Padsavers - the pros and cons
If there's one accessory that's caused more
debate and division among woodwind players, it's the humble 'shove-it'
- of which the HW Pad-Saver is perhaps the best known.
In case you're unfamiliar with the device it's a long, fluffy stick
that you shove down the bore of the instrument after you've finished
The theory is that the shove-it will sit in the bore collecting
moisture from the pads, which it absorbs and
then slowly releases.It sounds like a wonderful idea - moisture
and pads don't make healthy bedfellows, so any device that will
remove moisture from a horn's bore has to be a winner.
But, there are drawbacks. The chief drawback is that although the
shove-it collects moisture, it remains in the bore because the shove-it
remains in the bore too, possibly leaching moisture back onto the
It's nearest competitor is the long-established pull-through, or
swab. This is simply a cloth, or sometimes a chamois leather, to
which is attached a weighted string. The whole lot is dropped into
the bore and pulled through it, collecting and removing moisture
as it goes.
Over the years I've heard a lot of hearsay about the differing
methods of moisture removal, and this led me to conducting a hands-on
test to see which claims stood and which fell.
Two saxes were tested, an alto and a tenor. shove-its were inserted
and the instruments were then examined.
It was hard to spot a pad where the shove-it actually made contact.
For the open pads there was no way that the shove-it could touch
them, and for the closed pads it was rare to find more than a thread
or two of the shove-it fibres touching the actual pad. So I jiggled
the shove-its about a bit, twisted them too, and managed to increase
the contact area on the pads by a very small degree. That the shove-it
was fully in contact with the bore was evident - and to a large
degree the fibres encroached into the tone holes. Even so, the amount
of shove-it touching the pads was very small indeed - so the theory
that shove-its will leach water onto the pads is not proven, neither
is the claim that they will draw moisture off the actual pads themselves.
The shove-its were withdrawn and then spots of water were dropped
onto them in an arbitrary fashion. The water remained in globular
form for quite some time. The construction of the shove-it seems
to be a non-absorbent 'fleece-like' material, interwoven with cotton
threads. The cotton threads exhibited absorption properties, the
fleece did not. Over a period of time the water was absorbed down
the cotton thread towards the centre of the shove-it.
A good quality swab was then tested in the same fashion. A plain
cotton one and a chamois leather one were tested.
As regards contact area, the swab fared better at the top of the
bore - from the bottom bow to about the G tone hole, contact with
the bore was patchy.
There's no doubt that the swab has a faster absorption rate with
the drop test, particularly the chamois one - but it's by no means
an instantaneous process. The swab can only collect so much moisture
at a time, so several passes are necessary - and time should be
allowed inbetween each pass or you'll end up wiping almost as much
water back onto the bore as you removed on the first pass! Drawing
the swab through the instrument needs to be a very slow process
- and if you're a devotee of the swab the you might like to try
testing its absorption rate to give you some idea of how fast or
slow it actually is.
I noted that a lot of moisture ended up in the tone holes. This
was less evident the more passes were made - but I also noted very
little contact within the tone holes.
So the problem appears to be this then; During playing the leather
or skin of the pads absorbs moisture and the bore of the instrument
gets wet. Ideally you need to remove every trace of water from the
instrument when you've finished. The absorption rate of a swab is
not sufficiently fast to work at the speed with which it is typically
drawn through the bore, and a fair amount of water will be pushed
ahead of the swab and escape from the nearest exit - which will
undoubtedly be a tonehole - there to sit and slowly evaporate or
soak into a closed pad.
The shove-it will also push this water into the tone holes, but
then as it is left in it will continue to draw water out of the
tone holes and into its centre, rather than leaving the water free
to dribble onto the pads when the instrument is placed in its case.
However, the shove-it has another advantage.
Most of you will have noticed that some of the pads get a little
'crusty'. This debris is formed from the various fats and sugars
that are present in your breath and saliva. With a pull through
these deposits will be left to dry and form a crust, particularly
in the tone holes, but a shove-it - which sits in the bore, and
at least in the base of the tone holes - will slowly absorb them.
Not all of them mind, but certainly more than a swab will.
advantage of the shove-it is that it exhibits a slight scouring
action as it is inserted and removed, which helps to prevent a build-up
of crust in the bore, and, to some degree, in the tone holes. A
swab cannot do this as effectively - it has more of a wiping action.
Here's a very good example. This horn came in because of tuning
and tone problems in the upper register, and having discounted leaks
and user error it seemed fairly likely that one or other of the
octave key pips was gunged up with crud. And so it proved to be.
