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The Black Museum header

A virtual repository for all that's weird and (un)wonderful on the workbench

Let's assume, for a moment, that you're sitting down of an evening - perhaps with a cool beer in hand, or a jar of cockles - ready for a spot of entertainment via the medium of your telly. This telly, however, has only two channels; on channel one there's a display of gymnastics, given by a fleet of finely honed athletes, which promises to be a veritable feast of men jumping, successfully, over various items - such as sticks and sand; on channel two though is a programme about woefully unfit, and possibly drunk, middle-aged men attempting to do pretty much the same thing around the house - with predictable results.
What's it gonna be?
Well, it's a fair bet that the vast majority of you will opt for the spectacle of people falling over and otherwise damaging themselves and anything else within range. This is because we all enjoy a laugh at other people's expense, and few things are more entertaining than watching someone make a pig's ear of things.
The Germans have a wonderful word for this, the tongue-wrappingly rich "Schadenfreude".

Similarly, if you take your kids for a walk around a local museum it's a fair bet that the bit that will most appeal to them is the section that houses the 'nasties' - grizzly jars containing pickled pigs with three heads; photographs of apparently self-combusted human remains; the actual mincing machine used by the Pie-Making Whippet-Snatcher of Pudsey...and perhaps a display dedicated to fashion in the 1980s.

Every museum worth its entrance fee has one of these - known, in popular parlance, as a 'Black Museum'.
I'd like to have one too, but unfortunately my job is more about fixing things rather than preserving their state of hideous disrepair...but that doesn't stop me taking a few photographs and sharing some of the more horrifying examples that find their way into my workshop prior to my fixing them up.
So, pour that beer, dip into those cockles, and prepare to be shocked, awed and truly queasificated (OK, I just made that word up...but you heard it here first, right?) by some of the horrors that have crawled onto my workbench.

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Selmer crook socketFirst up is a tenor sax crook socket/receiver.
To the untrained eye it looks quite normal - harmless even.
It's only when you understand how it's supposed to work that the true horror becomes clear.
You'll notice a small slit in the bore. That's there because this joint is effectively a clamp. The crook tube slides into this socket, and by applying force to close the gap that the slit provides, the crook is held firmly in place.
It follows, then, that some means of closing that gap is in order - to whit, a clamp.
And so we have a clamp, on the outside - complete with a neat screw and a corresponding slit.
I suspect that you're now beginning to see the problem - the slit in the socket doesn't line up with the slit in the clamp.
Aha, you say, surely the clamp can still apply pressure to the joint.
Well, it could if the clamp was free to move on the joint tube - but it isn''s soldered in place - so you could do the screw up as tight as you like and it would never make any difference to the tightness of the crook fitting. The best it can do is bend the clamp screw sockets, or break the screw itself.
The thing that's particularly devilish about this example is that the clamp is in the right place - it's the socket tube that's not. It's been removed (or fallen off) and refitted out of line. The clamp has been removed too, and refitted - but can only fit in one position due to the necessity to line up that pillar with the rest of the octave key mechanism.

Selmer octave key mechMoving on to the next example we see an octave key mechanism on a Selmer.
Again, a casual observer might not notice anything terribly untoward - but look carefully at the area around the right hand pillar.
Notice the gap where the key ends and the pillar begins?
Look too at the how the rocker bar sticks out of the key at its left end - and note how far away the thumb key touchpiece is from the thumbrest.
This is a Frankensteinian octave key mech - made up from parts of no less than three models of Selmer saxes.
The bulk of the mechanism is the original Mark VI keywork; the bit at the end (where the gap is) is from a Reference series, and the thumb key is from an SA80 series.
What you can't see on the photo is that the thumb key arm (that connects it to the mech itself) has a slot in it that's completely incompatible with the part of the octave key it's supposed to connect to. Needless to say, it didn't work at all.

Selmer bell keysNext up is a truly gruesome exhibit.
Again, the ghastliness of this one isn't immediately evident.
I'm sure you can all see the difference in the two bell keys shown. The B key (the lower one) looks fine...the cup appears to be sitting nicely above its corresponding tonehole - but the Bb key seems to be somewhat out of line, showing a sizeable gap at the rear and being rather too far forward.
I wouldn't blame you at all for supposing that this is nothing more than a bent key. Some of the more knowledgeable among you might even suggest that the pillar (just visible at the bottom of the photo) has been knocked out of line.
Not so, I'm afraid.
This, my friends, is another freakish transplant operation.
There is nothing wrong with the position of the pillar; there is nothing wrong with the angle of the bell; there is even nothing wrong with the Bb key...other than it's from a different instrument.

Selmer bell key spatulasThe full nastiness is revealed when you look at the other end of the key.
The touchpiece for the Bb key sits on the left of the photo.
Note how very far away it is from the low B touchpiece.
Granted, the key is of similar design to the one that should be there but it's from a different, later model - and not only has the bell angle changed on the later model, but also the position and alignment of the bell key touchpieces, or 'spatulas'.

I feel you're now ready to withstand the real horror behind these exhibits - they all feature on the same instrument.
Oh, there's more too - but I wouldn't want to be accused of giving anyone nightmares.
Suffice to say, what we have here is a late vintage Selmer MKVI tenor that has evidently lost a number of keys. Whoever has attempted to fix it (and I know who) has worked on the principle that, say, a Bb key is a Bb key is a Bb key...and that whilst it would perhaps be foolish to replace a missing key from a Selmer with one from, say, a Yamaha, it should be perfectly acceptable to replace it with one from another Selmer...albeit a different model.
So - rather like the popular country and western song that celebrates a Cadillac built from parts that span a number of years, this Selmer is a MKVI/VII/SA80/Ref 54.
It was purchased on Ebay, and the seller commented that it 'needed a few repairs, none of which are beyond the scope of a competent repairer'. He was right - he just failed to mention that those repairs would almost certainly get very close to the four-figure mark.

