The naked Grafton
my review of the Grafton
plastic alto I said "I reckon a repairer averages three
overhauls on these creatures; the first out of ignorance and sheer
curiosity; the second out of disbelief that any instrument can be
such a pig to repair; and the third just to be really sure that
the thing really exists and isn't just a terrible nightmare. The
truly masochistic (or perhaps forgetful) might tackle four."
So, having done three, how is it that I came to find yet another one of
these beasts on my workbench?
The client, Pete Thomas, tells
me that it was my idea to overhaul his Grafton. I, on the other hand,
having previous experience of these horns, can't imagine saying "Hey
Pete, your Grafton could do with a repad - let me have a go!" - but
as Pete is as honest a chap as the day is long I very much fear that he
may be right. In which case my reason for taking on a fourth Grafton overhaul
must surely come back to being forgetful or truly masochistic (I can't
remember which, which is a pain).
In any event I ended up putting myself through the pain and torture that
goes with the territory, and decided that it would be worth writing about
my experiences for two reasons. One, to share with interested parties
the inner workings of this unique instrument, and two - to have a handy
written reminder never to undertake such a project again.
I'll admit that it's taken me rather a long time (ahem) to complete the
job, and for the most part I've had some very good excuses...such as couple
of books to write and a pressing backlog of work.
I started well enough, with good intentions and grim determination - but
as the weeks rolled by I found it became harder and harder to steel myself
against the foibles of the horn's design, and I have to admit that there
have been times when I've resorted to some pretty feeble excuses to avoid
putting myself through the frustration of working on the Grafton.
Not having my 'lucky socks' on today was one, as was being unable to make
a cup of tea that was up to my usual standards (poor quality water, I
reckoned). Having 'a bit of a headache' was a common one - but in all
fairness five minutes working on a Grafton while you had a mild headache
would leave you with a raging migraine.
I wasn't the only one making excuses though - by the time I finally cleared
the backlog enough to allow the Grafton to take up all of my time (slightly
hastened by Pete ringing me up to tell me he'd booked a recording session
in which the horn was to be used), the skies darkened, the temperature
plummeted and the entire south coast of England was buried under a couple
of feet of snow.
The gods were on my side too.
Eventually I ran out of excuses and time, and got down to the very serious
business of making the Grafton a full-time priority.
I had a fresh pair of lucky socks on, the water had been tested and approved
- and the met office were forecasting a little light wind and a spot of
So what's all the fuss about?
Well, before a screwdriver can be taken to the horn there is a need for
some careful preparation.
What must be understood is that the mechanism of the Grafton is quite
unlike that of a standard saxophone. The main stacks are pivoted on rods
(one for the lower stack, two for the upper) and these in turn are held
in place by means of a pair of lugs that attach to bosses on the body.
You can see one of these lugs in the main photo, dead centre of the body...the
upper lug has been removed and would normally sit on the boss just below
the crook socket, to the left of the body octave key tube.
springs are coiled, rather like those found on trumpet water keys,
as opposed to a normal sax where the needle spring are wedged into
the pillars. Should you be unaware of these design 'features' and
merrily remove one of the lugs holding a stack in place and withdraw
the pivot rod, the keys will fall off the instrument and the springs
will go flying off across the room.
This is itself is something of a disaster - but assuming you were
able to find them all you'd then have to work out where they go.
This is a particularly nasty 'sting in the tail' - the springs aren't
completely interchangeable. Some have longer legs, other have longer
tails - and they're all individually tensioned. If you fit the wrong
spring to the wrong key and only find out about it once the instrument
has been reassembled, you'll very quickly fill a couple of swear-boxes.
If you manage to lose or damage a spring you'll have to make a new one.
Its not impossible, just time-consuming and fiddly - and you'll need the
correct gauge of spring wire. It's also handy to have a spring winding
tool, as found in many a brass repairer's workshop, for making water-key
Even better is to have some spare springs. I was fortunate enough to have
been given the remains of a Grafton some years ago after it had been dropped
- it came in very handy!
the first order of the day was to ensure that during the dismantling process,
each spring was carefully retained with its key.
