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Cymbals, like anything else in life, do not last forever. And in certain conditions, they will degrade quite quickly.
So, why are your cymbals turning green?
Drum cymbals turn green due to oxidation of copper. In essence, the cymbals are rusting. However, unlike iron, which oxides into the reddish color we all know, copper oxides into a green color.
Let’s take a look at what’s going on here with your cymbals. We’ll also look at some great remedies and preventive measures, so stick around, no pun intended.
It should be understood that although copper is the base element that makes most cymbals, the cymbals are typically an alloy. Alloys are combinations of metals forming composition or mixture of metals.
Five Standard Alloys for Drum Cymbals
- Bell Bronze
- Malleable Bronze
- Nickel Silver
- Signature Bronze
All of these copper alloys will oxidize over time. The most popular alloy used for cymbals is B20 Bronze. It is the alloy that allegedly produces the best sound. However, other alloys produce great sounds, so this is a matter of preference. Let us take a quick look at each type.
Also called bell metal, this alloy is used traditionally for making thin cymbals, gongs, and bells. This alloy is more brittle than other alloys. This feature provides the traditional resonance of the gong, or bell, allowing the sound to ring out.
Brass cymbals are typically the cheapest and only used for beginner cymbals or of china-type cymbals. The sound is known to be warm but dull, and the cymbals never last long. They often develop cracks on either the outside edge of the cymbal or the mounting hole in the center.
This alloy of tin and copper is commonly found in sheet form and is readily available. The composition of tin added to this alloy is typically 8%. The alloy is usually called B8 but is referred to by Paiste as 2002 alloy.
Cymbals made with nickel and copper are often called nickel silver cymbals. These are comprised of copper with about 12% nickel. Usually, it is only used for beginner cymbals or some very specialized high-end cymbals. Modern gongs are often made with this alloy.
Signature bronze is an alloy that was released in 1989 by the company Paiste. This alloy is annealed instead of the traditional tempering used in B20 cymbals. Signature bronze contains about 15% tin.
Which Alloys Produce Oxidation?
All forms of metal oxidize over time. Moreover, the same is true for the metals used to make cymbals. Although some specific alloys may provide better resistance to oxidation, the coating protecting the cymbals defines the time before oxidation can occur more than anything else.
Also, how the cymbal is cared for and atmospheric conditions, all play significant roles in determining how long before the cymbal’s oxidation begins.
What is Patina?
Patina is a thin layer of coating on the surface of an object. In cymbals, the patina is the thin coating of oxidation that occurs on the surface of exposed metals.
This thin coating does not prolong the life of cymbals; in fact, it is the beginning of more serious forms of corrosion. However, patina can be forced to produce a specific color in the metal’s visible exterior surface. Therefore, it is used to tarnish the alloy for one particular look.
Humidity Is Bad for Cymbals?
There are several atmospheric conditions which accelerate the corrosion and oxidation of copper alloys. These conditions are broken down into several factors.
Conditions that Cause Corrosion of Copper
- Moisture aka Humidity
Adding heat to any environment will speed up oxidation. After all, fire is a form of oxidation. In hot conditions, cymbals will have accelerated corrosion.
The acidity of an environment will affect oxidation. Although this is not usually an issue for cymbals, one can use this fact to one’s advantage. See the cleaning cymbals section below for more details about acidity and how one can use it.
The pressure is the next thing that can affect oxidation. Although this is a factor that is minimal for its effects on cymbals, cymbals kept at lower altitudes will technically oxidize faster than those maintained at high altitudes. So, get a studio high in the mountains to get the cymbals to last longer. It seems a little extreme, doesn’t it?
Lastly, the amount of moisture affects the rate of oxidation. Let us talk about why this happens.
Oxidation is a chemical reaction that occurs when oxygen starts to mix the metal’s outer surface. We know this commonly as the process of rusting.
Different environments have different levels of moisture. For example, dry air that contains little moisture still maintains high levels of oxygen. Yet, without the attached hydrogen-like in water, the oxygen cannot bond as readily with the metal as it can in the case of water.
Remember that oxidation is a chemical reaction and an exchange of electrons. Think of it this way, although lightning can travel through the air, we all know that electricity goes much easier through water than air.
