The process for proper French horn cleaning and maintenance is not too hard to do, but it must be done on a regular basis!
It does bear mentioning that one of the most important rules for a clean, functional horn is good oral hygiene. If possible, avoid eating or drinking anything (except water) before playing – if you must eat or drink, make sure to brush your teeth (or at least rinse your mouth with some water) before picking up the horn. Remember, slide and valve tolerances are measured in thousandths of an inch or less – it takes very little to mess them up!
Also, make sure that you have the correct supplies – I recommend Blue Juice and Hetman lubricants. If you can’t find those in your local music store you can use this link to order them from WoodwindBrasswind.com and get free shipping on an order of $25 or more – never borrow valve oil again!
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Oiling of Rotary Valves
My preferred oil for the interior of rotary valves is Blue Juice. I recommend buying a a small 2 oz bottle (or two) and then when that gets low, you can get a much larger 8 ounce bottle to refill the smaller bottles with. There are a lot of other good brands of valve oil, but for me, Blue Juice keeps the valves moving quick and seems to last long enough without constant re-oiling.
For the bearings, you can use either the same oil or something slightly thicker – a thicker oil will give the rotor action a little more of a positive feel and can help keep slightly-worn valves maintain their compression for a bit longer. I usually use either Hetman #14 (slightly thicker) or Hetman #13 (slightly thinner) on the top and bottom bearings, depending on how the rotors are moving. Although there is a Hetman #13.5 if you just can’t decide!
For the top bearing, simply remove the cap and place a drop or two where the bearing and the top plate meet:
The bottom bearing is a little trickier. Both the aforementioned Hetman oils come in bottles with a very thin needle tip. If you’re valves are super-tight, and you’re using Blue Juice on the bottom bearing, you’ll need to find a similarly-tipped bottle and put the Blue Juice in there. You’ll need to use the needle tip to get the oil right where the valve bearing meets the valve body:
If you can help it, don’t try to oil this bottom bearing without a needle-tipped bottle. You’ll just get oil everywhere (but where it needs to go!) and you’ll make a heck of a mess. That being said, you need to oil both bottom and top bearings, so make sure you have the necessary oils!
Once every couple of weeks, or if the valves start to feel slightly sluggish (or you let the horn sit for awhile), you’ll need to get some oil inside the horn onto the face of the rotors themselves.
The easiest way to do this is to pull out your first valve slide (if you have a double horn, pull out both first valve slides) and put 15-30 drops of oil into each slide. While carefully keeping the slides upright insert them both back into the horn all the way. Then rotate the horn so that the oil will run down into the valves, and while rocking the horn back and forth, repeatedly press down on all the valves (don’t forget the trigger!). There will be a lot of oil in the horn at this point, so be careful when you empty it (or when the horn empties itself on your lap!) – it will be slippery!
For slide grease, I used to only use Selmer slide grease, until I had several bottles crack in my case – and that is a pain to clean up. Since then I’ve used a variety of greases, but I like the Hetman tuning slide gel. It seems to last a long time, gives a nice solid slide action and doesn’t seem need to be applied very often. Hetman also has a thinner slide oil (mainly for trumpet 1st and 3rd valve slides) and a thicker slide grease (if you have very loose slides).
To apply, make sure that you use a clean, lint-free cloth or paper towel and wipe off all the old grease from both legs of your slide. Then dip a finger in the grease jar and get a small amount on your finger and spread it evenly on both legs of the slide. Cover the slide as evenly as possible – but make sure you get the layer as thin as possible. When you put the slide back in, make sure you have your rag or towel handy to wipe up any excess. Also, always make sure to push the slide all the way back in after greasing, and then pull it out to wherever it needs to go.
If you have a normal double or single horn, make sure you use a snake brush at least once a month, to clean out any bits of food or other gunk that may have accumulated. If you don’t clean out this part of your horn regularly, any solid stuff that gets into the valves will require a much more thorough (and expensive!) cleaning to remove. I also put a drop or two of Blue Juice valve oil down the leadpipe once every day or so, just to keep the interior surface as clean as possible.
To clean out your mouthpiece, you can either buy a mouthpiece brush, or just use a Q-tip or two once every couple of days.
If you have a triple or descant horn, where the leadpipe goes straight into a valve without a slide to run a snake out of, Herco Spitballs are a decent way to clean the hard-to-reach tubing. Just make sure not to run them past the leadpipe (pull your main tuning slide completely out of the horn – but cover it with a rag, there will be a mess!), and DO NOT MOVE the valves while the Spitballs are inside your horn. If they get stuck, they can be a pain to get out.
Cleaning the Inside
Even if you do follow all the above maintenance rules (and especially if you don’t), it’s a good idea to give your horn a bath every few months, and a professional cleaning (preferably a chem clean, but ultrasonic is better than nothing) every year or two. Trust me – going much longer than this will lead to some unpleasant discoveries once you do finally clean out your horn!
The procedure for a horn bath is pretty simple – you don’t need much, and you probably already have most of the stuff laying around the house. You’ll need:
- A bath tub
- A bath towel (or something similar to lay in the bottom of the tub to set your horn on)
- Mild dish soap (nothing oxygenated – I use regular blue Dawn)
- A snake brush
- Your regular oils and greases. Here are my recommended valve oils and here for slide grease.
- A rag (or several) to clean off oil and grease, and a towel (or few) to dry off the horn.
The process is fairly simple – lay the bath towel in the bottom of the tub and start drawing a bath with lukewarm (not hot!) water. Squeeze in a bit of the soap while the tub fills up. Take apart your horn – remove all the slides and even the valve caps. Go ahead and use the rag to wipe off the legs of the slides to remove and excess grease/oil, and place them all on the towel under water. Make sure you remember where each slide goes (take pictures while disassembling if you’re not sure)!
Once all the slides are out, put the body of the horn in the tub (on the towel) as well. Work the valves at least one time to get the warm, soapy water throughout the instrument. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to put your mouthpiece in the tub as well.
One at a time, pick up a slide, run the snake into each leg, and rinse the slide thoroughly with clean water (not the soapy bath water), and set the cleaned slide on a towel to dry. Remember, the soap will cut through grease and oil, so while we need it to clean the horn, we don’t want it present when we reassemble the horn. Also, you won’t be able to get the snake all the way through your slides – so don’t try. Run it in as far as it will go and pull it out quickly (but not too hard!). Then, run some clean water through the slide – you’ll wash out (most) of whatever you dislodged.
When all the slides are snaked, rinsed, and set aside, then move on to the body of the horn. Follow the same procedure – snake out the leadpipe and the main tuning slide legs, but don’t put the snake in the valve slide legs. You risk messing up the valves (or getting a bit of snake brush stuck) if you snake these out, so it’s best to not even mess with them. Generally, the inside of the slides (which you already cleaned) will be much dirtier anyway, so it’s usually not worth the risk.
After snaking out all the non-valve tubes, rinse the horn thoroughly inside and out with clean (warm, if possible) water. If you have a hand-held shower head that is easiest, but you can use the bath tub faucet or even a (clean) bucket or big cup in a pinch. Remember, you want to get rid of all the soap, since it will cut the grease and oil we use for the slides and valves. Also, spin the horn (carefully) several times to remove excess water, and dry it off with a clean towel.
Once the horn is dry and free of soapy residue, put some Blue Juice (10 drops or so) down each slide leg directly onto the rotor valve. We can do it this way since there should be no grease on the inner slide legs (yet!). This will get some good lubrication on each rotor. After that, you can follow the oiling and the greasing guidelines above on this page.
Any questions or comments? Let me know!