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

Haynes - The inside story



"If they ask me, I could write a book" - so the song goes. And they did - and I have.
In just a couple more months (as I write this) the Haynes Saxophone Manual hits the shelves, and marks the culmination of a project that's occupied me for nigh on two years.

I'll admit that I was slightly suspicious when the introductory email from Haynes fell into my inbox back in November 2007, if only because it seemed like a dream come true. I'd had similar emails in the past which turned out to have been sent by my brother, courtesy of a clever website that allows you to send out emails using a spoof address. The last such email appeared to be from Jools Holland who, finding himself short of a sax player for a local gig, had asked around and been given my name.
It had me fooled, at least for a while. Once I'd got past the 'Oh my goodness' stage and into a 'Yeah, right' frame of mind I looked a bit closer at the email headers and discovered the ruse - though not before I'd rung a few mates up and said "Hey, guess what!!??".
I shouldn't complain though 'cos I used the same site myself a little later to send a guitarist friend of mine an email from 'Bon Jovi', asking him to play guitar for them on a forthcoming UK tour. It caught him out too.

Having established the email from Haynes was the genuine article I entered into discussions about the content and format of the manual.
I've never been that impressed with instrument repair manuals and suchlike on the basis that while the information contained in them can be very useful, they tend to be focussed on the use of specialist tools. Such tools are often hideously expensive and not all that easy to come by, and require certain skills to make them work properly. It's always seemed to me that if all you want to do is check for a few leaks and maybe replace a couple of bits of cork, these manuals are a bit over the top.
Besides, you can't pick them up in your local bookshop and have a quick shufty through them to see if the writing and presentation meets your needs.
So the emphasis of the Haynes manual was going to be on maintenance and mechanical tweaking, coupled with an explanation of how the sax works in a practical sense - and the tooling required was to be kept to the bare minimum. I wanted people to be able to buy the book, then nip down to the local hardware store and be able to kit themselves out with pretty much all the tools they'd need. I know from experience with clients that if there's even a hint of having to faff around trying to source tools and materials, they simply won't bother - you'd be surprised how many players can't even be bothered to nip to the garage to buy a bottle of gear oil for lubricating the action.

The principle of the book appealed to me inasmuch as it follows on from what I've been doing on this site for the past few years, namely attempting to demystify the processes involved in maintaining woodwind instruments, coupled with a bit of down-to-earth science and lots of encouragement - and with agreement on both sides contracts were duly exchanged and the project was set in motion.
I think that's when it hit me - the enormity of the project.
The writing would be easy enough - I can generally write until someone takes the keyboard away, or I run out of tea/baccy...whichever comes first - but there were so many other things that had to be put in place before I could even begin to think about my opening lines. For example, the book was going to be lavishly illustrated, and that meant photographs - and lots of them. I realised pretty quickly that it would be completely impractical to get a photographer in and that I'd have to do all the shots myself - and about five seconds later a big red neon sign saying "Gadget Fest" lit up in my head...I'd have to buy a 'proper' camera.
I've been a keen amateur photographer for years, but all my 'posh' kit was film based - and while the digital cameras I had were fine for general website work they simply weren't going to be up to the job of publishing. What followed was a couple of weeks spent poring over camera review sites - trying to find one that had an approach similar to this site, that would give me the low-down on various bits of kits and explain in very simple terms what it all meant and whether or not it was important.
I'll say this much, if you thought the arguments between the various factions in the saxophone world were bad (Yamaha v. Selmer v. Vintage etc.) you should check out what the Canon v. Nikon fans have to say to each other! In some places it's so bad that fans of one brand won't even say the other's name, preferring to use such terms as Noink or Conan.
In the end I followed the advice I often dish out to prospective saxophone buyers - namely to work out what specific things I needed in terms of features and quality, then get myself down to a camera shop and try the things out. I was quite pleased, therefore, to find that the camera I got on best with wasn't the most expensive that I could have bought. Shades of my trusty old Yamaha 23 tenor there, I thought.

