Helpful Horn Hints: Three Places to Oil French Horn Valves

Did you know that to properly oil a horn valve, you have to place oil in three places when you oil French horn valves?  If you didn’t, I am going to share with you where those three places are.

The rotor valve has three sides:  the top, the back, and the inside.  All three parts need to be oiled to maintain fast, quiet action.  If student doesn’t do this simple maintenance, their valves become slow and gummy making good, clean technique impossible.  Keeping the valves well oiled also protects against acid erosion from saliva and prolongs the life of an instrument.

Top of the Valve – Every Time the Instrument is Played.

The first place to oil is the top of the rotor valve.  Remove the valve caps.  When you depress the valve lever you can see how the rotor rotates.  Place a drop of oil in the center of the valves.  (Photo A.)  Replace the valve caps and gently tighten down.  With older horns and certain brands of newer horns, if the valve cap is screwed down too tightly, it can bind the top of the turning rotor (meaning the valve will either not turn or will turn slowly). If this happens, slightly loosen the valve cap to alleviate the problem.

If the valve cap will not unscrew with your fingers, cover the valve cap with a soft rag and gently unscrew with a pair of pliers.  You could even use a drop or two of spray lubricant.  Be sure to wipe off all excess spray to prevent damage to the lacquer.

You may notice the two tiny notches in the rotor post and one notch on the stationary valve plate.  These are valve alignment marks.   The rotor should directly line up with the notch on the stationary valve plate when the valve lever is both up and pressed down.  If the alignment is not exact, the valve is not completely open or closed and the air flow through the instrument will be affected.  That will affect the instrument’s intonation, tone quality, and ease of playing.  The wrong size or missing bumpers cause misalignment to happen, as well as incorrect string tension. 

Photo A. Photograph by Michelle Casso Photography

Back of the Valve – Every Time the Instrument is Played

There is a stationary plate on the back of the valve that covers the inside of the rotor.  The rotor post rotates or turns as you press the valve lever up and down.  There is a  small gap or seam between the stationary valve plate and the turning rotor post.  (Photo B.)  Place a drop of oil in the seam. (Photo C.)

Photo B. Photograph by Michelle Casso Photography


Photo C. Photograph by Michelle Casso Photography

Inside – Monthly or As Needed

There are two schools of thought on how to oil the inside of the valve.  One thought, which is my preferred way, is to remove a valve slide; pour the oil into the inner valve slide (Photo C.)  Replace the slide; push the slide all the way in; then turn the horn so the oil will run down the inner slide into the rotor valve.  (Photo D.)  Think gravity. Beginners usually don’t realize this on their own! Press the valve lever up and down to allow the oil to coat the entire rotor. Return the slide to the correct tuning position. I prefer this method because it prevents the oil from picking up any slide grease debris and dragging it into the rotor.  The other school of thought is to remove the valve slide and pour the oil directly into the outer slide. Follow the same order as the first procedure, only change where you pour the oil.

Photo D. Photograph by Michelle Casso Photography

Photo E. Photograph by Michelle Casso Photography

Because I oil my valves on top and bottom every time I play, I only oil the inside once a month, after the horn has had a bath, if my valves are really dry, or if my valves are are sluggish and gummy.

Oiling the valves in all three places is really important to do on horns that have been unplayed for a few months or over summer vacation.  The oil evaporates over time and can cause the valves to become extremely ‘clanky’ or even to seize up and become immovable.   Be sure you check all the valve action before you hand out a horn, especially to a beginner.  It is extremely frustrating for them, and ultimately for you, to have a horn that does not function properly.

Types of Oil

There are many different types of oil.  I use valve oil, which is a thinner oil, instead of a heavier rotor oil.  Older horn valves can be ‘clankier’ and would benefit from a heavier rotor oil on the top and back, but be sure to use valve oil inside.   Remember, valve oil actually protects the inside of the rotor from corrosion caused by saliva.

If you and your students follow these simple, easy steps to oiling the valves every time it is played, you will extend the life of the instrument.  Another plus would be that your horn players may even have better technique!

Becky Casso is a passionate music educator. Her teaching career began in the band hall directing bands in the Borger, Klein, and Canyon school districts. She is a highly sought after horn instructor and has presented master classes and workshops in Amarillo ISD, Canyon ISD, and West Texas A & M. She performs with Chamber Music Amarillo, Amarillo Symphony, Amarillo Opera, and with other chamber groups in Amarillo. Becky has been recognized as the Canyon ISD Teacher of the Year, Region 16 Texas Teacher of the Year, and was recipient of the University of Texas Exes Association’s Teaching Excellence Award.

If you’d like a free guide for your students containing  French horn maintenance tips, click here…

oil french horn valves

oil french horn valves

Related Reading:
Helpful Horn Hints (Part 1) – How to String a French Horn Valve
Utilizing Sound Concepts When Teaching Brass
Avoiding the Most Common Pitfall – TENSION!
Diagnosing Brass Tension and Helping Students Achieve a Better Sound

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