How to fix a sticky trumpet valve?

Posted in Trumpets | Last Updated on June 3, 2019

a man holding a trumpet in his hands and fixing one of the valves

Help! I think my Trumpet’s Broken!

Every instrument has its own needs when it comes to being looked after. Each offers its own challenges, and some are much easier to look after than others. Though this article applies to all valve instruments, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably a trumpet player.

Congratulations! You’ve chosen one of the easier instruments to look after! However, that doesn’t mean your life with your trumpet will be problem free, so let’s answer one of the most common problems when you pick up a trumpet: How to fix a trumpet valve.

Why Have I Got a Sticky Valve in the First Place?

A trumpet is made almost entirely of metal components. The majority of these parts are static and generally, cause fewer issues. However, just like your car or bike, it’s the moving parts that cause the issues. With these metal parts interlocking, it’s essential to have some form of lubricant so that they can move freely.

If your valve is stuck it’s because there’s a lack of oil in the valve chamber, or because debris has built up around the valve. Using some valve oil should fix and prevent both of these from happening.

Why Can’t I Play with a Sticky Valve?

A sticky valve makes it very difficult to play, or sometimes impossible. Often the valve will first show signs of sticking as you’re playing. You will notice a sluggish release after playing a note, or sometimes worse, the valve will rise really slowly causing airflow issues through the instrument - stopping you from nailing that passage that was so close to perfect!

If the symptoms are worse than this, often the valve will stay stuck down and refuse to move. At this point, you really need to be working out how to oil your trumpet valves!

What Do I Need to Oil My Trumpet Valves?

The trumpet has two types of moving part. First, are the valves as we’ve discussed. The second, the slides. Whilst both of these have metal parts moving against each other, they DO NOT use the same type of lubricant.

When you’re lubricating the main slide and the 2nd valve slide, you want to be using a slide grease type product. This will often come in a pot as a solid substance.

Using slide grease will ensure that you can move the slides as needed for tuning and maintenance, but as they are not moved whilst playing, they stay in place.

When you’re oiling your valves you want to be using a ‘valve oil’ type product. These will be a liquid and are often petroleum or silicon-based. They almost always come in a bottle with a small opening to help you apply the oil.

Their liquid nature allows the area around the valve to stay airtight. Its water-like behavior also allows it to move away debris from the important areas, helping prevent a sticky trumpet valve.

When it comes to the 1st/3rd valve tuning slides (the ones with the finger rings!), it’s often down to player preference, and the feel of your horn. If you’re using the slide regularly, using oil rather than grease is likely to give you a much quicker response.

However, if your horn has quite a loose feel to that slide, applying oil could make it feel too loose, in which case a grease may give it a little more resistance and help you feel in control. Some players use both together, and some use one or the other. Why not give it a go and see what works best for you?

Once you have the right types of lubricant, you may want a cloth to lie beneath the trumpet whilst oiling (as with any oily substance it’s difficult to remove from anything you didn’t intend on it touching!)

How to Oil Trumpet Valves?

different types of oils in the foreground and a trumpet in the background

Now we get into how to fix a trumpet valve!

Often the valves will be numbered themselves, but think of them as in order 1 through to 3 (1 being at the mouthpiece side, and 3 at the bell side). It’s easiest to work backwards from 3 to one as you can most easily check the airflow. You want to be checking the airflow after every valve you adjust, as this will save you time later in problem-solving - particularly helpful if you’re under the pressure of a show! If the air flows through as it would normally, your valve is good to go, so continue onto the next valve.

Step #1
To start the process of fixing your sticky trumpet valve, you want to angle the trumpet slightly downwards as you do when playing. This will help spread the lubricant across the valve.

Step #2
Begin opening the valve casing by twisting the ring at the top of the valve casing. This ring will be beneath the buttons that sit on the top of the valves. (If you undo the buttons accidentally screw them back on as soon as possible - they’re easily lost!)

Step #3
Start pulling up the valve by gently pulling on the valve button. If it gets stuck, gently twisting the valve should help release it.

Step #4
Don't remove the valve fully and try not to rotate it. Pulling it up should reveal the workings of the valve, including the spring, the valve guide and the valve itself (section with holes at the bottom).

Step #5
Apply between 2 and 4 drops of oil to the valve (depending on how sticky it is). Let the oil run down the length of the valve to ensure its fully lubricated.

Step #6
Drop the valve back down into its casing. Reseal it using the ring at the top of the valve. Check the airflow. If you’ve got airflow you’re good to go. If you don’t, you may need to rotate the valve until you hear a clicking noise, which is the valve guide clicking into place. You should now have airflow and be ready to apply this same process to the other valves!

That’s all there is to fixing your sticky trumpet valve.

It’s worth noting that every couple of months, you might want to consider taking the whole valve out of the instrument and wiping it down with a lint-free cloth. By doing this you are changing the oil completely in the instrument.

This will help remove the gunk and debris that can sometimes build up inside the valve and reduce the chances of the valve becoming sticky again any time soon. After this, the process is the same as detailed above, but make sure you put sufficient fresh oil back into your horn to keep it nice and smooth.

If You're Not Sure This is Right…

If you’re having any issues with the steps, the most important thing is not to force anything. With any instrument, the best approach is to be delicate. Most instruments are designed to slot together seamlessly, so if something is requiring excessive force in order to get it to do what you think it should, it’s probably not right!

With most of the issues you’ll encounter with a horn there are tools for the most extreme of cases. In these instances, its best to get in contact with an expert to make sure your trumpet gets the care it needs.

How Often Should I Oil My Valves?

The answer depends on the age of your trumpet!

If you have a used or older trumpet, you probably want to oil your valves twice to three times a week. This does, of course, vary with the amount that you’re playing. That should be enough to keep it speedy and smooth.

If your instrument is brand new you probably want to oil your trumpet valves once a day. This will allow the instrument to settle in and get used to the parts moving. The increased oiling means that you should also do a full oil change (as described above) once every week.

This should only be required for the duration of the first month, at which point taking the approach for an older trumpet should be enough to keep it running perfectly.

The Pathway to a Happy Horn…

Hopefully, that has given you an idea of how you can keep your trumpet feeling fresh, springy and ready for any musical task you want to throw at it. Keep in mind that the more you do any sort of maintenance to an instrument the longer it is likely to last.

Keeping your valves oiled will not only keep your valves from sticking but allow components like the spring in the valve to extend and contract in the way it’s supposed to. This should mean it lasts longer and reduces your repair and maintenance bills in the long run.

So keep a bottle of oil in your case, maybe some slide grease and make sure you’re using them regularly. Whilst your trumpet may not cost a million dollars, a well maintained cheap horn is going to feel a lot better and allow you to play better, than on a poorly kept expensive one.

Enjoy your trumpet and newfound knowledge of how to fix a sticky trumpet valve!