But that wasn't the end of it, oh no - I had to decide on an overall 'look' to the book, and that meant finding a backdrop for the photos.
You might think it's just a matter of choosing a colour and getting a sheet of fabric to suit, but it's a bit more involved than that. For a start you have to be careful with regard to how the colour will reproduce in print - it's not the same as taking a shot and bunging it up on a website in a 'what you see it what you get' fashion.
Then there are considerations such as texture - a fabric that has a natural sheen will reflect the light, which causes problems, and if there's a distinct weave to the cloth it might produce unexpected effects when the photo is printed. It also has to look good from a distance as well as close up.
I spent ages schlepping round fabric shops, taking test shots, pestering shop assistants and generally asking stupid questions (such as "Does my sax look good in this?") and it soon became clear that I would have to resort to specialist retailers. The result of this was a steady stream of 'swatches' - little samples of cloth - going to and fro, until I finally found a fabric that ticked all the boxes. And whaddya know - the Queen uses it. I might have known. I could have saved myself a great deal of time by nipping up to Buck House and having a gander at the Royal Sofas.

Doing the photography turned out to be a baptism of fire. I'd had some advice from a helpful pro which went along the lines of "So, you're photographing a highly reflective, angular surface in close-up along with handheld tooling in shot? Best of luck, mate!". To be fair he did come up with a few useful hints and tips after he'd ascertained that I didn't have access to a lens that cost more than my car and a lighting setup that drew more current from the national grid than the advert break at half time in the cup final.
I enjoyed the challenge though, and the beauty of working in the digital format is that the results are instant - so you can see exactly where you went wrong, and, even more crucially, where you got it right. There were times when I took upwards of fifty shots of a particular setup before I hit upon the right combination of light and angles that made it clear what the job in hand was all about, but as the months passed it became more instinctive and I got it down to an average of around half a dozen shots. Having the camera connected to a laptop that showed the shots in real time as well as immediately after they were taken was a huge boon, and I shudder to think how I'd have managed if I had to shoot the whole project on film. Kodak's share price would have soared!

I don't mind admitting that a little bit of luck and trickery came in handy too.
On the luck side I had a few clients turn up unexpectedly with rush jobs, and it just so happened that the horns they had were just what I needed for a particular shot. I felt a twinge of guilt for one client who arrived out of the blue wanting a check-up on a horn he'd just bought - I was so busy with the photography (and meeting a looming deadline) that I had to refuse point-blank to take a look at it. I couldn't overcome my own curiosity though and had to ask what the horn was. It turned out to be Martin alto - and barely thirty seconds later it was on the table being photographed. I still didn't have time to look over the horn properly, but I gave it a quick once-over and told the client he'd get a mention in the book...which seemed to cheer him up considerably.
As for trickery, I found some shots to be all but impossible to take in one go. The setup of these shots failed time and time again; either the lighting wasn't right or the correct focus couldn't be achieved, or there were more practical problems - such as a key getting too hot while a flame played on it. And so it was that I found myself using a few tricks to achieve the results I wanted.
For example - if you've ever been to an air show you might have seen a couple of planes performing a dual aerobatics display. One of the most popular sequences is where the two planes fly straight at each other along the runway and appear to veer off at the very last moment. It looks extremely dangerous and impressive from the crowd line, but if you were looking down from above you'd see that the planes, while at the same altitude, were quite a few meters apart relative to the centre of the runway. The spectacle relies on the perspective of the audience at the crowd line - and the same technique can be applied via the lens of the camera.
It took a few burnt fingertips before I figured it out, mind you.

