One of the recurring questions I get is a variation on “Should I overhaul my horn?”. This question- almost without exception- comes from players who have never gotten a horn overhauled, and don’t understand why they should put a relatively large amount of money into an overhaul vs. just take it into the shop for $50-100 worth of work every few months.
The fact that I only get this question from people who have not experienced a good overhaul should tell you something- as should the fact that I get this question often! A saxophone overhaul is one of those things that once you do it (and its done well) it makes sense- and often you can’t imagine ever going back to playing horns that are less than perfectly set up. But there is precious little information on WHY exactly an overhaul is a good thing, and its a pretty big leap of faith to take the first time. But a full overhaul is often not only cheaper in the long run but better for your playing, and here is why.
Before we begin: regarding padwork- many of the keys are connected to each other, moving in sync. You won’t understand much of what I’m about to say unless you understand what I mean here, so take your horn out, and press the keys on the horn one by one and watch how many of them move together, and follow these linkages to understand how they work and interact.
Ok, done that? Seriously, stop reading and go do it.
Kind of cool, right? Lots of stuff going on there.
Ok, back to business.
Everything Is Connected
Let’s say you have a saxophone with a mix of older and newer pads on it. It has not been disassembled and cleaned in a long time, and the adjustment materials are a mix of old and new, and some are layers of different materials of different ages. It is playing mostly fine until you have a problem one day and bring it in to me to see what is wrong, and we find that your F# pad is leaking.
If I replace your F# key (the one without a pearl that is above the F key on the right hand/lower stack), I have to make sure it is in adjustment with the rest of the lower stack- that when the F closes, it also closes the F# pad perfectly, same for the E (which is how you finger F#), and D. Not only to they have to close at exactly the same time (if not you’ll have a leak), the heights of the F-E-D must be aligned so that when you press the F, E, or D, there is no lost motion and the F# key moves in perfect sync as soon as you apply pressure to any of the lower stack keys (if not it will feel like garbage). For the F# in particular, I also have to make sure that the G#/bis adjustments (used to keep the G# closed while fingering bell key bottom-most notes, and for the 1+1 Bb fingering respectively) are perfect as well. Modifying any of these adjustments can involve adjusting or completely redoing the existing adjustment materials, depending on the particular instrument involved and how it is set up.
I tend to redo adjustment materials. It is not often that I find that the current materials on the horn are what I would consider the best or most long-lasting, so I usually replace them. For more on how I think about adjustment materials, see this article here: Saxophone Adjustment Materials.
So then I just replaced your F#, all is well. But, if you come back a month later to do your F, I have to make sure it is in adjustment with the rest of the lower stack- just like before. If you come back a month later and get your E done….and a month later to get your D done – you get the picture. Whereas if I do the whole stack at once, I seat the pads, then make sure they are all in adjustment with each other. This means less time overall for the same end result which equals less money spent in the long run. Not to mention better results since all the pads are the same age and if they change or settle over time they should do it in a similar way.
Here is a comparison video I made on old pads vs. new pads. The pads were the same brand, had been installed by me several years prior, and played on by a clean and conscientious professional player- so basically a best case scenario of what an old pad would be like after several years of playing.
Note: there are some pads on the horn that do not interact with others, and can be more easily changed by themselves if nothing else is wrong except the pad needs changed: the low Eb, low C, side Bb, side C, side E, and palm keys except the F.
Toneholes: Where the Pad Meets the Horn
Ok so I’ve changed some pads. What about the toneholes underneath? Are they completely level? Are there any dents, dings? What about any bad solder jobs on nearby posts that should be redone or cleaned up? As long as I’ve got the stack off and out of the way, I should take care of this stuff.
So say the horn is in excellent shape- your toneholes still probably aren’t level. They do level them at the factory. But the way they do it is fast and factory-style, usually with a modified drill press or a milling machine while the horn body is mounted on a mandrel.
Brass is soft, and a cylinder has varying degrees of stiffness depending on the angle and location of the energy applied. The mandrel doesn’t usually fit absolutely perfectly, so there is a little room for the sax body to deform. So as pressure is applied to the body on the mandrel while the toneholes are being leveled, the longitudinal axis of the toneholes (north/south) gets pushed in while the leveling press is applied and springs back when it leaves, giving you high spots north/south. Not to mention buffing before lacquering- the thin edge of a tonehole will wear much faster than something with more surface area (try sanding a flat piece of wood and then the sharp corner of the same piece of wood to see what I mean).
