Do you own a Martin sax?
If you're very, very quiet and you listen very, very hard you might
just hear a faint ticking sound...
That's the sound of the Martin Tonehole Timebomb. Yep, the Martin's
very own built-in genetic disorder...Selective Galvanic Corrosion.
What makes the Martin distinct from many other horns is the use
of soldered-on tone holes. Most other makes use drawn tone holes,
whereby the wall of the hole is pulled out of the body material.
For many years I'd always been puzzled as to why so many Martins
came in with leaking tone holes. In most cases there wasn't any
collateral damage (such as a dent adjacent to the affected tone
holes) to explain the leak, and the only reasonable explanation
was that the solder had broken down in some fashion. This supposition
was borne out by examining the mating surfaces when the tone holes
were removed...the part of the soldered joint that had failed was
always a powdery grey colour, with the rest being bright and shiny...typical
of a freshly soldered (or unsoldered) joint.
I'd always imagined that this degradation was caused by an initial
fault in the joint, which subsequently allowed moisture to get in...which
then oxidised the solder and slowly increased the size of the fault.
As it turns out I wasn't so far off the right track...the solder
was being broken down, moisture had a lot to do with it - but the
actual process is an electrochemical one. It's called Selective
Galvanic Corrosion (SGC), and it describes how at the contact point
of two dissimilar metals in the presence of moisture there will
be an electrical difference. A battery, in other words.
There is a list of metals called the Galvanic Series, and essentially
the further apart any two metals are on that list, the greater their
propensity for succumbing to an electrolytic reaction.
Brass, which forms the body of a sax, and Lead, which forms the
best part of soft solder, are quite far apart - and so they readily
react when an electrolyte (water, in this case) is present. A tiny
current is produced, and this is sustained by the conversion of
the lead in the solder into an oxide. This is the powdery grey deposit
where the leak forms.
There need be no initial fault in the joint - all that's needed
is for the joint to get wet and it's away.
This phenomenon also goes some way to explaining why other soldered
joints fail - such as the crook tenon (or, on trumpets etc., the
tuning slide bow joints). What's perhaps rather more worrying is
that some saxes have solid silver crooks...silver and lead are further
apart in the galvanic series than brass and lead, so the potential
(excuse pun) for corrosion is worse.
for how long the process takes, I don't know - but I've seen Martins
from the early 1960's with the problem, so a fair bet would be at
least a few decades...though that rather depends on what sort of
life the horn leads. With many Martins touching 60 or more years
these days you can imagine how many of them might be suffering right
This tonehole on the left is well on its way to dropping off.
The blue-green stuff is Verdigris (pronounced 'Ver-dee-gree') -
a type of corrosion that affects copper-based metals. This in itself
can be quite damaging - if left to its own devices it can result
in pits in the underlying brass. It's a fair bet that if you find
any of this stuff around your Martin toneholes then the solder will
be on its way out.
Note the distinct crack on the lower edge of the tone hole - the
solder here has been dissolved and a substantial leak has been created.
There's no way back for this tonehole, it will have to be removed,
cleaned and resoldered. The effects are quite serious for the player
- an affected tone hole can be responsible for quite an appreciable
leak, and if there's more than one you could be in quite a bit of
trouble when it comes to those low notes.
Spotting the leaks can be a little difficult. If you hold the horn
up against a bright light you may be able to see chinks of light
shining through the gaps (you could use a leak light, if you have
one). In some cases though, and for a variety of reasons, the leaks
won't show up with this method - and another method I use is to
physically test the tone holes by pushing at them with a finger.
By far the most definitive method is to drizzle a little cigarette
lighter fluid around the outside of the tone hole (it won't damage
the horn's finish) - if you spot any ingress into the bore then
you've found a leak. Water won't do the job, the surface tension
will prevent it from seeping through a small gap.
It's quite a tricky job with all the keys fitted, but it's just
about doable. If you can remove the keys, even a few of them, it
makes things a great deal easier. It also allows you to carry out
the 'sniff test'. Cigarette lighter fluid has a distinctive odour
- if you sloosh some around the outside of a tonehole and then run
your finger around the inside, you might well not see any fluid
on it...but if you give it a sniff you may find that a tiny amount
of fluid has leaked through. Be careful, though, not to splash any
fluid inside the tonehole.
you prefer a more visual method you can use a chalky finger. Simply
scrub a piece of chalk around on your table then rub your fingertip
in the dust to coat it. Sloosh the lighter fluid around the tonehole,
run your chalky finger around the interior - and if any fluid has
leaked through it'll darken the chalk...as show on the right.
The key point to remember is that if you're in any doubt whatsoever
about a negative result, repeat the test again and again until you're
Of course, the very fact that the tone holes are soldered on means
that they can be unsoldered and refitted.
This is the proper method of fixing the problem.
