, fill up the pipe, wait 5 or 10 seconds and flush well with water. Make sure you flush the horn well or you might have to polish off the spots. If this does not work, throw out the horn.

Richard Ebbole
- retired - Lake Worth, Florida
July 30, 2008

Q. to Richard Ebbole, Sr.
who responded that muriatic acid is used - what is the dilution percentage of the acid?

Charles Caywood
- Houston, Texas
August 26, 2008

A. Don't make it too strong. About 1 or 2 tablespoons to a cup of water

Richard Ebbole
- retired - Lake Worth, Florida
February 23, 2012

Silver plated trombone carries staph infection

Q. I have a large Stradivarius trombone with a deadly fungal infection. I've been hospitalized and the mayo clinic studied this. This is bleach resistant. Will muriatic acid kill it? And it's silver plated. Please help. Gig on Sunday. Can't play with a killer trombone.

Chad Stemm
- Zanesville, Ohio, USA
April 16, 2014

Trombone Maintenance Kit on Amazon or eBay

(affil links)

A. Hi Chad. Muriatic acid might destroy your trombone; don't try stronger or for longer than Richard suggested. I'd try hydrogen peroxide in a small area and see if it causes discoloration or etching. But to me the question is how will you know whether the fungicide you try worked or not?


Ted Mooney,
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Striving to live Aloha - Pine Beach, New Jersey
April 2014

A. Chad,
You need to get your instrument autoclaved, that process just uses heat and pressure to kill off anything, period. Ask around at universities to see if anyone there is willing to do it, or knows of any business that would be willing to do it. Most medium and large college science departments will have an autoclave that can handle something this size, and if they don't, they will likely be able to point you in the direction of someone that can.

Marc Banks
- Elizabeth City, North Carolina
May 5, 2014

A. This message is in response to the fellow that needed his instrument clean because he had been hospitalized. I have had lung issues for years and get frequent pneumonias and the lung specialists recommend that simple vinegar and water as cleaning for humidifiers, albuterol delivery machines...anything that will require sucking back into your lungs. Remember....just because it may kill the bacteria you want to risk getting any inside your lung or mouth? I know this post is too late...but for future inquiries...

Victoria Kyzer
- Gore Oklahoma USA
August 29, 2016

A. Autoclaving brass instruments will not work as the super heated Steam will not penetrate far inside the Tubing; this is a big problem for dental surgeons and their equipment. However dental surgeons do use a variety of chemical solutions to disinfect sensitive equipment with tubing so they would be best placed to help you. I am a brass-playing dental Surgeon.

Baritone Mercer
Dental Surgeon - Launceston Cornwall UK
August 17, 2019

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