Saxophones are very peculiar instruments that stand out due to their elegant design and enticing tone. Like most horns and wind instruments nowadays, their body is made of a type of metal (even though they're technically woodwind instruments) which, for the most part, has a very shiny and glossy finish. This might give the impression that they're luxury items.
Are saxophones gold-plated? Some saxophones are gold-plated, though most are not. Most saxophones are made of brass or silver. Brass saxophones can be sold unlacquered (naked), lacquered, silver-plated, nickel-plated, or gold-plated, and manufacturers rarely stray from these choices.
In this article, we'll focus our attention on gold-plated saxophones while also reviewing how the plating process is done.
Why Are Some Saxophones Plated?
As stated earlier, not all saxophones are plated, let alone gold-plated. Almost all saxophones are made of brass, and some of them are unlacquered (bare brass).
To learn more about lacquer, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Why Are Saxophones Lacquered & What Does Lacquer Do?
• Is It Possible To Unlacquer A Saxophone, And If So, How?
The plating is, in simple terms, a thin coating of a specific metal that is applied upon the build material and gives a specific appearance. It also endows the underlying material with protection from the elements. Brass is prone to tarnish or experience oxidation, whereas gold does not rust or tarnish and can act as an effective barrier against corrosive agents.
Apart from environmental protection, some people argue that we should not expose our fingers to bare brass. You'll not experience brass or copper poisoning from touching the brass body, but some people have developed dermatitis upon frequent contact (also called “contact dermatitis”). Gold or silver allergies are rare, while brass allergies are relatively common.
Another obvious reason is “looks”. The aesthetics and design of a saxophone are more important than many people realize. For starters, our senses don't interact in a vacuum. Our eyes influence how our other senses perceive objects in the real world. Touch (and hence, playability) can be influenced by the sight of a subjectively good-looking saxophone.
Of course, “touch” is as important as visual aesthetics. Plating gives the saxophone a glossiness that's smooth to the touch, improving how the saxophone feels.
Contrary to common opinion, plating is not proven to impact the tone of the saxophone, and perceptions of change in tonality are largely subjective, though backed by science to a degree. On paper, there have been measurements showing a slight change in decibels. Still, they're overly undetected by the naked ear, albeit manufacturers and retailers would try to claim that these distinctions are noticeable.
How Is A Saxophone Gold-Plated?
As said earlier, the most common saxophone is made of brass. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc that is typically used on wind instruments (“brass instruments” are given their name for this reason). Even though the saxophone is also, for the most part, made of brass, it's not classified as brass. Rather, saxophones are woodwind instruments.
Related article: Why Are Saxophones Made Of Brass? (Since They're Woodwinds)
Plating a saxophone does not replace the underlying material in most cases. Rather, it covers the material and grants the saxophone all the benefits described above. In some cases, however, the plating material diffuses with the base material (more on that later).
Plating nowadays is applied through a process called “electroplating”.
What Is Electroplating?
Electroplating is a technique by which a metal object is coated with a thin layer of another metal via a direct electric current that partially dissolves them, producing a chemical bond between the two.
By doing this, the plating is fixed permanently to the surface of the base metal, meaning that it can't be undone naturally. Of course, this does not mean that the plating won't wear out over time.
In ancient times, metals were attached mechanically to other metals using heat and then cooling the combination, which was then hammered to produce a specific shape.
In modern times, gold electroplating is performed through a chemical process that involves layers of metal beneath. For example, before gold plating, the brass would be given a coating of silver and/or nickel. This is done to prevent the gold plating from diffusing with the zinc, causing the gold layer to suffer oxidation at the same rate as the bare brass.
Some layers are also applied to strengthen the bond between the plating metal and the base metal. Nickel usually provides the best bond.
The process begins with the plating metal (in this case, gold) being subjected to positively charged ions and an acid. This will form a “metal salt”. The salt is then mixed with water to produce a “bath”.
A given saxophone part would be immersed in this solution, and it would receive an electric current that dissolves the gold salts. The resulting gold molecules will thus ride the current and gather onto the component you're plating.
If done well, the gold should not diffuse with the bare brass. If no other metal was placed underneath, the plating will start to degrade and turn dull with time.
Can Gold-Plated Saxophones Be Re-plated?
Gold-plated saxophones can surely be re-plated. A re-plating job should be considered whenever the saxophone's finish starts to chip or tarnish.
If the gold plating gets dull, it should be re-plated rather than polished. The plating is a very thin layer that falls off under the action of abrasive products or materials, exposing the metal that sits underneath.
If you happen to be interested in polishing your saxophone, check out my article What Products Can Be Used To Polish A Saxophone?
Re-plating jobs can be costly, as well as delicate. A faulty re-plating job could potentially hamper the mechanism and make the saxophone prone to have strange tonal issues that it didn't have before. Problems with key fittings that occur during buffing or unleveled tone holes are not hard to find after a refinishing job, either due to mishandling during the process or shipping.
Some of these problems, adding to the complexity of the plating process, could call into question the very idea of plating a saxophone in the first place. Lacquered instruments can at least be buffed back to shape (though relacquering is sometimes required), but plated saxophones are not overly friendly to DIY repair jobs.