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

Of cash and kudos


It's that time of year when the car insurance renewal form drops through the letterbox, and as I picked it up from the floor my one and only thought was "Oh please, please let it be a sensible quote! Please, please don't make me have to go looking for another one...please!" I don't know why I do it, because each and every year it's exactly the same rigmarole. The price has taken a hike and I'm left wondering at what point during the course of the year did I tell them I'd stopped being a 'craftsman' and became a daredevil driver in a travelling circus.

It used to be that I'd just stick with the same company, year in - year out. That was, at least, until I had one of those rare moments when I thought it would be 'fun' to get a few other quotes - at which point I found out I'd been paying well over the odds for years. Twice as much over the odds, in fact. This led to a suitably terse conversation with the insurers. "We're sorry you're leaving there a reason for it?" "Yeah, how does charging me twice the going rate for the last five years grab ya?"
Of course, I know what my mistake was - I was applying rules of commerce that I use in my everyday dealings with all the other people I do business with. Thus my car mechanic can always slot me in a bit sharpish when one of the wheels falls off, the nice lady in the Post Office can take in a parcel out of hours and let me settle up the next day and the man who runs the local shop will stash a malt loaf away for me if I haven't managed to beat the rush. It's all about customer loyalty - which, if you're in insurance translates to, well, it doesn't translate at all really.

But it's not so much about the money (well, OK, it is, a bit...a lot) as much as it's about having to fill in all those bloody forms online. What really fills me with dread is the bit where it asks you to describe your occupation. No problem - 'woodwind instrument repairer'.
Fat chance.
What you get is a dropdown menu from which you can pick an occupation that most closely matches your own...but there never is one.
Musical Instrument Manufacturer. Well, I'm not choosing that! That'll be a beer-crazed loony who makes electric guitars out of coffins and whose hobby is crashing into trees.
Instrument Technician. Now that sounds more like it, but we all know that the instrument in question is a little thing with a dial and a needle - and that such people are prone to fits of insanity and rage, driven by a need for perfection...and thus are more likely to fiddle endlessly with the car's heater controls in an effort to get the internal temperature to exactly 22 degrees....and so crash into trees in the meantime.
Musical Instrument Retailer. Not on your nelly! After a day behind the counter at a music shop, crashing into a tree is practically a spot of light relaxation.

So more often than not I opt for 'Craftsman' - though curiously enough it's not always an option. Even more curiously it's often not an option when 'Craftswoman' is.
Maybe that's down to women being less likely to drive into trees...I don't know.
I guess the simple option would be to select 'Author'. Having a couple of books under my belt probably means I can get away with it, but, as I understand it, an insurer's idea of an author is someone who spends a lot of time on their own in a shed - whom eventually decides that life is but an illusion...and drives into a tree in a bid to prove themselves right.

So you can see how much angst this causes me, which is why when I see the option for 'Crafstman' I'm so relieved I just want to tick the box and pay whatever they ask.
I'm also quite proud to be able to call myself a craftsman - it has a certain ring to it, a sort of indefinability that demands further explanation.
There's also a certain amount of mystique attached to the title, a hint of the unknown, a suggestion that one is the keeper of arcane knowledge, of secret skills and dangerous potions. All of which disappears in a puff of smoke when I'm forced to admit that all I really do is fix woodwind instruments after you've sat on them.
Ah, but is it?

I was having a chat with a colleague 'across the pond' recently, and the subject of 'kudos work' came up. Kudos work is essentially the kind of work that isn't always very profitable, is often extremely demanding, is even more often of questionable value but scores big on the 'Oooh' factor. A typical example of such work would be retrofitting modern keywork to a vintage horn, or cutting an instrument in half and reassembling it so that the upper and lower stacks are in a different alignment than before.
I used to do a fair amount of such work, both as a means of raising my professional profile and out of genuine keenness to undertake such complex jobs - but time and experience soon teaches you that even relatively simple jobs can be just as challenging, and that job satisfaction can be found even in the most mundane of tasks.
There is, however, always that tendency to take on a kudos job. Despite the blood, sweat and tears of bygone jobs, I still get butterflies in my stomach when someone turns up out of the blue with a unique job.

