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

The sax doctor



I seem to be adding a few more strings to my metaphorical bow lately.
With the signing of the contract with Haynes I suppose I can officially call myself an author now (I'm holding off, at least until I can walk into W.H Smiths and see my work on the shelf) and just a few weeks ago I took on board the mantle of a teacher.
I'm already looking out for a velvet smoking jacket and a fez for my "author's outfit", I suppose now I'll have to find a tweed jacket with leather arm-patches...

It all started when a regular client bought a rather beaten-up vintage soprano sax and brought it along to the workshop for a quote, with a view to having it properly fixed up. It was, potentially, quite a nice little soprano - but years of use and a lot more abuse had taken its toll. The body was a bit bent, the action was wobbly and practically every key cup had been attacked with a mallet.
I did the traditional 'sucking in of the breath' and quoted £500 to put it back into good shape.
You can always tell when your quote is spot on, there'll be a moment's quiet contemplation from the client before they say "OK, go ahead". You know you've got it wrong when they say "Woohoo, that's way cheaper than I expected!" or "&*%%$^!! - how much??" In this case it wasn't so much a problem finding the money, it was more that the cost of the repairs when added to the purchase price made the whole project a little uneconomic.

The client decided to take the sax away and consider his next move, which turned out to be to try a cheaper repairer who was advertising his services on ebay - this chap was offering a complete overhaul for the incredible sum of £250. The client emailed me about it to ask whether or not I thought it was worth a try, which might sound a bit cheeky - but then we have a good business relationship and we both realised that my quote made things realistically rather too costly.
I don't have a problem with clients using other repairers, I know there are times when I'm fully booked and they need the work done in a hurry - the only problem is finding one that can do a decent job. In this particular case I was extremely sceptical that he'd get a decent job for £250, and what with him being a practising GP (General Practitioner - a physician or doctor) I suggested that finding a repairer on ebay was perhaps like looking for a surgeon to do a nose job on there. Duly cautioned he decided to give it a punt anyway and sent the sax off to be overhauled.

He brought it round a few weeks later - I was curious to see what he'd get for £250, and as it turned out it wasn't a lot. In effect all the chap had done is swapped out the pads and replaced the corks and felts - plus a few dents had been knocked out here and there. The action was still as loose as ever, which makes fitting new pads completely pointless, and it still needed another £250s worth of work to get it going properly.
Still, he seemed happy enough with it for the time being - though I knew it was a situation that could only get worse.
And get worse it did, to the point where the client decided he'd like to have a go at fixing it up himself.

This is something I don't have a problem with - after all, I've 'cheated' many a garage out of a hefty fee by virtue of doing most of my own vehicle maintenance, though in recent years I have to admit that the prospect of lying under a car in the freezing cold while trying to tackle a recalcitrant bolt that you know is only going to end in your knuckles being ripped open when the spanner slips seems to have lost its appeal. Even reading about it makes you wince, doesn't it?
For the most part the average punter is more than capable of tackling basic maintenance jobs, and I even encourage as much by way of the assorted articles in the Handy Hints section, but when it comes to the more advanced techniques things get a bit trickier. It's not so much that these techniques are difficult, it's more that they require a certain 'touch' - and more often than not, specialist tools. The tools are easy enough to come by, if expensive - it's the 'touch' that's the hard part.
There are a number of manuals available that claim to show you these advanced repair techniques, and indeed they do, but as with most things that fall into the craft category they really only show you 'what' to do - and not 'how' to do it. The same principle can be seen in action on many a gameshow. I'm sure quite a few readers will remember the halcyon days of Bruce Forsyth's "Generation Game" - in which a pair of family teams were shown how to do or make something by a skilled professional (somehow it's always the pot throwing and the cake icing that spring to mind), and then had a couple of minutes in which to reproduce the pro's efforts as best they could. The end result was often a wobbly pile of glutinous goo, which usually merited a score of 4 out of 10...just for sheer effort. Bruce would cry "Good game, good game!" and we'd all have a look at the scoreboard while a team of Mr Shifters in brown overcoats would do their best to clean up the piles of goo without breaking into audible laughter.
It's clear then that it requires rather more than a "Here's what you do" approach to learning such skills, and it's perhaps a curious fact of life that the information contained within many such manuals only really makes any sense when you already know how to do the job.

