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Service levels

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 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 retailer.

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 £20-£30.

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 £30.

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-£60 for common woodwinds.
This level of service is a good bet for a recently-bought secondhand instrument.
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 not insignificant amount of wear in the action.
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 along with some of the springs. Some body work may be required.
Economics comes into play at this level; it can cost around the £120 mark to do a major service to a saxophone - but this is fast approaching the cost of a repad to the smaller instruments.

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 dents etc.
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 £150 - saxes and other large woodwinds will cost upwards of £250.

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 woodwind will come in at about £250, saxes etc. will start around £350.

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 basis.

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 £30-£40. If you left the flute for five years you might only need a major service...and at a cost of £120 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 performance.
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 (£10); 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 (£5) - 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 a swing.

  • 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 service.
  • 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.

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