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

Key lark-o



I'll be the first to admit that I'm not what you'd call 'a tidy person'. The minimalist style of living is something of an anathema to me and whilst I wouldn't go so far as to say I positively relish clutter, it would only be perhaps because I make a distinction between clutter and something that might come in handy at a later date.
This is perhaps where the problem lies.

Some of you might have wondered why my site doesn't feature shots of yours truly, looking intensely industrious at nice neat workbench - a touch of subtle lighting perhaps, a few esoteric tools neatly laid out beside me, all giving off general air of spotless efficiency. No doubt you've seen other sites with just such photographs on display.
The reason I don't do this is because it's complete rubbish, and paints an entirely false picture of what a real working workshop looks like.

When I first entered this noble profession I had cause to visit an established craftsman in order to help me sort out a tricky problem for which I needed a few spare parts. I remember to this day the excitement at the prospect of seeing a master craftsman's workshop - and I remember too the horror of discovering that my preconceptions were so completely different from the reality.
Clutter just wouldn't be the right word for it - even chaos wouldn't do justice to the sight of the workbench piled high with keys, pads and various bits of instruments. My astonishment wasn't at all assuaged by the sight of the craftsman cutting a swathe through the pile of debris with his arm in order to make space to place my job on the workbench.
In fact I was so taken aback that I mustered up the courage to comment upon the apparent unorderliness of the workbench.
The reply was honest, simple and succinct - if you have a tidy workbench then you're obviously not busy enough.
How those words rings true even today.

Having visited a number of workshops since then, of varying trades and professions, I've found this tenet to ring true. I've also discovered an informal correlation between the excellence of the work done and the volume of crap on the workbench.

Whilst I firmly believe in the principle of hanging onto all manner of debris on the grounds that it's bound to have a use sooner or later, I've occasionally had cause to rue this philosophy.
The most recent incident involved the loss of a flute key. The client had dropped his flute in for a general service and I'd begun the job in plenty of time to meet the deadline a few days later. However, rarely a day passes without new work coming in - and it's often the case that this work gets slotted into the current workload...either because it's a simple job or perhaps because it's a pro who need the instrument back rather more urgently than an amateur player would.
And so I found myself returning to the flute a day or so later - in fact on the very day that the client was due to collect it.

No real problem, I'd done the major part of the work - all that was left was reassembly and the adjustment of the action. Things were going well enough until I came to assemble the foot joint. I could not find the low C# key anywhere.
I wasn't too worried - I know from past experience that even something as large and shiny as a key can suddenly disappear, only to turn up moments later right in front of your very eyes. This process is usually substantially speeded up by the application of a nice cup of tea...and perhaps a bit of a poke around on the workbench.

Having brewed up, and duly poked around, I still hadn't found the key.
The floor is always the next port of call. I work seated on a large rubber mat - the idea behind this being that if anything should drop off the workbench then it won't be damaged (plus it provides a degree of protection against lightning stikes. It could happen...it could, it could).This really applies to tools more than instrument parts (you'll be relieved to hear) - particularly screwdrivers, which seem to make a dive for the floor as soon as I take them out of their rack.
I had a good shuffle around on the floor - found a few useful screws and a couple of small drills, but no key.

It's around this sort of time that you have to start considering the unlikely.
There are various pots and jars on the workbench - and it seems not that unlikely (well, OK, a bit) that perhaps a key might have somehow found its way into one of them, to be covered up in due course by the contents. I consider this to be unlikely in as much as it's never actually happened - but it didn't stop me from poking a finger into various pots and having a bit of a jiggle about.

It was about now that the client arrived to collect his flute.
I was tempted to make up some sort of excuse as to why his flute wasn't ready. I could have embellished it with any amount of technical balderdash to the extent that the client would have been none the wiser as to the real reason for the delay - and would even have gone away feeling grateful that I had found an unusual fault and needed to spend more time on fixing it.
But I decided to come clean and admit to the disappearance of the key.
The client was most understanding, and proceeded to aid my search - but between the two of us we couldn't come up with the goods.
It was then that I began to consider the impossible.

I had worked on a couple of instruments since I dismantled the flute - was there perhaps a chance that the key might have got tangled up in them and found its way into their cases?
It seemed like an attractive idea, until I considered that the last thing I do before I put an instrument back in its case is play it - and if I couldn't notice a spare key dangling off it then I had no right to be in this business.
I considered too the clothing aspect - my work jeans I was wearing a few days ago had the legs turned up an inch or so...might not the key have dropped off the bench and got caught in the turn-up (I've actually seen this happen)?
A quick call home assured me that this wasn't the case - though I did momentarily have visions of a flute key whizzing around in the washing machine.

The client decided to call it quits - it wasn't an urgent job, so I was left alone to consider the terrible prospect of having to tidy up the workbench.
This isn't as simple as it sounds - it's really NOT just a matter of 'putting things away'. OK, so the tools are easy enough - they all have their designated places - but what about the other bits and bobs?
Point screws can't just be shoved in a drawer - you gotta know what they came off, and what they'll fit. Likewise rods screws.
Then there are the various pads dotted about. They can't just be shoved away, they have to be measured and put back in the right drawer.
This goes right the way down to little offcuts of plastic tubing and even fragments of cork - not to mention (ouch) assorted needles springs.
Rest assured - clearing the workbench is a major operation, and not one to be taken on board lightly. In the end, I compromised. I found a few plastic tubs and used them as a sort of holding station - metal bits in one tub, corks and felt etc., in another, general (useful) detritus in another, and so on - but still no sign of the bloody key!

I brewed up another cuppa, took a deep breath, and considered the ludicrous.
Perhaps I had a mouse in the workshop. Perhaps, in the dead of night, it had crept onto the workbench and made off with the key. OK, so perhaps I was confusing mice with magpies - and there's also the fact that mice don't just creep, they crap too...and I hadn't seen any droppings...but the idea was fast becoming feasible in the face of nothing else springing to mind.
So I started pulling various boxes out from under the bench in the hope of finding a cosy little nest, complete with mouse babies and a low C# key.
It wasn't to be (but I did find an 8BA tap, so it wasn't entirely a waste of time).

I sat down in my chair, lost for ideas.
There was but one last possibility - and one that always makes me shudder - that a client, or more probably a client's child had picked up the key and pocketed it. It isn't beyond the realms of possibility - but then I hadn't had any curious kids (or clients - well, not curious in the sense of being inqusitive, at least) in lately.
And as I sat there, wondering when would be the right time to admit defeat and order a spare, I spotted the bugger.

I'd been tinkering with a computer power supply a day or so ago - and having got halfway through my tinkering I'd placed it up one end of the workbench. Its leads dangled over the edge of the bench, and there - hanging amongst the trailing leads, was the C# key.
I must have lifted up that power supply a dozen times, even turned it over a few times and shaken it about in case the key had dropped inside...even the client had examined it in his own attempts to find the key. The leads had even brushed against my head as I was scrabbling about beneath the workbench - but such was the design of the flute key that it had hooked itself securely round a small plug and remained there until I spotted it.

I would have had a tidy up after this incident - but instead I chose to sit down and share the sorry tale with you...and now I don't have time to tidy up.
Ask a busy man, as the saying goes...

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015