Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

A day in the life...



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 'til later.

I gaze over the pile of instruments waiting my attention. I love this bit!
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 now).
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 silence.

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 answerphone...5 messages...figures.

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 purpose.
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 certain price.
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 been heard.

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 forward.

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 ooze out.
He's delighted - there must have been a leak down there after all, he says.
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 of right'.
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 my bag.

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 was finished.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015