A rolling blog of everyday life
on and around the workbench
Had a client drop by the workshop while I was working on a baritone,
and - as is often the case - they took an interest in the dismantled
horn on the workbench. I'm always happy to answer questions and
indulge their curiosity because while a 'naked' sax is a very common
sight for me, many players will go their entire life without seeing
a dismantled horn up close.
It was while we were discussing various fittings and features on
the body that they commented on an impressive collection of scratch
marks on the interior rear of the horn's bell - and wondered what
on earth the player had done to make such a mess of the finish.
It was with a heavy heart that I had to say that
the marks hadn't been put there by the player but rather by someone
who'd repaired the horn in the past - and that it's something I
call 'Bar Rash'.
"You mean it's deliberate?"
That's a good question, because there's often a fine line between
a deliberate act and one that comes about through negligence - even
if the outcome is the same. I think it's reasonable to assume it
wasn't deliberate - because no-one's that mad - and
because there's a very simple explanation as to how the marks got
There are a number of methods of removing dents
from horns, the most common of which is the use of dent balls. As
the name suggests, these are balls - of various shapes and sizes,
typically made from steel or brass - which are threaded onto a bar
which is then inserted into the bore of the horn so that the ball
may be positioned beneath the dent. There are a few risks associated
with the technique, one of which is that while it's (obviously)
important to be aware of where the ball is, it's equally important
to keep an eye on the bar itself...especially where it enters the
You can do a lot of damage to a horn with the
wrong end of a dent bar, and if you're not careful you can end up
putting as many dents into the horn as you're trying to remove.
Bar rash is slightly less serious (but usually cosmetically catastrophic)
and comes about due to an unprotected bar rubbing against the bore.
There are ways to avoid it, of course - the most simple of which
is to cover the bar with a sleeve or wrap some tape around it. And/or
choose a bar with a different profile (slightly curved instead of
straight). Even then such measures should be considered precautionary
- a fail-safe in addition to the preferred option of keeping a watchful
eye on both ends of the bar during the dent removal process.
happened here is that someone's gone down the bell with a straight
bar - probably to tackle some dents in the front of the bottom bow
- and has been so busy concentrating on the dents that they've not
noticed the other end of the bar chewing into the bell flare.
You can see that most of the marks run in a line down the bore,
and these were made as the horn was pushed back and forth over the
dent ball. The side-to-side marks would have been made as the bell
was tilted to allow the ball to tackle the area around the dent.
There are also several dents just below the marks, which might indicate
that part of the bar was protected...but equally they might have
been caused by ramming the bell onto a wooden mandrel (usually a
large, tapered piece of wood - placed in a vice and used to support
the horn while work is carried out on it).
Another common place you'll find bar rash is halfway down the bore
of the bell. The further the dent ball is pushed around the bottom
bow, the closer the bar gets to the bell wall. Again, it's completely
"Surely the owner would have kicked up hell
when they got the horn back?"
I'd like to think so, but there's a very fair chance that this baritone
saw service as a marching band or school horn - and no-one would
have complained on its behalf. It's often the case that such organisations
are happy enough to get the horn back in 'reasonable' working order
in as short a timescale as possible...and for the least possible
cost. In short, no-one cares...and the baritone has the scars to
Every now and then a horn comes in that sets my nose a-twitching...and
I don't mean the ones that haven't seen a lick of spit and polish
in the last ten years. No, I mean the ones that aren't what they
seem to be.
In some cases it's merely a case of doubly mistaken identity, such
as the client who's bought an A clarinet instead of a Bb, or a C-Melody
instead of a tenor. Why doubly? Because while buyers sometimes have
no idea what they're buying, sellers sometimes don't know what they're
And in some cases it's rather more nefarious.
12M baritone came in for a service the other day, and straightaway
it was clear it wasn't one of the 'Classic' models. It equally quickly
became clear it wasn't one of the 'Not Classic - but still classic'
models...which sounds terribly complicated, but essentially boils
down to three models. Classic (with a capital C) is any example
with rolled toneholes (pre 1947) - classic (with a small c) is any
example without rolled toneholes built in the period between 1947(ish)
and 1960. Anything built post 1960 is generally considered to be
'so-so' - and when production was moved to Nogales, Mexico in 1970
it pretty much signalled the end of a once-great marque.
It's simplistic overview, admittedly - but it serves to add some
perspective to what follows...
Take a look at the area below the serial number.
You can see that the lacquer's been buffed off - and the pertinent
question is "Why?'
Maybe it copped a whack here and needed some dent work - but then
the rest of the body was bristling with dents, some of which have
evidently been there for a very long time. It's the only spot on
the body that's been buffed in the last few years - all the other
patches of bare brass sport a nice red/brown tarnish.
why would you buff a dent repair on a lacquered horn anyway? It
serves no purpose other than to strip the lacquer. Maybe it needed
a soldering job here, and the lacquer got burnt off - but there's
nothing soldered on here, aside from the bottom bow joint (at the
bottom of the photo)...and that's still got lacquer around it.
If you take a really, really close look at the
buffed area you can juuuuuust about make out the vestiges of a stamp
or a mark in the centre.
And here's a couple of top investigative tips for you. When marks
or stamps are filed or buffed away, there are often 'tells' left
behind. This is typically because the marks run so deep that whoever's
doing the erasing realises that they're going to have to file much
deeper than they thought - and nothing ruins the value of a horn
quite as much as a hole in the body...or a very obviously shallow
spot. So they bottle out as soon as they think the job's good enough
to fool the inexperienced eye.
If you gently polish the area with a bit of metal polish (such as
Brasso) it will increase the contrast between the metal and any
imperfections in it by virtue of the dark residue from the polish
filling the pits.
This may be enough to make any lettering visible with the aid of
a magnifying glass - and changing the angle of the light shining
on the body will help to accentuate it. But the best method is to
take a macro photo of the area and then blow it up on screen.
And here's what we find.
Now, does that say Mexico...or does that say Mexico? One thing's
very clear - it's not stamped, it's engraved. This was common practice
on Nogales horns of this era.
There's only one reason you'd buff the nuts out of this area of
the body, and that's if you were trying to remove something. The
serial number's intact...so it's not a case of trying to hide who
the horn might have belonged to - which leaves three other possibilities.
first is that there was a model number there. I really can't imagine
why anyone would want to remove such a thing - it'd be like taking
the badge off your Ford in the hope that everyone thinks it's a
Mercedes. It ain't gonna happen.
The second is that someone engraved a unique identifying mark on
the horn, such as a name or number. This is a more likely possibility...and
I well remember likely lads trying to sell me horns back in the
'80s that had been stolen from London schools - the big giveaway
being a dirty great filed area where the letters I.L.E.A (Inner
London Education Authority) would have been. This is a pretty pointless
exercise if you don't also remove the serial number...and a horn
with a removed serial number is about as hot as a bucket of chillies.
And the third possibility is that the mark says where the horn was
Conn aficionados will immediately know than the
N prefix puts the build date in the 1970s - and thus likely pins
down the location of build as Mexico.
However, there's some confusion over the exact dates when production
changed - and some N prefix models are marked as being built in
the US...and I suspect that someone thought the serial number was
low enough to pass the horn off as one of the very last US built
models. Maybe they did a little bit of research and figured that
all it takes to turn a 'Mexiconn' into a US one is to remove 'Mexico'
from the body. Either way I think it's pretty clear that the intention
was to disguise the horn's origins and thus raise its value.
I suspect, too, that whoever did it had access to a buffing machine
of some sort - given the size of the bare patch. This means it's
likely that someone 'in the trade' did it.
And they'd have gotten away with it if it hadn't have been for this