The keywork also makes use of spacers. These are nothing more than plain
bits of tube that fill the gaps between adjacent keys. They're unlikely
to ping off into the wide blue yonder when the pivot rods are removed,
but keeping them attached to their adjacent key means fewer headaches
on reassembly as you try to guess which spacer goes where. Some can be
almost, but not quite, identical in length...and if you fit them in the
wrong place you'll end up having to completely dismantle a stack to correct
your error. As we'll see later on, this is not a good thing.
I came up with very simple method of covering both bases by threading
lengths of soft solder wire through the keys. This kept the springs and
any spacers neatly attached to the keys.
Lastly, I found it helpful to take snapshots of the action, both before
it was removed from the body and shortly after...laid out 'post-dissection'
as it were.
Such reference points proved to be useful while dealing with this unique
As with any overhaul the first port of call is the inspection of the
body. On a typical sax I'd check the body for straightness, look for any
dents or damage, check the pillars for straightness, alignment and wear
and just make sure that everything was where it was supposed to be.
Much of this is academic with the Grafton - it can't be bent (unless it
was made that way), it can't be dented...it would simply break...and there's
not a great deal you can do about the alignment of the fittings as they
don't really fit that well anyway. So in fact the tests are; is it all
there and is it all in once piece?
A very common problem is that of the bell brace detaching from the body.
This is usually the beginning of the end for these unique horns. Once
this joint breaks, and goes unnoticed, it puts a lot of strain on the
bottom bow joint...and when the bottom bow joint cracks off it usually
means the end of the horn.
It's possible to repair the bell brace, but it requires a specialist (and
rather poisonous) glue that welds the parts together. Using a standard
epoxy glue or a superglue is a waste of time - it'll hold for a while
before the acrylic simply shrugs it off.
that's checked it's on to the action.
It's here where the fun and games start. When the keys on a sax begin
to wobble it's for one of two reasons - the key barrels are worn through
use or they were not that accurately made in the first place. Fortunately
there is a technique called swedging (pronounced sway-jing) that compresses
and stretches the key barrels to take up the free play. It's a technique
that's very labour-intensive, and therefore expensive, but it's an effective
fix for a worn or badly made action.
The problem is that the technique relies on there being sufficient 'meat'
on the key barrels in order to get the tools on. On most horns this isn't
a problem, but there are some older designs where holes are drilled through
key arms and there's no barrel at all. There are techniques for dealing
with such designs, but the Grafton goes one better by making extensive
use of this design feature as many as three times on a single key.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the Grafton has another 'gotcha' up its
sleeve. Should you find a key barrel that looks like it needs a bit of
swedging, you might well find that the key barrel has a casting seam on
it. You could certainly get the swedging pliers around it, but the results
would be horrendous - the best you could hope to achieve is an oval key
the only way to deal with the problem of wobbly keys - and in the case
of the Grafton it's down to poor manufacture rather than wear - would
be to ream out all of the keys and barrels and fit oversized rod screws.
This would certainly ensure that the keys sat snugly on their pivots,
but it would be a complete waste of time.
This is because of the way the rods themselves are mounted onto the horn.
A typical sax has pillars - and a typical lower stack will have five or
more pillars on which the keys are mounted. Each pillar supports the rod
screw, which keeps it nice and straight and prevents it from flexing.
The Grafton has far fewer supports (it doesn't have pillars), the bottom
stack has just three and these themselves are by no means tightly fitted
to the body and aren't all that accurately drilled either. In short, the
whole action is almost 'suspended' on the instrument.
What this means in terms of getting the thing to work is that you can't
rely on a key cup coming down in exactly the same place each time. For
sure, it won't move far, but a fraction of a millimetre is enough to allow
the pad to leak.
Having worked out that the action is pretty much a lost cause, it's time
to consider the pads.
The original factory-fitted pads were notoriously spongy. There's a good
reason for this - a soft pad will compress slightly as you press the key
down, which causes you to press down rather harder than you normally would.
In so doing you are using the squishiness of the pad to compensate for
the play in the action. It means the horn will play, but it feels bloody
another reason why the pads feel so squishy, and that's because of the
way they're fitted.