And then if its relacquered, you compound that problem because its been buffed twice! Not to mention any past damage, visible or otherwise. Also not to mention any imperfections in technique or build at all from the factory- and that does happen, even on very high-end instruments. So almost every saxophone that hasn’t had its toneholes hand-leveled with precision tools by an accomplished repairman will have unlevel toneholes.
Here is a photo of a mint condition Mark VI, the sacred cow of the saxophone world, showing that it had unlevel toneholes from the factory. This particular instrument came to me in perfect undamaged condition, with its original pads. And I have been lucky enough to see several “new” examples of vintage saxophones from nearly every major make in similar condition and I can tell you: toneholes are hardly ever, ever level from the factory. What you are seeing here is a light inside the saxophone, and a flat brass disc held against the tonehole. Light is escaping because the tonehole is not completely level.
To learn more about toneholes and tonehole leveling, see my three part Saxophone Tonehole series on youtube, starting with part One here:
Note: leveling toneholes on a saxophone is something that should only ever be done by a respected and trusted craftsman with top-quality rotary files and only after any dents or body bend have been fixed. The specialty tools I have for this purpose have cost me over $2000! It is not a procedure to take lightly, and it must ONLY be done with extreme care and precision by a knowledgable repairman. The amounts coming off should be measured in thousandths or hundredths of an inch and should not be visible to the naked eye- and barring damage to the horn, this process should only need to be done once a century- seriously.
But can you play a horn with unlevel toneholes? Certainly. Depending on how bad they are and how sensitive you are, you may never notice. Their primary effect is that pads don’t seal as well for as long, and may feel gummy under the fingers as different parts of the pad hit at different times (but this can also happen from lumpy pads or bad padwork). But why pay to get new pads if the toneholes are a weak spot in the job? The extra effort, time. and financial investment required pays for itself in the long run because your pads last longer sealing better. And of course, it enables me to do a better job, which means the horn plays and feels better.
The Case for Complete Disassembly
If you decide that you are not swayed by the higher overall cost with poorer overall results, it is possible to replace your pads one by one over a long timespan, and continue doing this for many many years. However, this has one more serious drawback- you never clean the horn!
Just as the oil in your car builds up particulate and becomes an abrasive instead of a lubricant and the oil must be changed, the oil inside your key rods will do the same. If you just keep adding key oil every year without ever taking it apart and cleaning it out, you are simply getting a more and more abrasive mixture in your keys, contributing to wear, which will turn into play/lost motion in the keys, which will invite more particulate into the gaps (not to mention make precise padwork and adjustments impossible) and dry out the oil faster and the problem will accelerate and get worse over time and eventually need remedied by an expensive mechanical reconstruction of your keywork sooner than you would have needed one otherwise.
Just like the oil that goes in your car goes in fairly clear and comes out black after its been filled with particulate from the engine and combustion byproducts, same goes for key oil (except its dust and grime from you, the case, the air instead of combustion byproducts). If you can see black buildup around the junctions of your keys where they are mounted on the rods and pivot screws, that is particulate mixed with oil, and it is acting as an abrasive.
See this video for an example of how to CHANGE the oil in a saxophone vs. just adding new on top of old:
Key Fit – The Not-So-Silent Killer
Key fit is probably one of the more misunderstood parts of saxophone repair- if the saxophonist is even aware of it at all! Key fit is when the mechanics of the saxophone are operating properly with no lost motion, no slop, no movement other than the one direction each particular key is supposed to move, with movement in that direction being completely free and smooth. When key fit is loose or sloppy, force is not transmitted cleanly from your fingers to the keys, and from keys to other keys via linkages. This means precision is impossible, and this means leaks.
This is actually a very difficult(for me anways) topic to describe in words, so just watch this video for a singular example of how key fit can make or break how a saxophone feels and plays- regardless of how good the horn is, or how good the padwork is.
So, when adding up all of these factors, it becomes clearer why it is better in the long run both for your pocketbook AND the horn to fix everything and keep it in good shape than it is to fix small pieces as they fail. Unless your horn has been fully repadded or overhauled well sometime in the last 5-10 years, it is entirely feasible to do so again. Not only feasible, but good for the horn and a sound financial investment.
With a good repad or overhaul, assuming the horn is not damaged later on, many of the larger procedures such as leveling toneholes, fixing dents, body bends, and mechanical reconstruction of the keywork only need to be done once every half-century!
I can’t speak for all techs, but there are real and very well thought-out reasons I recommend what I recommend. I have your horn’s interest in mind. I am very aware of the high initial cost of doing things right, but it WILL save you money in the long run, and in the meantime your horn will be playing better.
For a detailed description of the work I include in my saxophone overhauls which builds on the topics and procedures I touched upon in this article, go here: Stohrer Music: Saxophone Repairs