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Strike Up the Band: Find Brass and Woodwinds at Estate Sales

We’ve talked about what to look for when shopping estate sales for a secondhand piano. The effort and expense that goes into buying one, bringing it home, and making it playable can be overwhelming but rewarding.

But estate sales are not only a great place to find instruments that may or may not ultimately serve no other purpose beyond holding houseplants and adding a little class to a room. It’s also a great place to find smaller, more manageable instruments. Why, you could equip an entire marching band with instruments you find at estate sales! You could sign your entire family up for music lessons and start a 4th wave ska band called Redheaded Superman. Or maybe put on your own rendition of The Music Man, and really bring “Seventy-Six Trombones” to life.

But first, of course, you need the trombones. And the cornets (whatever those are). And horns of every shape and kind.

Shopping at estate sales, you’ll come across instruments in a variety of conditions, from the impeccably-maintained collections of music lovers, to old high school band instruments that have sat quietly in closets and basements after graduation. So let’s talk about some of the things you need to look for when it comes to shopping for secondhand brass and woodwind instruments. We turned to Bryan Wolfe of Heritage Music Repair in Kansas City, MO, for insight. He brings 20 years of experience to the 30-year-old repair and restoration shop.

He’s also seen his share of secondhand scores from people hoping to save some money on an instrument, or find a hidden treasure. “We get people coming in here a lot saying ‘We bought this instrument for $100, and it’s 100 years old so it must be worth $1000,’” he said, “when in reality they overpaid for it.”

So he was kind enough to provide some suggestions when it comes to shopping at estate sales for a brass or woodwind instrument.

Before you start shopping, you should familiarize yourself with the instrument. If this is your first time buying a flute or a clarinet—perhaps you or a loved one are just beginning to take interest—you need to be aware of the instrumen's various parts, so you know what to look for, which is…

Missing / immovable pieces
“With brass instruments, you want to make sure all the parts are there,” Wolfe said, “and make sure all the parts that are supposed to move, are moving.” Replacement parts for instruments can get expensive. If you find out too late that your flute is missing a headpiece, you’ll cancel out the savings trying to replace it. And as far as movement is concerned, the more that’s stuck, the more it will cost to repair.

Not all dents are dealbreakers. It all depends on their location and severity. The type of dents will be indicative of the treatment they received from their original owner. A few small dents on a trombone bell might mean a high school band member might have been a little to enthusiastic practicing suicides (much to the chagrin of those standing to his left or right). But such dents can be repaired, or maybe even ignored, if the instrument is going to someone likely to dent it again themselves. But a more severe issue, like a bent slide, is likely indicative of carelessness—perhaps desperation to get out of band practice—and is not a sign of a good, reparable instrument.

When it comes to woodwinds, cracks can be an issue. Small ones may go undetected by an untrained eye, and, in many cases, can be easily repaired. But “a big crack means the wood has not been generally taken care of,” Wolfe said. “If it’s cracked open, it’s ruined the bore and . . .it’s generally not worth anything as far as a playable instrument.”

Worn pads
Worn out pads happen to all instruments at sometime or another, and getting them replaced isn’t unusual. But if the instrument has been sitting dormant for years, those worn pads can be a sign of something more sinister.

“If you see pads that are dried out, cracked, or have holes in them, the next thing you want to look for is bugs,” Wolfe said. The pads, which contain wool, tend to attract the type of bugs that like to nibble on fiber—moths and the like. Wolfe suggests checking the instrument case for signs of life, or former life.

Many instruments are either silver- or nickel-plated, and over time, that plating can wear off. In most cases, this isn’t an issue, and replating isn’t necessary. But, Wolfe warns, with instruments such as the flute, it can be. “If the plating is missing on the headjoint—the lip plate—then it’s probably best to avoid that, because it’s not good to have raw brass or raw nickel against your skin.” Brass and nickel allergies are fairly common, he explained, and can develop over time if you frequently come in contact with raw metal.

It’s as possible that you’ll come across an instrument with considerable wear and tear as it is you’ll come across one in near-perfect condition. You should consider beforehand how much you’re willing to spend on the instrument. When you make this decision, you should also consider the cost for upkeep and playability.

Brand matters. As does age. While more modern instruments tend to have relatively universal parts (particularly mouthpieces), more antique instruments have harder-to-find pieces. “The pieces aren’t always generic sizes. There are some that are, but there are definitely pieces that can be very specific to an instrument, and one from one brand won’t fit another brand,” Wolfe said. Knowing that ahead of time can help you make the best decision for your situation. Thanks to photographs and ample descriptions from estate sale companies on EstateSales.NET, you can usually get the details needed to research ahead of time.

“Go to a music store or a repair shop and see what they charge to fix things,” Wolfe said. And inquire about cleaning, too. It might not be as imperative on a newer instrument, but mold, dust, and mildew can gather in a dormant instrument, and that’s not something you necessarily want to breathe in on the regular.

While vigilance is important when shopping estate sales for a quality instrument that will give you years of enjoyment, it’s worth it. The potential to save a considerable amount of money is great, of course. But what’s more, you have yet another excuse to attend multiple estate sales. And isn’t that reason enough?

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