That is why people do not get electrocuted, just turning on the toaster. Nevertheless, if one were to drop that toaster into the water, it would cause electrocution if one were touching the water.
Do not do this, in any case. It is a hypothetical example only meant for explanation purposes.
To summarize, the higher the humidity or moisture in the air, the faster the exposed metals will rust. It leads us right into our next section, how and what to use to clean and then protect the cymbals from rusting away into a green future.
Use These to Clean Your Cymbals
When it comes to cleaning cymbals, there are at least a dozen supposed solutions that may or may not work for your cymbals.
Some items are easy to find that may do more harm than good, and we will get to those.
Three Best Liquids to Clean Your Cymbals
- Brand Cymbal Cleaners
- Citric Acid
Brand Cymbal Cleaners
These cleaners are provided by the manufacturers of the cymbals themselves and are the best solution for cleaning cymbals. Manufacturers such as Zildjian as well as Paiste both provide polishes, cleaners, or protectors for cymbals.
These are the best solutions for the cymbals because they are designed for the cymbals alloy, and also they are designed not to remove the special coating that protects the cymbals.
These products will also not typically remove the cymbals labels, either like some products such as Brasso, which are not intended for cymbals and can actually damage the epoxy coating that protects the cymbal.
If one is a little short on cash, a simple household cleaner is readily available and obviously cheap. That is the product known as vinegar.
Vinegar is an acid—a very mild one, but an acid none the less. Acids are used to clean metals and are often a part of a pre-painting process used for many types of manufacturing metal products.
Similarly, vinegar will dissolve rust. If you have cymbals that need cleaning, vinegar is an inexpensive solution and will not often damage the protective coating or the branding or logo on the cymbal.
Another relatively inexpensive solution for cleaning cymbals is citric acid. This can be found easily in the form of lemon juice.
Like vinegar, lemon juice is a weak acidic mixture comprised mostly of water and about 5% citric acid. This acid acts in the same way vinegar does to clean your cymbals by dissolving oxidized alloy without being strong enough to damage the logo.
Note: Manufacturers do not recommend vinegar or citrus and only recommend select products provided by the cymbal manufacturer themselves.
Drum Cymbal Care 101
The critical steps to maintaining one’s cymbals can be summarized into cleaning and polishing. Also, properly transporting cymbals is equally important.
Keep your cymbals clean using a specific cleaner or one of the home solutions mentioned above. Try to avoid touching your cymbals with your bare hands. This will prevent moisture from your skin, speeding oxidation of the cymbal where you touched it.
After cleaning a cymbal, it is best to use a manufacturer recommended polish. These polishes will help coat the cymbal with a thin protective layer that will help to prevent oxidation.
Think of it this way; you get a car undercoated to help prevent rust. Polish is like a cymbals undercoat. It is a layer to protect it from rust.
In a pinch, one can use a thin layer of oil to coat the cymbal. Just be cautious not to use too much, or it may dampen the sound.
Also, cymbal polish is ONLY USED on a shiny type of cymbals. Never use cymbal polish on cymbals, which are of different alloys like those with more of a matte finish.
Cymbal Cleaning & Polishing Tips
- Always use a clean and dry cloth.
- Never touch the cleaners or polishes without wearing gloves.
- Always use eye protection when using chemicals of any kind.
- Clean and polish in the direction of the grooves in the cymbal. Never go against the grooves.
- Do not use metal cleaners that are not specific for the type of alloy, or one could damage the cymbals or remove the protective coating.
- Stephanie Pappas, “Facts About Copper” Live Science, https://www.livescience.com/29377-copper.html#:~:text=Copper%20turns%20green%20because%20of,green%20rather%20than%20orange%2Dred., Accessed July 2, 2020.
- “How to Clean Copper” DIY Network, https://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/maintenance-and-repair/cleaning/how-to-clean-copper, Accessed July 2, 2020.
- Chris Nickson, “3 Ways to Prevent Copper Corrosion” https://www.doityourself.com/stry/3-ways-to-prevent-copper-corrosion, Accessed July 2, 2020.
- Jian Li, J.W.Mayer, “Oxidation and protection in copper and copper alloy thin films” AIP Journal of Applied Physics, https://aip.scitation.org/doi/abs/10.1063/1.349344, Accessed July 2, 2020.