In this case the client had managed to do quite well with regard to the basics and had made quite a decent job of tidying up a couple of his clarinets, but had the good sense to recognise that much of what was needed was beyond his current technical abilities - and with this in mind he dropped me a line with an unusual and interesting proposal. Quite simply, he wanted to hire some time in my workshop - with access to both the tools and my expertise with a view to having a go at restoring the soprano himself.
Ordinarily I'd have dismissed the idea out of hand - for no other reason than I've never felt I had the patience to teach, and the fact that it was likely to be quite an expensive exercise - but with the Haynes saxophone maintenance manual in the pipeline I felt this might be a good opportunity to re-examine the ways in which I might explain some of the techniques that I use, and so I agreed.
It also helped that the client was an affable chap, and quite agreeable company (I can think of a few clients, bless 'em, with whom the prospect of spending a whole day in the workshop would make me break out in hives and reach for the liver salts).

I had concerns, I'll be honest - it wasn't so much that I was dreading it or that I felt it would be a waste of time, rather it was more that I had a few reservations about my abilities as a teacher. If you were to ask me how to remove a small dent from a sax body I could quite happily go through the details (first catch your dentball, etc.) and I could even more easily demonstrate the technique - but would that be enough? What happens when the client/student says "But I don't understand!"?
Teaching is about far more than reeling off facts and figures, it's about ensuring the information has been fully understood by the pupil to the best of their abilities.
As it turned out I think I quite surprised myself.
It wasn't perhaps down to any ability to explain myself precisely, nor any kind of systematic approach - it was more a case of being able to pick up a piece of the sax and say "Right, this is what we need to check; this is what we're looking for and this is how we're going to fix it". I guess that's the very big difference between a manual or a dvd and one-to-one tuition, the lesson can be tailored from moment to moment and all that's required is that rather than working in silence you simply say exactly what it is you're trying to do at any given moment (now I come to write it all down, it sounds so simple).
I'm always telling clients that repairing is as much about what you don't do as what you do do - knowing what not to do is just as vital as knowing what to do - so a fair amount of time was spent in showing the client what could go wrong during the execution of the various techniques, and that's something you simply can't get unless you have someone right beside you to point such things out.
I noticed how much emphasis I placed on getting the 'foundations' right, such as the notion that it's a waste of time trying to seat a pad on a key that wobbles on its pivot screw. This built up into a series of reference points - if you know the tonehole is level, the cup is flat and there's no play in the action then the business of setting the pad becomes a great deal easier. Likewise, setting the action up is made easier by determining which key you're going to fit first and fitting the other keys around it.
I also managed to keep the number of specialist tools required to a minimum. For example, one of the stack rods was bent and required straightening. Usually I'd pop it on the lathe, spin the rod at high speed and use a piece of wood with an oval hole in it to straighten the rod. It's a simple procedure that always impresses onlookers if only because the technique looks like it can only end in disaster until right at the last moment when the tool slips off the rod and leaves it spinning straight and true in the lathe chuck. Not many punters have a lathe at home, so I improvised with a cordless drill. Worked a treat, if a little less rapidly than doing it on the lathe.

To be fair, the client deserves some of the credit - a good pupil is a blessing for any teacher, and I was both pleased and relieved that I didn't have to labour any points. Credit is also due for his undertaking a positively Herculean task - the renovation of a quite badly beaten-up soprano sax. Even I wouldn't tackle such a job without quite a bit of forethought.
It took us both the best part of two days to cover the basics, and although we didn't finish the job we at least had a straight horn with a tight action, level toneholes and cups and both main stacks fitted, set and balanced - with only the peripheral keys left to do, and they could easily be finished off at home. That's really not bad going for a complete beginner, and although it undoubtedly ended up costing him rather more than simply having me do the job he at least now has the skills to tackle some quite substantial maintenance work on his own. Better than that, he now also had a far better idea of what it was possible to get away with and what it was not.
I did point out the fact that he'd have to invest quite a few pounds in specialist tools, and that some of my more useful tools had been made by myself - but then if you know how to correctly swedge a key barrel to take up free play you only need do it half a dozen or so times before the money you've saved on having a pro do it will have paid for the special tools required. I can't honestly say that it would an economic proposition for someone with just a couple of horns, but if they had a 'fleet' of them it might well work out to be a practical proposition in the long term.

I suppose, in theory, I ought to be concerned that having imparted the 'secrets of the trade' there'll be little to prevent him kitting himself up with a workshop and setting up in competition with me - but although the techniques I taught can be applied to just about any woodwind instrument, there are always variations...and that's something that only the years can teach you how to deal with.
In any case, he's a GP - and I have a feeling that the drop in income would be more than considerable! Mind you, the clients are more interesting and tend to cough rather less and not look quite so pallid.
Then again...

I really enjoyed my time as a teacher, and the client clearly felt it was worth the effort. At the end of one of the sessions he commented favourably on my teaching style - and given that this was very much an experiment, and knowing the client as I do, I was really very genuinely touched by the remark.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015