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The custom sax body straightening tool03/03/2018: There's nothing worse than a tool that's not quite right. I don't mean one that's completely useless, but an otherwise perfect tool that just has a design feature that niggles. I find it annoys me every time I pick the thing up - and try as I might to concentrate on the job in hand, there's always that little voice at the back of my mind that says "If only it was a little bit longer" or "Why couldn't they have bent that bit round a little more?".
There are, of course, three options. You could go buy another tool; you could modify the one you have...or you could make your own, to your particular specifications. The first option is always the most tempting. I mean, who among us doesn't like new tools, right? However, when it comes to specialist trades it's not always an option.
Modifying a tool is a good bet, but a great deal depends on how you need to modify it and what you have to work with in the first place. And making a tool is often a hell of a lot of work, which means downtime at the bench, which means it usually ends up being quite an expensive proposition.

But sometimes you get to a point where you think 'enough is enough' - and the expense becomes wholly justified by the prospect of being able to silence the niggling inner voice that's always whinging.
Threading the holderThe tool that's been causing me such problems is my sax body straightener (AKA the saxwhacker). It's a simple-enough tool - essentially a short metal bar that's turned to a particular diameter on each end (these are called the mandrels) which is inserted into the tenon socket and then whacked onto the workbench with the intention of removing a slight bend in a horn's body. Sounds quite fearsome - and I suppose it could be if used without due care and attention - but as with many techniques in the repair trade it relies on a subtle blend of extreme violence and gentle persuasion.

And when you're trying to get this blend just right it's incredibly important to be, as they say, 'at one' with your tools.
So what's the problem? Well, my original (and old) set of straighteners are somewhat generic. That's to say they're 'one or two sizes fits all'. I've never really been satisfied with that. They're also a little on the short side, for me at least, and I've never felt happy about the weight or 'heft' of them. Too light, too short, too imprecise.
So I had a think about what I really wanted and set about knocking up a bespoke tool.

I could knock up a set of bars with a mandrel at each end - but that's going to take quite a lot of metal because I want the mandrels to be a very precise fit. The range of sizes of the stock tools cover most bases, but there's often a little bit of slop in the fit. Granted, you can negate this by tightening up the receiver clamp but that tends to place most of the working load around the top of the socket...and I don't like that. I want the working point of the impact to be at the base of the receiver (or the top of the body tube)...and nowhere else.

The sax body straightener holderSo I decided to make the main body of the tool as a holder, with the ability to fit separate mandrels as desired.
It also allows me to fit an anvil at the other end. This is the part of the tool that makes contact with the bench...and I've never been all that happy about smacking the mandrels around. It makes it easy to experiment with different anvils, taking into account such factors as diameter, shape, material and weight - and who knows, it may turn out that a particular size and shape of anvil gives better results than any other.
I started off with a large steel one, but I felt it was just a touch on the heavy side - so I knocked up a smaller one in aluminium, which seems to balance the tool nicely.
Of course, I realise this could be a very dangerous thing - leading to heated debate on the forums as to which anvil works best...and which (heaven preserve us) has the best effect on the horn's tone. You may well chuckle...but in your heart you just know it'll happen.

Tapping the mandrelI wanted more weight because I want the tool to do the work. This is one of those jobs that relies very heavily on feel. There's no prescribed amount of force that you can refer to, no height gauges, no handy set of tables - it's all about how the horn feels, where the apex of the bend is and a general sense of 'this much of a whack should do it'. I know it all sounds very approximate, but that's where experience comes into play. You just know...because you know...and because you've done it hundreds of times before.
I've always felt the stock tool wasn't really carrying its weight. I suppose it's a bit like selecting the right size of hammer to bang a nail in. Too small and you'll be at it for hours, too large and you might just make a mess - but get it right and all it takes is one swift hit. But here's the thing...it's easier (and safer) to use a large hammer delicately than it is to use a small one with force.

Turning the mandrel to sizeAs for the length, it's mostly about leverage - but there's an element of security in it. When you're effectively throwing a horn down towards a bench or a block, you want a bit of space in case it all goes a bit pear-shaped.

In terms of construction it's quite a simple tool to make - which is why I'm amazed I never got around to it sooner.
You take a lump of bar stock (30mm stainless steel), face it off, drill a blind hole in it then run a tap into it. Turn the outside to the required diameter then part (cut) it off the stock. You then face, drill and tap the stock so that if you need to make another mandrel in a hurry you need only turn it to size and part it off.
You then take another lump of stock and cut a thread on each end to match the one in the mandrel. I did it in this order so that I could tailor the holder's thread to be a very snug fit in the mandrel(s).
The sax body straightener, fitted.All that's left to do is to bung a piece of material in the lathe, drill and tap it as before and then shape it as desired. That's the anvil done.
And Bob's yer uncle...one bespoke sax body straightening tool. Here it is fitted to a Yamaha tenor just prior to straightening a slight bend in the body. The fit of the mandrel in the receiver is absolutely perfect - a snug sliding fit.
It also means I can use the mandrels for other work that might need doing to a receiver, such as rounding it out or dealing with any dents. They can also be used as test pieces to check how round the socket is, or whether it's tapered.

I'm sure any number of repairers will be looking at this and thinking "Well that's just way too heavy" or "I don't much like that feature" - but that's the beauty of a custom tool...it's designed and built solely for the owner. If anyone else likes the design, that's great - if no-one else does, it's not a problem. As long as it does the job for me, and as long as it does the job well. That's all that matters. Did it stop the niggling inner voice? Well, sort of. It's at least not saying "It's just not quite right"...but now it says "See? I told you so! Should have done it years ago".
Sometimes you just can't win.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018