Stuck Slides – Do’s and Don’ts

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Stuck slides are one of the leading causes of substantial repair costs for brass instruments.  This is rarely due to the labor involved to get a stuck slide moving again, it’s almost always because a student, teacher or parent tried to remove the slide with some type of device or by simply pulling too hard!

Brass instrument tuning slides generally get stuck for one of two reasons:
– The slide has not been properly lubricated
– There is a dent or other damage to one of the outer or inner slide tubes

When a slide is left in a stationary position for an extended period of time (sometimes as short as a week) the lubrication (slide grease) will eventually dry out.  When the grease is no longer present the bare brass (or nickel, etc.) of the inner and outer slide tubes will become susceptible to lime and scale growth (see this post for more information about the effects of organic build-up).  Once the build-up starts the slide will stick in place.  If the slide is not moved regularly this will likely go unnoticed until the slide is locked in place by the nasty green and white organics.

Often students, teachers or parents will make the decision at this point to attack the slide with something to try to pull it out.  Often we see a shoelace (or even a sock on larger instruments!) threaded through the crook / bend in the and of the slide and yanked on until either the slide comes out or (more often) the outer slide tubes and surrounding solder joints and braces are broken off the instrument.  In extreme cases the crook in the slide will become dented, bent or damaged and the bending of the tubes and braces in the area can place stress on the valve casings and the valve (or sometimes valves!) will no longer function properly.

Another method we have seen is drumsticks, hammer handles, and other implements stuck in the crook of the slide and then hammered on until the slide moves.  This often crushes the tubing in the inside portion of the crook and usually doesn’t get the slide moving if lubrication is not present.  There are some related tools included in band director “fix kits” for removing slides that are slightly less dangerous than drumsticks however they too can cause serious damage to the inside of the crook if not used gently and correctly.

There are other tools as well – in particular a type pliers marketed as “Tuning Slide Removing Pliers”.  These are made to fit around the ferrule where the crook is soldered to the inside slide tube.  The pliers are placed around the inside of the ferrule, adjusted, and then a hammer is used to drive out the stuck tube.  While this does keep pressure away from the fragile crook it often “chews up” and damages the ferrule area.  This will not work at all on Yamaha trumpet main tuning slides since they are one-piece and the ferrules will slide around on the tubing if pressure is placed there.  We call these “Tuning Slide Destroying Pliers” for good reason.

So now that you know what NOT to do, what CAN you do to get a stuck slide moving again?

First inspect the outer tubes on the stuck slide for dents and other damage.  If a dent is present STOP and send the instrument to a qualified repair shop.  You won’t be able to do anything with it without causing serious damage to the rest of the instrument.

If there is no obvious damage there are three things that will get a slide moving about 95% of the time:
1. Lubrication
2. Heat
3. Time

There are a number of penetrating oils on the market, mostly in the automotive industry.  Some of these are fine to use and others are not.  I won’t bother to make a list – we have a favorite oil we use in the shop that is an instrument-industry-specific oil.  It reacts well with heat, is non-acidic and will not harm plating or lacquer.  We will be happy to provide you with some if you would like to keep it on-hand.

Place a few drops of the penetrating oil at the spot where the inner slide tube and outer slide tube meet (there may be a ring of white or green “gunk” in this area).  Saturate this area pretty well but if oil is running down the outside tube then it’s just being wasted.

Using a small handheld torch set on LOW gently apply heat to the outer slide tube.  Keep the flame moving at all times and if you see smoke at any point STOP and let it cool.  DO NOT place the flame directly on the oil – this will cause it to burn and will just gum up the works even more.  Hopefully the outer slide tube will slightly expand as it is heated and allow the warmed, thinned oil to penetrate through the organics and free the slide.  If you see the oil disappear that’s a good sign – apply a few more drops and continue heating.  If you are uncomfortable using an open flame than a hair dryer will also work to heat the tubing and oil.

Now we wait.  Set the instrument down and let the heated area cool.  Once cool gently pull on the slide and hopefully with enough oil present in the tubes the slide will come out.  If not let the instrument sit somewhere where gravity will pull the oil in to the slide tubes.  This is the “penetrating” effect of the penetrating oil.  It will continue to saturate the chalky, flaky organics and eventually enter the slide tubes.  This could take a few hours or a few days.  Continue with further rounds of heat and oil, leaving it to cool and penetrate after each treatment.  Except in the most severe cases this will eventually work and the slide will pull out!

When attempting to pull the slide out use a gentle yet firm rocking and twisting motion – this will help to break free the organics.  If after a few rounds of heat and oil and a few days of resting the slide still won’t budge then it’s time for a visit to the shop.  Often we can pull a stuck slide for free or very low cost.  In the extreme instance where a slide must be disassembled for removal the cost for that will still be far less than having to replace broken braces, repair damaged valve casings and resolder joints!

Once you do get the slide out clean it off as best you can and generously apply a high-quality slide grease to the area.  We use “Doc’s Goop” in the shop and can supply you with small or large containers for use in your band room.  This product is made by a small company in North Carolina specifically for the band instrument industry.