Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Reviews from the repairer's workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
 

Hawkes & Son XX (Double/20th) Century alto saxophone

Hawkes & Son XX Century alto sax reviewOrigin: UK
Guide price: Typically sub £300ish, but often requiring major repairs
Weight: 2.2kg
Date of manufacture: Approx. 1924 (Serial range: 55xxx)
Date reviewed: December 2018

When there was honey still for tea...

As soon as this horn came in to the workshop, I knew - without a shadow of a doubt - that I had to review it.
Back in 2003 I reviewed its larger relative, the tenor, and had lots of very nice things to say about it...particularly the way it played. At the time I thought it would be nice to pair the tenor review with an alto - and given that I've seen so many of them down the years I figured it wouldn't be long before one hove into view. Well, I was wrong - and as far as I can recall I haven't seen one since. To make matters worse I said in that review that the tenor variant was quite a rare horn...but since then I must have seen at least half a dozen or so of them - though that might just be due to owners having read my review and deciding that I'm the man to go to for XX Century tenor repairs.

When the owner of this alto contacted me about servicing the horn I immediately pencilled in a review slot, and I figured that what would turn up would be a rather tired old alto that's seen better days, but was hanging on in there like a trouper. But I was wrong, again. Very wrong indeed.
What we have here is, without doubt, the finest Double Century alto I've ever seen - and I'll even go so far as to suggest that this may very well be the finest example in existence. Think about it; these horns are nigh on 100 years old, and in their day they would have been quite expensive professional-quality horns. This meant they got used - very well used - and as the years pass by and newer horns stole the crown, they often ended up in the hands of players who were perhaps rather less careful with them.

But every once in a while you come across an 'underbed' horn. These are typically bought by well-off folks - perhaps for themselves or for their children - and for one reason or another the horn sees very little use and ends up being tucked away under the bed and largely forgotten about. It happens more often than you might think - either for sentimental reasons or simply because once the thing is out of sight, it's out of mind. But as people shuffle off this mortal coil, or sell up and move on, these underbed horns are dragged out into the cold light of day and put up for sale.
This is essentially what happened to this horn, though it suffered the indignity of being rescued from underneath one bed only to find itself, a little later, shoved beneath another.
The current owner bought it back in the 80s - dabbled with it for a while and then, as so many do, gave up. Time passed, and children came along, and once again the old Double Century was dragged out and dusted off - and brought to me for a service.

Hawkes XX Century alto bell braceAt first glance it looked pretty much like any other old horn. It was covered in a layer of grime and tarnish, it had a substantial dent around the bell stay (which had become detached from the body) and the pads had not only seen better days but better nights too.
But if you look beyond the facade you start to see the telltale signs. The finish, though dirty and tarnished, is in pretty good condition. There's some slight evidence of plating wear to the usual suspects (octave, palm and side key touchpieces); there are remarkably few dents (just a pock mark or two at best) and most of the tired old pads look to be original. And if you look a little bit closer you'll see that the edges of the pearls are nice and crisp, the ends of the key barrels are sharp and even...and there's barely any free play in the action, and no sign that it's even had a sniff of the swedging pliers. If you were to polish this horn up, whack a set of Gordon Beeson pads on it and freshen up the corks, you'd swear it might have rolled off the production line just a couple of years ago. It's that tidy.

I really don't mind admitting that horns like these bring a tear to the old eyes. I see so very many beaten and abused horns that I kinda get used to seeing their shattered and broken bodies on my workbench - but every now and again I come across a diamond in the rough. A star who's fallen on hard times - a celebrity who needs a hot meal, a shower, a shave...and a few bucks for a Martini, a coffee and a Cohiba.
Which makes this review all the more bittersweet by virtue of the fact that it's a British horn - and one that symbolises all the the British horn industry could have been...but chose not to be.
Why, for the love of God? Why? Why did Hawkes (and Boosey too) stop? Who on earth decided that they'd be better off importing and rebadging horns when both companies (who merged into Boosey & Hawkes in 1930) were turning out what were essentially prototypes of the sort of horns that people speak of in hushed and reverent tones today?
It's as insane as Conn stopping at the Chu Berry, Selmer at the Modele 26 and Martin at the original Handcraft. OK, maybe that last one is a bad example - but you get my drift. Even if you worship at the altar of contemporary horns (All hail Yamaha! Blessed be Yanagisawa!), you sure as hell know that some horns have a certain something...a soul, if you like. They may not be your bag, but you know they have a very particular voice. Conn, King, Martin, Buescher, Couesnon, Pierret, Selmer, Keilwerth...and many others, they're all in that category - and so is the Hawkes Double Century.Hawkes XX Century alto engraving
Oh yes, this is going to be a good review - but not because of jingoism, it's simply because I blew this horn when it came in and instantly knew it had that 'thing'. That thing that says "Play me some more. Go on, you know you want to"...
But enough of the zeitgeist - let's get this horn on the bench and see whether or not it matches up to my musings (and I'll be a bit stuffed if it doesn't).