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My next exhibit is perhaps rather less gruesome, but is still guaranteed to make you wonder what on earth was going through the troubled mind of the person responsible for it.
The horn in question is the much vaunted King Super 20 'Silversonic' tenor. A late model, but nonetheless still a highly desirable piece of kit - even more so considering the fact that is has just been fully overhauled and sports a particularly fine set of black pads, complete with Noyek reflectors (or resonators).
Now, the term 'overhaul' implies that any problems that might affect the proper operation of the instrument have been corrected - such as wear in the keys, broken springs, missing corks and worn out pads etc. It also implies that any bodywork problems have been sorted out, such as significant dents, bends, loose fittings etc.
From experience I have to say that, unfortunately, this isn't always the case - and many an apparently overhauled horn requires extra work to bring it up to standard. More often than not this relates to worn action or badly seated pads - but this horn really takes the biscuit.
King Super 20 Eb The overriding principle of replacing a pad on an instrument is that both the key cup and the tonehole must be level. If there's any discrepancy at all the pad will fail to seat properly - or if it does seat, it's likely to be unreliable once the pad settles down or ages.
I often spot wobbly toneholes/key cups on overhauled horns, but for the most part the discrepancies are slight - and I put it down to the repairer's lack of experience or laziness.
What you see here though is quite the most spectacularly warped tonehole I've seen in quite a while. Indeed, the photo doesn't quite do it justice - you need to see it from at least two angles to fully appreciate how bad it is.
How did it get that bad, and could it have happened subsequent to the overhaul?

Well, there are no dents visible in the body adjacent to the dips on either side of the tonehole - so that rules out the horn having copped a whack after the work was done. However, there's evidence of dent removal adjacent to the peaks (front and rear) - which means that the dips are in fact at the right height...and the peaks have been pushed up by dent removal. You can't push a dent up by dropping the horn, it takes a very deliberate act on the part of a repairer to do so.
Furthermore, look along the bottom edge of the key cup - it's clearly warped too.
It got like that because whoever fitted the pad (and once again, I know who) did so in full knowledge that the tonehole was out of level...and took a mallet to the key cup in a fiendish effort to bash it so that the pad followed the warp in the tonehole.
If you think that's bad - this is but one example of many on the same horn.
Were it just the one tonehole I might have given it the benefit of the doubt and assumed that something strange and horrible had happened subsequent to the horn having an overhaul...but the presence of many similarly warped toneholes and correspondingly bent key cups undoubtedly points to a 'mallet-set' pad job.

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Continuing on the theme of being heavy-handed with a hammer, this next exhibit is a perfect example of what's known in the trade as the old 'double bounce dent'.
There are many techniques for removing dents from saxes, and the most common is that involving the dent ball. This is nothing more than a smooth, rounded ball fitted to a steel bar. The principle is simple enough; a suitable ball is chosen and fitted to a bar that's firmly clamped in a vice, the bar is inserted into the bore of the horn until the ball sits under and makes contact with the dent, and then the bar is struck with a hammer. The shock travels down the bar, through the ball and out into the dent. In effect it's like being able to climb into the bore and hit the dent with a hammer.
It's an effective means of removing dents, though a very great deal can go wrong if you don't have quite the right touch.
By far and away the most common problem comes from choosing the wrong size and shape of dent ball.
When you whack that bar it vibrates - and the important point here is that it vibrates in two directions...into the dent and away from it. Once the ball is much larger than about 50% of the bore diameter there's a very real risk that a suitably heavy whack to the bar will allow the dent ball to smash into the opposite bore wall - and so the skilled repairer will be careful to gauge both the right sized ball for the job and the right weight of the blow to the bar.

Ref.54 dentsThis is what happens when it all goes wrong.
The horn in question is a Selmer Reference 54 alto - a very expensive bit of kit indeed.
There are two features to note here; the three ripples on the body and the slight bulge just above the top F tone hole.
The horn had originally sustained damage to the opposite side - a fall had resulted in a dent around the octave key pip where the top F# key pillar had been driven into the body.
This is a particularly tricky job as this pillar sits on a strap that runs the entire length of the left hand key stack. It's clearly not practical to remove this strap...though it is possible to unsolder and lift just the end, which makes for an easier job when it comes to removing the dent.
If you don't lift this strap off you're effectively trying to remove a dent from both the bore wall and the strap..and that's a LOT of metal.

Naturally there's another method, and that's to shove a dent ball up the horn and give the bar the mother of all whacks - and that's precisely what's been done here.
If you look closely at the photo you can make out three distinct ripples...which means that the repairer hit the dent bar at least three times, and presumably never noticed the damage being inflicted on the opposite wall...or perhaps didn't care!
If you think this is bad, it gets worse.
When a horn gets dropped with enough force to bash a dent under a strap it usually means the body bends - and indeed it did. Thing is though, this bend was left in.
When a body bends it increases the distance between the pillars - and this had been resolved by a combination of knocking pillars over at an angle to take up the gaps, and, where that had been insufficient, the fitment of a brass washer between the end of a key barrel and the pillar.

