Silver wire

I’ve had good experience using Sterling Silver wire for the lowest notes on 17thC. English spinets. It needs to be in, at least, ‘Hard’ condition. Palmer Metals have a useful range of gauges and their delivery charges are pretty reasonable.

Here’s the link…

Glad to hear somebody’s tried this, I’ve read that they used silver strings on spinets in 17th-century Spain. How does it affect the sound?.

What is your rationale for this? You don’t like brass? A historical experiment as per Michael’s post? Does the inevitable tarnishing process affect the brightness? Do tell.

You get a very strong fundamental!

The rationale is the same as that for changing from yellow brass to red brass, to increase the density when the scaling is foreshortened. There are numerous historical references to the use of Silver strings. With regard to the 17th C. English instruments, we have, in the Talbot manuscript “Last wire argentern”. Will let you know when they’ve tarnished!

My experiment with a Tungsten string was less successful. A charitable description would be “otherworldly”.

I’ve got three instruments with silver in the lowest bass.*

This was a thing Skowroneck senior tried out because of the historical records mentioned by others, and because there wasn’t any good red brass (or substitutes) available back then. The wire was drawn harder (at home). Otherwise silver wire becomes ‘the string that keeps giving’, somewhat like chewing gum.

The sound is better than red brass, no doubt. I’m still trying to locate the silver wire and the drawing die in the workshop leftovers to make some more strings for other instruments. Not found them yet…

  • A fretted 5-octave clavichord after Brosy (at least I think it was the son, Johann Jacob and with an “y”) where the lowest 4 notes are silver (no tarnishing since the mid-1970s); an 1805 Broadwood grand, re-strung in 1979 or so, lowest 3 notes are silver (one more black than the others); and a Walter fepo copy (early 1990s) last three notes, some black blotchiness but nothing serious.

I find it hard to believe that a piece of silver doesnt tarnish in the space of 50 years. Or do you mean that it appears to have stopped tarnishing any further after 1970? If not, was it lacquered or otherwise coated?


Not coated, no. I must have been lucky or something. As said, one of the Broadwood notes is pretty black, all three strings. I have no idea what made that…or what made that the others stayed more or less white-ish.

The article by Patrizio Barbieri, in JAMIS, is a mine of information on the subject:

It’s chemistry. Luck has nothing to do with it! Different alloys of silver will tarnish to different degrees. Silver alloys will always tarnish. [A major job of the servants was to continually polish the silverware.] As with brass, there variation in the exact composition of sterling silver (so called 925 silver).

From our friends over at Wikipedia:

Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% by weight of other metals, usually copper. The sterling silver standard has a minimum millesimal fineness of 925.

Fine silver, for example 99.9% pure silver, is relatively soft, so silver is usually alloyed with copper to increase its hardness and strength. Sterling silver is prone to tarnishing, and elements other than copper can be used in alloys to reduce tarnishing, as well as casting porosity and firescale. Such elements include germanium, zinc, platinum, silicon, and boron. Recent examples of alloys using these metals include argentium, sterlium, sterilite and silvadium.

The next thing is, actually, that my query about tarnishing is a bit silly, because tarnish is a very thin layer of silver sulphide and probably highly unllikely to affect the sound in fact. Silver tarnishes from the presence of hydrogen sulphide in the air principally and only from oxygen over long periods of time. So your room may lack hydrogen sulfide :slight_smile: and your alloy may be resistant to a large degree.

I have a good 925 sterling silver flute. 3M makes anti-tarnish strips which you put in the case and change every six months. They are miraculous Without them, the silver will start to tarnish in a matter of weeks.

Now you have me disappointed. And I thought I had the magic touch. Is my reputation now tarnished?
(I was joking is all).

So apparently the thee times three strings in the Broadwood piano come from different batches, and the middle one picked up more of the hydrogen sulfide (which some of the seven rooms in three countries where it ever stood after being re-strung surely would have contained).

Your information is indeeed consistent with my observation that there has been no noticeable change to the tone of these strings no matter whether they stayed white-ish or got black.


In addition to the intriguing metallurgical difference between Tilman’s three strings, the question, to which I do not know the answer, is whether silver sulphide tarnish, Ag₂S, eats deeper into the string over time, as rust does on iron, or whether it protects the underlying silver from further tarnishing, as aluminium oxide, Al₂O₃, does aluminium.

Incidentally, most people clean silver by removing the tarnish and disposing of it, whereas there is a very simple method of reducing the silver sulphide back to silver, and that is to put it in a bowl lined with aluminium cooking foil together with some washing soda, Na₂CO₃. The addition of boiling water to this produces nascent hydrogen and when the bubbles and smelly H₂S have cleared, the silver will be found to have been restored, requiring only a gentle wipe to clean it. How one might adapt this method to cleaning a string on the instrument requires some more thought, however.


“…put it in a bowl lined with aluminium cooking foil together with some washing soda, Na©üCO©ý”
Thank you, David. Your post made me laugh out loud, which doesn’t mean I don’t think it is a very good question- my guess (based on a tarnished silver baptismal serviette ring, now 58+ years old) in the case of silver is that the tarnish protects, rather than eats into the metal, or that the process is slow enough to make little practical difference when silver is used in harpsichord strings.


No guessing required, tarnish forms a protective layer and does not keep biting into the metal. I can confirm that. Again from our wiki friends:

Tarnish is a surface phenomenon that is self-limiting, unlike rust. Only the top few layers of the metal react, and the layer of tarnish seals and protects the underlying layers from reacting.