If nothing else, I think we can all agree that this is a very pretty horn. The rounded touchpieces, wire guards, classic vintage styling, the exquisite engraving and the combination of silver and gold plate all add up to a very elegant-looking alto. I've seen a fair few of these down the years but I've never yet seen one that's been gold plated. And more than that, one that's been selectively gold plated. It costs a fair few bob to slap a coat of gold on a horn, but it must have cost a hell of a lot more to take the time and trouble to mask off the brightwork on the bell that contrasts with the matt finish that covers the rest of the horn.
There's some evidence that they went a step further and selectively masked some of the brightwork too. This engraving - which I presume is meant to be Pan - has gold on the bare sections of the floor...but nowhere else. I've also never seen the Pan feature before - the panel it sits in is usually left bare...which is a slightly odd feature in itself. At a guess I'd say it was designed in this way so that pretty much anything you wanted could be engraved into this panel as a factory optional extra. As such I don't think it's unreasonable to presume that this example was the fully-blinged model, and must have cost a very great deal of money indeed.

Hawkes XX Century alto bell key guardsThe list of body features are fairly typical for a horn of the period. The bell is fixed, there's the aforementioned crappy two-point bell-brace that stoves into the body when the horn takes a tumble, a static metal thumb hook, a small domed pearl for a thumb rest and a set of wire bell key guards. The (non-adjustable) bumper felts are held in place by a rudimentary clamp that's nothing more than a piece of thin, shaped brass that's been soldered to the top bar of the guard. To replace a felt you prise the clamp's tabs apart, remove the old felt, pop a new one in place and then squeeze the tabs together to grip the felt.
It's a rubbish design, if only because the clamps tend to get all chewed up and marked by people who use pliers with serrated jaws to close the tabs - and if the job's done enough times there's a good chance that the tabs will fatigue and break off. A neater job can be made by not compressing the tabs and using glue to fix the felts in place.

Incidentally, if you look at the header shot you'll notice that the low C guard has only two feet. I can't begin to fathom what sort of mind figured that a low C guard would be fine with just two feet on it. It's clearly no-one that's survived a weekend residency at the Club Du Chav, or an open mic night at the Shoplifter's Arms...or even the rigours of crossing state/county lines in a minibus that's held together with rust and bribes. It's a bit like sticking a plaster over an angry boil on your neck and writing "Press me" on it. It's asking...no, it's begging for trouble.
The problem is that this key guard tends to cop a lot of whacks, and with just two feet to spread the load of the impacts it won't be long before the body tube beneath the low C tonehole distorts.
It's at least a less fussy design than the detachable two-footer guard fitted to the Selmer Balanced Action...which got knocked over so often that players got fed up with the damn thing and had its screws soldered up.
Hawkes XX Century alto side f# guardThere's one more guard, a static one around the side (or chromatic) F# key cup - and it's only notable insomuch as it's rather a nice design. At least I thought so - the cut-out 'H' is a nice touch.
Note the static thumb rest. Despite its narrow profile and the lack of adjustability, it's surprisingly comfortable in use...though some of this will be down to the relatively light weight of the horn.

The construction is semi-ribbed, which is to say that most of the main stack pillars are fitted to strips which are then affixed to the body, and the remainder are either fitted to smaller ribs (in groups of two or three pillars per rib) or individually. The palm key pillars are all fitted to a single plate. The standalone pillars have large bases, which means they'll take a knock or two and won't fall off every time you play a turnaround.

By now you may have noticed that the toneholes are drawn and rolled. This was a step up from the previous model (the Hawkes Excelsior), on which they were both plain and soft soldered onto the body. I went over them all with a flat standard and found that most of them were reasonably level. The low B/Bb and C were some way out of level, but both the bell and the low C guard had taken a whack which had distorted the body tube. And, of course, they were all perfectly formed and neatly finished...unlike some modern attempts at the design, which somehow manage to make a dog's breakfast of the technique in spite of there having been almost 100 years of industrial development since this horn was built.
There's a respectably-sized sling ring (15.5./9.5mm), and if you're so inclined as to peer into the bore at the point where it's mounted to the body you'll see what looks like a rivet securing the ring to the body.
On closer inspection you'll see that it's not actually a rivet, it's simply a peg - and is one of a number dotted up and down the main body tube. The pegs are fitted to various parts, which fit into corresponding holes in the body. It's just a means of aligning the pillars and fittings during production - and presumably does away with the need for each assembler to be kitted out with a placement jig.
And the assemblers did a nice job because the construction is very neat and tidy.