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This next exhibit is breathtaking in its deviousness insomuch as real money, and lots of it, was paid out for the privilege of having the 'work' done.
It's a truly awesome example of a cack-handed job, otherwise known as a 'right royal cock-up'. What makes it particularly horrifying is that the job was done by someone who's a member of a repairer's trade association, NAMIR, which led to the unsuspecting victim thinking that the quality of workmanship would be at least of a certain standard (the poor fool!).

YAS61 right hand stackCast your eyes over this right hand stack setup.
The keys are being held down with more than enough pressure to ensure a decent seat on any sax that's halfway reasonably set up - and yet there are gaps clearly visible above each of the toneholes. My standard test for a well set pad is to trap a cigarette paper between the tonehole rim and the pad - when it's pulled out I'd feel a steady grip if the pad is seating. On each of these pads I reckon I could get a couple of client's Christmas cards between the tonehole rim and the pad...and still have room for a fag paper.
A leak of this magnitude can never go unnoticed - even by a non-player.

YAS61 left hand stackThings weren't much better up the top end either. Here's a shot of the left hand key stack, with a positively cavernous gap between the B key cup and its tonehole.
If you could see to the right you'd see a gap below the auxiliary pad too. With such leaks at the top end of the horn it was little wonder that the lower leaks weren't noticeable, the poor player could never get below G - even with a grip on the keys that would have made the Incredible Hulk sweat.
You could suggest that it wasn't so much that the pads weren't seating, rather the problems were down to bad regulation - but if you corrected the regulation (which I tried) the pads still didn't seat properly.

You can but imagine the anguish - but it doesn't stop there...

Here's a small collection of key cups taken from the unfortunate instrument.
The starting principle of repadding a saxophone is astonishingly simple - remove the old pads and replace them with new ones that fit the cups. In this instance the word 'fit' has been used in its most liberal sense...sure, the pads do actually go into the cups - but only in the same way that a man with a size 36 chest will fit into a size 42 jacket.
YAS61 padsThe big problem here is that pads aren't exactly flat - they tend to roll down at the edge - so it's very important to ensure that you maximise the flat area by fitting pads that completely fill the cups. If you don't you run the risk of the tonehole trying to make a seal on the roll-off of the pad, and this is never satisfactory.
The largest cup shown is that of the low Bb key - and you can just see that the tonehole impression practically falls off the side of the pad. It wouldn't have mattered though, as it was completely impossible to get a note anywhere near the low Bb...and even if it were possible the Bb pad was leaking anyway.

On its own this job is one of the most unedifying exhibits I've ever had the misfortune to display, and even now I can feel the cold chill of revulsion that creeps up your spine....but wait, the worst is yet to come!
How much d'you think changed hands in remuneration for this grisly operation? £50? £150? £250??
Alas no - a truly knee-wobbling, gut-wibbling, head-borking £500 was handed over in exchange for the foul deeds you see laid bare before you today.
O Tempora! O Mores! O Bugger!

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This next addition to the collection is perhaps a little less daunting than the previous exhibits, but it will still tug at that part of the human psyche that can't resist slowing down to peek at traffic accidents on the other side of the road.
What's particularly notable about this exhibit is that it doesn't involve the actions of a third party - rather it's an example of a horror spawned during manufacture.
The unfortunate beast in question is an unusual tenor sax branded 'Galasso', a Brazilian manufacturer.
The horn itself is nothing to write home about, just a basic student horn by the looks of it - and to the casual observer it just appears to be 'A.N.Other' old horn. But look a little closer and the awful truth is revealed...

Galasso tenor toneholes

What you see here is a standard drawn and rolled tonehole - but what's that brassy patch at the rear?
It's exactly that - a patch.
No big deal on its own, the tonehole might have suffered some kind of trauma at some point which required the fitting of a patch - but look at the other tonehole and you can see evidence of yet more remedial work at the rear.
It's the same for practically each and every tonehole on this unfortunate instrument - almost all of them have been patched or filled, some in more than one place.
What's happened here is a problem in the manufacturing process. As the toneholes have been drawn out of the body they've fractured, perhaps due to the poor quality of the brass or some fault in the drawing process itself. There are plenty of scratch marks in the toneholes which might indicate the drawing tool was rather rough and ready - so these toneholes weren't so much carefully drawn as violently ripped out of the body. There's some evidence to suggest some of the repairs were made before the horn was finished in nickel plate - which certainly points the finger at the manufacturer.
In spite of all that, it actually blows quite nicely (in places).

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And now, good people, prepare yourself for the foul horror that is....

Frankenstein's baritone header

Frankenstein's baritoneWhat you see here is a vintage Selmer MkVI baritone sax - a very early example, with a low A - with a hole drilled through its body and a guard stay fitted with the aid of a nut and bolt. At first sight it appears to be nothing less than vandalism, but if you look a little closer it takes on a more interesting perspective.
What you have to bear in mind is that Selmer once thought it a good idea to use two-point mounted bell key guards on some of their saxophones (as opposed to the standard three-point mounts just about everyone else uses). There's no structural advantage to a two-point mount, so it would have been one of those 'natty ideas' that someone in the company felt would add to the aesthetic appearance of the instrument. However, there are significant drawbacks to the design - not the least of which is that there is less load-spreading in the event of a knock to the guard, and without the third foot the slightest knock could tip the guard forwards or backwards.

