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Valve wear and cold weather

08 Jan 2010 19:43 #352 by Gregory Beckwith
Valve wear and cold weather was created by Gregory Beckwith
I am 72 years old. I got a new Conn 6 D way back in 1953. I still play it a lot and am wondering: Do the rotary valves ever need maintenance. Mine still work well. But was wondering when do they ever need repairing? When I play high notes above F the sound gets fuzzy. Is it my lip or the valves leaking amongst one another?

Is it harmful to the horn if it is left out in the cold where the temp gets below freezing? It has always been where it is warm. Never have left it in a car overnight in the winter time.

Was thinking about buying another good used Conn 8D. Or what would be a better choice?

Greg Beckwith's Answer:

1953 Conn 6D: valve issues and temperature concerns: First- how wonderful that you are still playing and concerned about the subtleties of your instruments’ performance and wanting more information. I’ll share what we know concerning your questions and add some other helpful information.

Concerning your 6d and valve questions: Valves do wear out over time. A rotor valves’ action as it is depressed by a lever and the material that they are made of are contributors to them wearing out. The rotor valve for its whole life is only rotating 90° or less and is being thrust by the action of our fingers on the lever to one area of the casing, causing it to wear out of round and create space. Some horn makers are using different plating and more durable wear resistant metals and materials for valves that reduce them wearing out. For the majority of factory made horns, such as a Conn 6d and others, the material is brass for the valve and nickel for the casing. Brass rotor valves are generally softer than the nickel casing and overtime the above described action wears them down creating space and reducing the instruments performance.

It is possible that the valves on your 6d could be leaking and need major work. If you have been playing this horn steadily since 1953 it is very possible the valves could be worn, leaking and need attention-valve rebuild/valve job. See below for guidelines.

Indications that a valve job is necessary:
  • Sagging pitch during crescendos- feels like you are working harder than usual.
  • Poor response in all registers - markedly in the higher octave- the horn feels unstable and “slippery” in the high range
  • Unfocused/lack of center to pitches
  • Exaggerated intonation deficiencies
  • All the above issues improve or are minimized when the valves are heavily oiled-a couple of drops of bearing oil on the valves
A Test for leaking valves: You may be able to determine if there are excessive leaks in the rotor/casing.
  • Remove a valve slide
  • Press the corresponding lever
  • Blow forcefully through the instrument while plugging the valve slide tube which stops the air flow.
  • There should be no leaking with the valves oiled and minute leaking with the valves/casings dry. If you hear hissing or fizzing during this test, then they are leaking to the point of needing to be rebuilt
What is a valve job/rebuild? Well, if it is determined that indeed your valves are worn and need the work then you will have to decide if it is worth having this repair/correction performed- it is costly. Compared to a new horn far less- so if you love the horn and it is in good shape, then it may be worth it, (here I speak to any reader with interest). A repair technician may advise one way or another and help you determine what may be best for your situation.

The task is an extensive and delicate process and may vary slightly from one technician to another. This is a general and brief overview.

Primarily the task is as follows:
  • Valves are measured determining space that is present- casing to rotor
  • The casing and the valve are made true (round again)
  • Rotors are coated electrochemically with plating to make them larger.
  • They are refit to the casing- resized, reducing the space
    • The new plating material is reduced optimally to allow free action and pre-established measured space-casing to rotor
  • Other valve parts that may be worn are generally dealt with and tightened/replaced as needed
Additional: Many times a player will slowly begin to compensate and adjust their playing to the wear and leaking that is occurring on their instrument and then start thinking that they are having embouchure, air, or support problems. Sometimes, it is the horn! We practice, work hard, and study to better ourselves and produce our best musical artistic effort. Having an instrument that is functioning optimally is crucial to the whole picture- this instrument is difficult enough to master, we deserve to at least have it functioning at its peak. An accomplished player can probably play through any instruments’ deficiencies but in the end they won’t choose that instrument as their means for expression on a stage. We emphasize to our repair students to listen and feel for every minute possible inadequacy on an instrument. That way they can detect anything that may prevent the 10yr old from advancing to the next level. We are in the music making and enjoying business and if we don’t give that payer a chance to advance, we all lose out on what musical potential they could have risen to and offered. Find yourself an invested and accomplished repair technician who knows what to check for and keep track of so you have the best functioning from your horn. That way it becomes the extension and amplifier of all the music that you have worked so hard to convey and bring to the ears of the welcoming listener.

Cold Temps below 0° and your horn:
Brass instruments are generally okay in the cold. The only consideration could be the lacquer deteriorating, but I have no personal experience to substantiate the issue. As long as you don’t try to move the valves too soon after coming inside and allow the entire instrument to acclimate and warm up gradually. You could bend levers or stretch the strings trying to move them if they are cold enough to be immovable. There are some synthetic oils that have additives that could separate in the cold and affect the action of the rotor- giving a sluggish and slow feel. You could add a thinner oil to the casings or wait until the oil acclimates and adjusts to a warm temp. I personally think however, it is simply wise and best for the instrument, to bring it in out of the cold. Brass and the other alloys used to make horns is a material that can be altered and changed by temperature and there could be some harm from extreme cold temps that is not readily perceptible but could be adversely affecting the instrument.

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