It's not a cheap job to have leaky tone holes fixed - there are
You can't just try to resolder the leaking portion, the whole tone
hole has to be removed and the mating surfaces properly cleaned
before you can be assured of a decent new joint. Any attempt to
fill just the leaking portion runs into the problem of the joint
being heavily contaminated with a substance that new solder just
won't adhere to.
the left is superb example of this; the photo shows the mating surfaces
of a low C tonehole and its corresponding tonehole ring where an
attempt has been made to correct a corrosion leak without removing
the tonehole. The bright areas indicate where the solder has mated
and made a good joint - the dull areas are where the solder had
been eaten away and all that's left is a dry, cruddy area that will
never take fresh solder in its present state.
Oh, I've tried...believe me I've tried - but no matter how thoroughly
you try to clean the hole out you can never ensure a clean joint...so
you end up forcing ever more soldering flux into the breach in the
vain hope that it will remove the oxides and allow a new joint to
This makes a dreadful mess around the tone hole, and the usual result
is an unsightly wall of solder that doesn't so much penetrate the
hole as simply covers it over - as can be seen in the example below
Some people are happy to leave it at that - but anyone with any
pride in their work will admit defeat and remove the entire tone
hole...and never make the same mistake again. If you see a Martin
with piles of solder around the tone holes you'll know that there's
a very good chance that there's a gap underneath...and that gap
will be letting moisture right into the joint...and the tonehole
time bomb will be ticking merrily away...
if you look at the above photo of the low C tonehole you can see
that there's an area of solder that runs onto the body of the horn
off the bottom of the tonehole. Now note the unmarked area to the
right of the tonehole. What this tells you is that solder (and heat)
has been applied to one area only - and more importantly that it
hasn't been applied all the way round (you will nearly always lose
the lacquer when resoldering toneholes). This is a dead giveaway
for a botched corrosion job - and it will almost always mean you'll
have to cough up for a proper repair.
Once the tone hole is off the body the mating surfaces can be
properly cleaned and repaired and the tone hole refitted neatly.
The drawback of course is that this does nothing for the finish.
It's not so bad if all the lacquer fell of years ago, or the horn
is silver plated (though not with a sandblasted/matt finish..the
pits fill with solder, very difficult to remove), because no matter
how careful you are with a gas gun you're certain to take out some
of the finish simply by virtue of the amount of heat needed to get
such a large surface area up to soldering temperature (not to mention
the cleaning up and polishing).
I said there were no shortcuts, and there aren't for a proper job,
but there is a little trick that can get you out of trouble...though
if you're a purist, look away now.
Superglue is the answer. In fact, superglue is so suspiciously perfect
for the job that I often wonder whether the inventor didn't have
half a dozen Handcrafts knocking about.
I'm pretty sure I'll get a lot of flak from various quarters for
even suggesting this fix - but then if you're the proud owner of
a mint Handcraft and you're staring at a potential bill of £40+
and the prospect of a damaged finish for the sake of addressing
a small leak, the offer of a £5 fix that will work without
trashing the horn's cosmetic integrity is, to my mind, a viable
really only a suitable fix where the length of a tone hole gap is
no larger than a quarter of the diameter of the tone hole, and it's
important that the hole is glued without any pressure being applied
to it as the glue cannot be relied upon to hold against the constant
stress of the tone hole trying to get back to its resting position
(so if your gap is much thicker than a cigarette paper you'd be
better off having the proper job done).
Ideally the glue should be applied from inside the tone hole - but
this will mean removing keys, which isn't always easy.
Providing you're careful, a decent enough fix can be made by tackling
the outside of the tone hole.
The tonehole pictured on the right is a perfect candidate for this
fix. The horn has been finished in black lacquer, which the owner
is quite keen not to have damaged. The gap in the rear of the tonehole
joint is relatively small and covers barely an eighth of the diameter
of the tonehole itself. Incidentally, this Martin had five affected
toneholes plus a further four that had previously been patched up.
Where I use this method I do so in up to two stages depending on
the size of the gap.
First though I clean the gap. For this I use lighter fluid. This
will drive out any water or oil in the gap. It can take up to half
an hour for the lighter fluid to fully evaporate from inside the
gap. A little heat from a lamp or hairdryer will assist - don't
use a naked flame.
If the gap is tiny, a hairline crack even, then I would use an ultra-thin
superglue. You have to be extremely careful with this stuff - it's
a good deal runnier than water, and if you put more than a tiny
drop in the gap it'll run right around the tonehole and off down
the body of the horn. It's a complete mess, but not a disaster -
it just means you're going to have to get busy with a tube of superglue
remover (you did buy some, didn't you?) and a bit of elbow grease.
For a slightly larger gap I'd just use a standard 'liquid' superglue.
For a neat and controllable job it's best to use a needle - apply
a small droplet of glue to it, then apply the needle to the gap
in the joint. All being well the glue should flow right into the
joint nice and tidily.
It obviously makes sense to position the horn so that any glue applied
will flow into the gap, and along it - and that position should
be held for as long as it takes for the glue to stiffen.
