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Sort Out Sticky Valves Without Using Valve Oil - 5 Ways Brass Players Probably Haven't Tried

Other than trombone players, all other brass players at some point in their lives have suffered from sticky valves. It could be a daily occurrence for some people or it could have been that once in a lifetime valve stick that ruined a performance you were giving.

I am also not referring to rotary valves here, sorry French horn players! This post is for piston valves ideally but some of it could definitely be relevant to both.

Whatever your experience of valves on brass instruments, your answer is probably to reach for the valve oil. But, what if that is not the only thing you can do? In this blog post I will give you 5 ways that you can sort out your sticking valve problems without using valve oil.

**Word of warning though, it may take a different belief and different approach to what you are used too.

Sticky valve euphonium
That darn sticky valve!

I have nothing against valve oil, it is a useful accessory to have and I am not suggesting that you never use it. Dealing with sticky valves is something I have dealt with in the past but currently I am very grateful to be in a position where I rarely reach for the valve oil.

Times I might use valve oil is with an instrument that has been left for a long time or from checking the valve it looks very dry, a little oil can help get it going.

Something I have never done is get into conversations about which valve oil is best. If you have time to think about that then you are not practicing enough!

Danger to Health

I also know for a fact that some brass players overuse or misuse their valve oil to a point where it probably makes the valves worse and also increases the chances of smelling, tasting and breathing in valve oil vapours, which is not good for your health. I appreciate there are many brands of valve oil, are some better than others, I am not sure.

Look at the image below, can you believe it states this on the bottle in addition to other warnings on the other side:

Danger: Combustible, harmful or fatal if swallowed.

Fatal valve oil
Fatal if swallowed!!


There are a few pre-requisites I want to mention which are basic common sense but before getting into the main body of this blog post it will be useful to make sure you can say yes to all of these points.

  • My valves are kept clean, there is no debris on the valves or in the valve casing.

  • There is no existing damage to my instrument which could be impacting my valves.

  • My instrument is in use and not sat in the loft or garage.

It is rare you can pick up an instrument that has not been used for a long time and the valves be just fine. The exception to this is my wife's old UK made Besson Sovereign Eb tenor horn which seems to be immune to any valve issues regardless of anything! Lucky her!

This is the case with some older instruments and as is often said:

"They just don't make them like they used too."

If you buy a cheap brass instrument, the likelihood is that you will have problems with the valves. The problems are fundamental problems, out of your control, based on the design and manufacture of the instrument and the materials used.

Tenor horn valves
Old tenor horn, zero valve issues!

So, let's get into my 5 ways to sort out sticky valves that most brass players may not have tried.

1) Practice Daily

This sounds like a very obvious one but be true to yourself here. How many times have you been playing your instrument, getting frustrated about sticky valves but have not taken the instrument out of the case since the last rehearsal last week?

Your valves like a clean environment. Playing your instrument will help keep moisture moving through the instrument so it won't dry out. Even if you are not playing your instrument daily, get it out of the case and wiggle the valves for a few minutes, it will help a lot.

Get into a good practice routine, it will not only sort out your sticky valves (in conjunction with the other points below) but it will make you a better player. You will enjoy playing your instrument more and you will get closer to reaching your potential. If you need help getting into a practice routine, get in touch with me for a one off lesson.

2) Keep Felt Pads Dry

In many cases, excessive liquid in the instrument can cause your valves to stick. Your valve is happy when nothing gets in its way, so it is free to go up and down as it is designed to do. But, it is tight inside the valve casing. Any dirt, dust, water and even air can impact its ability to function smoothly. Try these things before looking for valve oil:

  • Never oil down the stem, it saturates the felt pad (see pic) and will cause stickiness.

  • Make sure all valve felt pads are bone dry. Remove them and let them dry or use some kitchen roll to squeeze out any moisture.

  • Check for waterlogging. Remove the valve and turn the instrument upside down to remove any water that is stuck inside the valve casing.

  • Empty all water before returning the instrument to the case.

  • Keep the instrument the correct way up all the time. Never put it down on its bell.

Felt pad

3) Correct Finger Posture

I teach young beginners all the time. If I use their valves, they are perfect, if they use their valves (with small, weak fingers) their valves keep sticking. These are the things I tell them to try:

  • You must press and release your valve fast. This will help put more energy in the spring and help it fly back up again.

  • You must press each valve directly down, with finger weight directly above the centre spot. Never press the valve top down from the side of the valve button. It will stick.

  • Place each finger on each valve top and never let them move off.

  • Make your fingers like little bridges which pivot from the knuckle.

  • Make the exact same finger motion every time, teach your instrument the correct way to behave.

In some cases sticky valves are caused by your fingers. You have to accept this, stop blaming your instrument and fix your own poor finger posture.

4) Change Your Beliefs

I am not a superstitious person really but I have developed a few beliefs related to sticky valves. You may well think I am a bit weird here but I don't care and you should give it a try.

  • I never obsess about my valves, I imagine they are like piano keys or guitar frets.

  • If you believe your valves will stick, then they will.

  • If I keep my instrument polished, the valves never stick.

  • If I have correct posture, my valves never stick.

  • If I make a full, rich, projected sound, with positive airflow, my valves never stick.

Think what you want about this point, but all of these thoughts will enter my mind first before I think about using valve oil.

5) Check Valve Guides

Inside your valve casing (the tube where the valve goes up and down) there will be a thin vertical groove. The valve guide has a small bit that lines up with this groove and it keeps the valve perfectly aligned. Some instruments have valve guides made from plastic and they can wear down.

The simple way to test your valve guide is to hold the valve button and see if it wiggles left and right. Ideally there should be no wiggle at all, the guide should be as snug as possible with the groove. This will help stop any debris getting in there and will make sure the valve never sticks.

The challenge is, to find the right amount of snugness and it might mean using a nail file to slightly file a brand new guide down to the exact correct point. Most instruments will never have this level of preciseness even from brand new. A good repairer or any professional player that has had anything to do with instrument design 'could' be able to help you.

Readers Suggestions

Thank you to those readers who have commented or messaged me about other tips. One that has been mentioned by a few people is this:

It is often useful to unscrew the valve caps before putting your instrument away. Good advice!


I hope you have enjoyed this blog post. Please comment below with any sticky valve experiences or more tips.

Please share and like the blog post, I wish you good luck! ❤

Mark Glover


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4 commentaires

31 déc. 2023

I put my B&H Imperial in the loft in 1984 and took it back out in 2022 and was amazed to find that all valves and slides worked fine, albeit a bit dry. Just one bottom valve cap was stuck and needed a bit of work to free. It does feel bullet proof compared to my new Geneva Cardinal

31 déc. 2023
En réponse à

Wish I had one of those in my loft!


31 déc. 2023

Here's a tip I learned from Charley Brighton: If you're leaving your instrument for any significant time (eg you're away for the weekend or vacation), release the valves to remove the compression on the valve springs. This prevents the valve and instrument from welding to each other.

31 déc. 2023
En réponse à

Great advice, thanks Robin, added to the blog 'readers suggestions' 😃

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