Horns contain dozens of parts with nickel. Nickel silver parts contain between 12 and 18% nickel, the rest is copper and zinc, sometimes with about 3% lead, no silver! The use of nickel silver parts is very practical, as this alloy is very stable, durable, with 3% lead easy to drill, and its colour fits to all other alloys, to yellow brass, gold brass and sterling silver. But the nickel content can make horn playing a hell or even impossible if the player has a nickel allergy, which is not rare at all. Probably a considerable number of players don’t know that their allergic reaction results from nickel in their instruments. (foreword by Engelbert Schmid)
Martin Gottschalk (solohorn, "Sønderjyllands Symfoniorkester") interviews his colleague Lars Kristiansen (2nd horn, "Sønderjyllands Symfoniorkester") and the hornmaker Engelbert Schmid.
G to K: How serious was the problem with the nickel allergy?
K: It was about to get very serious, but I stopped playing my horn in time. I’ve had nickel allergy since I was about 12, I noticed that I couldn’t wear a necklace. When I started to play horn at the age of 15, I didn’t have any problems the first couple of years. As far as I remember I was about 20 before I reacted on my fingers from the bell - the lacquer was worn off...And I played a nickel silver instrument all that time. The next 10 years I used finger gloves and that worked fine, but then at the age of 31 I started to get many allergic reactions. I started to get wounds in my mouth approx. every third week, a very dry mouth and sometimes even a burning sensation in my mouth. I also got a lot of other symptoms, like headaches, weak burning sensations in all my body (like the flu) especially in the top of my head, and on my right thigh (I thought this could be a reaction to my car keys). Worst of all I was very tired. Later I found out that I had also developed grass-allergy and that I was allergic to food with a high content of nickel, like nuts, soy, and chocolate.
G to S: How did you react on the first inquiry?
S: It came by e-mail, so first I could think a little about it, and then I wanted to know how serious the inquiry was, and whether there was allergy to other metals as well.
K: Mr Engelbert Schmid was very serious and interested in it from the beginning. I was in contact with a couple of other horn makers as well and the only help they could give me was to make a golden cover over the outside of my instrument, which wouldn’t help much because I reacted from breathing through the instrument, a habit I couldn’t get rid off if I were to hold a professional level.
I was interested in a completely nickel free horn.
S: I told Mr Kristiansen that if I should make a nickel free horn, I would not compromise in any way, i.e. I would replace all parts containing nickel. When I made a list of the parts to be replaced, I was very surprised myself to see that there were more than 40 parts on a double horn containing nickel. For instance, even the steel springs, the steel axes and the stainless screws contained nickel. I saw that it would become very costly to replace all these parts consistently in the same precision and similar durability. It was clear that I could not charge the extra costs at only 1 horn, and that I could not get or make the parts only for 1 horn. We needed for example extra made tubes for the valve casings and for the slides, which is not possible in that small quantity. The organisation was extremely time consuming. As an example just a normal water key consists of 4 parts containing nickel. Within the time we invested in this horn, we could have built 2 triple horns, costing much less for the material. But I wanted to help Mr Kristiansen and promised to make such a horn, completely without nickel.
G to K: Do you have any allergic reactions any more?
K: As I mentioned earlier I’ve developed allergy to nickel in food as well, but I can control it. And as long as I can control my lust for mainly chocolate and nuts I don’t feel reactions any longer. Concerning the direct reactions to my instrument there are none what so ever, and it is nice to be able to play without the finger gloves. Mr Engelbert Schmid even supplied me with a nickel free gig bag and flight case.
G to S: Is there no trace of nickel in the materials you used?
S: Obviously, practically not, as Mr Kristiansen does not have any reactions at all. But the suppliers of the raw material admit that there might be up to 0,3% nickel in the yellow brass alloy. I told Mr Kristiansen, and that’s why he ordered the horn with a sterling silver corpus, i.e. bell flare, bell tail, first branch, lead pipe and hand guards made of sterling silver (92,5% silver, 7,5% copper, no trace of nickel).
These are the parts, which you touch most often on the horn. We silver-plated the YB finger plates and levers, and the whole horn was especially carefully lacquered, in order to guarantee practically no contact at all with nickel. I personally think that a brass corpus, carefully lacquered would serve as well in many cases. [K: I think this would not work in my case - otherwise most instrument makers don’t lacquer their instruments carefully. It also depends on the sweat you produce, I know of people who can sweat through metal.]
G to S: Then for many cases a normal horn with nickel parts, but without damage in the lacquer would solve the problem also?
S: No, certainly not. For instance, you get in touch with the oil coming from the nickel containing steel axis, and most crucial if you inhale some air from inside the instrument.
G to K: How did the instrument finally work? Do you like it?
K: Yes, I like it a lot. It’s completely different from the one I used to play (Holton Farkas), but after a period of "getting used to" I really wouldn’t change back. I think that this is indeed a professional horn. Very reliable on intonation as well as splendid tone quality, much better slurs, it’s easy to play fast - good positions of the valve levers. I’ve had some problems with the valve casings as they are made of brass, but it may just be until I learn to oil it right, I might suggest making the horn with titanium valve casings as the optimal solution. Other than that it’s a very nice horn to look at with the yellow brass, gold brass and silver combination, and I’ve gotten quite a few comments on that from my colleagues. (S: Mainly the bearings decide about easy running valves. A titanium valve case would be absolutely unpractical and would not change anythingat the velocity of the valves!)
G to S: Are these characteristics due to the lack of nickel in the horn?
S: No, not at all. Mr Kristiansen ordered a wide sterling silver bell, that’s why it sounds this way. It would be possible to get a nickel free Engelbert-Schmid horn with all the sound variations offered (see Schallbecher/ Bells ). The rest of the characteristics are typical for Engelbert-Schmid horns. The challenge was to make a nickel free horn with the acoustical and playing characteristics of a normal Engelbert-Schmid horn. There are big temptations to make compromises, cheaper but damaging to the quality of the horn.
G to S: Can you make all of your models nickel free now?
S: Yes, it’s no problem to make also a triple horn or whatever model nickel free now. As we make everything within the scope of instrument making from the bell to the valves ourselves, we have the flexibility now to make every model nickel free.
Letter of a Canadian customer who bought a nickel-free horn in 2007
Dear Engelbert Schmid,
after 6 months of playing on my sterling-silver, nickel-free horn, I wanted to write a note of thanks to you and your production team. Every day I admire your craftmanship and fall in love with this horn all over again. I have had no problems with my nickel-allergy since I began playing this instrument – it has given me back my carreer and my life, and I´m eternally grateful!