For an even larger gap I use the liquid glue first (allowing it
to set), then follow it up with the gel type glue. This has better
filling properties, though it will not flow into the joint.
You can't easily apply it with the needle, so you'll have to rely
on a steady hand and a clean nozzle on the glue tube.
The gel type glue sets a great deal slower than the liquid type,
so if you make a pig's ear of the job you might have half a chance
of cleaning it up. I would recommend allowing a good few hours for
the glue to set completely before using the horn.
If there is a problem with this fix it's that the corrosion seems
to take place most commonly at the rear of the tone hole - which
can make it tricky to gain access if you're not prepared or able
to remove a few keys.
For a neat and tidy job you can go around the repair with some superglue
remover to remove any stray dribbles and whitish deposits. Just
be careful to avoid the actual repaired area.
The big plus with this fix is that it avoids the inevitable damage
to the finish that resoldering a tone hole causes (though do bear
in mind that you still run the risk of damaging the finish if you
manage to get excess glue on it)....and if you do a neat enough
job no-one will be any the wiser, and there's every chance the repair
will long outlast you.
If the idea of superglue troubles you, you can use clear nail varnish
for a less permanent fix...or even warm wax.
Whatever you do, don't be tempted to use an epoxy adhesive. Good
though these glues are they rarely have the flow characteristics
of a liquid glue and so won't seep into the joint, and they're far
harder to remove when the time comes for the tone hole to be properly
an excellent example of a corroded joint that's been given the superglue
There are three distinct areas visible on the joint face; to the
right you can see viable solder - the slightly bright, silvery sheen
indicates that this portion of the joint was in good order. In the
middle you can see the dull grey, slightly powdery section that's
indicative of the solder having been broken down - and this section
of the joint would have been leaking. To the left the white deposit
is the remains of superglue - this is what it looks like after it's
been heated during the desoldering operation. Someone's clearly
detected a leak and sought to repair it with superglue. I don't
blame them - this is the lower section of the top bow on a baritone,
and to fix the joint properly requires extensive and expensive dismantling
of the horn. The tube is well supported by two braces (so it's not
going anywhere), and with at least some of the joint being in good
order it made sense to give the superglue fix a go...and wait until
the horn required a proper service before dealing with the corrosion.
However, as you can see, they didn't quite seal all the leaks.
This is a good example of how SGC can affect any horn - and as
it happens, this too is a Martin (a Committee III)...and the irony
is that although this joint has been badly corroded, none of the
toneholes had. Typical.
As for prevention, probably the best thing you can do is to ensure
you thoroughly dry the bore of the horn after playing. It's no wonder
that old Martins in excellent condition, due to their not having
seen much use, tend not to have the problem...and the old faithful
jobbing horns that have been played day and night for decades can
be riddled with leaky tones holes.
It would be impractical to treat the joints with a protective coating
(though not impossible) such as lacquer, and I'd be inclined to
consider a dual-cleaning regime using a pull-through first followed
by a pad saver. I would also remove the pad saver afterwards because
its slow-drying action wouldn't be an advantage in this case. This
should ensure very little moisture is left hanging on in the tone
holes...and to be really sure it would be a safe bet to let the
horn air for an hour or so before putting it away.
So how worried should you be about this potential problem?
Since this article was first published in 2006 I've seen a wide
range of reactions to it. Some people take the worst point of view
and decide that they've never going to buy a Martin saxophone -
which is a great shame as they're one of the best vintage marques
out there. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are those who
insist that it's not a problem and that they've never encountered
it. The laws of physics dictate that it's a problem, and on this
page alone there are four individual Martins that are suffering
with it. I've seen quite a few more - which was what prompted this
And I'll be frank. It can be difficult to spot tonehole joint leaks,
and the only way to be 100% sure is to strip the horn down and get
busy with the lighter fluid. If this test hasn't been done you cannot
know what state the toneholes are in. Claims of having owned x number
of Martins that have never had this problem are meaningless unless
this test has been carried out on each of them.
The earlier shot of the chalky finger was taken while checking a
very tidy Committee III tenor. A purely visual inspection of this
horn had me thinking it'd be most unlikely to have any tonehole
problems - in fact I even said as much the to client. But I checked
anyway - because I always do. Sure enough, there was a leak at the
top side of the C and a leak at the rear of the low F and E toneholes.
They were, admittedly, small - but were still leaks nonetheless...and
they would have worsened over time.
I would advise taking the middle ground. Be aware of the problem
and learn how to spot it. If you're buying a Martin take the time
to carefully examine the tone holes - and maybe try the lighter
fluid test. Don't be put off if you find a problem - just negotiate
the asking price down to take into account of the cost of repairs
(assume around £40 for a single tone hole, £20 for each
extra one - and something on top for loss of finish). If you own
a Martin and find it has the problem, take it to your tech and have
it fixed - or, if you feel confident enough, try the home workshop
fix where appropriate.