Saxophone pads are normally held in the key cups by means of a glue of
some kind - typically shellac. Over the years there have been a few variants
on this method, the most notable being the 'Snap In' pads as fitted to
some Buescher saxes. This design consists of a small boss permanently
fixed to the key cup over which the reflector (or resonator) 'snaps' on.
In many respects the Grafton uses a similar system, but this time the
reflector is screwed into the boss. This method of mounting pads is exactly
the same as that used on flutes, just on a far larger scale. On the face
of it this shouldn't present too many problems - after all, the Buescher
Snap In pads work just fine. They're traditionally fitted without any
shellac, relying instead on the reflector to hold the pad in position.
This tends to make setting the pads a little trickier as many repairers
like to use shellac as a 'variable shim', allowing for small adjustments
to be made to the pad angle by melting the glue and forcing it into specific
areas of the key cup. Without this option other means for adjusting the
pad have to be used, such as shims (small pieces of paper carefully placed
in the key cup underneath the pad to raise certain areas of the pad).
This method should, in theory, work on the Grafton - but it's not that
Note the card disk fitted inside the key cup - it's really quite thick.
The pad is very thick too, easily the thickest pad I've ever seen on any
saxophone, bar those fitted to Adolphe Sax's original instruments. The
thickness of the card disk added to the thickness of the pad presents
quite a few problems with regard to setting the pads - not the least of
which is that it's practically impossible to get the pad warm prior to
levelling and seating it.
also helps to explain why the action on the Grafton feels so terribly
Here's a cutaway diagram that shows what's going on inside the key cup
when the pad is fitted.
The crucial part is that large air gap - it really shouldn't be there.
In order for a pad to work well, and to retain its seat for many years,
it should be firmly fixed and supported in the key cup. On a standard
saxophone the area occupied by the card disc and the air space would be
filled with shellac - though the pad would be sat deeper in the key cup
and the space between the bottom of the pad and the key cup would be very
much smaller than that shown here.
This would mean that when the key cup was pressed down against the tone
hole, the pad and cup would act as a single object, resulting in a nice
firm closure with a positive feel.
On the Grafton you have everything working against you. The thick, squishy
pad is bad enough - but as the key is pressed down and the pad makes contact
with the tone hole, the pad flexes as it's deformed and pushed back into
that air gap. This is what gives the horn's action its characteristically
You might be wondering why such a thick pad and the accompanying card
disk was necessary. It's all to do with the angle of the key cups. The
way in which the action is designed means that when the key cup is parallel
with the tone hole rim, there's quite a large gap. It's this gap which
determines the thickness of the pad.
You can change this angle (and thus the required thickness of pad) to
some degree on a normal horn by carefully bending the keys - but this
isn't an option on the Grafton for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the amount
you'd have to bend the key cups means that the cup would end up being
pushed too far forward and the pad would barely cover the tone hole -
and secondly, it's largely impractical to bend keys when they're not mounted
on the instrument...and you'd have to be spectacularly brave to attempt
to bend a key on a Grafton while it was fitted to the body. The acrylic
body is very fragile indeed, and the amount of leverage required to bend
a key cup arm will be more than enough to snap off the action mounting
So this leaves the repairer having to work with the given pad thickness.
The whole point of taking on this job in the first place was to improve
the feel of the horn, so the air gap would have to go and the pads would
need to be rather firmer than those originally fitted. There are no pads
of the required thickness made these days, so they'd all have to be backed
up with thick card...but this time the card would have to cover most of
the pad cup base to ensure that the pad lay flat and completely supported.
I made the decision not to use shellac. It would have had made the job
easier, but I wanted to retain as much of the horn's originality as possible.
I chose a medium-firm pad for the job. This decision was based on the
fact that it would be almost impossible to use heat to set the pads -
by the time the cup had taken on enough heat to get through a thick layer
of card and a thick pad, the lacquer on the key would have been a charred
mess. This means the pads would have to be cold seated...so they'd need
to be firm enough to stay flat once levelled, and soft enough to take
a seat without heat.