The end result was that many players got so fed up with the guards moving about that they had their repairer pop a drop of soft solder over the securing screws to help keep the guards in position. It was the only effective means of dealing with the design flaw.
It brings to mind a 'discussion' I had on one of the saxophone forums regarding the design of saxophone bell braces, in which I made the point that truly effective bell braces didn't appear until around the 1970s, when Yamaha came up with a design that looked like someone had given more than a passing thought as to how damage to the saxophone's body could be minimised in the event of an impact to the bell by fitting a bell brace that was designed to absorb and deflect the energy. I was assured most pointedly that the boffins at Selmer knew what they were doing and that their original ring design would have been a highly developed and tested piece of engineering (instead of, as I maintained, just a pretty way of securing the bell to the body).
If the boffins really were thinking about design, how on earth did the two-point guard make it past the drawing board - and what possessed someone to fit it to a low Eb key (a key that takes an awful lot of knocks, inside and out of the instrument's case)...and on a hulking great baritone saxophone?

Frankenstein's baritone guardAnyway, as the instrument was owned and played by a rather distinguished professional, he had little choice but to address the problem of the poor design and had someone attach a third foot to the guard.
The manner in which the foot is fitted to the guard is actually quite neat, with a carefully shaped flare and a countersunk bolt to secure it in place - but it all goes a bit wrong when it comes to fitting the foot to the body. In all fairness I suspect that the intention was to do the job without damaging the lacquer - which meant no soldering...hence the use of a bolt to fit the foot to the guard and another to fit it to the body.
It was decided to tidy the job up and make it more permanent, which would also deal with the inevitable leak that comes from having a bolt fitted though the body - but how to do the job with the least amount of damage to the remaining lacquer?
Ideally I would have liked to have made up a small plug for the bolt hole and silver-soldered it in place, but that would mean bringing the area up to red heat...and that would have burned off a great deal of lacquer. So, I went with the plug idea but silver-soldered it instead to the guard foot so that it would locate in the bolt hole. It had to be carefully made to ensure a snug fit in the hole and to lie flush with the bore. The whole affair was then soft soldered to the body, just like a standard guard foot mount - and the bolt on the upper end of the foot would allow for removal of the guard for access to the Eb key cup.

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A little reprise now, in the shape of a 'spot the deliberate mistake' exhibit.
As many regular visitors to my site will know, I've been very interested in instruments coming out of China - and it's been fascinating to watch the rise in quality and development in the last few years. However, there still remains something of a barrier when it comes to a common language. It's quite clear to me that there are some highly skilled craftsmen and women involved with woodwind instrument manufacture in China, but there are times when confusion arises over what the buyer wants and what the manufacturer thinks they want.
What you see here is an alto saxophone crook. It's no ordinary crook - the tube is hand formed out of solid silver. It's nicely made too, not quite up to the standard of, say, a Gloger crook, but then it comes in at less than the price of replacement standard brass crook as churned out by one of the big manufacturers.
That's an astonishing prospect - being able to buy a handmade solid silver replacement crook for less money than the one that originally came with your horn.
The trouble is, something got lost in the translation, and the result can be seen here.

Have you worked it out yet?
If not I can put you out of your misery.

Take a look at the tenon sleeve. Although the crook itself is meant for an alto, the sleeve is for a tenor!
It's not that easy to spot at first - or rather it is, it's just that most people can't imagine such a thing happening and so completely ignore it...even when they're holding the thing in their hands. It becomes quite apparent, however, when you hand the crook to someone and ask them to fit it to their alto.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this crook is the sleeve ring (that sits atop the tenon sleeve). At some point during manufacture someone will have needed to fit the sleeve to the crook tube. They couldn't have used a sleeve ring off a tenor crook as it would have been too large a fit over the crook tube, and one off an alto wouldn't have accommodated the sleeve tube - so they would have had to make one up especially for this crook. I would like to think that at some point the maker thought "What the ****?", but then he or she probably had a ticket on the bench that stated the buyer wanted the crook built exactly to that design - and that's exactly what the buyer got.

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It's a well-known fact that it costs money to maintain a collection of any kind. Museums often spend many hundreds of thousands of pounds to secure important exhibits on behalf of the public at large, and the shwoodwind black museum is no different.
I found this next item in a 'storage repository' and immediately entered into difficult and drawn-out negotiations to secure the item at a reasonable price, in order to display it for posterity in this humble collection. Or, to put it another way - I spotted it at the local tip and offered the guv'nor a fiver, on the basis that it was so utterly appalling that I simply had to have it.
And so, showing once again that the black museum trawls the very face of the planet to bring you the very best exhibits - I present 'The Indian Saxophone'.

Indian alto saxophoneAt first glance this instrument looks very much like an original Adolphe Sax saxophone. The small bell (to low B) is very indicative of a sax from that era, as is the double octave key and the basic keywork.
A closer inspection reveals that this is, in fact, a copy. A very poor copy. A very poor, modern, copy.

The story behind these instruments is that they are knocked up in small sheds out in rural India. Whether that's entirely true or not I have yet to confirm, but it seems a highly likely state of affairs.
The true horror of an instrument like this is that they're sometimes seen for sale on places like ebay. I suspect that there are few visitors to this collection who would be foolish enough to buy one of these - but there are still plenty of people out there who have never really seen a saxophone 'up close', and are likely to be tempted to buy one of these simply because of the cheap price (much cheaper even than a basic Chinese saxophone). I suspect too that the tourist trade accounts for a large number of purchases.

What's quite interesting about this saxophone is that the body is surprisingly well-made. Although Adolphe Sax is rightly revered as the inventor of the saxophone, his own examples weren't as well-made as you might have imagined - and the body of this sax is nearly as good as any I've seen on an original Adolphe sax.
But that's as far as it goes, because everything else is completely and utterly dreadful.

