The history of musical instrument oils indicates the use of all kinds of substances for lubrication; few wonderful, many weird, and others just downright wacky. Significant change occurred with the observations of the Scottish chemist James Young, which led to the formation of the modern petroleum industry. The earliest commercial instrument lubricants were derived from Kerosene, known to us in the UK as Paraffin – hence James Young’s nickname of ‘Paraffin’ Young.
Many kerosene/paraffin based mineral oils are still around today and subjectively advocated and adhered to by some musicians. This is in no small part due to there being no available alternatives, at least until relatively recent years. Kerosene/paraffin based mineral oils are notoriously unstable and will work in the short term but the smaller molecules within them inevitably evaporate leaving the larger molecules to make the instrument feel slow and sticky. Musicians tend to address that by using ever greater quantities of oil and so a vicious circle is created.
Advances in chemical technology have led to the production of much more stable synthetic oils for use in a wide range of industries. Steiner Music based in James Young’s home country of Scotland has been able to utilise those developments and produce modern lubricants which are finely calibrated for very specific instrument applications. This has led to the company manufacturing the largest range of specialist musical instrument lubricants in the UK.
The development of environmentally friendly alternative fuel sources has also impacted upon music oils. It is possible to purchase instrument lubricants that are based upon Rapeseed Oil or Canola as it is called in other parts of the world. These tend to be marketed as ‘Bio’ oils and seek to emphasise their renewable/environmental credentials. While such oils are plant based, the esterification chemical reaction process producing methyl esters defines them as synthetic oils.
Such ‘bio’ oils will also have a synthetic element added to reduce the viscosity to an appropriate level for use in a musical instrument. This can be between 20% to 80% of the products content. A significant concern with oils based upon Rapeseed or Canola is the lack of long-term research around their interaction with moisture within instruments. The effect of the fatty acids in methyl esters upon yellow metals is also a continuing question.
There are also other 'plant based' 'bio' oils on the market derived from sugar cane, or at least the ethanol produced from sugar cane. The esterification chemical process used to produce ethyl esters also defines these products as synthetic oils. Where ethanol has been used as a fuel for cars there has been a lot of controversy over its miscibility with water. That would not be a desirable feature in any music lubricant.
Water based lubricants also emphasise their environmentally friendly features, yet all of these will have a dozen or more chemical components in order that they can function in a similar way to an oil. Those components can include synthetic wax, polymers, silicone, emulsifiers, fatty acids and fatty alcohols, anti-fungal agents, and many different parabens. The jury is still out on whether some water based music oils are actually detergents rather than lubricants.
Exponents of detergent based lubes also generally claim that their product is unique because alongside lubrication it also cleans and prevents the build up of residue in the valve case and on slides, but this is rather disingenuous. Most synthetic Piston Valve and Rotor Valve Oils will also function in that way.
Durability is also a significant issue with water based/detergent lubricants. A major problem is what happens when those lubricants degrade? We all know that water is a great enemy to the wind instrument player, otherwise we would not have water keys or water valves on brass instruments, and woodwind players would not be regularly swabbing their bores.
Choosing an appropriate music oil for your instrument will depend upon several factors including the age and condition of the valves. The purpose of a valve oil is to facilitate a hydrodynamic barrier between the valves and the casing, thus preventing metal to metal contact. It should promote speed by reducing friction and aid in preventing oxidation/corrosion.
Steiner Music’s synthetic oils are designed specifically with those factors in mind and they are also long lasting, water repelling and provide good lubricity and high film strength, as well as low evaporation, and resistance to emulsion formation.