I'm often contacted by prospective clients who ask me for a quote
on overhauling, recorking or repadding an instrument.
A few pertinent questions soon establish that what's really required
is just a general service; so I thought it would be a helpful to
describe in very simple terms the various levels of repair services,
along with some rough guidelines as to cost.
I'll start with brand new instruments.
It might seem incredible that the instrument you've just bought
for many hundreds of pounds (or a few thousand) needs fixing straightaway,
but it's a sad fact that quality control these days is not what
it used to be.
Common problems with brand new instruments range from manufacturing
defects at the worst, right through to bad setups at best.
Manufacturing defects can be pretty serious, and expensive to fix
(if even possible). Typically they'll be present in the keywork
- showing up as badly fitted keys, misaligned key cups or badly
secured fittings. The cost of repairing these problems can be quite
high - and it may be a better bet to return the instrument to the
The most common fault with a new instrument is a few badly seating
pads. Clarinets in particular often have badly seating low E and
F key pads, and misaligned lower ring key pad cup. All affected
pads will probably need the cup angles adjusted and the pads reset,
following by re-regulation of the action. This usually costs about
A bad setup is also very common. Whilst this often means that the
instrument is fully functional, it leaves the action very stiff
- usually due to the springs being set too hard. It may also be
that case that the height of the action isn't optimal, and in some
cases slightly out of regulation.
A combination of easing the spring tension, adjusting the height
of the action and re-regulating it works much the same way as having
a car's engine tuned - everything feels and runs that much nicer.
A simple adjustment of the spring tension will cost about £10,
likewise adjusting the key height and the same for regulation. Typically
all three are done at once at a cost of around £40.
The next level applies to instruments that have seen between 2
and 5 years of use.
By now there will be problems with some of the pads. Also, various
corks and felts will have seen better days and the action will need
tightening up a tad to compensate for a little wear and tear.
A general service is what's required, and this typically costs between
£40-£80 for common woodwinds.
This level of service is a good bet for a recently-bought secondhand
This is also the level of service most often required when clients
ask for a 'recork' (which usually applies to a clarinet, and means
the tenon corks have worn).
A step up from there comes the major service.
Typically this is a stopgap before the full-blown overhaul. It requires
the instrument to be stripped down.
A certain amount of cleaning is usually needed, and there will be
a bit of wear in the action which'll need sorting out.
Many of the smaller pads will be showing signs of severe distress
by now, and most of the corks and felts will be long since past
their best. Some minor body work may be required.
The next level is the repad.
Just as you'd expect, this involves stripping down the instrument
and replacing all the pads. New pads will mean that the action will
need extensive regulation afterwards, so it's common to replace
all the felts and corks at the same time. Similarly, you can't achieve
a decent seal with the new pads unless the action is nice and tight
- so there may be some work required on it.
It's common too to tidy up any structural defects, such as small
I'm often asked for this level of repair when in fact all that's
required is a decent service (and a decent service tends to fall
inbetween a general and a major service).
The smaller woodwinds come in at around £300 - saxes and other
large woodwinds will cost upwards of £600.
The last level is the complete and thorough overhaul.
It's actually quite rare to need this level of service - most players
will have been to see their repairer long before an instrument gets
into the sort of state that requires everything to be fixed.
Instruments are stripped and cleaned, the body is examined and any
defects are repaired. All the spring are removed and replaced, and
the keywork is tightened up throughout (and this may mean replacing
worn out rod screws).
All corks and felts are replaced along with all the pads.
Smaller woodwinds will come in at about £400 - saxes etc.
will start around £750.
So, that basically represents the five main levels of service.
To a large degree there's always an element of 'mix-and-match' between
the levels. A vintage horn that's seen very little use but a great
deal of time in storage may not need any work to the action at all,
but will probably require new pads, corks and springs - plus some
extensive cleaning. A instrument belonging to a child with a liking
for soft drinks and sweets may need extensive cleaning, but no new
pads or corks. Quite a lot of overhaul clients prefer not to have
their instruments polished.