Too firm and the pads simply wouldn't cope with the approximate nature
of the build quality, too soft and they wouldn't retain a seat without
some heat behind them first.
process of setting the pads was quite complicated. First, the total
pad thickness had to be achieved. Artist grade card was used for
the backing - this type of card is composed of many thin layers
which can be peeled away as required. It's also very dense, which
helps to eliminate any compression over time. The key was then fitted
to the instrument and the spring set, at which point the pad could
be ironed and checked for level. Any further adjustments required
the removal of the key and the spring - and in some cases the supporting
lugs too. As you can imagine, this proved to be very tedious and
Once the pad had been levelled it could be seated. This would affect
the pad height - not by much, but easily enough to create a leak.
This means removal of the key again and reshimming as required,
followed by reseating.
It became apparent that the amount of flex in the action varied depending
on how many keys were fitted and sprung at any one time. On a normal saxophone
you can set each key individually - but with the Grafton having rather
less support for the rods, and a bit of play in what supports it had,
the only way to ensure as much accuracy as possible was to assemble the
entire stack each time you wanted to set an individual pad. This is where
using shellac behind the pads would have been a boon, enabling small adjustments
to the pad level on the fly. It was at this point where I really began
to question the notion of adhering to the original specifications...
up the action is an unusual process. The stacks are regulated by
means of screws, as can be seen in the photo above and to the right,
which have to be turned with the aid of a small spanner. All very
It's not actually a bad method of regulating the action - modern horns
often use small screws to adjust the internal regulation (the relationship
between connected keys, as in the photo above), and the Selmer BA had
a similar system for adjusting the external regulation (the height of
the keys, as in the photo on the right).
The big problem is that once the bell keys, which house the external adjusters
for the right hand stack, are fitted to the horn there's no easy access
to the internal adjusters underneath the stack key arms. Even if you could
slip your spanner in underneath the pads, it's very difficult to get the
spanner over the nuts...and there's always something in the way that prevents
you from turning the screw. This means having to be extra sure that the
internal regulation is properly set up before the external adjusters are
All good and well in theory, but every overhauled horn will need further
adjustments after the play-testing period...and in the case of the Grafton
this means dismantling half the horn to do so.
left hand key stack works on much the same principle.
There's one internal screw adjuster (for the A key) and a tab for the
B key (which can be seen just behind the front top F key pearl).
Again, the external regulation relies on a set of screws that are affixed
to another part - in this instance the upper stack key guard.
This isn't a particularly stiff component, so you can imagine how hard
it is to achieve any kind of accuracy with the regulation when the guard
keeps flexing. It all gets a bit 'approximate' - and it's no wonder the
horn was originally fitted with squishy pads...it must have solved an
awful lot of problems with the regulation. Get it about right, and rely
on excessive finger pressure to take up the inevitable discrepancies.
Fortunately, the internal adjusters are accessible when the guard is fitted...so
there's a lot less swearing involved when you find you need to tweak the
left hand stack regulation a little.
By far and away the most problematical aspect of working on the Grafton
is doing 'spot tweaks'.
Let's say you're working on a standard saxophone - you've assembled the
horn but now you're not that happy with the tension on one of the springs.
Not a problem, you just reach for the springhook and adjust the spring
You can't do this on the Grafton. There's limited access to the springs
once they're fitted - the best that you can do is maybe slacken them off
a touch by carefully pushing against the spring tail while in situ, but
for anything else you'll have to remove the spring.
this will mean removing most of the action...and sod's law always
dictates that the spring you want to adjust is slap-bang in the
middle of the key stack - just like the one on the side C key cup
There's a double-whammy on this key stack, it's composed of two separate
stacks. The upper rod holds the main keys and the lower rod holds the
side trills and octave key pad. When assembled, some of the upper stack
springs rest on the lower stack barrels - which presents a major headache
if you need to get at anything on the lower rod.
There's no point in even attempting to remove the lower rod on its own...you'd
never get it back in place without removing the upper rod (and all the
keys). It's even risky to remove one of the lugs - if the rods move even
slightly out of line the springs will come unseated...and you'd have to
take the entire stack apart to get them all back in place. This isn't
So here's the trick. You'll need to remove both lugs - but before doing
so the barrels are 'wired' together with a couple of pipe cleaners. This
prevents the stacks from moving apart and keeps the springs located.
A spare rod is inserted into the stack you wish to work on - in this case
it's the lower stack and the spare rod is being fed in from the left.
