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All About Valve Maintenance

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Like Walter Matthau in "A New Leaf," we know that valves can be a problem (note: there may be a short commercial at the beginning of the video).

In Walter's case the problem was with his Ferrari, which was constantly plagued with "carbon on the valves." In our case, as brass players, it is probably something else on the valves. In both cases, the valves don't like it!

There are several possible reason for sluggish or sticky valves, but the most common cause by far is dirt, sludge, debris, etc. If your valves have a lot of clearance between the piston and the cylinder, you won't notice the problem as soon. In horns with a tight clearance you'll notice it much sooner. In either case, you do not want the passageways of your horn to have anything in them except your air.

New Horn Break-In Period

With a brand-new horn, you should take certain steps to help break in the valves. Some manufacturing artifacts may still be lurking inside your horn. There could be tiny bits of debris, or possibly some lapping compound, for example.

Before your play your first note on the new horn, I would suggest you remove the pistons, wipe them off, and oil them. You should do this daily for the first week or two, and then gradually less frequently. The end result will be a more satisfying experience as you break in the horn.

Old or New Horns - Clean Regularly

Cleaning is easiest when it is done often. If you let the gunk build up inside, some of it can harden and be very difficult to remove. It should not be necessary to take your instrument in to a shop for chemical cleaning very often. That is costly, and some feel that doing it too much is actually bad for the brass. You should handle most of the cleaning yourself. I confess - I really don't enjoy cleaning my horn! But there are ways to make it fairly quick and painless.

  • For general cleaning you can back-rinse the horn with a garden hose or use the Quick Horn Rinse (QHR). For either, use Dawn dish soap.
    • For the garden hose method, you should wrap the end of your hose with a wet cloth, about 6" from the end (so you don't block the flow of water). You will need to insert it into the bell so it has a relatively good seal. But first you might need to tie (or rubber band) your tuning slides so they don't pop out with water pressure. Pour a generous quantity of dish soap down the bell, then insert the rag-wrapped hose so it seals well. You may need to use one hand to hold the hose in place. Turn on the water and wait for a decent flow to come out of the leadpipe. As soon as that happens, push each valve down for a few seconds to fill its tube. After doing that, you may need to let go of the hose briefly so you can hold all 4 valves down at once (especially for a compensating horn). Once all slides have filled, shut off the water and let the soapy water soak for 15 minutes or so. Then turn the water back on and work all the valves in sequence (including have all down at once); keep doing so until the water is coming out clear (not soapy); let it run for another minute or two to make sure.

  • For the QHR, you remove the tuning slide and put the rubber fitting into the leadpipe tightly. Then follow the same kind of sequence described for the garden hose method.

Remember that both those water techniques only clean airways. When finished, you need to dump all the water out and then take the horn apart so you can clean other places. You especially need to clean the piston bottom caps, top caps, the "chamber" under the bottom of the piston, the outside of the piston, valve guide and slot, air holes, springs, and piston chamfer (the beveled edge around the top and bottom of the piston). For the guide, slots and chamfer you might fashion a tool from a Popsicle stick. The wood won't cause damage but will be good at scraping off mineral deposits. A plastic scraper would also work if it is a convenient size. (See photos at the end of the article.)

Let it all dry out, then reassemble the horn. As you do so, grease the various slides, and you might want to put a small bit of grease on the valve-cap threads.

Keep each cylinder upright as you insert the pistons. When the piston starts to contact the spring, turn it back and forth a bit - this lets the springs seat properly so they will sit parallel to the cylinder (to avoid spring noise). (See photos at the end of the article.)

The Quick Horn Rinse may be obtained here:

You should also be prepared to swab out the slides now and then, which can help keep water keys clear and clean out any debris left over. A swab can also be handy to get the Spitball cleaner (mentioned below) started. Here is my favorite, which does not use a metal cord so you have less chance of scratching the horn. The kit also includes a straight push-swap that is invaluable in some circumstances:

HW Brass Saver cleaning kit:

In Between Baths

Use Spitballs weekly.
I blow one of these through the horn every week. If the yellow sponge comes out with any debris or black residue, I use another Spitball and repeat the process. Normally, one is enough if the horn was cleaned properly before.

  1. Remove the main tuning slide.
  2. Remove the mouthpiece.
  3. Because the Spitballs are wet, you might want to wrap a cloth or paper towel around the end of the pipe to lessen dripping onto the horn.
  4. Insert the Spitball into the receiver.
  5. Use a swab to get the Spitball at least halfway through the length of the leadpipe.
  6. Put the mouthpiece in and blow until the Spitball comes out the slide tube.