Indian alto top stackOn the left you can see a close-up of the top stack. It's quite plain to see just how badly made the keys are. They appear to be a combination of pressed (keycups), turned (pearl holders) and cast parts - none of which really fit together with any kind of accuracy. Where there are gaps (and there are gaps, some of them quite large) there are generous blobs of soft solder.

Keys that don't quite fit have been hammered and roughly filed into shape, and when even this hasn't worked they've been fitted anyway. The rod screws, which on any half decent sax serve as pivots for the action, merely hold the keys between the pillars. If they move up and down it's a bonus, and if they're at all stiff then this is overcome by the use of fiercely powerful springs.
To give you some idea of how strong they are, if you played more than half a dozen scales on this saxophone you'd have to stop to rest your hands.

Not that that's likely to happen, because neither the tone holes or the key cups are level - which is academic anyway, as the 'pads' that have been fitted have the consistency of the back of a soft leather armchair, and are about as flat as a boxing glove. I suppose it's a form of 'self-seating' pad - in a "seat 'em yourself" kind of way. To do this you must first overcome the incredible spring tension and then press the keys down almost half as much again to push the soft, squishy pads over the warped tone holes. More often than not the pads on these Indian saxes are bright red colour - but these are a drab brown. Perhaps this is a 'mock vintage' model...

Indian alto low CSo if you saw one of these in a market, how would you distinguish it from an original Adolphe sax?
Well, as simple as the Adolphes are they're still much better made than this example. The keys will still be relatively crude but they'll be a great deal neater.
You also won't see such modern features as spatula key rollers, such as those seen on the right. You can clearly see that no expense has been spared on the key fittings. To be fair these rollers do actually roll - but they're so thin that you can't get your finger on them. They make a nice rattly sound though.
Perhaps the biggest giveaway is the tone holes - they're drawn. Adolphe's original saxes were built quite some time before that process was commonly used, and his saxes all had soldered-on tone holes.

This is quite a surprise as it's by no means a simple job to draw tone holes out of a tube - and it has me wondering whether these things are made by more than one company. I said earlier that the body wasn't too badly made, and if you add in the drawn tone holes and the contrast them with the quality of the keywork it leads me to suggest that people buy in the bodies from someone who's quite good at making bodies, and then make and fit the pillars and keys themselves.

Does it play?
This example is missing its top Eb key and a couple of pads - but with the addition of a few lumps of Blu-Tack (thus doubling the build quality, and the value of the instrument in one fell swoop) it's just about possible to play a scale from mid to low C - assuming giving up half way counts as a scale. From this it can be determined that the sax is pitched in F, and that in the space of an octave it's completely out of tune with itself.

I'm sure you will all agree that this terrifying exhibit was well worth the small fortune paid to secure its rightful place in the black museum .

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The techniques used in the trade of saxophone repairing are many and varied, and each exponent will have his or her preferred methods - but by and large they all get the job done to the required standard. However, there are those who have drifted to the dark side of the force and make use of sinister and gruesome means by which to torture and maim the instruments entrusted to their care.

Bad swedgingOne of the most labour-intensive tasks is that of tightening loose rod screw action. This uses a technique called swedging (pronounced sway-jing), which carefully compresses the worn key barrels so that the rod screw fits snugly once again. It's a tough, time-consuming job that can sometimes leave your hands blistered and aching.
So it's little wonder that some less scrupulous technicians will be tempted by shortcuts.

This unfortunate key came off a stencil Martin alto - a very badly worn instrument. That it was badly worn wasn't immediately obvious to the casual observer - if you gave the keys a quick wiggle while fitted to the instrument they appeared to be reasonably tight, with little or no end or front-to-back play.
However, if you wiggled them up and down it was obvious that something was very seriously wrong.

And this is why. You can see that someone has crimped the very end of the key barrel.
This has done two things - it's compressed the tube in one plane (you can see the bore is now oval) and it's pushed a nub of metal over the end of the barrel.
It's an ingenious bodge really, very few players who might be a bit savvy when it comes to checking for key wear would think to check if a key barrel moves up and down - and for the unlucky owner who paid to have this work done they'd probably have been none the wiser. Until they tried to play the instrument.
You might just about get away with it on a standalone key (such as a palm key), but on keys that are linked to others the up-and-down play would have to be taken up first before the linked keys would move. Disaster!
This 'fix' probably took someone five seconds, as opposed to the five or ten minutes (and sometimes considerably more) to do the job properly.

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And now for a little culture. This exhibit is an 'installation artwork' - which is a short way of saying "Hey! Look what we found outside! Let's nail it to the wall and take bets on how long before someone says 'I can see the underlying metaphor...'". What it is, in fact, is a brand-spanking-new Selmer SA80 Series III soprano saxophone.
I'll admit that it's not a very exciting exhibit on its own - after all, if you've seen one soprano sax, you've seen 'em all. However, there's a tale behind this one which dramatically alters the perspective in which this object is viewed.
It was purchased from a well-known music shop in London - the sort of shop I advise people to buy their instruments from. I do so because I believe it's worth supporting our High Street retailers, and even though you may pay a little more for the privilege you can at least be assured of customer service and satisfaction. Right?Selmer SA80 III soprano action
Unfortunately not, it would seem.

