Arrive at the workshop at 8.30am - I am startled by two small deer
that run out from behind the workshop, jump clear over a logpile
and head off towards the paddock at breakneck speed.
I drop my sandwiches, instinctively put my foot out to cushion their
fall, mistime it and end up treading on my lunch. Fortunately they're
in a polythene bag, but I gaze somewhat ruefully at a brace of squashed
cheese and pickle sarnies.
I fire up the trusty old computer (always pays to be nice to it),
and while it churns into life I pop the kettle on for a cuppa. In
the three or four minutes it takes to boil I check over an oboe
that I glued up last night. It's a cheap ebonite model, its mid
tenon had broken off and had taken some of the body with it. As
the client has a much nicer oboe it was decided to have a bash at
simply glueing the tenon back on to save on a much pricier tenon
replacement. I'm pleased with the results, and a bit of impromptu
stress testing reveals a very sturdy repair so far.
With the tea brewed and the computer booted I sit down to review
my virtual correspondence.
I have a few emails from surfers who've seen this site, a fellow
musician I play with has sent me copy of a reply he got from Plas
Johnson and I have an email from a lady with an exotic sounding
name who assures me that 'bigger breasts are simply a click away'.
I click away, but unfortunately they don't appear, and I remain
as flat-chested as before.
To the newsgroups then, and I see on the saxophone group that someone
has just started off their sax playing career with a nice new Yamaha
tenor. I'm quietly pleased for them, I can still recall the sheer
excitement of that journey home from Chas. Footes Ltd with a brand
new Yamaha 21 alto in the boot of my dad's car all those years ago.
There's an argument going down in the gardening newsgroup - again.
Each newsgroup seems to have its own 'buzzword' which prompts reams
of argument and counter-argument...plus a few insults thrown in
for good measure. For the sax newsgroup it's 'Kenny G' - in the
gardening group someone has mentioned cats. More often than not
the insults are far more entertaining than the arguments.
I check my Ebay favourites and note with perhaps less than charitable
satisfaction that no-one has bought the Swanee Sax with a starting
price of $1000 - I can't imagine what the guy was thinking!
I spend half an hour writing newsgroup replies, though I refrain
from posting in both groups that I have a cat called Kenny G...
which I don't, I hasten to add, though I bet someone does. The emails
I'll save until later.
The postman arrives - I sometimes feel a bit sorry for him. I'm
right off the beaten track, and delivering a letter means he has
to negotiate a bumpy drive and faff about with a three-point-turn
in order to leave - and all this just to deliver junk mail, which
I screw up and throw away half a second after he's handed it to
me. I tell him to bin it, or save it up for when I have proper mail,
but he assures me he's not allowed to.
No bills today, but someone has sent me a job application. I briefly
contemplate the idea of having an assistant, but dismiss the idea
just as quickly when I realise it'd mean having to be here at a
set hour each day - and I'd have to buy another tea mug.
The answerphone has been quietly but insistently winking its little
light at me.
Colleagues of mine know only too well that I won't speak to anyone
before the first cuppa and ciggy of the day - and even then it's
a toss-up whether I'll answer the phone. There are the usual messages
from anxious parents - there's always a concert or a show in the
offing and it's sod's law that little Jimmy decides now is a good
time to do a spot of swashbuckling, using his flute/clarinet/saxophone
as a sabre....
There's nothing urgent there, so I decide to save the phone calls
I gaze over the pile of instruments waiting my attention. I love
According to assorted bits of paper left lying around I have no
urgent jobs on the go - everything is marked 'A.S.A.P.' (as soon
as possible), with a rather forlorn looking flute marked 'No Rush'.
In service terms, ASAP means about a week - No Rush means wait until
the client rings up in a panic, then upgrade it to ASAP.
I spot a cheeky saxophone that has a date written on it. Aha, clearly
a regular client who's privately sussed out my prioritising method
and has pinned me down to a definite date.
It's just an annual service, nothing too strenuous, so I pop it
up on the bench and switch the radio on.
The radio oozes into life (yes, oozes...it's a valve radio... a
Leak Troughline. Those in the know will be sighing appreciatively
If there's one thing wrong with Radio 4 in the mornings it's that
it's so unutterably middle class...
I listen briefly to a trio of people politely waffling on about
juvenile discipline - and it occurs to me that they all have the
sort of tone of voice that would make even the most saintly child
want to go find something to smash. I retune. Radio 3 is profiling
a contemporary composer this week, but it all sounds a bit 'doom
and gloom' for this hour of the day, and as I don't much fancy listening
to chart music either I switch the radio off and elect to work in
One hour later and the horn is all back together...and I'm rather
surprised that the phone hasn't rung. Out of curiosity I pick up
the receiver and hear the angry buzz of the modem. Ooops, I left
it connected to the internet. I disconnect and check the online
With a fresh brew at hand I return the calls. I'm right out in
the middle of nowhere, so new clients have to be 'guided in' with
a comprehensive set of instructions. I contemplate making a tape
that I can play over the phone, instead of having to repeat 'and
at the top of the hill you throw a right' time and time again.