Hawkes XX Century alto low pitch symbolSo far so good, but the most important issue with horns built around the early 1900s is the pitch. It was built at a time when the 'standard' for Concert A was changing from 'High' to 'Low' pitch - with low pitch being set at A=440Hz. Prior to this it had been variously higher, though most high-pitched saxes seem to be tuned to A=457Hz. There's nothing wrong with high-pitched horns - they play perfectly well - it's just that you can't play them alongside any modern instruments. At least not without some considerable skill and/or pain.
Unfortunately it's not easy to tell whether such a horn is high or low pitch without actually playing it (something to bear in mind when buying very old horns) - but if you're lucky the manufacturer will have marked the instrument to show that it conforms to the newfangled standard. Various method were used, with the letters L.P. being the most common (occasionally just the letter L) or the symbol for a flat (essentially a lowercase b).
As you can see, this horn is stamped with a b - so it will play alongside modern instrument with no trouble at all. Note the stamp between the toneholes. The H&S is obvious (Hawkes & Son) but the number bears no relation to the serial number of the horn (which is stamped on the bell). I've no idea what it denotes - it could perhaps be a date code, a model number or simply a body tube designation. Someone out there will know.

Hawkes XX Century alto crookThere's also a low pitch symbol stamped on the ferrule of the crook tenon sleeve.
This is unusual as it's usually considered sufficient to stamp the body and leave it at that. At a guess I'd say that they were still making high-pitched models at the time this horn was produced, and it became sensible (if not necessary) to delineate the low pitch crook from that fitted to the high-pitched horn.

As far as the cosmetics go, we already know it's a gold plated horn. Underneath the gold plating is a coat of silver plate, over a matt-finished (bead blasted) brass body.
A great deal of the gold plating has worn off from the body, exposing the underlying silver. This wear doesn't tie in with the lack of wear to the keywork, and given that the gold plate is little more than a 'wash' (a very thin coat), I'm willing to bet that its disappearance is less to do with handling and more to do with enthusiastic use of a mildly abrasive metal polish, such as Brasso. The loss of gold plating isn't confined to those areas where a horn is regularly handled, but doesn't extend into those areas that aren't easily accessible with a Brasso-laden polishing cloth. It's very evident on the keywork, where many of the larger key cups show a loss of plate - but almost all the key barrels still gleam.
I'll admit that it doesn't explain why the bell has retained its plating, or indeed the interior of the bell. Perhaps the plating was thicker here, or the extra-keen polisher went a little easier on it because it didn't get so tarnished?

Hawkes XX Century alto palm keysThe keywork is unashamedly vintage, with all the top stack mounted on a single rod screw - likewise the lower stack.
Another giveaway is the inclusion of a G# trill key - though there's no Eb trill, which was a very common feature on horns of the day. There's also no sign of the curious vented B key which I saw on the tenor version I reviewed back in 2003 - and I can't say for sure whether such extras predate this horn or were added later, though Hawkes were well-known for trying out unusual keywork mods.
The palm keys are quite chunky, with large domed touchpieces. The layout's actually quite good - it certainly presented no problems for me - though it has to be said that altos are always reasonably ergonomic due to the relatively small size of the instrument. Note the pattern of wear on the touchpieces; most of the gold plating has been worn off the D, the E is only slightly faded and the F looks untouched. None of these keys needed any swedging to take up wear and tear in the key barrels, they were as snug as the day they were fitted to the horn.

Hawkes XX Century alto side keysThe octave mech is rather crude. I hesitate to say simple because it's a bit of a tricky sod to set up.
It's an active mech, which means that all the component keys are sprung - and getting the spring tension dead right is critical to the mech's functionality. It's also important to choose the right buffering materials and to think carefully about balancing the need for a lack of friction and keeping the inherently noisy mech quiet in use. I went for a combination of composite cork and felt - though I later had to sacrifice some quietening on the pin key by swapping out the felt buffer to a piece of Teflon. It's that picky...unless you ramp up the tension of the G and thumb key springs. And even when it's been tweaked to the Nth degree, it's still not a very responsive mech. To be fair though, I doubt you'll notice it during playing...it's more of an observation gleaned through spending half an hour poking the thumb key while wondering how I could impart a little more snap to the mech.
On the plus side, the thumb key touchpiece is a nice design - it's wide, and sculpted around the thumb rest. It works very well, though the thumb rest is a touch on the small side if you have even moderately large thumbs.