A jar of Spitballs may be obtained here:

Valve Maintenance.

  • Before oiling, wipe down the piston with micro-fiber cloth and check the piston's bottom chamber (into which the spring fits). If grime is found, clean it carefully. At the same time check the vent holes in the top and bottom of the piston to make sure they are clear. (See photos at the end of the article.) Now and then, remove the bottom cap and clean it, then swab the cylinder. If you put it all back together and the valve sticks, a fresh cleaning may be required.

  • Check the shape of plastic valve guides. They can mushroom and cause sticking. If they are misshapen, you can probably clean them up with a razor blade or very sharp penknife. To help prevent this from happening, be very careful as you re-insert pistons after cleaning/oiling. It is all to easy to let the plastic guide "bounce" on the top of the metal cylinder, which will gradually distort the bottom on the guide. (See photos at the end of the article.)
  • If the surface of the dry valve does not feel smooth, you may be able to polish it. For stainless steel valves you can use a product like the Flitz stainless cleaner, or go a small step further and use the Flitz stainless polish. For non-stainless-steel valves you can use the Flitz metal polish (it's very gentle, non-abrasive). In either case, don't overdo the polishing. You just want to make/keep the surface smooth.

Don't put horn on bell!
This will put the 3 main valves (or 4 valves for some horns) in an upside-down position, letting any gunk in the "bottom" run "down" onto the pistons. (See photos at the end of the article.)


Avoid playing right after (or during!) eating or drinking anything but water. Sugars and food particles can affect valve action (as well as the build-up of gunk and possibly even pink spotting / red rot). If your mealtime is right before playing, then be sure to brush your teeth.

Notice if your valves stick more when you squeeze the horn in certain ways. (Many horns' valves can be made to stick a little if you put pressure in the right place so it distorts the casing.)

Notice if weather has a dramatic effect.

  • Hot weather can dry out oil. More frequent wiping/oiling may be needed.
  • Cold weather can cause condensation to get much worse, and water does not always mix well with oil. More frequent wiping/oiling may be needed.

Use the right weight of oil. Adams valves have very tight clearances and need a thin oil. Some other horns have looser clearances and need a heavier oil. Synthetic or petroleum oils are both good, but you might experiment and find a type (or brand) you prefer. In petroleum I like Blue Juice. For synthetic oil in my Adams, I like Hetman #1. You may have the best luck by matching the type of slide grease you use to your oil - synthetic grease with synthetic oil, petroleum grease with petroleum oil.

Want Quieter Valves?

  • Consider using coated springs, which help to quiet scraping noises.
  • Otherwise, make sure spring is upright and centered in bottom groove - turn the piston when inserting it to allow the spring to seat correctly inside.
  • Some people use a little grease on the top and bottom of springs.
  • Make sure your felts/bumpers are in good condition. This will help quiet the action, but also helps maintain the piston's vertical positioning within the cylinder (with worn-out felts, the ports no longer align well and the horn is harder to play). (See photos at the end of the article.)
  • Make sure nothing on the horn is loose (top/bottom valve caps and valve buttons, lyre screw, etc.) and that the metal does not touch any metal or hard plastic on your person (zippers, clips on your shirt pocket, etc.).
  • A poorly-fitted water catcher under the valves can make noise (rattles).
  • A swishing or whistling noise can be caused by blocked vent holes. (See photos at the end of the article.)
  • A light rattling is usually springs, but can also be some part not screwed on tightly.
  • A clank, cluck, or banging as you push the valve down is probably from a loose cap or from worn out (or incorrect) felts/pads under the finger button.
    • A noise as you release the valve is probably caused by either a loose cap or a bad felt/bumper on top of the piston.
    • A light scraping sound may indicate a distorted valve guide or dirty guide slot.

  • Springs should be strong enough to prevent excess rebound as the valve comes up, but if you have springs that are too strong they can make the valves slightly more noisy. I like the Mead springs. Most users will like the Mead Light version - the standard Mead springs are fairly stiff, and even more stiff on horns with a short bottom cavity in the cylinder like Adams or other horns using (or copying) Bauerfeind valve-sets.

Random Thoughts

Different people may press the valves in different ways. This will put a little more pressure on one side of the piston and will affect how it wears in and where/how any dirt may accumulate. I have memories from my Coast Guard Band days of handing my Besson to someone to let them try it, only to see them frustrated because the first valve would keep sticking. It did not stick for me. Keep this possibility in mind if you trade horns to test someone else's instrument, or even when trying horns at a show. You may want to start by wiping the piston and re-oiling.