On the plus side this instrument was out of stock when the buyer called in at the shop (they had previously arranged to try one at another shop, who subsequently turned out to be also out of stock), but a despatch-rider was duly summoned and a new instrument was brought forth from the wholesaler. So far so good.
The instrument was unpacked and handed to the buyer, who tried it and found there was a problem with it - some of the notes were rather stuffy, and there was a warble down the bottom end. The in-house repairer was called up from the dungeon and tasked with job of putting it to rights. So far so gooder.
After half an hour or so the repairer returned, sweat pouring from his brow, his mangled hands cradling the soprano as though it were a new-born baby. The buyer played it again...but it still wasn't right - it still sounded stuffy and it still warbled on the low notes.

What to do? Well, when you've schlepped 60-plus miles to go shopping and it looks like the horn you're holding in your hand is the only example in town, what ya gonna do? They handed over the cash and hoped that the advice on playing-technique (push the mouthpiece on further!) given to them by the salesman would make everything alright.
It didn't - and you can see why.

The soprano isn't a brute of an instrument. If you wield a baritone in anger you might have to expect to put a bit more effort into bringing those big key cups down - but the keys on a soprano are small, and delicate...and should close with almost the power of thought alone. Not much chance of that happening with this one.
It's quite clear that the A key isn't closing (and thus the Bis Bb) - and this is because it's being held off by the adjuster screw that sits atop the Auxiliary B key. This means that the moment you play any note lower than a B, the horn leaks. What notes you might be able to get out of the instrument below the B will be stuffy, and if you can get anything out of the low notes at all it'll be a major achievement.
And the fix for this? Back off the adjuster screw a tad, and thicken up the buffer on the A key foot. About a minute's work.

Had this been a budget horn I might have been inclined to say 'these things happen' - but this is a top-of-the-range professional model, bought from an established retailer with on-site repairers on hand - who spent half an hour tweaking it. And at this point you might want to ask yourself exactly what would you expect for a shade under £4000.
Which is why this installation is entitled "The Rise and Fall of High Street Retailing" - though the museum night-watchman calls it "The soprano of shame".

This way

We're now entering the Natural History section of the museum.
It's a relatively small department with a modest collection. In fact there's just one exhibit in it - but what an exhibit!

Curved soprano D key 1This is an Aardvark.
I'll admit it looks a lot like a curved soprano saxophone - in fact that's exactly what it is - but the nature of the problem which earned it a place in this collection demonstrates perfectly a phrase I've often used when examining Chinese-built instruments; "Check bottom bow for Aardvarks".
On the face of it, it appears to be nonsense...surreal, even. I mean, why on earth would you want to check a bottom bow for Aardvarks? Has any sax ever had an Aardvark stuck to its bottom bow? Probably not...but have you ever checked?

In years gone by things were a lot simpler. A cheap instrument was built to a price. You knew it wasn't going to be as good as an expensive one and you knew that as well as shortcomings in the way in which it performed there might also be some mechanical shortcomings. On the whole, though, everything was where it ought to be and even if it wasn't that well made it was still what it ought to be.
When the Chinese began building instruments in earnest, that changed. Instruments were made with things where they didn't oughta be, and in some cases nothing where they shoulda oughta be - and in some extreme cases, the things that were where they were weren't what they ought to have been. Such as an Aardvark stuck to the bottom bow.
Still with me?

This particular Aardvark is the low D key. A cursory check reveals nothing of note; it's a key cup, fitted with a plastic key pearl and there's a pad fitted inside the cup. The key barrel is quite well drilled, so it doesn't wobble around on its pivot. The spring that powers it is fully functional...and the pad is quite well seated. It all works.
It would be very easy, therefore, to tick all the boxes and move on to the next key...unless you happened to take a peek at the lower side of the key cup - at which point you'd see that there's a rather large chunk missing from the side wall.
I didn't spot this immediately - mostly because I wasn't looking for such a problem.
To be sure, I was looking for a number of other 'Aardvarks', such as splits in the tone holes that had been taped over with sticking plaster, or octave key pips fitted at a 45 degree angle to the body, or loose key barrels that had been 'swedged' by crimping them with a pair of wire cutters...or perhaps a missing key, or a superfluous pillar. But a chunk missing out of a key cup? Nope, wasn't looking for that.

Curved soprano D key 2The strange thing is, this isn't why the horn came in for a service - so not only did the player not notice it but neither, I suspect, did the seller. And who can blame them - it's quite hard to spot unless you examine the horn from the bottom bow end - and even if I handed the horn to someone, told them there was an unusual fault with it and suggested they examine it from a particular angle, they still might not have spotted it.
It's rather like the solid silver crook you saw earlier. I've handed that to many a client and said "Tell me what's wrong with this" - and 90% of them won't spot it in spite of it being completely obvious.

And the reason for the missing chunk? It all becomes dreadfully obvious when you press the key down.

The rim of the key cup would have contacted the bell clamp ring, thus preventing the pad from closing against the tone hole. Why this has happened is up for debate. Perhaps the key cup diameter is a little too large (looks about right though), or maybe the clamp ring is too thick (seems OK) or too far up (nope)? I'm inclined to think that they've been a bit careless when levelling the tone holes and have taken too much 'meat' off the top. This means the top of the tone hole is just a tad below the top of the clamp ring. Had the tone hole been a couple of millimetres taller, there'd be no problem.
So it's a manufacturing defect. It wouldn't have been spotted until the horn was assembled, by which time the body would have been lacquered - so rather than ruin the lacquer the builder decided to take a chunk out of the key cup.
To be fair I've seen something similar before - a low D key cup with just a little relief shaved into the cup wall for exactly the same reason. But by relief I mean a very slight, shallow dish - neatly finished and quite intentional. This one's been done with a handheld mill and just left...teethmarks and all.