Hawkes XX Century alto bell key tableThere's a rather quaint bell key table that features no mod-cons at all. As you can see it's a non-tilting table, and there's no connection from any of the keys to the G# touchpiece. This has the advantage of not weighing down the bell key action with the force of the G# touchpiece spring, but it's a bit of a drawback if you want to whizz about in many of the sharper keys (A, E etc.). Having spent many years playing horns with non-tilting tables I quite liked the feel of it, and even the single-piece low C# key felt quite snappy. I'd have liked to have seen a slightly longer touchpiece on the G# (so that it extended more towards the Bb) and a bit more on the low Bb touchpiece towards the C#. There's quite a gap here, and it can catch you out when you're trying to jump from C# to Bb in a hurry.
There's a full set of mother-of-pearl rollers (and another pair on the low C/Eb keys), and these complement the slightly concave mother-of-pearl touches on the main key stacks.

On a minor and very geeky note, the pivot rod for the low C# pearls was plain steel while the remaining pivots rods were nickel silver - and I'm really not sure why.
While MOP rollers are very nice, they're rather prone to corrosion on the pivot rods. First they lock up, and then as the pivot rusts it expands and cracks the rollers. Fitting non-ferrous (non-steel) pivots will help prevent this...but it doesn't explain why the C# pivot was steel. If you find an old horn with original MOP rollers that aren't jammed up or split, it's arguably a fair bet that the horn's not been used much or the previous owner(s) took care of it.

After sorting out the dislodged bell I had to do a spot of judicious bending on the bell key table, and boy were those keys tough. In fact all the keys are tough - so-much-so that you're almost better off mucking about with pad setting angles rather than attempting to alter the angle of the key cups by giving the keys a bit of a tweak. And you'll be needing to, because the pad thickness varied quite considerably across the action.
Normally this'd be down to previous tweaks and repairs, but because this horn appeared to be largely untouched I think it's fair to assume that the cup angles are factory spec. Some keys required very thin pads, others rather thicker. To be sure there's always some degree of variation on any horn, but it was very much more pronounced on this one.
And you need to think carefully before you start altering the key geometry, because there are no adjusters at all on this horn. It's not so much that you might end up having to fit quite thick regulation buffers, rather it's that you might find you've no room for them...and then you may have to start filing keys. Worth bearing in mind.

Hawkes XX Century alto side keysThe side Bb is a single-piece key, but the side C sports a captive fork and pin connector. As per the palm keys, neither of these keys needed any swedging to the key barrels.
I rather liked the design of the C key connector. I won't say that it's the most efficient design out there, but it sure looks kinda cute. The captive fork (AKA a hole) is considerably larger in diameter than that of the pin on the lever key, so a great deal of buffering is required. Now, you could modernise this setup by fitting a plastic sleeve to the pin and then top it off with a Teflon tube, but I decided to keep it old school and left the original cork in place. After all, it's been there almost 100 years, and it doesn't look like it's coming off any day soon. All it need was a little dab of silicone grease and the action on the key was a slick as you like. Marvellous.

The action is powered by a set of blued steel springs. There are a couple of springing gotchas on this horn by way of a few captive spring cradles.
Normally you'd be able to pop a spring off its cradle, adjust the tension and then pop it back on - no problem. You can't do that with a captive cradle because it's a hole in the key arm and the only way to get the spring out of the cradle is to take the key off.
These things get me every time - because no matter how many times I remind myself that there are captive cradles on a horn, I always seem to forget when it comes to reassembling the action...at which point I'm pointedly reminded by way of having to dismantle an entire stack of keys just so I'm able to fit the damn springs. Hey ho.
On a brighter note, all the point screws are good old-fashioned proper points - and just as with the rod screws, not one of them needed tightening up.

The horn had its original case, which is a rather crude and heavy box-style case. It's certainly sturdy, but has very little padding. It holds the horn securely enough lengthways, but there's nothing to stop the horn from rotating...so ever time you pick the case up there's a hefty clunk as the bell hits the lid of the case. It's a rubbish design, but pretty common for the period...and many such cases feature a small leather belt which wraps around the bell to prevent old-case-bell-knock syndrome. A new case would be a good bet, but some care is needed when selecting one due to the bell keys being mounted on the opposite side of the bell from modern horns.

