Easily Clean a Tarnished Saxophone

Tarnished Saxophone

The saxophone is one of few musical instruments that is easy to maintain; however, if you miss a cleaning, you can quickly face some trouble, particularly tarnishing. Fortunately, resolving this issue is relatively simple with the right tools. 

How do you clean a tarnished saxophone? To clean a tarnished sax, follow these steps: 

  • If you have an unlacquered, silver sax, apply a thin coat of metal polish to the affected area and buff with a soft cloth.
  • If you have a lacquered saxophone, use a cotton swab to rub an equal parts water-alcohol solution over the area. Wipe dry and buff with a lacquer polishing cloth.

To successfully clean a saxophone that has been tarnished, there are a few supplies and tools you will need to get the best results. In the remainder of this article, we will discuss what you will need to clean a tarnished sax as well as the steps required to do so. We will also talk about how these popular instruments become corroded in the first place and the things you can do to prevent it. 

How Does a Saxophone Become Tarnished?

As you already know, a saxophone requires an air stream to be directed into the instrument to create sound; in this case, the air stream is the air you expel after breathing in. Because your breath is also warm and composed of smaller water particles, moisture will begin to build up inside the sax as you play. If this moisture is not removed, it can lead to mold or oxidation, the latter resulting in rust or tarnishing. 

Do Saxophones Rust?

Yes, saxophones can be susceptible to rust; this is more likely to occur if the instrument is stored improperly or left exposed to the elements for too long. 

Often, tarnish and rust on saxes are confused with one another; the main difference between the two is that rust takes the form of raised, reddish-brown spots. In contrast, tarnish usually appears as a green, gray, or black hue on a material’s surface. 

What Do You Need to Clean a Corroded Saxophone?

Saxophone swab brushThere are a few things you will need to get every inch of your saxophone clean and free of tarnish, rust, and prevent future oxidation:

  • Pull-Through Swab – A pull-through cloth is handy for removing any lingering moisture inside of your saxophone. One with weighted strings at the ends is best. Most of these cloths can be found as part of a saxophone cleaning kit
  • Fine-Grit SandpaperSandpaper that is somewhere between #120 and #180 will do (the higher the number, the less abrasive it will be for your instrument). 
  • Water-Alcohol Solution – In a small jar or bowl, mix equal parts water and isopropyl alcohol together. 
  • Lacquer Polishing Cloth – As the name suggests, these types of cloths are usually meant for buffering or polishing. 
  • Screwdriver – A screwdriver will only be necessary if you find you need to take sections of your saxophone apart to reach certain corroded areas. 
  • Silver Polish – This is a must-have item for silver saxophones. 

You will also need:

  • Gloves
  • Cotton Swabs (think Q-tips)
  • Soft Cloths

How Do You Clean Corrosion off a Saxophone? 

The method you use for removing corrosion from a saxophone depends on the type of sax you have and the kind of corrosion you are dealing with. 

Cleaning Tarnish Off a Sax

If you have a lacquered saxophone:

  1. Dip a cotton swab in your water-alcohol solution.
  2. Use the swab to rub over the oxidated or tarnished areas of the instrument. 
  3. Use the soft cloth to wipe the treated areas dry. 
  4. Use the lacquer polishing cloth to buff the surface. 

If you have an unlacquered, silver saxophone:

  1. Apply a thin coat of metal polish to the affected area. 
  2. Allow it to sit on the surface until dry. 
  3. Buff the surface with a polishing cloth. 

Cleaning Rust Off a Sax

  1. To remove rust from your instrument’s surface, you will first need to moisten a piece of sandpaper with water.  
  2. Use the sandpaper to rub the rusted area of the sax lightly. If needed, you can slowly increase the amount of pressure and speed you apply with the sandpaper until most of the rust has been removed. 
  3. Use metal polish or a lacquer polishing cloth to remove the remainder of the rust. 

*Note: Because sandpaper is rough, it can potentially result in scratches on your instrument if used with excessive speed and force. Make sure you are gentle with the sandpaper during this process to avoid as much surface-level damage as possible. 

Other Corrosion: Cleaning Metal Degradation

Metal degradation occurs when the lacquer on the saxophone’s surface begins to break down, causing discoloration. To prevent further deterioration:

  1. Use a cloth to clean the area of dirt by moving it in a circular motion. 
  2. Afterward, use the metal polish (for silver saxophones) or lacquer polishing cloth (for lacquered saxes) to buff the region. If you do not see any improvement, you may need to repeat this process multiple times. 

Preventing Future Corrosion

The following are a few final tips to ensure you prevent future tarnishing, oxidation, or rust from forming on your saxophone:

Remove Moisture 

The pull-through swab mentioned earlier is perfect for this task, especially for removing moisture inside of a saxophone.

To use the cloth, simply thread the weighted string through the next of horn and pull the entire cloth through the opposite end (bell). You can also pull the fabric back and forth through the instrument using the strings attached to it. 

Repeat this process as many times as you need to ensure the interior of the saxophone is dry. 

If you are in need of other saxophone supplies too, we recommend purchasing a saxophone cleaning kit that’ll include a cleaning swab. You can purchase the pull-through swab separately too, if that’s all you need. You can find both on our Saxophone Supplies page.

Clean & Polish the Instrument Regularly

Besides removing moisture, cleaning and polishing your sax regularly will ensure the material does not become vulnerable to oxidation or other types of corrosion. 

Applying a non-abrasive clear lacquer (or even clear nail polish in tiny, hard-to-see areas) to former affected areas will prevent it from re-tarnishing or corroding faster. 

Don’t Forget Your Keys!

Silver sax keysTo prevent corrosion to the keys on your saxophone, you should apply small amounts of key oil between the key axle and the key post every two to three months. 

If oiled too often or if excess oil is used, the keys of your saxophone will collect more dirt. For this reason, after you oil your keys, wipe off any excess oil with a cloth.  

Store the Instrument Properly

If you want to protect your instrument from rusting or other types of corrosion, you will also need to store it properly. When not in use, make sure the saxophone is stored in a dry case, away from humid areas. 

It is vital that before you store your sax that you first make sure its interior and exterior are free of moisture. If you recently cleaned your instrument, use a soft cloth to wipe all of its surfaces dry before storing it away. 

It may also be beneficial to add anti-tarnishing strips inside the case to slow the process of re-tarnishing.  

Final Thoughts

If your saxophone becomes tarnished, it does not mean the end for your instrument; it still has plenty of good days on stage left! Removing rust, tarnish, or oxidation is simpler than you think: all you need are a few supplies, good lighting, and patience to remove any corrosion present, and your sax will be good as new in no time!

You can find all the supplies mentioned above on our Saxophone Supplies page.


An ardant fan of acoustic music, I played the clarinet in high school band and even competed in Disneyland. As the son of a music teacher, I know firsthand the importance of keeping instruments clean and maintained. I now enjoy sharing information with others and providing answers where I can.

Related Articles