What Should I Do About Rusty Tines?

If you live in a humid climate, your kalimba tines could rust over the years

I have seen some pretty old kalimbas with totally rusted tines. Kalimbas that have lived on a sailboat for 5 years. Kalimbas that have lived in Hawaii for 20 years. Kalimbas that have lived in Miama for 10 years. These high humidity environs can certainly induce kalimba tine rust. But I think most of these kalimbas could have been handled differently so they didn’t get so bad so fast.

Keep reading if you would like to know some simple things you can do to prevent or remove rust from your kalimba tines.

What if my tines are rusty now?

FIrst of all, how rusty are your tines? My very first Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba from around 1990 is shown in the cover photo for this blog post, and one of the tines on the right is pretty rusty – but that is 29 years of rust (most of that was in the arid west). The sound quality of the rusty tine is the same as the adjacent non-rusty tines. To be honest, I haven’t done anything on this one except for oiling it now and then (more on this below). In other words, if you have just a bit of rust and you don’t do anything about it, things will probably be fine.

On the other hand, if your tines are quite rusty, or if the level of rust bothers you, I recommend you take the kalimba apart if you can. (Instructions for taking your kalimba apart and reassembly are included at the end of this blog post.)  The tines can be cleaned with steel wool and a bit of mineral oil. The steel wool will remove a lot of the rust, but not all. The oil will serve to make a barrier against water getting onto the surface of the tines, and will reduce future rust.

If you have rusty tines and the paint is chipping off, you can get the old paint off by using a flat end screwdriver to scrape the tine. This will get about 90% of the paint off. Then switch to something like an exacto knife to get off about 90% of the remaining paint. (A flat-ended exacto knife blade is much better than the typically angled blade.) Finally, use fine steel wool or the green abrasive side of some dish sponges to scour the tine and get the last remnants of the paint off.

If your tines look pretty good after cleaning and removing old paint, you might want to repaint the select tines that had been painted. Go to your hardware shop and buy protective enamel paint, and apply with a cheap water color kit brush.

If your tines don’t look so good after cleaning – if there is still a lot of rust that you can’t get off – you might want to paint all of the tines. At the very least, you won’t be seeing the rust. And while some rust will persist beneath the paint, the paint will also form a protective barrier greatly reducing the advancement of rust… on the front side at least. The back side of the tines is unprotected. If you do paint all the tines, you may want to use two colors, such as white and blue. Paint the normally-painted tines blue, and the normally-unpainted tines white, for example.

Can you take your kalimba apart?

The Hugh Tracey kalimbas have a bridge that is held in place by pressure. This results in a distinct disadvantage: if you drop your kalimba, the bridge could move slightly – down and away from the pressure bar or “z”-bracket. This results in the vibrating length of the tines being shorter, producing pitches that are too high. If this happens, you can push the bridge back into place with a butter knife. How far do you push it? Until the tines are, on average, in tune. You will have to fine tune each tine afterward.

But the “floating bridge” design of the Hugh Tracey kalimba also lets you easily take the instrument apart, and almost just as easily reassemble the instrument. There are a few details, but if you download the below PDF, you get words and pictures to help you. (You probably don’t want to remove every tine to completely restructure your kalimba, so ignore that step in the process.)

PDF: Take apart and reassemble your Hugh Tracey kalimba

If you have one of the newer Chinese-made kalimbas, the bridge will be glued to the face wood, and it will be much harder to take the instrument apart. In fact, I find that taking apart and reassembling these kalimbas generally results in overbending the tines and I have not found a safe way to do it. So, it’s best not to do it! If your Chinese-made kalimba has rusty tines, you may have to just clean the easily-accessed surfaces of the tines – ie, the top surface of the tines and the under side of the tines south of the bridge.

How to Prevent Rusty Kalimba Tines

The first thing you can do to prevent rusty kalimba tines is to move to Arizona. Here in Tucson, I experience essentially no tine rust over decades. I have regular air conditioning, not an evaporative cooler (which increases the humidity).

You may not be able to move to Arizona for the sake of your kalimbas. If that is the case, I suggest you take special care of your kalimbas. Don’t leave them out in the weather. About once or twice a month, put a bit of mineral oil on a cloth or paper towel, and wipe the tines, front and as much as the back as you can. You could even let a lighty coating of oil sit on the tines overnight and wipe it off in the morning. You could even go so far as to get silica gel desiccant and store it with your kalimba in an air-tight container.

Should I Scrape the Rust Off, Or Get New Tines?

I generally find that the rust does not really have a negative impact on the sound of the tines. Rust only affects the appearance. If the tines were in a seriously rust-inducing environment for 25 or 50 years, eventually the rust would start eating away at the core of the tines, and yes, they would start to fail. But almost all of the rusty-tined kalimbas I have seen actually still sounded pretty good.

Replacement tines aren’t really a thing. Yes, a handful of times, I have replaced every tine on the kalimba when someone sends me a particularly rusty kalimba that has otherwise excellent characteristics. I usually feel a little bad about it too, because those tines aged in place with the kalimba, and they sort of belong together. The vintage kalimbas can be very sweet in tone, and mounting new tines on an old instrument usually does not reproduce the original sweetness. Also, the Hugh Tracey people don’t give me extra tines, so it is not something that I offer.

On the other hand, tine sets (actually, complete part kits) for the 17-Note and 10-Note Chinese-made kalimbas can be easily found online. These are primarily sold to people who want to build their own kalimbas, but you can also use these kits to replace your old tines.  As I already mentioned, the bridges on the Chinese kalimbas are glued down, and it is not so easy to replace the tines on that design. You could replace these tines on your Hugh Tracey Treble kalimba (the tine sets of the Chinese 17-Note and Hugh Tracey Treble kalimbas are of compatible tunings and lengths), but to my ear and thumbs, the Hugh Tracey kalimba’s tines are superior to the Chinese ones. So, before you trade out your rusty old Hugh Tracey tines for shiny new Chinese tines, make sure that it is going to be an improvement. If you can, try to replace one tine and judge for yourself before you trade out all of the tines.

And, Remember The Doctor

Of course, the Kalimba Doctor is always available to help. Every week, we spend a few hours cleaning up, fixing up, and tuning up old kalimbas. We can not only take care of improving your old rusty tines, but we can also make your kalimba sound the best that it possibly can.

You Can See the Doctor Now

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