As it's inserted it pushes out the proper pivot rod...up until it reaches
the key you wish to remove, at which point you withdraw the proper rod
a little further and hey presto - a single key pops off!
The spring can now be tweaked and the key reassembled. Once in position
the proper rod is pushed back in, which pushes out the spare rod. Neat,
It's not quite plain sailing though, as you have to fit that coil spring
under tension. You can't get in afterwards and set the spring, so a fair
amount of fiddling, cursing, effing and blinding is required... and you
have to be careful not to move the stacks around too much. It's still
a lot less work than having to remount the entire upper half of the horn.
the horn is all back together and blowing as well as its able, it's time
to sit back and take stock.
It's often said that it's hard to find a repairer who's willing to take
on one of these unique horns, and this article will perhaps go some way
to explaining just why that may be the case.
Saxophones, even the best of them, aren't precision machines. They're
full of compromises - both in the acoustic design and in the manufacture.
To be honest they simply don't need the level of accuracy demanded by,
say, an engine or a clock - but they do have to be well-built enough to
withstand the rigours of being played.
If you've browsed any of my reviews you'll have seen that I often pick
up on build quality issues - pointing out where defects and flaws may
affect reliability and suchlike...and if the Grafton was being built today
it's a safe bet that it would get a very scathing review in terms of its
The keys are poorly built (just look at that offset hole drilled in the
Eb key above), the action is poorly mounted, the spring system is a Heath-Robinson
affair...and absolutely no concession at all has been given with regard
to maintenance and repair.
The feel of the action is mediocre at best. The coiled springs have very
little snap to them, the keys flex when you press them and it's virtually
impossible to balance the springs in situ.
Putting a set of good quality pads on the Grafton really showed up the
limitations of the engineering. If you blow a horn and encounter what
feels like a leak, what do you do? You press harder on the keys. It's
a perfectly natural reaction. If you do that on the Grafton, the keys
flex, and it leaks even more. The original squishy pads would have hidden
this flaw in the design...which is perhaps another reason they were fitted
in the first place.
And then there's the body itself.
be fair this is probably the best-designed part of the instrument.
It's unfortunate that the material chosen turned out to be so brittle,
but then that's what was around at the time the horn was built.
As you can see on the right, when they break - they really break!
That aside, the body is quite well-built. The tone holes are neat and
tidy, the way the action fits on is really quite ingenious (even if it's
less than satisfactory in terms of stability and accuracy) and there's
absolutely no denying that it's a real looker. This is, essentially, why
the Grafton has made it into the hall of fame rather than being a mere
footnote in the annals of saxophone history. It's unmistakable, it oozes
art deco style - it's the archetypal loveable rogue.
And what of the sound?
Newcomers to the concept of the plastic saxophone often make the mistake
of thinking that it will sound, well, plasticky.
Far from it - it sounds like a saxophone...like one made of metal.
It has its own tone, to be sure - just as any sax does - and I suppose
the best description of it would be 'slightly fuzzy'. It's at this point
where devotees of the 'material makes a difference' point of view would
say "Aha! That's because it's made of plastic!"
It's understandable, but it's an argument that falls a bit flat on its
face when you point out that many plastic-bodied instruments such as clarinets,
flute and recorders tend to sound rather brighter in general than their
wooden or metal counterparts. Of course, this has nothing to do with the
plastic...it's down to the design of the bore.
In fact the Grafton is a rather good demonstration of how little body
materials matter when it comes to tone.
Consider the following; if you accept that material makes a difference
then there ought to be a very noticeable difference between the tone of
the Grafton and that of a standard brass saxophone. But there isn't -
which means that the difference between one alloy of brass and another
will be far, far smaller...and the difference a coat of lacquer or plating
will make will be even less.
But you can make up your own mind - and to help you, here's a Youtube
link to the Grafton's owner, Pete Thomas, blowing it side-by-side
with a more traditional horn.
If you own a Grafton alto and would like it repaired, it's not worth
dropping me a line. I can tell you right here and now that the answer
will be an emphatic, cast-iron, gold-plated, hand-embroidered, fully authenticated
and genuine "No!"