When it came to the writing the main difficulty I had to contend with was the generic nature of the book. The market simply isn't big enough to support manuals for each individual brand and model of sax, so decisions had to be made as to what to include and what to leave out. I felt the best way around this was to focus on the theory - the mechanics of the instrument - on the basis that once the workings of the mechanism are understood it should be reasonably easy to apply the theory to any horn. Easier said than done though, and I found I had to be quite ruthless with myself when it came to describing, say, the octave key mechanism - of which there have been countless designs and variations down the years.
There was also the need to keep it simple. Being able to perform basic maintenance is a skill well worth having, but it carries with it the risk that you might sometimes create more problems than you solve. It's not enough to point up a typical problem and suggest a solution - you have to bear in mind all the things that could go wrong. And when that happens you're often into the realms of specialists tools and skills.
My solution to this tricky problem was to write "Maintenance - Not Repair" on a piece of paper and stick it on top of my monitor. Crude, but effective.

It soon became clear that I was writing by my own 'philosophy' of repair in general, which states that if you want to understand how something has broken you must first understand how it works. It might seem patently obvious, but I've seen any number of clients who've come in with a non-working instrument, pointed to a key which quite clearly has a spring that's popped off its post and said "I don't know why it won't work anymore". It takes but a couple of minutes to show them how a key works and how the springs power them, and the knowledge they take away with them ensures that they'll never have to call upon my services again with the same problem.
All good and well, but there were a couple of maintenance techniques that required the application of what I guess you might call the 'Dark Arts' - AKA a bit of experience.
For instance, most half-decent sax players know the value of an action that's properly balanced - but how do you explain to someone what 'properly balanced' means, and how do you explain to them how to achieve it themselves? It's easy enough to do so when the player is standing next to you and you have the luxury of being able to demonstrate the technique while they watch - but putting it down into words in a book is an entirely different matter. You've also got to keep it simple, and clear.
Fortunately I had a few 'guinea pigs' to help me out.
If you've visited this page before and found it locked out with a stern request for a user name and a password it was because it was being used to test techniques.
A number of clients very generously offered to take part in user testing, by which they'd log on and view the technique and then try it out - and report back on whether they understood what was required and what sort of success or failure they'd had.

Once the writing and photography was complete (well, complete as in "If I don't send it off now, I never will") I was at the mercy of the 'copy editor'.
This was the phase I was most dreading.
As anyone who's looked over this site will have seen, I like to indulge in a spot of banter (blimey guv, really?). When Haynes first approached me they said that one of the things that appealed to them was my informal, chatty style - and that this was something they felt would be an asset to the manual. Naturally, I was very flattered but couldn't help thinking that at some point someone was going to say "This is too informal", and the final result would be something rather drier than I would have liked.
I was also worried about the effect of having someone else effectively critique my work. To be sure, you all do that - every reader of this site forms an opinion, but in many ways it doesn't really matter what they think. That's not to say I don't value their opinions, but ultimately it's 'my site' - and it's up to me what goes on it...it's just a happy coincidence that most people seem to enjoy my jottings.
The opinions of a copy editor are very much different, and it's their job to fit the text into the 'house style' as well as to ensure that it's universally understandable. I like to think I helped that process along by avoiding the use of any Cockney rhyming slang (sneak yer new horn up the apples an' pears so yer trouble an' strife doesn't get a gander at it) and hardly any swearing.
All the same I waited with trepidation for the draft to come back, fully expecting it to be crammed full of big red lines and comments like "No, no! This simply won't do!" written into the margins - and so I was very surprised to find that aside from a few house style changes my text remained largely unaltered. In fact the copy editor was very complimentary, which meant a very great deal to me considering I'm inclined to think of myself as very much an amateur when it comes to writing.
I suppose my biggest fear was that I'd over-written, and would have to pare sections down. It's not that it's an impossible task, it just means that the text loses its personality and a phrase like "Mind how you go - if you think you've overdone it then it's probably too late and you'll have to start again" becomes merely "Do not overdo it" - and to me that seems to take away the sense that someone's looking over your shoulder, helping you along.
All in all I felt the editor had done a very good job, and what changes had been made improved the clarity and global accessibility of the text - though I did dig up one small error...a change from a double inverted comma (quote mark) to a single, made by a macro that automatically converts quote marks into the house style single quote mark format. Not normally a problem, but in this case the double quote mark indicated a measurement in inches (6" = six inches) - with a single quote it became 6'...or six feet. The passage in which it occurred related to purchasing cork sheets, and I'd advised readers to buy a number of sheets of cork of various thicknesses - which were typically sold in 6" X 4" sheets. Assuming a price of around £5 for such a sheet of cork, had anyone rung up a repair supplier and asked for a six by four feet sheet of cork the bill would have been £720. The copy editor drily remarked that they'd probably get a quantity discount.

