Not So Shiny Silver

We are often asked in the shop: “why has my new flute turned black?” One moment your silver flute is nice and shiny. The next, a cloudy colour all over. What’s going on here?

Silver. Chemical symbol Ag, atomic number 47. Used for thousands of years in ornaments, utensils, trade, and as the basis for monetary systems. In this blog we have already covered the allergic effects silver can have on the human body, but we haven’t yet covered the effects that the human body and everyday circumstances can have on silver.

Over time, silver reacts with air to produce a thin surface layer of oxidisation in the form of silver sulphide. Depending on the type of silver used, this tarnish can appear as black, brown or cloudy grey patches.

This is a totally natural process which occurs through normal use and it is not unusual for some people’s flutes to tarnish within weeks of purchase. It is not a manufacturing defect, but a property of silver. Tarnishing is purely cosmetic and does not affect the sound, but it can easily be removed with a silver polishing cloth

Silver-plated flutes are the norm for student to intermediate level instruments. These flutes have a layer of 100% pure silver to give a bright finish.

Sterling silver is the most usual metal for higher-level and pro flutes, and is formed of 92.5% silver with 7.5% other metals, often copper (100% pure silver is too soft to use in a musical instrument). With this addition of copper, you are weakening the silver’s resistance to tarnish.

Some flute manufacturers, primarily those in the Far East, use a process called “flash plating” on solid silver flutes, which involves silver-plating (again, with 100% silver) on top of the Sterling silver. This results in a brighter finish than Sterling, and has the benefit of slowing down the tarnishing process.

Many American flute companies do not use flash plating, so these flutes will react differently. If there is a spell of hot humid weather, the tarnish can appear much more quickly, sometimes overnight.

As a result, players who move from a Japanese flute to an American flute are often surprised to find thatf their new flute needs more regular polishing than their old one.

What can cause tarnishing?

As I mentioned, tarnishing is a natural reaction of silver with air. There are other things that speed up the process:

  • Acid in fingerprints. This varies from individual to individual, but it is a fact of life that everyone’s skin’s oil contains acids. Some people have more than others (which is why some people can turn a flute black almost by looking at it!), and these people need to take more care with their instrument.
  • Heat. As with most chemical reactions (think back to your school chemistry lessons spent with a bunsen burner), heat speeds up the process, so the tarnishing process is often faster in summer.
  • Moisture. Your breath contains hydrogen sulphide (the main ‘tarnishing agent’ in air), and any moisture left in the flute or case will speed up the tarnishing process.

While you cannot escape tarnishing entirely, you can help keep it at bay. This is why we recommend thorough cleaning of your flute both inside and out after you finish playing, and keeping it in its case when not in use. You can buy anti-tarnish strips (which work by absorbing the hydrogen sulphide in the air) to slow down the process, but at the end of the day, it is nothing to worry about and certainly doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the flute or the quality of the silver. In fact, it’s a sign that your lovely shiny flute is definitely silver!

Unless like some people, you find you prefer the tarnished look (trust me they’re out there), a silver polishing cloth will usually do the trick.