Most clients are happy for me to recommend the most appropriate
level - whereas I might recommend a complete repad for a professional
on a particular instrument, I might only recommend a general service
for the same instrument if used by a young student. Likewise, it's
possible to spread out a forthcoming major service by having some
of it done one year and the rest the next. This is a popular option
for the average sax player. All of this affects the price - upwards
and downwards, and rather than give out blanket quotes and specifications
I prefer to examine each instrument's requirements on an individual
With costs rising across the board globally many musicians are
having to count the pennies, and to this end I've introduced a new
level of service for saxes called the 'Underhaul'.
It's essentially a 'mechanical overhaul' - in which the focus is
on getting the structure of the instrument (the body and the action)
up to spec and doing the minimum amount of pad/cork work to ensure
it all works.
It's the most cost-effective way of getting a tired horn back into
playing condition. With the structure in good shape it makes it
possible to 'upgrade' the horn in stages at a later date by simply
replacing the odd pad/cork and when they wear out. In terms of cost
it sits between the major service and the repad - typically costing
between £240 and £400 depending on which options you
It gives you the most 'bang for bucks' and as such has proven to
be an extremely popular service option.
I recommend that you have your instrument serviced annually. I
have to admit that this won't save you money.
The average cost of an annual service to a flute is about £60-£80.
If you left the flute for five years you might only need a major
service...and at a cost of £160 you'd be quids in. But, in
the meantime your instrument would have been playing at less than
its capacity - so the payoff comes in accepting a less than wonderful
It also gives me the chance to correct problems which may lead to
more expensive repairs in the future.
This can range from taking up wear and tear in specific keys, right
through to advising a client on how to correctly assemble and dismantle
their instrument or how to clean it properly after use.
I don't really want to rub it in (OK, I might do, just a little)
but the person paying the bill isn't always the person who plays
the instrument. Given that very few players are aware of how their
instrument works on a mechanical level, and given that a lot of
young players in particular will struggle to play rather than consider
that there might be a problem with the instrument, it falls upon
those 'in charge' to ensure that the instrument is actually working
properly. I realise that a lot of you leave it to the teacher to
point up faults - but you'd be amazed at how many of them are just
as much in the dark as you when it comes to all things mechanical.
Sitting outside these five levels are the one-off repairs. These
are often due to damage - usually through a fall, but can also be
such things as loose joints, a single bad pad, a broken spring or
a missing key cork.
Common jobs are; tightening a flute foot joint (£20); recorking
a sax crook or a clarinet tenon (£5-£10); realigning
a sax bell after a fall (£40-£80, depending on how much
damage there is); replacing a single pad (£10) - and my all-time
favourite, popping a flute trill key spring back on its post (usually
free - but I do like to scare clients with a bit of oohing and ahhing
and much sucking in of breath between pursed lips).
Finally, don't be daunted at the prospect of contacting a repairer
with what seems like a stupid question or a niggling worry.
Here are a few tips that will make a telephone consultation go with
- Always have the make and model of the instrument handy. If you
have a problem with a brand new Yamaha YAS62 then it's unlikely
to be anything terribly major. If it's an Earlham then it could
be rather more troublesome.
- Try to remember how old the instrument is, and how long (if
ever) since its last service
- Don't ask for a quote on a specific job (like a repad) without
being sure that that's what you need - 99% of the time you won't
need it, and it'll just mean having to answer a lot of questions
that you might not know the answers to.
- For saxophones in particular, it pays to check the mouthpiece
for any maker's trademark. Cheap saxes often have poor mouthpieces,
and these in themselves can be a major cause of problems.
- Don't bother with an in-depth description of the problem unless
it's a very specific problem (such as a bit fallen off) - in most
cases any problems you might describe will be covered by a general
- Don't expect a firm quote over the phone. Rough guestimates
can be given, but you can't expect to get a firm price until the
repairer has examined the instrument.