I recently had a parent bring in a trumpet they picked up at a flea market for twenty-five bucks. The problem? None of the slides moved, there were three broken braces, the bell turn was crushed, the rim folded completely over, and one of the valves was stuck. The results were the parent would have to pay a lot more to put the instrument in playing condition. Needless to say, this parent ended up not repairing as it was more cost effective to go find a different instrument in better condition.
That got me thinking that a check-list for assessing a brass instrument for potential purchase or repair might not be a bad idea. When people buy pre-owned vehicle, most of the time, they don’t walk on the lot, point to a car and say “I want that one.” You kick the tires, look for previous repairs, check the cosmetics, etc. Why not the same thing for band instruments?
Whatever brass instrument you want to get, the first step is to visually check for dents, especially in the back of the bell turn. The general rule of thumb is if the dent goes into the tubing about a third of its diameter, tuning and playability is affected. Most bell turn dents can be removed, however there is a cost to it and if the turn is crushed flat or nearly flat, best to look somewhere else. Severe bell dents at the flare can hide tears or holes, so stay away from those also. Patches can be soldered in spots where there is brass damage, but they are more of a last resort kind of repair. There are better options.
The second step is to check for broken braces. These may be more hidden. There are four main points on trumpets. One at the mouthpiece receiver, two in the middle on either side of the valve block, and one closest to the bell. Lightly tug at the leadpipe and the bell to see if the braces are holding. If anything moves, that will be a trip to the shop for some soldering. You maybe attempted to try to solder this at home or use superglue. This is not a good idea. Superglue will not work and only make a big mess. Home soldering kits will also make a mess with clumps and burned lacquer or ruined silver plating. Soldering is one area that really needs to go to a professional repair technician.
The third step is to check if the slides and valves move. If they do,
you’re in luck. If they don’t, the repair can range from simple to complex. The simplest is the instrument just needs a thorough cleaning by a professional. Soap and water are great, but the professional technician has the equipment and expertise to get the instrument apart in the first place and put it back together so everything moves correctly. The most complex is when the slides are so frozen in place, the technician has to unsolder the parts and wrestle them out with brute force.
All of the aforementioned conditions are fixable. Dents can be removed, braces can be resoldered, and slides/valves can be freed and fit. As a consumer, it is up to the parent to weigh the cost of repair with the cost of the instrument. That flea market bargain may only need a good cleaning and a solder spot or two. It also may need a major rebuild. If option exists to get the instrument to a professional tech for assessment, that is the best bet, however, the above checklist should give you an idea of what you’re looking for when shopping for a pre-owned trumpet.