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Smooth Jazz: Lubes Keep Musical Instruments Humming


Smooth Jazz:  Lubes Keep Musical Instruments Humming

In any given music supply store-somewhere past the cases holding trumpets and saxophones, across from the electronic keyboards and next to the neat racks of sheet music-sits an entire shelf of lubricants. The small bottles of valve and key oil, little lip balm-shaped tubes of cork grease and tiny tubs of slide cream ensure musical instruments respond smoothly and reliably to amateurs and professionals alike.

Woodwind instruments such as flutes, clarinets and saxophones, as well as brass instruments like trumpets and tubas, require several types of lubricants. Both woodwinds and brass use valve oil and key oil-often the same product-to ensure effortless action as those mechanisms are frequently pressed and released. Trombone slides are lubricated with either slide oil or slide cream combined with water. French horns feature a rotary valve that requires oil.

Most brass instruments have a tuning slide that is typically maintained in position once it is adjusted, which calls for grease. Many woodwinds also need cork grease, a thick mix of wax and either mineral or biobased oil or lanolin applied at the joints of an instrument to ease assembly and disassembly, as well as to keep cork joint linings moist and prolong their life.

Lubricants are also used for instrument parts that are less accessible, and are typically only applied by repairmen or in the factory.

All of these products must provide the action that a musician expects, in addition to preventing wear and corrosion in some cases.

According to Ken Saul, founder and general manager of Philomath, Oregon-based instrument lube manufacturer Ultra-Pure Oils LLC, oils for piston valves came into use in the 1930s. Before then, tolerances were large enough that instruments didnt need lube. Kerosene oil was used through the 1980s, but it was not a very good lubricant, he said. It evaporated quickly, smelled unpleasant, left a residue on the horn, and the viscosity was often too light.

Players today are looking for long-lasting oils with no odor and no stains or residues, Saul told LubesnGreases. There are great [lubricant] choices today that were not available 20 years ago.

Todays instruments have very tight tolerances measured in hundredths of an inch, he continued. As a result, modern piston valve oil is very light viscosity, typically 3 to 5 centipoise. While the differences within the viscosity range for these water-white oils may seem negligible, Saul insisted that musicians can immediately feel a difference between the different weights. On the other hand, some oils for metal-to-metal ball joints, key levers and other mechanisms are as thick as 70 cP. Instrument greases range from a weight similar to petrolatum up to 1 million cP-similar to an adhesive.

Lubricants must also be compatible with various metals, including Monel (a nickel-copper alloy), stainless steel and brass, in addition to glues and some plastic and rubber parts and seals.

While manufacturers must package and label their products according to regulations from the Consumer Products Safety Commission in the United States and its equivalent agency in the European Union, said Saul, no general set of industry performance standards exists for musical instrument lubricants. Most companies produce oils and greases based on the application in each specific instrument. For example, bassoonists may choose a tackier cork grease to help hold the large, heavy pieces of the instrument together. Many oils and greases are sold in light, medium and heavy viscosities. Brass instrument repairman Bob Pallansch of Falls Church, Virginia, noted that older horns with loose slides would need a heavier grease to seal the slide and prevent it from falling out, but still allow movement when needed.

Saul admitted that performance standards come down to individual preference, which varies from one musician to the next.

In fact, its clear that dedicated instrument lubes havent captured the entirety of the market. While Pallansch said that most commercial products work well, he uses a mix of commercial instrument lubricants and other lubricant-type products in his repairs. For example, he mixes his own valve oil from kerosene and commercial valve oil. For trombone slides, he likes to use Pledge furniture wax and silicone spray, cautioning that his mixture can make the slide stick if applied too heavily. He prefers anhydrous lanolin for tuning slides, and 3-in-One oil for kick slides that must adjust quickly for intonation. He pointed out that even a 20-weight motor oil could be used, but players object to the odor. However, Pallansch said these are not solutions that most musicians would use for their instruments.

Outside of instrument manufacturer brands like Selmer, Vincent Bach and Yamaha, Saul said that most instrument lube manufacturing companies grew from a hobby-musicians trying to fine-tune an oil to their own preferences-into a business.

Research points to trumpet players as the principal innovators in this arena, having founded many of the major independent lube companies. These musicians begin with the ubiquitous piston valve oil, then expand to more specialized lubes such as rotor oil and tuning slide grease. Some well-known independent producers include Hetman, Ultra-Pure, Blue Juice and Monster Oil, among others.

