Should I strip my horn’s lacquer?

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Lacquer provides a thin, almost clear barrier between you and the metal in your horn. It protects you from the metal and the metal from you. But some people believe that lacquer dampens the horn’s resonance and prefer a horn stripped to bare metal.

Like anything else in this world, there are advantages and disadvantages to having the lacquer removed from your horn. You have to decide what’s best for you, because there is no right answer for everyone.

What advantages would I get from a stripped horn?

A stripped horn resonates more efficiently.

Walter Lawson did research some years back on the effect of different types of lacquer on horns. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but nitro-cellulose-based lacquers (commonly called “air dry”) had a damping effect on the resonance of less than 1 decibel, which is technically considered not discernible to the human ear. Epoxy-based lacquers had an effect more in the range of 2 decibels. So, the type of lacquer applied makes a difference. If you have epoxy-based lacquer on your horn you might get more of an advantage stripping the horn than if you have air-dry lacquer on your horn.

How can you tell which kind of lacquer you have? There is no pat answer. Most late model, factory-made horns have some kind of epoxy-based lacquer on them for durability. But, factories are actually changing over in recent years to nitro-cellulose lacquers. The only way you will know for sure if you get any advantage at all is to have your horn stripped.

It is my opinion (opinion only, based on feedback from many players) that the player can feel a difference in the horn’s resonance even if the listening ear perceives none. Because of the feedback involved, I think that the player’s perception of the horn’s output is a far more complex matter than can be measured by a computer with a transducer. In general, players like the feel of the way their horns play after stripping, and may even get more resonance and projection.

And the disadvantages?

It’s a nasty job involving caustic chemicals, so you might not want to do it yourself.

And, afterward you have a horn that will tarnish over time in ways you cannot predict. The acids in your hands will cause some areas to tarnish more quickly than others, so you want to wipe your horn down after playing to remove acids as much as possible. If your body chemistry is extremely acidic, then you might affect the metal badly in areas where the hands go often, though this is rarely a problem.

If you have allergic reactions to metals, then stripping the lacquer is definitely not for you. Your horn could make you chronically sick through exposure to the metal.

There is also the extremely unlikely risk that you will not like the way your horn plays after it is stripped of the lacquer. More likely, you might think there is no difference in the way it plays, and all for the price of stripping it.

So, if I’m unhappy with the result can I have it lacquered again?

Yes, but re-lacquering a horn has its own set of potentially bad consequences. To lacquer it again it will have to be buffed and polished before it is returned to a shiny appearance, which can remove more metal than you would like.

The lacquer that you put on is likely not to be as durable as the factory-applied treatment. And you shouldn’t do it yourself, because lacquer is extremely flammable and potentially explosive. It should only be done by a professional, and that can be extremely costly.

A final word, if your lacquer is “pitting”, that is, wearing away in small spots rather than over a wide area, you should cover the lost lacquer before your body chemistry does more damage and deeper pitting. Be sure that you or your technician thoroughly cleans the area to be spot lacquered (use lacquer thinner or denatured alcohol) so that the new lacquer will adhere and protect. If you leave any oils, dirt, or acid behind, it will just sit under the new lacquer and do its dirty work. And the new lacquer is more likely to wear off quickly if it is applied to a dirty surface.

Weigh all the potentially good versus potentially bad consequences and make a decision based on what your needs are. If you do not have metal allergies, and if you don’t mind a tarnished horn, then a horn stripped to bare metal can reward you with a more open feel and possibly a more open sound.

Otherwise, I’d recommend leaving the lacquer on for protection and appearance.

University of Horn Matters