• Collection of brass whistles with varying levels of tarnishing and patina

How to Care for your Brass Whistle

Published: March 5, 2021

Worried customers will sometimes contact me to ask what’s wrong with their tin whistle.

The ‘problem’ is always the same. The whistle has developed black spots or dark circles around the finger holes and begun to tarnish.

Our poor customers are always worried that the whistle is faulty, or they’ve done something wrong.

The good news however is that this is perfectly normal.

Brass tin whistles tarnish. It’s a fact of life. All brass instruments will experience this. Whether you play your whistle every day, or leave it lying neglected in its case for longer than you should, it will tarnish.

Some players are more than happy to embrace this worn look, wearing it as a badge of honour. Others prefer to return their whistle to its former glory.

If you’d like to learn how to care for your tin whistle, read on. We’ll have it looking like new in no time at all.

Patina

Collection of brass whistles with varying levels of tarnishing and patina

What may look like stains, blemishes or scratches is actually something called a patina.

Patina is a common form of tarnishing that occurs on all brass instruments, and indeed on any object made of brass, copper or bronze. The brass reacts to oils on our skin, and even the oxygen in the air. It’s perfectly normal to see fingerprints around the finger holes and underneath the body of the whistle where our thumbs rest.

While the word patina may be new to you, I guarantee you’re already familiar with this process. One hugely famous example is the Statue of Liberty!

This giant symbol of freedom was originally a shining golden beacon. As it’s made from copper however, over time, the weathering of the brass has created a thin layer of copper carbonate or, patina. This has resulted in the statue developing its iconic green hue.

Although some people were worried that the changing colour of the statue meant it was decaying, the patina actually protects the copper underneath from further corrosion.

So there’s no need to worry. Lady Liberty herself has experienced this same phenomenon.

The patina is a form of corrosion designed to protect your instrument. So that tarnishing on the surface is actually protecting the brass underneath. It won’t cause any damage, or change the sound of your whistle.

Many players choose to embrace this aged, ‘played-in’ look. If you’d prefer to have your whistle looking shiny and new however, read on.

How to Care for Your Tin Whistle

John O'Brien in the Setanta Whistle Workshop in McNeela Instruments

Keep It Clean

Your tin whistle loves a good clean now and then – especially the fipple or mouthpiece. So every so often you should pour it a nice glass of wine, fetch it a good book and draw it a bath.

You can wash your whistle in warm water (not too hot or you may cause warping), with a mild dish soap, or wipe it down with a damp cloth. This will remove the buildup of grease, oils and any bacteria that may be lurking.

Once it’s dry, you can then work on regaining its lustrous shine.

Tin Whistle Polish

The good news is that brass, and brass musical instruments, can be polished.

You can polish your tin whistle using any non-abrasive brass polish and a soft cloth. Though I do recommend using a polish that has been developed with musical instruments in mind so you don’t cause any unintentional damage.

With some polish and TLC, your whistle will shine like new in no time!

Setanta whistles - collection of Irish whistles

Before you polish your whistle however, there are a few things you should know:

Lacquered Brass

Many brass whistles come with a thin layer of varnish to protect them from tarnishing. If your brass whistle has been lacquered, polishing will only cause the protective layer to peel.

A lacquered tin whistle won’t tarnish as much as non-lacquered brass (or at all if you’re lucky). So if there’s very little discolouration occurring, chances are it’s already been given a protective seal.

You can use a soft cloth to remove any smudges or fingerprints that may occur. Lacquered brass whistles can also be cleaned with a damp cloth and a mild dish soap.

Brass vs Brass Plated

How can you tell if an instrument is brass or brass plated? Simple. Use a magnet to check.

A magnet won’t stick to a brass instrument, but it will stick to a brass plated one.

Like lacquered brass, brass plated whistles shouldn’t be polished.

Polishing a brass plated whistle may damage and erode the brass plating. Instead, give it a mild cleaning with a damp cloth and a mild dish soap.

Collection of brass whistles with varying levels of tarnishing and patina - how to care for your Irish whistle

Regular Workout

Polishing your instrument is not a one-off solution.

Once you’ve polished your brass whistle, you’ll notice that its new sheen will fade after a few weeks and the patina will most likely continue to develop.

Regular polishing is the only thing that will keep your whistle looking like new.

This is why many seasoned whistle players don’t bother with the process at all. They’d rather spend the time playing or learning new tunes. The choice is yours.

Some will also argue that you shouldn’t polish your whistle too regularly as this removes its natural protective corrosion. I would say, just don’t be overly eager! Be gentle with the whistle (as you would be with any musical instrument), and don’t over-polish.

What Polish Should I Use?

You’ll come across a number of answers to this question, depending on who you ask. If you search online, you’ll find some particularly interesting suggestions for alternative homemade polishes or substitute substances.

Many will swear by toothpaste, tomato sauce or homemade concoctions of baking soda and vinegar but I say play it safe and go for a reliable, trusted brand of polish.

Any non-abrasive polish will work but I recommend investing in a simple, inexpensive polish specifically designed for brass musical instruments like this Hagerty Copper, Bronze & Brass Polish.

Other polishes can contain harsh chemicals that may cause damage to your whistle.

Nickel and Aluminium Whistles

While I’ve only talked about brass whistles so far, aluminium and nickel whistles can and do tarnish but it’s far more unusual.

Nickel is typically more resistant to corrosion than brass is. I’ve found nickel whistles don’t tarnish nearly as much or as quickly as brass whistles do.

Nickel tarnish in particular can be quite difficult to remove, so if your nickel plated whistle is developing a patina I would simply embrace it.

Of course you can follow the steps outlined above to clean and care for your whistle, but polishing won’t be as effective, so you may just need to embrace its worn aesthetic.

Last Legs

While superficial blemishes are nothing to worry about, cracks or dents can affect the tuning and tone of your whistle. If you notice a change in the tone that no amount of playing or cleaning can fix, then it may be time to replace or upgrade your whistle.

The good news is that buying a high quality tin whistle at an affordable price has never been easier. Our own shop is overflowing with beautiful whistles that are keen for you to give them a loving home.

The Setanta Whistle designed by our in-house whistle maker John O’Brien is a premium luxury whistle at an entry level price. These whistles offer a clear, bright tone, excellent response and superb tuning – everything a whistle player needs to take them all the way to the professional level.

Meanwhile, our new McNeela Wild Irish Whistle has been in such high demand that it’s already sold out more than once in its short lifetime.

This beauty of this whistle is that it’s perfect for any level of player and will surprise you with how easy it is to play. Like the Setanta, it offers a superb bright tone and requires very little air to fill. It makes playing an absolute breeze.

Why not browse our full range of tin whistles in our Online Whistle Store. We have something for everyone, and there’s no such thing as owning too many whistles!

Posted by McNeela

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