In the hands the horns feels light (because it is) and nimble. The keywork is extremely well balanced - very likely due to the combination of the weight of the heftily-built keys and the length of the springs. There's plenty of snap to it. The slightly clunky octave mech knocks the points down a little, but the lightness of the bell key action raises them again...though admittedly at the expense of some G# functionality.
As it's an alto I didn't have any trouble reaching for keys, though I did slip off the slightly short G# touchpiece a couple of times. I had a similar problem on my RAW tenor for a while, but it just boils down to getting a feel for where the key is - and then you can forget about it.
You can go pretty light on the setup but sooner or later you'll run into key bounce - so some care will need to be taken with regard to the choice of buffer material if you're looking for a super-light action.
I had no problems with the static thumb hook, but the small thumb rest was a bit of a challenge for my meaty thumb. I daresay I'd get used to it, but I'd be more likely to reach for a packet of Sugru and add a bit more support.
Aside from that everything was where it was supposed to be, and I'd even go so far as to say that you might be surprised at just how modern the horn feels.

Tonewise it's a lovely old horn.
Now I know that sounds a bit patronising, but it really does capture the horn's presentation. It's old, it's English and it's top-of-the-range. What else did you expect it to sound like?
It's not shouty, it's not brusque, it's not unnecessarily edgy or boringly stuffy - it's simply beautifully rounded and lyrical. As with many horns of that era, it wasn't designed to rip though Be-bop lines with percussive vigour, nor scream over a brace of Strats and a bank of keyboards - it was designed to sing with a measured expression.
Which it does. However, if you ignore all that and give it a bit of welly it won't let you down. And this is the most interesting thing...it came with its original mouthpiece, a rather cavernous piece with a very short lay. It blew unexpectedly well, providing you weren't silly with the reed strength - and yet with my modern(ish) Rousseau 3R on it, all it did was sound a bit louder. The underlying tonal presentation remained virtually untouched.
Hawkes XX Century alto bellSure, the upper harmonics were slightly lifted, and there was a bit more edge to the low notes, but the lyricism remained - as did the slightly creamy and rounded soundscape, along with the buoyant and playful response. And it's also remarkably even-toned for such an old horn, there's really nothing that stands out as being beyond the normal tonal shifts than any horn exhibits.
So yes, it's a lovely old horn - and despite my being extremely sceptical of all the baloney that encompasses the PR-speak about finish/materials and tone, I nonetheless feel it's appropriate to say that this horn sounds as good as it looks.

As to the tuning, it's pretty good. It's an old horn, so there's no power-steering fitted - which means you're going to have to put some time into developing a suitable embouchure. There's a tendency for the notes to shift a little sharp from octave A up to C and then ease back once you hit the palm keys. That's on a meter though - if you turn the thing off the sharpness goes away.
The venting of the side Bb is quite important - if it opens too far it will get noticeably sharp. It came fitted with a cork (under the touchpiece) of about a millimetre thick, and what it needed was one of around 3mm - so it's important to spend some time (or have someone spend it on your behalf) on balancing the action appropriately.
Mouthpiece choice doesn't appear to be too critical, but it would be a waste of resources to whack a high-baffled piece on this horn - stick with something medium to dark and I think you'll be handsomely rewarded.

I'm very pleased at how this horn turned out. I know I cheated slightly by giving it a bit of a blow before it hit the bench, but then it's not the first Double Century alto I've worked on - and I know it's a sufficiently decent horn to have a modest fan-base out there, even today.
And it could be even better. It really needed a complete repad, but there was a budget to bear in mind - so it was decided to bring the horn back to life in stages. I got it most of the way there - and if the client's son takes a shine to playing it, it can be further improved with subsequent services.
But as I said at the top of the review, it's perhaps a little bittersweet in that this was such a competent and well-made horn, and yet nothing really came of it.
Maybe it was priced too high. Perhaps there was brand resistance, or even snobbishness from the players. Or it may simply have been down to a business decision on the part of Hawkes (and later Boosey & Hawkes) that might have seemed prudent at the time.
I really don't know, but this horn easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the giants of the era - and I can only imagine what the XXI model would have sounded like today.

If nothing else I really enjoyed the opportunity to work on such a fine example of the genre. It's so rare to see such old horns that are so close to factory condition - and I don't mean rebuilt or reworked, I mean in or very close to the condition in which they rolled off the production line. It's a chance to really see what standards the horn was built to, and how the person who set the action up approached the task.

I'm happy to put this little beauty on my list of recommended vintage horns, with the strong caveat that great care must be taken to avoid any high-pitch examples, and that finding one in decent unbodged condition is likely to be quite hard. And good luck trying to find a gold-plated one.

If you've enjoyed this article or found it useful and would like to contribute
towards the cost of creating this independent content, please use the button below.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018