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Silver Plating vs. Lacquer Finish

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It's a question that comes up very often: "What's the difference between a horn that is silver plated compared to one that is lacquered?" Much of the answer to this question is solidly in the realm of opinion, but here is my particular opinion.

Overview

First, it is important to know that most instruments in the brass family are actually made of brass. There are exceptions, but they are relatively few in number; some makers offer a bell made of sterling silver; there are the marching Sousaphones that are mostly fiberglass; there are some special horns made with carbon fiber bells; and there are probably others. But the majority of brass instruments are brass. If the horn looks gold-colored or yellow-colored, it is generally made by buffing the brass to a high polish and then coating it with lacquer to seal the brass and keep it from tarnishing. (A few of these models may be fully or partly gold plated instead.) If the horn looks silver, then a silver plating has been applied to the brass. (Some less expensive horns use nickel plating instead.) Whether the surface covering is silver or lacquer, it generally extends well down into the bell for consistent appearance when pointing toward the audience.

Does this affect the tone?

In my experience, it does. Some would disagree. Boosey & Hawkes (Besson) supposedly have results of some old experiments that show there is a difference in favor of lacquer. I've seen conflicting reports on studies by Schilke (perhaps due to two different studies). One says there is no difference in sound; the other says that unplated and silver plated are equal, but lacquered is inferior. My own testing has tended to show that the lacquered horns sound just slightly "warmer" and nicer to my ear.

This could be due to the difference between the two coverings. Lacquer is "painted" on the instrument, which silver is electroplated. Silver thus forms a bond with the brass and becomes a part of material, while lacquer is a coating of a different material. It seems likely this would cause some difference in vibration. Today's lacquer finishes are quite thin (although remarkably sturdy if there are done right), so older, thicker lacquer coatings may have had more effect.

Two manufacturers have told me that silver plating, although quite thin, will cover minor blemishes and scuffs on the brass underneath. With lacquer, any imperfections are much more likely to show. So the horns that are to be lacquered may undergo a bit more buffing, which might thin the metal slightly more compared to a horn that is to be plated.

Other considerations

For everyday use a lacquer horn may be easier to care for. Lacquer can just be wiped off with a damp cloth and it will look shiny again. Some people use a product like Pledge to help really shine lacquer. On a silver horn you may need to use silver polish now and then to restore the shine. Otherwise, the normal contact of your hands and the water spots you don't remove right away may cause noticeable tarnish. Some silver polishes have a tarnish preventative that keeps the appearance nice for a longer time. They make treated cloths to shine either finish, and they are easy to use. But the cloth for silver will produce a little black residue that needs to be wiped off the horn and your hands, while the cloth for lacquer leaves no residue.

Modern lacquer finishes are very tough and will last a long time. Silver will usually last longer, possibly for the life of the horn. Scratches on lacquer can look bad, because they let air get to the brass underneath, which tarnishes and makes the scratch more obvious. Usually a scratch in silver does not get down to the brass and does not show quite as much. Either type of finish can be redone during an overhaul if necessary.

Summary

It's largely a matter of the look you want. If you really like the look of one over the other, there is no consideration large enough to stop you from going with the look you like. Otherwise, think about the other considerations, try some of each kind if you are lucky enough to be near a large selection of horns, and make your choice accordingly.

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