Cleaning your trumpet or cornet

So, you just bought a used, pre-1970 Conn trumpet or cornet? Congratulations! I am sure it will give you years of enjoyment. But it would be nice to thoroughly clean it, right? Or if the vendor did that, to at least check some things. Read on.

Before I say anything else, in case of the following go see a qualified brass instrument repairman:

Now that we have that out of the way, we can get on with cleaning the instrument. Let me start by saying that this is the way I do it. What follows works for me, and I am pretty sure that it is safe. I am not saying this is the only way or the best way to do it. DISCLAIMER: I do not accept any responsibility if you damage your instrument. If in doubt, go see a qualified brass repairman.

What are we going to need to clean the instrument:

When I clean an instrument this way I usually use a couple of sheets of paper towel (4 or 5 or so). As for the cotton swabs, it depends on how dirty the instrument is. A relatively clean instrument can take 5 to 10 (regular) cotton swabs. On a really dirty instrument I have used up to half a box of (regular) cotton swabs (50 or so). If you can get the really long ones (you might want to ask your pharmacy for these) you might need 4 or 5 of these in addition to the regular ones.

You can buy trumpet/cornet cleaner sets, consisting of a sponge-like ball attached to a string/wire to clean the inside of the tubing. I don't like to use those, because many Conn trumpets/cornets have a smaller bore than is normally the case these days (the #1 bore). I have had one of these things get stuck in my leadpipe once, the repairman had to burn it out with a hot metal rod. Disassembling the leadpipe turned out to be useless since many/most Conn trumpets and certainly cornets have an inner leadpipe in addition to the outer leadpipe. Not fun.

Start by taking the instrument completely apart. Remove all the slides, valves and bottom valve caps. When removing the valves, keep in mind that the valves are probably not numbered, and they aren't interchangeable. Therefor it is a good idea to have some kind of order in the way you put them down. I always put them down on seperate sheets of paper towel with the slide for that valve on the same paper towel. Since the slides are easily recognizable you can't get confused which valve goes where. If you do forget which valve goes where you will have to try to figure it out by trial and error. Also, they might not fit comfortably in the wrong valve casing since each valve has a wear pattern for its individual valve casing. You can put the bottom valve cap with it's valve. These are interchangeable (or should be), but why take the risk? If your instrument has bottom springs, there will be springs (coils) in the bottom valve caps. These springs aren't attached to the bottom valve caps, so take care not to lose them. If your instrument has top springs the spring will be in the valve assembly itself. Don't disassemble the valve assembly, it's too complicated and not necessary.

Next fill your container with cold water and put your instrument and the slides in the container. Use warm water at your own risk: nitro-cellulose lacquer can sometimes peel off if the water is too warm. Preferably the instrument should be completely submerged. Don't put the valves in (here you will have to remember which valve is which). Leave the instrument soaking for at least 30 minutes. As I said before, the point is to loosen the crud a bit. Using warm water is probably more effective than cold water, but on the other hand I don't like to use very warm water because of the possible shock to the metal. Never know what that might do to corrosion on the instrument. You might hear or think about adding some kind of soap or other cleaning agent to the water. I avoid doing this because not all soaps/agents agree with brass instruments; especially you need to avoid abrassives, non-clear and scented detergents. Plus, we are dealing with instruments made before 1970. Chances are there is some corrosion somewhere on the instrument. Adding soap or another cleaning agent might aggravate the corrosion. Hence: clean warm water. Nice and safe.

While that is soaking, we can tend to the valves. Chances are the inside of the "holes" in the valve will be pretty dirty. If not, this instrument may actually have been maintained well. Take a (regular size) cotton swab, dip it in water and clean the inside of the holes on the valves. These holes are where the air travels through when playing the instrument. Don't be surprised if the cotton swabs come off black. I also like to clean the inside of the bottom valve cap. This is where the oil eventually settles, and it will probably be filthy. It might be hard to get this totally clean, but that isn't necessary as long as the worst of the dirt is gone. Also check the bottom of the valves. When you are finished, check the valves to make sure there aren't any "cotton swab hairs" (for lack of a better term) clinging to the valves. This is a disadvantage of using cotton swabs.

When the instrument has soaked in its tub long enough, take it out and drain all the water. You might need to put the main tuning slide back on and carefully blow to do this. Remember that it's full of water, so it will be heavy to blow out. Drain and reassemble all the slides. Be careful doing this, because they aren't greased now of course. Never force anything. Temporarily reinsert the valves into the valve casing and screw them down. Depending on the type of valve you have it will either only go in one way, or you will have to twist it around until you hear a click. If you can't blow air through the instrument with any of the valves up or down, there is a mistake in the sequence of the valves. For the next step it helps if you have a shower head which comes off the wall (with a hose! as is common in Europe), but any beaker will do. Run/pour cold or luke warm water down the bell. After a few seconds it should start coming out of the leadpipe. Just let it run for a minute. Then stop the water and carefully blow the water out by blowing through the leadpipe. This will be heavy, but don't force it too hard. Chances are you will see dirt run out. Repeat the entire procedure several times, and also press down the valves (all at the same time or one by one) while letting the water run in/through. In my experience the water won't run through if you hold down all the valves. Proceed to the next step when you are satisfied you won't get any more dirt out (don't think you got everything though!).