This way

They say that bad things come in threes - and as if to prove the adage, here's another soprano sax.

Chinese soprano sax crook receiverNotice anything strange about it?
This 'A.N.Other' Chinese soprano was brought in for a setup just after purchase. On the face of it, a pretty standard job - though I've long since learned that when it comes to Chinese horns, nothing much is standard.
Sure, it had the usual problems; a few iffy tone holes, a couple of dodgy pads, a handful of indifferent corks - but nothing that an hour's worth of tweaking couldn't put right...or at least put into a state where it would allow the horn to work. And work it did - and rather well at that, it has to be said.
However, it wasn't until I came to fit the crook that I noticed this curious 'gotcha'...because I couldn't tighten the crook.
And it wasn't because the crook was too loose, nor that the clamp screw thread was stripped - it was simply because there's absolutely no provision for tightening the crook.

See where the clamp screw fits into the pair of brass sleeves? See that little recess in the middle? That's supposed to be a slot. Not only that, the slot is supposed to be cut right through the socket (and you can see an example of this in the very first shot of this page).

Without this slot, all the clamp screw can do is tighten itself up against the sleeve; with a slot in place the screw will allow the rim of the receiver to just pinch up a tad, thus ensuring the crook is held securely in position.
Cutting a slot took a mere minute or so...but it took me a good ten more before I stopped laughing.

This way

We're now entering the Andy Thomas Historical Memorial Archive, which houses one of our most prized exhibits.
Its origins are uncertain, and much effort was expended in securing it for the museum. Our admittedly non-too-reliable sources maintain that this object was unearthed during the excavation of a beer garden to the rear of a noted Portsmouth hostelry, and various experts (in the saloon bar) have dated it to around 2000 BC - which puts it in the Bronze Age.
The strange ligature of old Pompey townThe 'craftsmanship' undoubtedly fits the period - its simple, hand-hammered and fire-brazed construction certainly match other artefacts of the period, and it clearly lacks the proto-elegance of later Iron Age trinkets. But there are a number of problems with this theory, the chief of which is that the wide band appears to be made from steel - and there are two hexagonal nuts attached to it. Furthermore, it's equally evident that it's a ligature.

Assuming, for a moment, that the date is right, it would mean that Bronze Age artisans were considerably more advanced in engineering terms than had previously been thought possible - and what's even more incredible is the prospect that Adolphe Sax had been beaten to the mark by about 4000 years. It all sounds, I'm sure you will agree, rather suspect.

Another theory that's been put forward is that it's a prototype of a new range of high-end bespoke ligatures, such as those that are popular with players who have more money than gigs.
This makes more sense, given some of the absurdities that are foisted on wealthy but gullible horn players as a means of holding a bit of cane to a lump of metal - and I've no doubt that the 'rustic' approach to construction would easily appeal to people who didn't know any better (and who could afford the correspondingly eye-watering price).

But perhaps the most plausible theory is that this ligature was knocked up in a Pompey kitchen by someone who was too tight-arsed to buy a proper one, and who had all the engineering skills of a kebab.

We may never know for sure...

This way

Here's another entry into the ever-growing Hall Of Shame which, on the face of it, looks like a simple case of a DIY tweak gone wrong. However, there's a back-story to this which may well wobble your collys...
It seems it all began with a stiff palm D key. The apparent problem was easily diagnosed and the best course of action seemed to be to remove the key and inspect it. All very reasonable.
What was not spotted, however, was that the stiffness was due to a bent key barrel - which meant that removing the rod screw would prove to be rather difficult. And so it proved to be the case.
At this point the prudent DIYer would perhaps curse under their breath, but take solace in the knowledge that they'd successfully diagnosed the problem, attempted a repair and wisely thrown in the towel when it became clear that the job was rather more involved.
But no, our erstwhile repairer battled bravely on and sought assistance from the nemesis of all things mechanical - the Pliers Of Doom.

Mangled D keyTaking inspiration from the historical battle of Marathon, the attack was launched on two fronts. The first casualty was the poor old rod screw. Having been partially coaxed out of the key barrel, the pliers were brought to bear on its already mangled head - whereupon the serrated jaws gave it a right old mangling. The outcome was inevitable and, overwhelmed by superior forces, the rod screw gave up the struggle.
This left the key barrel exposed and defenceless, and no quarter was given as the pliers ranged in on the unprotected tubing. Brass and steel clashed and writhed - the once pristine plains of polished brass were ravaged by the terrible steel jaws in a grim struggle to exert might and strength over precision.

And as the dust settled and silence descended upon the scene of battle, it became saddeningly apparent that if there was any kind of victory at all, it was a wholly pyrrhic one. The rod screw had indeed been removed from the key barrel, but it was bent and mangled...and so too was the barrel.
Look now, upon the devastation, and weep the tears of regret (no laughing at the back, please).

But the real horror (oh yes, there's more) is that this poor horn belonged to a young student...and it's the teacher who's responsible for this dreadful atrocity. Even worse, the teacher is one of my regular clients.
Stern looks were given - and I may have even tutted a little (OK, quite a lot).
But I am not unkind, and rather helpfully suggested that if they wanted to dabble with minor repairs it might be an idea to purchase a copy of the incredibly informative and useful Haynes Saxophone Manual - which while containing much guidance on how to carry out various everyday tweaks and adjustments, also contains a wealth of knowledge with regard to what not to do. And knowing what you shouldna didn't oughta do is often more valuable than knowing what you shoulda did 'n done.
An excellent recommendation, I thought - but it turns out they already have a copy.
"Well, didn't you read it??"
"Oh yeah, I did, once"
"Maybe you ought to read it again?"