I have sometimes let folks try my own Adams when I was hanging around their booth. The same used to be true when I was a Sterling artist and was at their booth. They invariably commented on how fast my valves were. Part of that was due to the fact that mine were broken in and had not just been played by a dozen other people. But another part of their impression was that I use stiffer springs, so the valves come back up more quickly. When recently playing on a loaner from Adams, which came with soft springs, I fumbled some technical passages in practice. My observation was a surprise to me. Apparently I subconsciously "keep track of" my valves' return as I am playing by sensing contact with my fingers. With the softer springs, they did not return as quickly and it threw off my synchronization between brain and fingers. I purchased a set of Mead Light springs and that fixed the issue for me. But with or without the mental confusion due my habits, stronger springs will return more quickly and will have less tendency to bounce at the top. This will give you cleaner technique.

Related Articles

Supporting Photos

Cleaning the bottom caps; seating the spring in upright position. The photos show a bottom cap from my euphonium today, showing gunk starting to build; the cleaned version, showing the round grooved area the spring should fit into; the spring sitting in the groove:

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Cleaning the guide slot; noticing the shape of the valve guide, which in this photo is not distorted (notice also that you have an opportunity to clean the area beside the guide if you see any build-up there). Notice the chamfer/bevel around the top of the piston (the is one at the bottom as well); deposits may built here, causing the valve the stick.

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Bottom of the piston, the chamber. It should be cleaned, just like the bottom cap. Note that the spring will fit into this chamber - that is why I turn the piston as I insert it, to make sure the spring does not catch against the side wall of the chamber. Note the hole in the bottom of the piston, which is to allow air to flow through the hollow piston.

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Here are some photos of the top of the piston and the finger button. The washer/pad on top of the piston must be the right size for proper alignment and must be soft enough to not make too much noise as the piston come up. You can also see the washer/pad under the finger button. This must be the right thickness to position the piston on the down-stroke, and can cause noise if it gets old and hard. The 3rd photo shows the pad and also the vent hole. This hole mush be kept clear. If the wrong pad is put on top of the piston, it might cover the hole.

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Many 4-valve compensating euphoniums have a removable 1st compensating slide on the back of the 1st valve. I seldom need to remove mine, but it is handy as a view of the alignment of your first valve when it is pushed down. The port of the piston should align perfectly with the end of the slide tube. In the 1st photo below I did not push the valve down all the way, simulating a case where the pad under the finger button might be too thick (your will probably never look this bad!). The 2nd photo shows the alignment when I push the valve all the way down.

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Updated 03-31-2019 at 01:03 PM by davewerden

Euphonium-Tuba Blog , General Tuba-Euphonium Blog , Instruments and Equipment


  1. John Morgan's Avatar
    Very good article. The part at the end about springs, valve bounce and technique is very important. I have absolutely noticed a big difference in playing technical passages with horns that have the right spring strength (on the stiffer side more so than the lighter/softer side). It is much cleaner with the stiffer spring, because they come back up faster, don't bounce (or as much), and you can just plain go faster and cleaner. And you can definitely stall out with soft springs. VERY IMPORTANT to get the springs right. Even if it is a little harder to press down, practice and build up the finger strength. It will be worth it.

    Plastic valve guides getting out of the correct size (compressed, bent, worn badly, etc.) is a great way to get lousy valve action. Usually a simple visual inspection can detect problems. Another useful tool for cleaning up a plastic valve guide is a fingernail file. The ones that are not metal, but throwaway kinds, are best for me. There are two sides, one rougher, one side smoother. They are great for really smoothing the valve guide, but be careful not to round the corners of the guide (although that might not hurt much if you accidently did round a corner a bit, just try not to). The file can get the edges smoother for me much easier than a razor blade or knife.
  2. ChristianeSparkle's Avatar
    Question about how to put the horn down. So I've been storing the horn in my gig bag most of the time and the 4th valve is always facing the bottom. I've noticed gunk some times moving to the top of the 4th valve because of that. Are there any better ways of putting down the horn that would prevent that?
  3. davewerden's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ChristianeSparkle
    Question about how to put the horn down. So I've been storing the horn in my gig bag most of the time and the 4th valve is always facing the bottom. I've noticed gunk some times moving to the top of the 4th valve because of that. Are there any better ways of putting down the horn that would prevent that?
    If you look at this post about my Hercules stand, you see if offers different options. My preferred choice these days is the one where the mouthpiece is on the right, pointing down.

    Otherwise, when I used I gig bag for storage I would do just what you are doing.
  4. RickF's Avatar
    Great article with excellent pictures!

    Loved the video with Walter Matthau. Pretty sure that's a '67 Ferrari 275 4-cam like Steve McQueen owned. Pretty sure they run better than that.