The big danger is that such work turns up during a slack period. When you're staring at pile of instruments that only translates into about two weeks' worth of work, with nothing else on the immediate horizon, it surely makes sense to take on a 'monster project'. In an ideal world this would work a treat - by the time you've cleared the two-week pile and got halfway through the big job, there'd be another batch of eager clients at the door.
But it's not an ideal world and what tends to happen is that the moment you take a screwdriver to the job, your email inbox fills up with requests for general service jobs. Three days later you're knee-deep in horns, and the kudos job sits on the bench like a gently decomposing albatross.
And the very worst of it is that you then don't have the time and the space to enjoy the challenge of the more complex job because you know have a whole new set of deadlines that need to be met.

Having been through this cycle a great many times, it was time to sit down and do a bit of soul-searching.
What was it I wanted to achieve? Why am I doing this? What do I expect to get out of it?
In order to solve this knotty problem I adopted a method I'd once seen a double-glazing salesman use when he popped round to try to flog my father some new windows. I was quite young at the time, but I remember being quite excited by the whole thing. We'd just replaced our black & white telly with a posh colour one (rented, mind you), dad had got a new company car...and now we were going to have double-glazed windows. Sheer luxury!
The salesman had laid out his shiny brochures on the dining room table, and I sat beside my dad as we pored over the options. I don't remember much about the windows, but I do remember thinking that the salesman didn't appear to be much older than me...and even in my tender youth I could tell that he was working up his pitch courtesy of a book entitled 'Ten ways to flog double-glazing'. He was as greasy as the brochures were shiny.
My dad didn't seem to be impressed either, and sensing a fading opportunity the salesman pushed a pen and paper over the table and asked dad to draw a line down the page and write down all the things he wanted from double-glazing on one side of the line, and all the ways to get it on the other.
Some scribbling took place, likewise some more talking and flicking through brochures - and then some prices were mentioned, along with a caveat that these prices were only available right now. No time to think, no time to mull it over...sign now, or the price goes up.
That pretty much ended the pitch, and the salesman was sent briskly on his way. And as he was being shoved out of the door I glanced at the sheet of paper my father had been scribbling on. On the left hand side it said things like 'Draught free', 'no condensation', 'thermal efficiency' and so on...and on the right side of the page he'd written 'F**k Off'.

And so I sat down with a sheet of paper and listed all the things I wanted to achieve on the left side...and then on the 'expectations' side I wrote "Big fat pile of cash". I screwed the paper up and threw it in the bin.
I drew out another sheet of paper and told myself (quite sternly) to take the exercise more seriously. I listed my aims on the left, and then pondered awhile on what should go on the right hand side. After quite some time I wrote "Don't be a bloody repairer".
I screwed the paper up and threw it in the bin...and opened a bottle of whisky instead.
I can't say it helped much viz the decision-making process, but I certainly enjoyed it...and as is so often the way, the answer came all of its own accord a couple of weeks later.
A regular client had called to say he was bringing in a horn that needed work. I didn't bother about the details, I'd done plenty of work for him before and knew, more or less, what to expect. But I was wrong this time. Rather than presenting me with a modern horn that just needed a bit of a going over, he landed me with an old vintage tenor (a Conn, I think...or it might have been a Martin). It needed 'the works' - and then some. I groaned - another kudos job. At this point I flat refused to take it on. I had way too much work in store, and even more on the waiting list - and even though I felt pangs of guilt as I ran my hand over the rich patina on the horn's bell, I knew I'd regret it if I took the project on.

Could I at least appraise the job and come up with a quote? Well sure, I'm always happy to do this even if I have no intention of taking the work on - or my price is beyond the client's budget. I'd far rather the client walked away knowing exactly what work was required than leave them at the mercy of someone who'll underquote because they haven't spotted all the issues that need dealing with.
So I prodded and poked, made busy with various leaklights, poured strange and mysterious fluids over suspect joints and indulged in quite a lot of the traditional sucking in of breath (accompanied by a suitable amount of tutting). The resultant quote came in at just under the four figure mark - which even I baulked at. But this didn't seem to phase the client.
"Is that for the full Monty? Everything? The whole kit and caboodle?"
"Yep, that's for the lot. No messing."
"What if I wanted less?"