Take the valves out of their casings again and put them back on your paper towel, in sequence. Inspect them to see there isn't any dirt clinging to them, since we just ran water through the instrument to clean it out. This can't be avoided, but it shouldn't be too bad. If there is dirt there, take a cotton swab and remove it. Check for bits of cotton swab on the valves again when done. You won't need to do anything more to the valves now, so put them aside (always in sequence!). Also remove the bottom valve caps and slides again and put everything on paper towels. The instrument is going to be dripping wet, so put something under it.

Next take each slide, dip a cotton swab in water and poke it down the inside of the slide (tube), cleaning the inner walls. Considering the length of regular size cotton swabs, you won't be able to reach all the way down on the 3rd valve slide or the main tuning slide. This is where a long cotton swab comes in handy. If you don't have any: too bad. Don't use pliers or anything like that to extend your reach down the tube, you will just damage or scratch things. It's not worth it. Don't push too hard against the bottom of the shorter slides. You shouldn't be able to go through it, but pushing harder to get more dirt off won't work. Either the dirt will come off easily, or it won't at all. The top of the main tuning slide might well feel a bit rough on the inside. There's nothing you (or anyone) can do about that either, just leave it (same goes for the inside of the mouthpiece). Also clean the unlacquered (probably brown) areas of the slide that go inside the opposing end. The color of the muck that comes off the inside of the slides (and the same thing goes for the tubes on the body of the instrument which we will do later) on the cotton swab tells you something about what it is: black is filth. Green is corroding copper (you will probably see a little of this; don't worry about it). Red is "red rot" or "dezincification". This is when the zinc goes out of the copper-zinc alloy which is brass. This red rot can work from the outside in (reddish spots on the outside) or from the inside out (which is what this is). Red rot will eventually become holes, but the process is very slow and may take many, many years. There is nothing you can do about it, except keep the instrument clean which slows the process down and keep in mind that it is a weak spot. When you are done with the slides, put them aside.

Next, take the body of the instrument. Using cotton swabs clean the inside of all the tubes you can reach (this is where long cotton swabs come in handy). The inside of the leadpipe will probably feel rough, there's nothing that can be done about that. Don't try to scrape the rough bits off. Give the insides of the valve casings a good swipe with cotton swabs, especially the bottom inch. This is where dirt tends to collect. One of the principal causes of slow and sticking valves is dirt at the point where tubes enter the valve casing. Using a cotton swab you should just be able to reach those, at least parts of them. Again, if you can't get at it, don't force it, don't use any tools except cotton swabs. I usually run a rolled up/twisted paper towel through each valve casing when I am done to make sure it is dry and there are no bits clinging to the side. When all this is done you should have a nice stack of dirty cotton swabs.

That should take care of all of the cleaning of the inside of the instrument. If you have the time, you might want to leave your instrument to air for a while, giving it a chance to dry out properly. The next step is to grease the slides and reinsert them. Make sure you cover the entire sliding part. I always grease one "leg" of the slide, insert that leg where it's supposed to go and twist to distribute the grease. Then I insert the ungreased leg into the same tube, twist it around and take it out again. Then I put the slide back in properly. Repeat for all slides. Next put the bottom valve caps back on. Then oil each valve and reinsert it into its proper valve casing (remember the sequence). Depending on the type of valve you have it will either only go in one way, or you will have to twist it around until you hear a click. You can check that you did things correctly with the valves by blowing through the instrument: if air is blocked (completely or partially) at any time, there's a mistake somewhere in the valves. One way to check for proper valve alignment is to take off the slides (1st and 2nd, the 3rd slide will probably be too deep to see into), push down the valve and see if the holes in the valve lign up properly with the slides. To do this the valve must be screwed down completely. You shouldn't be able to see any of the outside of the valve itself when it is pushed down. If you do, the valve is either in the wrong casing or it is twisted the wrong way. Incidentally, this is also a good way to check the build quality of new instruments: if the outside of the valve is showing, performance is being hampered and the valves need to be aligned. I have yet to see a pre-1970 Conn with this problem.

Done. You may want to tidy the outside up a bit too. Use a soft cloth to wipe it down. Never use cleaners. To clean a mouthpiece, you could try soaking it in water for a while and then clean out the inside with a pipe cleaner or a cotton swab, or by inserting and twisting around a rolled up paper towel. There is nothing you can do to remove the roughness, or "specks" on the inside. I don't know what the consistency of these is, but they are hard as concrete.

If any or all of the valves run smoothly when you aren't playing but hang a bit when you are playing, several things could be "wrong". The main symptom of this is usually that when the valve is "pushed" in a certain direction when pressed down, it comes up slowly. There can be a number of causes. First, check to make sure the valve, the valve casing and the valve ports (tubes running into or out of the valves) are clean. Sometimes the valves have to "wear in" to the way your hand is positioned over the valves (or perhaps vice versa?). You won't be able to see anything on the valve itself in the way of wear marks (other than those already present). This process shouldn't take more than a few weeks, depending on how much you play. This is assuming of course that the valves and valve casings are straight and not dented. If that is the case you have a bigger problem and chances are the valves do more than just stick a bit. Sometimes the top spring mechanism is a bit "off". What happens, as far as I can tell, is that when the metal pin and the pin guide (a plastic disc with a hole in it) are at an angle to each other, they don't run past each other smoothly. Not sure yet what to do about that.

It might be a good idea to take the slides and valves out after a week or so and clean those areas out with cotton swabs again. Sometimes the clean oil and grease loosens dirt after a while. I find the best way to keep a mouthpiece clean is to rinse it out with cold water when you are finished playing at the end of the day.