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Martin Handcraft (original) alto saxophone

Martin Handcraft altoOrigin: USA
Guide price: £600+ for a tidy used example
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 1920's
Date reviewed: October 2006

The first in a long line of professional quality horns from one of the great American marques

I've always had something of a soft spot for Martin saxes. Our relationship goes right back to my schooldays, when I got my hands on an early Buescher baritone sax. It was the first bari I'd ever played...perhaps ever seen...and for a while I puffed and blew that beastie quite unaware of what other treats lay out there in the big, wide world. My next bari encounter was with a Conn Crossbar - reckoned by many to be one of the finest baritones ever made, and shortly thereafter a rather nice Selmer MKVI.
And then the day came when someone offered me a Martin Handcraft bari for £120.
It was in pretty poor shape - but it still blew...and my, how it did blow!
I loved the Buescher, it was warm, fat and round; I liked the Conn, it was alive and punchy; I enjoyed the Selmer, it was precise, authoritative...but the Martin was all these things, and more.
Ever since then I've always viewed the arrival of a Martin on the bench with some relish - knowing that I'm unlikely to be disappointed, and highly likely to be completely surprised.

I think, though, that the thing that most surprises me is that not so many years ago (at least here in the UK) you couldn't give Martins away - and sometimes it seemed you had the devil of a job just to find anyone who'd heard of the name. That's how I got the Handcraft bari for £120...no-one else knew what it was or wanted it.
These days it's a very different story, but you can still find good Martins being sold for less than equivalent horns from other vintage makers - which makes them a superb bet if you're after a decent vintage horn on a budget.

And so we come to the Martin in question.
The 'Handcraft" model name was used by Martin almost throughout the company's productive life, and so this horn - the first of the range - is now known as the Handcraft Original.
There were three variants of this model; the first featured plain tone holes - not the chunky, bevelled affair that became Martin's trademark; the second had the bevelled tone holes but no front top F key, which made its appearance on the third version. This model is the second variant, made in the period between 1919-1928.
As with any Martin, the first thing you notice is how heavy it is.
Hardly surprising, given the amount of metal on those tone holes - but it also points up how robustly built these horns are.

Martin Handcraft bell braceThat said, the bell brace is typical of the style of the day, being nothing more than a simple bar, and is woefully inadequate by today's standards. Cop a moderate whack to the bell and there's every chance that the bell stay will sink into the body, causing one hell of a lot of damage to the body in the process.
As you can see on the left, it's fitted to the body 'twixt the F and Auxiliary F key cups. To this end it's a wise owner who keeps their Handcraft in a suitably padded and substantial case.

Mind you, in the event of such damage the repairer has the option of being able to remove the tone holes - they're soft-soldered on. Quite why they chose to go along this path (rather than draw the tone holes out of the body, like pretty much everyone else) isn't entirely clear - though I'm sure at some point someone must have posited that not drawing the tone holes out of the body maintains the geometry of the bore (you don't get any distortion around the base of the tone holes).
By far and away the biggest practical advantage is that this makes the tone holes replaceable...though heaven knows what kind of damage you'd have to do to the rest of horn to wreck one of the tone holes. Of course, there's a drawback too...and it's that leaks can develop in the tone hole joints.
In fact it's highly likely that they will, and this is due to a curious process called Selective Galvanic Corrosion. In brief, this describes an electrochemical reaction between dissimilar metals - the upshot of which is that if you play a Martin long enough, the tone holes might drop off (the phenomenon is covered in more detail in a separate article devoted to the topic).
For this reason it's vital to thoroughly inspect the tone holes of any Martin you're about to shell out for. In particular check for leaks at the rear of the holes.

The body features wire guards, again as per the style of the period. These aren't detachable, so if they get badly damaged then they'll have to be unsoldered in order to reshape them.
They're pretty substantial though, and this is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good inasmuch as they'll brush off all but the hardest knocks, and bad inasmuch as any shock gets transmitted straight into the body....so in the event of, say, a fall, your guards might not be too badly misshapen, but the horn's body could be severely dented.
I mentioned the need for a substantial case earlier, and this is yet another good reason to invest in one - but it might not be all that easy finding one that the horn fits. This Handcraft has the low B on one side of the bell, and the low Bb on the other - modern horns have both on the one side...and thus modern cases are built to accommodate them.

Dirty Handcraft altoBuild quality overall is very good. The pillars feature generous bases and everything's fitted nice and neatly. No surprise really, the name 'Handcraft' meant pretty much what it said - these horns were built, crafted even, by hand. There are no concessions to weight-saving, nor "just strong enough for the purpose" design parameters - everything's built to the 'belt and braces' philosophy, right down to the bottom bow plate...which looks like it would enable the horn to double as a highly effective mace in the event of a tussle for the first alto chair.

The finish is superb, a matt silver plate with brightwork picked out on the bell section. At its best it looks gorgeous, at its worst it can look a bit iffy - and you can see on the right just how bad it can get.
This is the Handcraft in the state it arrived in the workshop.
Look awful, doesn't it - but the wise buyer isn't immediately put off by the cosmetic condition of a prospective purchase...it might mean that the horn has been stashed away for many years and hasn't actually seen a great deal of use. This often means there's little or no wear in the action or to the body, though rusted pivot screws and imperfections to the finish are problems to look out for.
Matt finishes aren't my favourite, they're rather difficult to bring a shine to and tend to dull quite quickly (all that sweat and gunk gets into the pits in the finish), but you can get a decent result by following up a standard silver polish with a degreasant. Lighter fluid is fine, meths will work too.