One message is from an elderly gentleman who wants to know if I
repair home organs. The message lasts a good five minutes and includes
not only a detailed description of the specific problem but also
the complete story of how he came to purchase the organ in the first
place, followed by a précis of the decline in physical well-being
that has so adversely affected his playing in recent years.
I listen to the message in its entirety only to find that he completely
forgets to leave his number.
A punter arrives at his designated time.
It's a regular client - he specialises in playing 'authentic New
Orleans' style clarinet on simple system clarinets. He's adamant
that the tone is far superior to the Boehm system, and in the context
of his playing he's right.
We discuss the job in hand as I make on the spot repairs - and then
spend the next hour chatting about anything from 2nd harmonic distortion
in triode valves to the mating ritual of tortoises. He has a habit
of assuming you know as much as he does, which I suppose is quite
flattering when you consider that he knows an awful lot - and he'll
say things like "Of course, as you know, you can't take a quadractically
phased sequence particle and attach it to a Bumpton-Scrumpton Widgetty
Digget..." before digressing to tell you about a chap who once
DID attach a quadratically phased...and so on. I used to stop him
and say "Eh? Wassat then?", but soon learned that if I
did this we never actually got to the end of the anecdote or topic
in hand...so now I nod sagely, and hope that he doesn't go home
and write an article about a chap who nods sagely every time he
mention the quadratically phased...etc...etc.
I suppose you could consider him to be mildly eccentric, but I rather
prefer to think of him as being confident about who he is. He's
a Yorkshireman too, which helps.
He wears false teeth, and has several sets - each for a specific
After he leaves I notice a pale pink soap dish by the brazing hearth
- he's left his 'clarinet teeth' behind. He'll be back.
I pause for lunch. With my feet up on the bench and an old computer
mag on my lap I simply enjoy the peace and quiet. I take it for
granted even - but I can remember a time when my lunchtimes used
to be at the mercy of callers to my London shop. It never ceased
to amaze me how people would so easily ignore the fundamental human
right of leaving a guy to finish his lunch before asking him to
look over a spit-encrusted saxophone.
Back to work.
I clean up the oboe that had been glued and reassemble it. Although
not really part of the agreed job, I tighten up the action, replace
a few corks and reset the larger pads. I won't charge extra for
this work - I like to stick to my quotes - it's more about professional
pride and job satisfaction. There will be other days when a job
takes less time than expected. Swings and roundabouts.
With the job completed I draw up the invoice and call the client
- I advise leaving the collection for another day, to let the glue
really set hard.
Next job up is a restoration - an 18th century clarinet.
I start by clearing the workbench - or as least as much of it as
I'm likely to need!
I fancy a spot of music, but can't decide whether to go for a spot
of Baroque or a perhaps a mass. While searching through my tapes
I find my Clifford Brown compilation tape...complete with typed
label that says " Clifford Brown Overdose Tape - It'll Wig
You ". Sounds ideal.
I put the clock on.
Most jobs are done 'per quote'. That's to say that people, quite
reasonably, want to know how much a repair is likely to cost them
- and I feel it's a matter of principle to give them a firm and
But you can't do that with a restoration (or with some of the more
complex modern repairs) because you never know what's in store...so
the clock goes on and you charge by the hour.
I'd cheated a bit on the job - there's no point putting the clock
on and then finding you're up against rusted keywork, it's hardly
fair to charge the client while you sit there waiting for the penetrative
solutions to do their work...so I'd already checked the keywork
and applied the necessary gunk.
It had worked, save for one key, which would have to be cut off.
An hour later and the body of the instrument is put aside to rest
after the first of its many treatments to restore the wood.
It's hard to fully explain the satisfaction that comes from taking
a dull and dried up piece of wood and transforming it into a warm
and vibrant material. I can almost hear the boxwood sighing appreciatively
beneath its glistening coat of oil as the light from the window
reflects off the grain.
With nothing to do on the body for some time I turn to the task
of making a replacement key for the one that was missing. It will
be in solid silver, always a joy to work with, such a forgiving
metal. It will take me pretty much the rest of the day to fashion
the key out of the solid - so I whistle along with Clifford as the
clock ticks on.
Mid afternoon, and with another client due in shortly I take a
break. The phone has rung several times, but there's not much that
will tear me away from keywork and Clifford Brown. I check the messages
- the chap with the organ has rung again, he remembered that he'd
forgotten to remember to leave his number.
I call him up and tell him I don't repair organs, and I don't know
who does. I ask if he has access to the internet, and he tells me
his daughter does, so I suggest a search phrase that might yield
a result. He seems quite chatty, and has me laughing out loud when
he recalls the days when he and his mates used to play in a little
quartet at the turn of the 60s - and how they coped with the demise
of the ballad and the rise of rock and roll. He claims their version
of Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the water' was the worst that's ever
My client arrives. It's a new client, a young man, with a relatively
new saxophone. It seems he's having problems with the low notes.
I examine the sax, it's a Yamaha 62 alto in mint condition. The
action's pretty stiff, so I briefly chat about the implications
of that and he agrees to let me slacken off the springing a tad.
