We’ve all been there. Your case with your valve oil is offstage, and your second valve starts to get sticky. You ask the person next to you if you can borrow the valve oil sitting on their stand.
They shrug and hand it to you. It’s something you’ve never heard of. Is it okay to mix them? Are they even that different?
Or maybe you went to the music store and you stared at the endless brands of valve oil and you think: what’s the best one for me to get?
There’s no easy answer to this question. Every person and instrument is different. You’re going to have to experiment until you find something that works for you. But this article will go through what the main differences are so that you can make a more informed decision.
I’ll cut to my answers first, so you aren’t left in suspense. I use Blue Juice for my Yamaha euphonium and Al Cass Fast for my Wessex baritone. When I lived in Upstate New York, I often used Binak Pro for everything in winter.
It just did better in the extreme cold.
But I’d never blindly recommend any of these choices. Remember, every horn is different.
Variations in Instrument
It’s easy to think that valves are valves and oil is oil. How can it matter so much?
But as anyone that has experience with using the wrong oil for their instrument will tell you, that sluggish feeling is awful. It’s such a subtle difference that someone watching might not notice, but you will feel it.
You may want to clean your instrument to make sure that isn’t the problem. Check out my instrument cleaning guide.
This happens because every instrument has small variations and imperfections. It may seem like two instruments of the same make and model should be exactly the same, but even the best machines will produce differences (called tolerances).
If you think about your valves for a moment, there is a gap between the piston you press down and the cylindrical casing around it. You’d hear metal scraping sounds if there wasn’t (and if you do, stop playing immediately or you’ll scratch the valve!).
The valve oil goes in this open space between the piston and the casing. This gap is so tiny that these small variations in instruments is part of what causes different instruments perform better with different oils.
If your gap happens to be on the smaller side, you’ll want a thinner oil. If your gap is on the larger side, you’ll want a thicker oil to fill up all that space.
Synthetic vs Petroleum Valve Oil
Wait, petroleum? Like what’s in car gasoline?
If this makes you nervous (for example, you got here because you’re a confused parent and don’t want your Fourth Grader handling petroleum), then you might want to see the list below for synthetic oils.
Petroleum-based oils tend to be thinner and must be reapplied with more frequency. This is because the natural components of it evaporate quickly. People claim synthetic oils last longer and are more consistent due to less evaporation.
People also claim that synthetic oils will have a faster valve action while petroleum will be slightly sluggish. I can’t make such broad statements in my experience. Some synthetic brands claim they add chemicals to prevent corrosion or scent.
My guess is that synthetic oils are more consistent and don’t have to be reapplied as often, but as I pointed out above, I still use petroleum-based oils. So, it will come down to instrument and preference.
The main thing people take into consideration is that synthetic oils are more environmentally friendly and are less likely to be toxic if a child or pet gets to it.
If you have a rotary valve instrument as opposed to a piston valve, you probably already know what to do. Most people don’t end up with these types of instruments by accident.
Rotary valves don’t really stick the same way piston valves do. If you think about how they are constructed, they are fixed in location so that the valve will never scratch the casing. They rotate on a fixed axis.
This means oil doesn’t serve the same purpose as a piston valve.
Valve oil mostly keeps them fast and silent. Rotary valves require two types of oil. You’ll need a thicker oil for the outside, and then the standard valve oil from the rest of this post for the valve itself. The oil can be applied by putting a few drops down the leadpipe.
How to Experiment with Valve Oil Properly
No one really gives out an ingredients list of how they make their valve oils, so it’s not possible to tell for sure if mixing oils will result in a bad experience. My recommendation for experimenting or just changing valve oil brands is to completely clean your valves between changing.
Many people recommend you do this if you switch from synthetic to petroleum or the other way. But the truth is we just don’t know what other chemicals have been added to various synthetic brands. The safest thing to do is to get the old oil off.
Cleaning an instrument will be a whole article on its own, but there are a few key things to know when cleaning the valves for trying a new oil.
First, I’d do one at a time. You think you aren’t going to get confused when you put them back in, but going one at a time isn’t any slower and will save you the headache of figuring it out.
Next, you want to get all of the oil off. This means on the piston and the inside of the casing. You can do this by running lukewarm water over both parts.
Do not use hot water. Do not get the felt on top wet.
Lastly, you want them to completely dry before putting them back in. Oil and water do not mix!
There are special brushes and towels to really clean the instrument and dry it. If you don’t have these things and must use a normal towel or paper towel, make sure you gently pat everything dry. You could scratch the valve if you rub it. (In college, some people used a very worn and clean t-shirt).
Patting it dry is better than leaving the water to evaporate, because the water will leave spot marks if it evaporates on its own. Don’t forget to liberally apply the new oil before putting the valve back in!
We’ve now answered one of the initial questions. You should probably not be borrowing valve oil from the person next to you. It’s better to take a moment and leave rehearsal to get it, no matter how embarrassing that might be.
It’s also a good idea to stop experimenting once you’ve found one that works. It’s hard to make sure you get 100% of the old oil off (even with proper cleaning), and that tiny amount of mixing can add up to a lot over time if you’re constantly changing.
Common Brands of Valve Oil
- Al Cass Fast: petroleum, thin (buy on Amazon here)
- Blue Juice: petroleum (buy on Amazon here)
- Hetman: synthetic, comes in a variety of thicknesses labeled 1, 2, and 3 (buy on Amazon here)
- BiNaK: synthetic, Pro version is the lighter (buy on Amazon here)
- Denis Wick: synthetic from PTFE (buy on Amazon here)
Can Valve Oil Go Bad?
This question comes up surprisingly often because I play in a community band. Someone new will come in who hasn’t played in 30 years, and that valve oil from high school is still there.
Does valve oil expire?
I think, strictly speaking, there is no expiration date, but we’ve already talked about evaporation earlier. If there is the tiniest leak or porousness in that old bottle, then that could cause problems. There could also be a chemical in there that breaks down.
My recommendation is to not use it. Many high quality valve oils are less than $5 a bottle and will last you a year. There’s no reason to risk it.