How To Oil A French Horn Valve: The Ins And Outs

close up of brass french horn on black

A French horn is an expensive piece of musical equipment. When it comes to taking care of it properly, you want to make sure you do the right job and treat your horn right. A large part of that is oiling it properly.

To oil the valves on a French horn:

  1. Remove the caps of both the top and bottom valves.
  2. Place one or two drops of oil before gently recapping them.
  3. Remove the valve slide and oil inside the horn.
  4. Put the slide back in and move the horn, so gravity carries the oil to the inner valve.

But there’s a lot more to oiling a French horn than just finding the right place to dab a few drops of oil. You need to know how often to do it, along with how to tell apart the numerous different kinds of oil. Read on to discover all of the ins and outs of oiling your French horn.

Can you use valve oil on a French Horn?

valve oilYou can absolutely use valve oil on your French horn, and you should be doing so relatively often as well. This is the general kind of oil that you should be lubricating your instrument with to reduce friction and make sure the valves open and operate freely during use.

Not all valve oil is the same, though. Some of it can be a bit thicker or thinner than others, and whether or not you’ll want that is depending on your instrument.

For general and common use, a slightly thinner valve oil will do just fine and is recommended. If your instrument is on the older side or doesn’t get much play, then using a thicker oil will help. There is plenty of good, reputable brands of valve oil that you can choose from for your horn.

Here are a few well known and recommended products:

Is rotor oil the same as valve oil?

Rotor oil is one of the different kinds of valve oil. Comparting rotor valve oil and piston valve oil, the rotor oil is the thinner, less viscous variety. There are thinner kinds of piston oil that resemble rotor oil, but just buying a bottle of standard rotor oil is perfectly fine.

In terms of using the oils on your French Horn, using a different kind of oil will help in a pinch and get the job done. But for long term care of your instrument, you’ll want to use the proper kind of oil for your musical instrument.

Can you use trumpet valve oil on a French horn?

You can also trumpet valve oil on a French horn. Unless the oil you use specifically says to only use it on one kind of instrument, valve oil is generally designed to be a multi-purpose oil, good for many different kinds of instruments.

Trumpet “Slide Oil” may sound good but steer clear!

A more niche and specific oil in regard to trumpets however, is slide oil. Slide oil is much thicker than standard valve oil and should usually be reserved just for trumpets. Thicker rotary oils are about as thick as you want for a French horn.

Because of its thickness and high viscosity, trumpet slide oil can gunk up the valves of the French horn rather easily. 

There are a fair few other kinds of oil that you want to stay away from using in your horn as well. If you run out of valve oil, it’s really not recommended to substitute it with anything that isn’t made for brass instruments, as you can seriously damage your horn. Repairs can be expensive, so you want to make sure you know what you can’t use.

Lubricants not to use for French horn valves

don't use WD-40 on valvesHere are some common lubricants you should never use in your French Horn:

  • Vaseline
  • WD-40
  • Cooking oils, like olive oil or canola oil
  • Rifle oil
  • Motor oil

While one of these stand-ins might seem to work in the moment, they aren’t good in the long run. Not only are some of these oils not good for your instrument, but they also may not be good for you. Using WD-40 and inhaling it while you perform can be unhealthy for you, for instance.

Some of the other oils might not get you sick, but they can corrode and break down the nickel your instrument is made of over time and seriously damage it.

How often to apply valve oil to a French horn

With a consistent and frequent play schedule, you should be oiling your valves fairly regularly.

Top and bottom valves: Oil 2-3 times a week

If you play often, the top and bottom valves of your French horn should be oiled at least twice a week.

This is to ensure the smooth opening and closing of your instrument’s valves and prevents sticking. You should test it out, and if you think your valves tend to be a little sticky when you play, then, of course, oil them a little more often.

The inside valve: Oil 2-3 times a month

The inside valve isn’t something that’s needed to be oiled as frequently. Around two or three times a month should be sufficient for a frequent player. Applying oil to the inside valve isn’t the same process as the top and bottom valve, and this is why you won’t need to oil it as often.

To oil the inside valve of a French horn:

  1. Remove the valve slide and pour a light amount of oil into the French horn.
  2. Replace the valve slide.
  3. Rotate your horn around, so you move the oil with gravity into the inner valve.

Again, this only needs to be done a couple of times per month. If you do this too often, the oil will build up in your inner valve and can actually cause damage to the inside of your instrument if done too much.

If you feel like you need a little more oil, then you should do it, but you should be mindful of when the last time you oiled your instrument was and how much oil you used.

What if I run out of valve oil for my French horn?

old french horn
Old Brass Classic French Horn Valves close-up

Running out of valve oil isn’t something that should happen, as you should always have a supply to keep your instrument good and healthy. But sometimes it might be unavoidable, and you might need to play without it.

Generally, if you’re without valve oil for a week or so and need to play, you shouldn’t bother trying to find a substitute .

Just play away, one week won’t do any damage, and if you oiled properly in the past, then your instrument shouldn’t stick much at all. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to order some valve oil!

If your valves are sticking right now, though, and you need to play with no oil, then an acceptable temporary substitute would be lamp oil . It’ll smell a little, but it will lubricate your French horn enough to play.

Just remember, this is only a temporary solution and should be cleaned out properly after use.

Keep your French horn valves oiled

So, all your questions on how to properly oil your French Horn should be answered. You now know which oils you can and should not use. You know just where to apply them and how frequently you should do so.

We’ve gone over the difference between some musical oils and what you should do if you happen to run out, along with the mindfulness of how often you use a “substitute oil” for your instrument. Now you can treat your instrument with the love it deserves.

Happy playing and if you need valve oil or other instrument supplies visit our Recommended 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.

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