As with all big projects there are always a few last-minute details that have to be tidied up, and one of these was sorting out the images for the chapter opening pages.
Not a big deal for the most part, requiring a few large close-ups that looked pretty and bore some relevance to the chapter in hand. However, I found myself left with two pages I couldn't fill - and by now it had become a sort of principal that all the photos in the book would be shot by me (save for one I requested from a manufacturer). What was needed was a couple of 'beauty shots'.
Sunset and piesI tried out a few vaguely arty ideas, but none of them seemed to work - and then I had the idea of taking an 'ethereal' shot. It sounds very posh but in fact it's just a shot with a sunset in the background. A couple of problems cropped up almost immediately. It was October, and the sunsets are quick and largely unspectacular - but I managed to find a local spot that looked promising. It was just a matter of waiting for the right weather.
When it eventually turned up I rushed to my chosen location, set the camera gear up and took a couple of test shots. With a bit of camera tweaking (OK, pressing buttons at random until everything looked about right) I found an exposure setting that more or less gave me what I wanted - so I took up position in front of the camera, sax slung around my neck, and told my assistant to 'just keep pressing the damn button'.
I took a dozen or so shots and then rushed over to have a look at the results. They weren't good. I was too low down in the shot, and worse still the consumption of pies over the years could be seen in quite graphic detail.
I was aiming for 'Mystical sax god plays against a fiery sunset', and what I got was 'Middle-aged, slightly pot-bellied geezer stumbles around in the dark'.
Steps had to be taken - but as I didn't have any steps I settled for standing on my sax case and holding the pies in.
In the meantime the sun was doing its thing, namely setting - and fast. A rather dramatic cloud line had appeared - but the angle at which it looked best varied from second to second due to the wind.
This resulted in me running around a field in the ever-increasing darkness with a sax in one hand and a case in the other, occasionally jumping on the case and striking a pose (while trying to remember the pies) and shouting 'The light! The light!! Press the damn button!!!' I got my shot in the end, and was rather pleased with it - but the editor said it wasn't really what they were looking for, so we settled for a shot of Tubby Hayes instead. Very apt, I thought.

And so the deed is done, and the manual is now in the hands of the designers. In a few short weeks "the book what I have writted" goes through its final proof stages and hits the shelves (by the time you read this it should be on sale) - and I can have 'Author' stamped on my passport.
Am I nervous? Oh, you betcha I am! For one thing you can't, unlike website publishing, simply correct any errors you might have made - so if I've overlooked anything I'll have to live with it until a correction can be made in a reprint. There's also the issue of how well the book will be received. If it's half as popular as this website then I'll be a happy man, but if it gets the old thumbs down I'm going to be a bit crestfallen. That said, I had some advice from another author who suggested that if anyone gets a bit shirty all I need do is say that I'm very much looking forward to seeing their book on the shelves in a couple of years time. Sounds fair to me.
It also occurred to me that there might be one small problem; when Haynes branched out into publishing manuals other than those related to vehicle maintenance, one of the books they produced was a sex manual. It seems to me that if you have a suitably 'plummy' accent you're going to have to be very careful you don't end up with the wrong book - though I daresay the section on 'Tweaking for Performance' would probably come in handy either way.

Time will tell whether the public is pleased with my efforts - if they're not I might just need that passport...Venezuela looks like it might be a nice out-of-the-way kinda place...

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015