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How do we know the finish on a saxophone is original and not a re-plate?

It’s not all that difficult. Almost all saxophones are made of yellow brass. To get the metal to have a nice shine to it, the brass is lightly polished with a cotton buffing wheel to which is applied a light gritty “Tripoli” compound that takes off the little pits and scratches. A final polish is next done with a finer compound that’s bright red. Most shops call it “jeweler’s rouge”.

After the final polish, all metal parts are dipped in a de-greasing liquid and then the brass is either plated (usually silver) or sprayed with a couple of coats of clear or gold-tinted lacquer.

If it’s done properly, both lacquer and silver are very durable finishes. If the player keeps fingerprints wiped off his instrument, the original finish should be good for several decades. Eventually, especially if the saxophone is played a great deal, the finish will start to show wear patterns where there’s contact with the player’s hands. It’s possible at that point, to chemically remove the remaining finish, polish again with Tripoli and red rouge and to re-spray.

But there are always tell-tale signs that the brass has been stripped and re-finished.

Before we offer any saxophone to our customers, we inspect the instrument very carefully. We go over it, literally, with a magnifying glass.

Saxes that have been re-finished always have tiny wear and etch marks under the original finish. We give extra attention to the thumb-rest and the area on the body that’s just next to the thumb-rest. If it’s a re-lac or re-plate, you can always see etch marks or a wavy surface that’s under the finish. The other spot that we inspect closely is the strap ring. If the lacquer or plating aren’t original, you always can see tiny scratches or wavy metal under the finish.

If the sax has an engraved bell or end-bow, we use magnifying glass to look closely at the grooves of the engraving. If they’re sharp and haven’t been polished over, the finish will almost certainly be original. But you can get fooled here, since there are today a few superb craftsmen who have the skills to re-engrave the metal. It’s easy to inspect the engraving carefully, though, to compare with original patterns. Keep in mind that Selmer saxophones made for the non-USA market wore engraving patterns that were totally different from the saxes sold in America.

Key pearls are most important. We look carefully at the back edges of the pearls: not only at the front, where you would expect finger wear, but at the back of the key, where there are always traces of a key being polished prior to the key having new finish applied.

If the metal is smooth and clean on the thumb-rest itself and also on the body around that area, it’s a very good sign the finish is original.

If there are no pits, scratches or dings under the lacquer at the strap-ring area, and if the only scratches are on top of the finish, then it’s a good indication the finish is original.

If the engraving is sharp and not “feathered” or buffed away in places, it’s a compelling argument that the finish original.

If key pearls are sharp at the front of the key, it means the sax hasn’t been played much. If the pearls are worn at the front, the sax has undoubtedly been used a bit, of course. But if the pearls are worn away also at the side or at the back of the pearl, the key has almost certainly been buffed hard for a re-finish.

Here are some more things to consider:

Selmer saxes from about 1930 until about 1965 had unique flanges that connected the bell to the end-bow and the end-bow to the body. We call these “braids”. But it’s virtually impossible to buff and polish (for a re-finish job) one of these Selmer saxophones without these braids showing buffing wear marks. As a general rule, if the braids look like they’ve been buffed away, the finish is not original. And if they have not been buffed away, it’s certain the finish is original.

Keep in mind also that most of today’s manufacturers use an acid solution to remove the excess or “flash” lead-tin solder that’s used to attach posts to sax bodies. Earlier saxes didn’t have the “flash” removed chemically: the makers used small hand-scrapers to remove the excess. And if a saxophone has the original finish, that means you’ll see scraper marks around the strap-ring, the thumb-rest and the key posts. If the sax has had the original finish removed and the body buffed for the second time, these hand-scraper marks disappear in the new buffing process.

Think about saxophone cases as well. If a Selmer comes to us with an original carrying case that’s in very good original condition and if it matches a case that would have been supplied during the same time-period the sax was manufactured, it’s another indication that everything on the sax, including the finish, is original.

Let’s talk about hand-burnishers for a minute, too. I’ve visited hundreds of saxophone repair shops over the past half century and I can attest to the fact that precious few of them know how to use a small hand-burnisher. Bigger (10 or 12 inch long) burnishers are commonly used with a flat-plate to remove dings from brasses, but the smaller five-six inch long burnishers have a different purpose.

With a small hand-burnisher and lots of time plus finger pressure, you can make most of the surface scratches to a bright silver finish virtually disappear. Recently we’ve had some “experts” swear that this is convincing evidence that one of our hand-burnished saxes wears replacement, non-original, silver plate. Which is nonsense. We can only conclude that they have had no experience in restoring bright silver finishes.

When speaking of professional-quality hand-made solid-silver flutes, our policy has long been to carefully burnish out surface scratches to the metal. We don’t sand or buff or otherwise remove blemishes, but we do use a small burnisher to make the flutes, without removing any metal, look good again. And so we also usually do with saxophone that wear bright silver finishes. Unless one has had experience with hand-burnishing, it’s possible that an uneducated “expert” might think this evidence of a re-plate. Which it is not.

Let’s consider saxophone necks for a minute. Before 1980, almost all Selmer saxes that were shipped to the States had matching serial numbers stamped to the neck tenon. The reason was simple: before 1980 imported PARTS that were sent here came in at a very low duty rate. Saxes that were fully assembled in France came in at a much higher rate. After 1980, the law changed, so that a completed instrument arrived at a much lower rate. Ergo, there was no reason to ship saxes here, for final assembly in Elkhart.

The reason for stamping the numbers on the necks was dead simple: it kept the boys in Elkhart from confusing the original neck that was fitted in France to the original body.

But saxes made for the non-USA market were always assembled in Mantes, west of Paris a few miles. No need for them to have serial numbers stamped to the neck tenon, of course.

Here’s another point: the only REASON a saxophone would have been re-lacquered or re-plated would have been because the original finish was worn….showing wear marks on the keys and on the body / bell of the sax. Why would anybody have a perfect instrument stripped of the original finish and re-lacquered or re-plated. Doesn’t make any sense, does it?

Here’s my guarantee that a saxophone has, if I say so, the original finish:

I’ve played saxophone for nearly sixty years and I’ve worked for Wichita Band Instrument Company since 1961. During that time-period, I’ve bought, sold, repaired, played and inspected THOUSANDS of saxophones. And between 1986 and 2009, I was one of the four (later three) owners of Paxman Musical Instrument Company, in England. Paxman manufactures brass instruments of the highest quality that are used by professional musicians all over the world. I know very well how brass musical instruments are manufactured and how the final original finishes are applied.

I therefore submit that my expertise and training plus my extensive experience with repair and manufacture of brass musical instruments gives me considerable credibility. Simply said, if I attest to the fact that a saxophone wears the original finish, you can rest assured that it does do so.


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