I took on the repair - but on condition that the teacher would not only pay to have the D key fixed, but for a bit of tweak to the rest of the way of compensation to the student for mangling the key, and as a pertinent reminder to 'RTFM'. And, of course, that the whole sorry saga would be archived for all eternity in the dreaded Black Museum.

This way

A quick word of warning about this next exhibit - it contains an item that many of you may find rather distressing, especially those who have a passion for vintage and historical saxophones.
What we see here is, or rather would have been, a very fine example of perhaps one of the most important stages of the evolution of the saxophone. It's a Couesnon soprano, and it dates from around 1925.
What makes it interesting is that it sits slap bang in the middle of the period where saxophones changed from being period pieces (i.e. of limited use in a modern context) to the early examples of a design that we still enjoy today.
Couesnon soprano bellI think it's safe to say that playing such horns can sometimes be...challenging - as can owning one - but this is offset by the rare pleasure of playing an instrument that's nigh on 100 years old. And let's not forget the street cred that comes with hoiking something like this out of a case at a gig.
This particular horn's limitations are that it only goes down to low B, and only up to top Eb. You don't get an articulated G# and neither do you get a side F#. But you do get a horn that's been built by one of the most important manufacturers in the business. And it plays in tune. Make no mistake, they really knew their stuff.

So you'd think that such a grand old instrument would be deserving of the utmost care when it came to restoring it to its former glory. If you were going for the 'sympathetic' approach you'd bring the mechanism up to scratch and deal with the inevitable dings and bashes but leave the 'cosmetic history' intact (my preferred approach) - and if you were going for the concours approach you'd probably think about restoring the original finish.
What you certainly wouldn't do is slap a coat of yacht varnish on it and bang in a cheap set of squidgy pads...unless you were the 'repairer' that got their hands on this unfortunate example.

I know, I's awful, isn't it?
What you should be looking at is a fine old soprano finished in a coat of glorious (if a little foxed in places) silver plate.
What we have instead is a silverplated soprano that's been sprayed with a lacquer that has all the staying-power of a sausage in a non-stick pan. You can see it peeling off inside the bell - and if you rub a fingernail over it it just flakes off.
There are lots of problems with this, not the least of which is why would anyone do such a thing in the first place? I suppose you could be kind and say that they thought it would smarten up the instrument, or you could be cynical and say that they thought it would make the instrument sell for more - but as we'll soon see, I think it's more likely that they didn't have a bloody clue what they were doing.

Couesnon soprano lower stackFeast your eyes on this 'repadding' job.
There's a lot of work that goes into repadding a saxophone, and an awful lot of that work has to be carried out even before a single pad hits a key cup. And among that work is figuring out what the thickness of the pads should be. This is an important consideration, because pads that are too thick or thin are going to cause a lot of problems...if they even work at all.

However, if you don't give a toss or simply don't know what you're doing you can bung any old pads in and hope for the best. And if that doesn't work, there's always the option of the dreaded 'mallet seating'.
Just look at those bent key cups. The fitted pads are clearly way too thick, which means they'll hit the toneholes at the rear and won't stand a ghost of a chance of sealing at the front. What you'd need to do is remove them and fit thinner pads...or you could just bash the front of the key cups with a mallet until they bend down and allow the pad to (sort of) seal. Of course, now that the key cup is all bent up, the pad doesn't stand a hope in hell of seating at the sides.
At which point the 'conscientious' mallet-setter will start beating the crap out of the sides of the key cups...and so it goes on.

There's so much wrong with this poor old soprano, and to be honest I dare not show it's just too appalling. Hulking great springs, barely any workable key height, keys that wobble in the wind...and the real tour-de-force is that this horn has soldered-on toneholes.
Couesnon soprano B keyOver a (long) period of time the solder that holds these toneholes in place deteriorates, through an electrochemical reaction. While they might not drop off completely (though it does happen) they will often spring a leak...usually at the rear of the tonehole. It's seldom effective to try to patch up these leaks, and the best course of action is to remove the toneholes and resolder them.
And on a horn this old it's practically a certainty that you'll find leaky toneholes...which indeed I did. Quite a few of them in fact.

Sadly this isn't the only example of such poor workmanship out there. Whilst researching a recent review on another vintage soprano I came across an auction on ebay that was showing a similarly mangled horn. Fat, squishy pads and a fresh coat of crappy lacquer over the orginal silver plate. I wasn't impressed, but didn't think any more of it...until this beast turned up on the bench about a week later.
Unfortunately there's not a lot you can do about such abominations - but you can at least make sure you don't buy one. I noted the auction described the horn as having been repadded (which is true...ish) and "mildly colour plated while restoring". Is this poor Couesnon from the same source? I can't say for sure - but the colour of lacquer over the silver plate was an exact were the evident runs and dribbles.

It put me in mind of the unfortunate Miss Masterson - a character in Goldfinger who met a grisly end by being covered entirely in gold paint.
But, unlike the golden lady, the Couesnon's not quite's just very, very ill.

This way

That just about wraps up the tour of the Black Museum for the time being - a small but stomach-churning selection of nasties, I'm sure you'll agree. Don't forget too that, for someone, these examples will undoubtedly be 'wallet-churning' too...
Feel free to drop by the Black Museum from time to time, where further horrors will be presented for your edificatory queasification.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015