Having less work done is nearly always an option. In general terms the scale (time and cost) of repair options tends to run from while-you-wait tweaks and maintenance, minor servicing and/or small repairs, general servicing and larger repairs, major servicing or significant repairs - and right up to repads and then overhauls. You can go still further, into rebuilding - and even bringing a horn back to 'as new' condition (rather catchily known as an 'Uberhaul').
None of these levels are set in stone - which can sometimes lead to confusion as to exactly what, say, a repad entails as opposed to an overhaul.
I tend to avoid 'pigeonholing' larger jobs because so few of them actually fit their supposed category. For example, a repad on a vintage horn can actually end up being more work than an overhaul on a modern one.

So when someone asks you to do less work you have to start thinking seriously about the difference between 'what would be nice' and 'what would be needed' - and you can approach it from a couple of angles. The top down approach means chipping away at the various options until you can go no lower, and the bottom up approach means defining the absolute necessities and thereafter adding the options. I prefer this latter approach.
So I whittled the job away.
This led to some interesting discussion over certain issues. There were a couple of key pearls that had seen better days. Over the years they'd been worn away and had delaminated, leaving them rather ridged and sharp under the fingers. I'd normally replace these - but could I just file them down smooth? Well...yeah...I could...but.
Nope, that was fine - as were a couple of slightly misshapen bell key guards (Do they still work? Well, yeah...but), some messy soldering from a previous repair (Is it holding the part on? Well, yeah...but)....and, well, yeah, you get the picture.
By now I'd got the price down considerably - but I still didn't really want the job. And then came the clincher.
No rush. In fact less than no rush - take your time. A month, a year, two years...doesn't matter. Fit it in as and when you can.

Now this was a smart move.
Remember the slack periods I spoke about earlier? If you had a pile of work for which there was absolutely no rush at all, you could just pull a horn out whenever you had some downtime, and put it back in the pile when the regular work picked up again. Sleepers, I call 'em.
Better still, because you're carrying out the work when there's no pressure, you tend to think about different ways of doing things. It's often at these times that you find yourself taking the time to make bespoke tools. A little lever that can bend a specific key on a specific horn; a template for aligning a certain bell brace; a mandrel that fits a single bell rim.
What this means for me is that my stock of dedicated tools increases, and I have the time to try out new techniques (and the time to see whether they hold up). And what it means for the client is that they get far more work done than they're paying for. Some of this, admittedly, is down to my having long forgotten what I said I wouldn't be fixing...and fixing it anyway.
It's also quite a departure from the usual way of working. A repairer will, typically, tell you what's needed - and that's that. We're so used to knowing "what's best" (and we're usually right) - but I wonder how much of that is down to getting comfortable with doing things a certain way...perhaps at the expense of a degree of flexibility. After almost 40 years in the business I surely must be guilty of that, which is perhaps why I felt I needed to do something to recapture my 'mojo'.

Which brings me (at last) back to my opening point...that of being a craftsman.
People often ask me how I got into this business, and what training I had. I tell them of my years at college, and add that those years were as much about learning what to do as they were about learning what not to do. Arguably perhaps more so. It's knowing what needs to be fixed, what doesn't...and what you can get away with. Get any one of them wrong and it just might not work for very long.
And yes, it's still nice to do the kind of work where all the t's are crossed and i's dotted - but it's also nice to be able to offer the option of a more 'freehand' approach that's likely to mean more owners of beaten-up old (but still good) bangers can get a respectable job done without running into the spectre of their horn being 'beyond economic repair'.
So I took the job on, and have taken on a few more that I might otherwise have turned away. And it seems to be working out rather well....for me and for the clients.
In fact it's proven to be such a popular option that I've had to come up with a name for it.
I'm calling it the 'Underhaul'.




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