Al Cass Fast Valve, Slide & Key Oil is one product that was mentioned by most sources interviewed for this story. The brand has been viewed as the industry standard for nearly as long as it has been produced, starting in the 1960s. Cass was a well-known post-World War II era band leader. According to the companys website, the white mineral oil based product was developed after 18 months of research and development at the request of jazz trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie.

Synthetics Strike a Chord

Better lubricants today are synthetics, for the same reason that engine oils are going toward synthetics, Saul noted. Synthetic oils last longer, have lower evaporation rates and no odor, and can be custom blended to suit any instrument. They also work well in a wide range of weather and temperature conditions.

He illustrated his point by noting that middle and high school music teachers typically store band instruments for about three months over the summer recess period. In the past, the teachers would spend significant amounts of time and effort cleaning and relubricating the valves, pistons, slides, keys and other parts that had seized up while in storage before the instruments could be used again. With modern synthetic oils, teachers can lubricate the instruments before storing them and take them off the shelf in full working order at the beginning of the school year.

Sauls Ultra-Pure oils and greases are based on synthetic base stocks, including polyalphaolefins as well as linear alpha olefins blended into the companys own custom polyolefins, he reported. He declined to elaborate on additives or blending ratios. Another instrument lube manufacturer, Monster Oil, lists its ingredients as synthetic base oil, a solvent to achieve the correct viscosity and to keep the horn clean, and a corrosion inhibitor.

Ultra-Pure also uses plant-derived oils in some of its products, as much for performance as for any environmental concerns. The biobased oils have very nice properties and natural antioxidants, Saul noted. Even a small amount added to synthetic oil can boost performance. You can tell right away in the behavior of the instrument, he observed.

Mario Guarneri, another trumpet player, developed the BerpBioOil line of musical instrument lubes with the specific goal of commercializing a locally produced, sustainable product. He partnered with base oil producer Novvi LLC, using that companys sugarcane-derived base stock to develop oils for piston and rotor valves, keys and tuning slides. Berp Co.s website claims that its valve oil cleans instruments as it lubricates, preventing calcium buildup on valves.

Flat Market

Oils and greases for instruments are barely a single note within the full symphony of the global music industry, which the National Association of Music Merchants pegs at $17 billion. Based on data from Music Trades magazine, Saul estimated that North American demand was about 400,000 bottles of valve oil per year and a similar number for tuning slides and cork greases in 2017.

A typical two-ounce bottle of valve oil sells for $5 to $8. Specialized oils, such as BerpBioOil, can cost twice that amount.

Trumpets and other instruments with piston valves need to be lubricated every time they are played with a couple drops of oil on each valve, according to Pallansch, and woodwind instruments require cork grease each time they are assembled. Trombone slides should be lubricated every other day, and tuning slides should be regreased about once a month. Some parts, such as rotary valves, are almost never relubricated, as they are difficult to access and stray oil could dissolve grease from the tuning slide, he noted.

The largest chunk of demand for musical equipment comes from school band programs-about 75 to 80 percent, Saul estimated. According to NAMM, unit sales of woodwind and brass instruments have closely tracked total grade school enrollment over the past 50 years. A total of 600,000 wind instruments were sold in the U.S. in 2016, perpetuating a relatively flat market over the past decade. Typically, each instrument is sold or rented with a new bottle or tube of lubricant in the case.

For Ultra-Pure, business from instrument original equipment manufacturer brands has been the key to success. The company found its legs when Monette Corp. began using the oils on its trumpets, and the company now bottles oil for several OEM house brands.

A handful of instrument lube blenders, including Ultra-Pure, sell worldwide, said Saul. The rest are brands selling small volumes with much more limited distribution. Ultra-Pure sells its oils in bulk to several distributors that package up smaller amounts for music supply retailers. In Japan, for example, the company works with one distributor that sells to about 300 music stores across the country.

However, the producer does make some direct sales through its website and eBay listings, which Saul noted are more profitable.

Despite modern advances, there is one problem that instrument lubes have yet to solve: frozen horns. Pallansch recalled attempting to perform the Japanese national anthem on a particularly cold day in Japan, during his tenure with the United States Army Band. Condensation from the players breath froze the piston valves and tuning slides on their instruments. The commanding general took the horns to a frozen food locker and applied various types of alcohols, greases and oils to prevent ice from forming, but to no avail. Instead, the band developed a modified repertoire for performances below 28 degrees Fahrenheit, including strictly open notes that require no valve or slide motion.

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