What you see here is the body octave key tube (via the top F tone
The grayish disc inside the tube is made up from fibres trapped
in the tube as a pull-through is drawn through the bore. There's
just no way a pull-through can get inside this tube to clean it
out...so anything that gets pushed into it stays in it. It's a reasonably
common phenomenon, though more so on clarinets - where this 'webbing'
forms in the base of the tone holes, typically on those at the upper
end of the top joint.
If we assume that the shove-it takes up all this goo, then surely
after a while it will become clogged, and its absorption will lessen.
Therefore it's good practice to wash your shove-it from time to
time. Use a hand-washing powder. Washing also increases the absorption
potential (ever used a new towel? Useless, aren't they?).
It's worth mentioning that the shove-it won't clean a very dirty
bore. The scouring action is enough to maintain the cleanliness
of a fresh bore, but shoving one down a crusty bore will do neither
the bore nor the shove-it any favours.
I've heard it said that shove-its are inclined to shed fibres,
which can create problems. This seems to be more of a problem with
some makes than others - typically the looser, more open designs
will suffer more from this problem. To avoid this, get a quality
brand - the HW Pad-Savers are excellent, and I've been very happy
with the La Voz ones.
I do see horns with fibres sitting in the bottom bow - and quite
often collected on the low Eb key pad. Obviously any fibres on the
pad may eventually get onto the seat of the pad, thus creating a
potential leak. However, this process takes time - and by the time
there's sufficient build-up to affect the seal, the pad is often
past its best anyway.
Washing the shove-it from new will free up many loose fibres and
help to alleviate this problem.
The swab does a better job of cleaning the bottom bow (the shove-it
can't reach it), but then it negates this advantage by dragging
any crud it collects up into the bore, and in particular to the
low Eb tone hole - so it looks like with either method the poor
old Eb pad gets a bashing.
This still leaves us with the problem of the wet pads, and apart
from drying each one individually there isn't an easy way to solve
So to sum up it appears that there's no really effective solution
to the problem of removing moisture from the bore and pads of a
saxophone, or any other woodwind instrument. The swab will remove
most of the water in the bore, but does nothing for the tone holes,
possibly even worsens the problem in the case of a quick pull through.
The shove-it will slowly remove the bore water and some from the
tone holes, but still does nothing for the pads (perhaps Bore-Saver
is a better name for it).
One unexpected advantage the shove-it has is that it has to live
in the bore of the horn - so in effect you're forced to use it because
there's often nowhere else for it to go in the case. It's all to
easy to forego the pull through when you want to make a fast getaway
from a gig (angry punters, last orders at bar etc.).
As regards the argument that a shove-it amounts to a damp rag down
the bore of the sax, well, water will be left there anyway even
if you use a swab - and where do you leave the swab afterwards but
in the case - so you still have that damp rag problem. Perhaps the
most effective solution is to swab first, use a shove-it, and then
find time to leave the case open to allow the remaining water to
evaporate in its own time.
As for wooden bodied instruments, I wouldn't recommend the use
of shove-its. It's debatable whether they'd absorb any of the wood's
natural oils, but they'll certainly become coated with them over
time. This will pretty much render them useless.
I also have my doubts about leaving a wet shove-it in a wooden bore
(not to mention a wet swab or mop in the case).
A quick mention for some of the related shove-it spin-offs, like
shove-its for crooks and mouthpieces.
Forget 'em. Not only are there issues of hygiene, you're much better
off simply washing these parts out on a regular basis, though there's
some merit in using a crook shove-it to keep the crook clean inbetween
One recent newcomer that's worth a mention is the Hodge Swab. This
is essentially a silk covered 'sausage', and it's particularly good
for keep the upper bow section of baritone saxes clean. I should
point out that it's more of a preventative measure...and using one
on a crusty old bari will probably ruin the swab. They don't last
as long as a shove-it (about a year or so) - so consider them a
HW recently introduced a 'bottom bow saver' for altos and tenors
that fits down the bell (the 'S' shaped mop in the photo). These
won't have much effect on the low B and Bb pads, but could prove
helpful in keeping the low C# pad clean. They'll also help prevent
a build-up of gunk in the bottom bow, though I wouldn't recommend
using one on a bottom bow that's already heavily coated in grime.
Personally I have been more than satisfied with the performance
of shove-its in my saxes - and let's face it, the last thing I want
to be doing is fixing my own horns (don't get paid for that). In
the end it's down to you, and how convenient you find either method.
What is certain is that some sort of drying regime is pretty much