A very common problem when it comes to trumpets can be pesky slides that get stuck in the instrument.
This could be the main tuning slide, or any one of the valve slides as well.
We'll discuss what causes slides to get stuck in the first place as well as some common DIY methods for unsticking the slide.
Before we proceed, I do want to recommend that you consider taking your instrument to a local repair shop. While there are some common repairs like fixing a stuck trumpet mouthpiece that are relatively harmless, slides potentially pose more risk to your instrument.
I liken this to home repair. There are some repairs you can safely make on your own, and others you should leave to a professional. If you choose to proceed on your own, just be aware of some of the risks.
What Causes A Stuck Trumpet Slide?
A trumpet slide can be stuck because dirt or other residue gets wedged inside of the slide and especially when compounded over time, can make it difficult to remove the slide.
The trumpet slide may also be stuck due to some misalignment or a dent from a dropped or hit instrument.
And of course, the main reason being the slide was not properly lubricated.
When a slide is left in a single position for an extended period of time (and no, we're not talking years here, it could be as little as a week) the slide grease dries up. The whole reason we use valve oil in piston valves and slide grease on slides is to lubricate the surfaces, to prevent bare metal from touching and rubbing against bare metal.
When the lubricant dries up, the inner tubes of the slides are exposed to organic lime and scale growth, which attacks the zinc alloy in the brass.
Unfortunately, if you're not regularly moving, cleaning, and applying grease to your slides, the buildup will cause the slide to stick in place before you've attended to it.
DIY Methods For Unsticking Trumpet Slides
Leverage: Pulling With A Towel
Perhaps the single most discussed method for unsticking trumpet slides is by using some kind of object, like a towel, inserted through the crook of the tuning slide and applying pressure to dislodge the slide from the instrument.
Some people recommend quick, short pulls, while others prefer a single strong motion to dislodge it.
In terms of the material inserted through the slide, it tends to be a towel for the main tuning slide, and a flat material like a flat waxed shoelace for the valve slides.
The problem with this method is that, while well-intentioned, can apply too much pressure and stress or break solder joints and braces.
Or let's say you're trying to pull out the second valve slide. While you may prove successful in removing the slide, it's so common to have the slide fly across the room and get dented, or whack against the valve casings and thus dent the casing and affect the valve action.
Then you'll find yourself at a repair shop with a dented valve casing and a dented slide, all for something that could have been resolved by properly removing the slide in the first place.
Leverage: Using A Stick
Rather than wrapping a towel through the slide and pulling, some people take a drum stick that has been whittled down to be positioned in the crook of the valve slide.
Then they use a hammer to knock on the stick in an attempt to start to push the slide out.
But unfortunately, this can cause unintentional damage to the interior of the slides.
Freezing The Trumpet
This one sounds pretty crazy, but some trumpet players have had success putting their trumpet in the freezer.
They typically start by removing any extra valves and slides that aren't the offending ones, sticking the horn in a freezer overnight, and then using the towel method above to attempt to pull out the slide.
The issue here is that it may cause braces to snap off the trumpet. Making the trumpet cold may help with the slides, but can also cause it to be more brittle when pulling on the horn.
Oil & Heat
I didn't bring up the previous techniques to discourage anyone. They have, after all, been used to varying degrees of success by many trumpet players.
But for every trumpet player that has successfully removed a stuck slide with these techniques, you'll probably find a few others that have managed to damage their trumpets in the process.
In fact, repairing stuck trumpet slides can be some of the more expensive repairs that technicians complete. And I think most repair technicians can agree that this is not due to the time and materials needed to complete the repair by itself, but rather to try to fix the attempts that students, parents, and teachers have made that have inadvertently caused additional damage along the way.
So here it is, the number one recommended technique that will help prevent additional damage to your trumpet:
You'll want to pick up a penetrating oil. Note that penetrating oil is not the same as your valve or slide oil. A number of them are made for automotive use, but there are a couple of specialized versions for instrument repair. Penetrating oil has a number of unique properties that are helpful for unsticking brass slides: it can creep into the smallest little gaps in the instrument, it breaks up the bonds of the mineral deposits, and it can lubricate the slide to make it easier to move. A penetrating oil such as Ferree's Corrosion Cracker can seep into openings as small as a millionth of an inch. There are a number of other penetrating oils available, but you'll want to make sure you select one that reacts to the application of heat and won't harm the finish of your instrument.
You'll want to oil the place where the two tubes connect. Here you may find that there is some material build up. You can be fairly liberal while adding drops of oil to this area, but stop if it is starting to drip down the outside of the instrument.
Some people have success with simply letting the oil do its job overnight, and then attempting to remove the slide. But chances are, if the slide is pretty solidly stuck on there that you'll want to administer heat to make it more effective. You can use a small torch, hot air gun, or even a blow dryer to apply heat. If you use a torch, you'll want to use a low setting and keep adjusting the location of the flame as to not place the flame on the oil itself. The goal is that the heat will help the outer tube of the slide to expand enough to let the warmed oil to seep into it.
Set the instrument aside to let it cool. I typically leave the horn overnight, but you could check within a few hours. You may find yourself needing to repeat the above steps a few different rounds in order to break up all the gunk and allow the slide to move.
If you're successful, make sure to clean the slide before reassembly. If you're still unable to free the slide, it's probably time to go to the pros.