The keywork continues the belt and braces feel - though not at the expense of elegance. It has a nicely rounded feel to it and appears almost quite delicate in places...until you try to bend it.
You'll find few (OK, none) modern fripperies, such as adjusters and swivelling links - but everything's where it ought to be and nothing in particular sticks out as being uncomfortable.
The Handcraft features that old standby of early vintage horns, the low Eb trill key (not pictured here, but see the Conn 10M review for an example). This works off a lever over the low E key cup and a link from the low D cup to the E cup. By pressing the F and the D keys down an Eb is sounded - and D is sounded by bringing down the E key lever, which closes a small cup round the back of the horn.
Sounds handy - but in practice the mechanism tends to wear and go out of regulation fairly quickly, and it's just another place for a leak to develop.
Most people tend to wedge the little Eb key cup closed - though a neater fix is to reverse the throw of the key's spring. I can't abide trilling on saxes, so I take a fair degree of pleasure from springing this little bugger closed.

Martin Handcraft bell key spatulasThe bell key spatula arrangement is rather basic, but nonetheless functional.
The G# key isn't articulated - that's to say that there's no connection between it and the other bell keys...so playing a C# or B to G# interval will require you to move your finger.
You could, in theory, have a link fitted - but as the C# (being a single, solid key) tends to feel quite heavy already, you might well find the articulation makes the whole setup much harder to get round.
In spite of the mechanism's comparative crudeness it's quite surprising how nimble it feels once the key angles have been tweaked a little - though I'd be misleading you if I said that the jump from C# to Bb was smooth and uneventful.

When it comes to the octave key mechanism it's a slightly different story.
I love these old mechs...or rather I should say that I love the 'Heath Robinson' look of the things, but absolutely hate trying to get the damn things to work when they've gone drastically wrong. I don't believe you can appreciate the true beauty of the now-standard Selmer octave key mechanism until you've wrestled with a few of these quirky vintage affairs. It's not that it doesn't work - it does - it's more the fantastically convoluted manner in which it does so, with curiously shaped arms and stubs flying here and there all over the place.
Not including the crook key, there are up to four springs in play on this mech (including the G key)...on a Selmer type mech there are just two, and one of them is on the G key.
As you might imagine, in order for this mechanism to work properly all the arms and levers have to be set in Martin Handcraft octave keyexactly the right position and all the springs must be counterbalanced against each other. There's a little room for manoeuvre, but not much - and if there's any appreciable amount of wear in the mech it's anyone's guess as to whether it'll work.
That said, with enough care and patience this mech can feel quite smooth in operation - though never as light as a modern mech (there's just too much friction floating about).

The rest of the keywork is pretty much as you'd find on a modern horn, save for the single piece side Bb key.
You don't get a front top F key on this version, which would limit the horn's potential in the modern arena - but you could always have one made and fitted (you'd be better off simply buying the later model Handcraft though).
From an ergonomic point of view the rather rounded palm keys can be a bit of a struggle, but nothing you couldn't get used to - and there's always the option of tweaking them slightly or using risers.

Putting it all together results in a surprisingly unclunky action. Many players are put off vintage horns solely from past experience with clattery old bangers, but a well serviced Martin has an action that goes like the proverbial train. This Handcraft may well be at the extreme end of the vintage scale chronologically, but it has an action that's really rather contemporary in feel...and this is a quality that carries on into the tone...

The thing I've always found remarkable about Martin saxes is the sheer range of tones they're capable of.
My personal preference is for a tone that's bright to neutral - not too much roundness, a nice bit of cut on the side and bags of clarity. There aren't many vintage horns that can give that (at least not without resorting to some rather extreme mouthpiece options), but the Martin can.
The thing is though, it can also give you that wonderfully creamy, fat vintage tone...if you want it.
It'll scream too, it'll smooch as well - it's got versatility written right through it.
Better still, I find the Martins to be very accommodating when it comes to mouthpieces. There's many a vintage horn that complains when you pop a contemporary piece on it (usually the tuning goes AWOL), but the Martin seems to take it in its stride.
Not bad going for a horn that was designed almost a hundred years ago.

I noticed a few slight imperfections in the evenness of the tone, but then that's the payoff for its versatility. Design those imperfections out and you design out the very qualities that allow the player to work the tone to their own preference. That's fine if what you're left with suits you, but with a bit of work in getting your embouchure accustomed to the particular foibles of this horn, you can have just about anything you want.
In a similar fashion the tuning needed to be reined in slightly. This is much more of a technique specific to vintage horns, which were built to a different design philosophy to today's horns - and again it's the payoff for having a wide degree of flexibility.

After ten minutes or so putting the horn through its paces both the tone and the tuning had been sussed and the horn began to sing.
And it has a powerful voice. This horn has remarkable projection, but not at the expense of tone. With even quite a loose embouchure and an open throat, the warm tone expands effortlessly to fill a room. Tighten up the embouchure, close the throat a little, and it takes on a silvery edginess that still touches all four corners.

I like to think of Martin horns as being 'giant killers'. If a client drops by with an old Conn, King or Buescher etc. and I'm lucky enough to have a Martin in, I can never resist bullying them into having a blow (not that they take much persuading)...and I've seen many a jaw drop. I've even known clients to subsequently sell their current vintage pride and joy and buy a Martin. I've even been tempted myself - and for someone who's more at home with a modern horn, that's really saying something.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015