I check all the usual suspects but can't find anything obvious that
would cause a leak. I put the horn together and blow it - it goes
all the way down with a subtone.
I hand it over to him and he blows it. I notice his posture, he
leans quite forward and his shoulders are tense - and as he gets
down to the low D the notes begin to warble.
I ask a few questions about how long he's been playing - about a
year, he says.
I figure to myself he ought to be better, he looks rather crestfallen
about the low notes still warbling.
The kit checks out, the mouthpiece is fine - but he asks me if
there's anything I can do to improve the low notes. I decide on
a blend of showmanship and psychiatry.
I test a few of the lower pads with a cigarette paper for leaks.
They're all solid, even the low D, which can be a problem on these
horns - but I humm and haa as I go, and poke various small tools
into the keywork. The hypodermic with the key oil always looks impressive,
so I oil a few of the nylon bushes to help quieten the keywork.
I hand the sax back, but before I let him play it I get him to stand
up straight. I adjust the strap and show him how to set it for the
right height. By setting the strap shorter he won't be able to lean
I ask him to blow the sax, but just as he's about to blow it I
poke a finger into his shoulder - it's as stiff as a board. I get
him to relax, adjust his posture, then let him blow. The low notes
He's delighted - there must have been a leak down there after all,
As I fill out his client record I ask him about lessons. He hasn't
had any, save for a few tips from a friend who plays, so I print
out a few numbers of teachers in his area and recommend at least
a few lessons. I charge him a tenner and think 'blast' when he says
"Coo, is that all? Brilliant!"
As he leaves I reiterate the advice regarding the posture and the
shoulders, and tell him to call me if the problem re-occurs...otherwise
come back in a year for a general service. He says he'll tell all
his friends about me, and somehow I know he will (and he did).
Back to the silver key, and by my reckoning I should complete it
before the end of the day.
It's not long before I'm done with the heavy cutting and filing,
and onto the most taxing part of the process - the 'squaring up'.
Without an exact duplicate key to use as a pattern I have to scale
up or down from another key on the instrument. There's very little
that can be measured, it's more a case of matching angles and curves
until the key 'looks' right. It's here where you can easily ruin
several hours of work with just a sweep of a small file. As I slowly
work the key I keep in my mind that by the time I remove the file
marks and polish the key it may lose enough metal to throw it 'out
I get to a point where I'm not sure what I'm looking at - so I stop.
I'll sleep on it and look at it again with fresh eyes in the morning.
I know it's close enough to get away with it, but I want that little
bit more. Nothing beats that smug feeling when the client has to
actually ask you which key you made (how do you forget which key
was missing, I've often wondered)...or even better, points out the
wrong one and compliments the match.
I check the body of the clarinet, it's bone dry again, so I apply
another dose of oil - gently does it, you can't expect to turn back
a few hundred years in a day.
It's nearly time to go home, so I make one last cuppa and return
to the computer to check the mail. The phone rings, and I uncharacteristically
pick it up. I regret it instantly - it's man trying to sell me a
website. I can always tell when I'm in for a bit of sales spiel
- they always ask to speak to 'the proprietor'. I have been known
to say "I'm sorry, he died yesterday" just to see what
their reaction is - but I stopped that when one guy asked "So
who's in charge now?".
I'm not in the mood, so I say I'm not interested and put the phone
down - and briefly wonder how much the guy gets paid to cold-call
people. Whatever it is, it can't be worth it.
I unplug the kettle and the lathe, turn off the brazing gas and
power down the computer. It reminds me just how absolutely quiet
it is in the workshop without it running, and I make a mental note
to scour the web later for hints and tips on quietening it down.
I close up the workshop and make my way over to the paddock, armed
with a heavy-duty binliner and an old garden fork.
I'm after fresh manure for my compost heap - a bagfull of steaming
dung really gets the heap going, but it's not long before I'm contemplating
the wisdom of using a fork to pick the dung up as opposed to a spade.
The horses amble over as I potter about the paddock. I'm not particularly
scared of horses, but I've seen the stable lads wrestling with the
odd grumpy horse - so I'm more than a little respectful of their
good-natured but unnervingly powerful jostling. I must cut quite
a figure - trying to fill a bag with dung using a garden fork, all
the while cursing and mumbling as the stuff falls off the tines...like
some bizarre 'Olde Englishe' country fair event.
And all this accompanied by the odd 'Gercha!' as the horses bump
into me just as I'm about to manoeuvre a full load of manure into
I climb back over the paddock fence, pull up a few tufts of the
lush grass nearby and give each horse a mouthful, one of them nearly
takes my fingers with it!
As I walk back to the car carrying a bagful of dung and a smelly
fork I hear the phone in the workshop ring. By the time I get into
the car I can hear the answer-machine chirping " Hello, this
is Stephen Howard at the Workshop... I'm unable to take your call
right now...." and as I drive off I try whistling the theme
from 'The Rockford Files'.
Try it, it's harder than you think.
PS: The silver key? Took one look at it the next day and knew it