Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals


I bet, dear readers, that you're thinking this is going to be yet another article about some whizz-bang gadget that claims to turn a beginner into Stan Getz (price 250, money back if not completely fooled) - but you'd be wrong. Very wrong indeed. In fact it's about boots. Now although I undoubtedly have a lot to say on a wide range of topics, I do tend to like to keep the articles in this section at least vaguely related to the daily goings-on in and around the workshop - and I shall not disappoint you. Just bear with me while I set the scene.

For a number of years now I've suffered with dodgy feet. Nothing terrible serious really, just a spot of arthritis in my big toes.
Heaven only knows where it came from, but I suspect it's down to the wearing of rock and roll boots for many years (and not, as I told the doctor, from kicking children and dogs). Yes, I have suffered for my art.
What this means is that every step I take is accompanied by a small twinge from each foot. It's bearable, but a long day on my feet will take its toll - and of an evening you'll find me waddling around the house like a grotesque parody of Charlie Chaplin crossed with Frankenstein's monster. It's not a pretty sight. Funny, admittedly, but not pretty.

I put up with this state of affairs for many years until I discovered that wearing proper walking (or hiking) boots helped to alleviate the pain somewhat - and with the demise of my last pair I was in need of some replacements...but what to get?
Previously I'd been happy enough to stroll into town and buy a pair from the local outdoors shop - one of a chain of stores that sell a variety of low to midrange gear that's good enough for the weekend warrior - cheap tents and chunky shoes, in other words - but as the shop closed down some time back I had to look further afield.
So I decided to bite the bullet and go to a 'proper' outdoors shop - one where they sell the sort of kit you might need if you were, say, planning to scale Mount Everest or walk around the equator. And I knew two things; they'd undoubtedly have what I needed, and it would inevitably be expensive. I wasn't wrong.

There's a certain joy to be had when shopping at this level - sure, you're paying top dollar, but you're getting top service and heaps of you might as well make the most of it.
Which I did. I must have been there a good two hours, prodding and poking various boots, umming and ahhing and generally clomping around with a determined look on my face. The shop assistant was top-notch - nothing was too much trouble. When asked what I'd like to try, I replied "Everything" - to which he responded with "Not a problem at all". He meant it too, and before long I was surrounded by boots of every size and shape.
He needed to know what sort of terrain I was intending to use the boots on - was I planning a spot of fell walking, or maybe some mountain approach trekking? Perhaps some hill walking, or subtropical backpacking? So he seemed a bit taken aback when I said I'd be happy if I could just walk from the car to the pub without wincing. I soon cheered him up, however, by telling him that if he could find me a pair of boots that I could walk in without pain, I'd buy matter what they cost.

I learnt a few things too, the most surprising of which was that I'd been wearing boots that were two sizes too small for me. That came as quite a shock, I can tell you - but the foot measuring gadget doesn't lie. It measures your feet, makes an allowance for the thickness of your socks, and then makes a further allowance for movement. I was sceptical, I'll admit, but after a brief argument, some more measuring and a statement from the shop assistant that went along the lines of "It's not that your old boots were too small, it's more that they weren't big enough" - which struck me as being very Zen - I ceded the point.
I also had a practical demonstration by way of donning a pair of boots and then stomping down a handy slope. I've seen many things in a shoe shop down the years, but never a built-in slope. Apparently, if your toe touches the end of the boot when doing this, you need bigger boots.

Well, we got there in the end, and best of all they're black. This is a major plus-point for me. Most walking boots are an unattractive shade of mud brown...and those that aren't are nearly always decked out with luminous stripes or flashy logos, which are probably designed to make people look at your boots. Which I now tend to do. After having spent so much time trying the things on, I can spot a Brasher at 30 paces and a pair of Sportivas at 75. I can also sneer at the ones that cost less than mine, and give the faintest of nods to anyone wearing a pair that cost more.
It's like car snobbery, only a lot cheaper.
Anyway, I wanted a pair that could look smart enough to wear on a gig...and because I didn't want to look as though I'd walked to the gig, I needed two pairs. One for work and one for best. I saved that last bit of info until last - just so's I could say "These are great...I'll take two pairs" to the shop assistant and watch his face light up (and at around £200 a pair, it lit up a treat).

They also had a 'wear them around the house for a fortnight and bring them back if they fail to please' policy. This makes a lot of sense given that you need so spend a bit of time with a pair of new boots to really suss them out - but as they were a considerable improvement over what I'd been wearing, I chose to don a pair straightaway and set off out of the shop.

Well, with hindsight I realise that was a bit of a mistake - because two days later I was hobbling around in agony.
Nothing to do with the boots, as such, it's just that the arthritis means my big toe joint is a bit swollen...and it had been rubbing on the top of the boot. This is why you need to 'wear them in' - to allow time for the leather to stretch and better conform to the shape of your feet...but I figured it'd be years before the top of the boot wrapped itself snugly around my lumpy toes.
Which is when I hit upon the idea of helping them along a bit.

My workshop's full of tools used for manipulating metal; I've got bars and rod, dent balls of all shapes, sizes and materials, pliers, hammers, mallets...and an assortment of oddly-shaped bits of wood...all of which allow me to remove dents in horns from places where the sun don't shine.
What I needed to do was just stretch the top of the boot a little over where the toe joint sat.
So I lined up a selection of dent balls, popped a curved dent bar in the vice and screwed a ball on it, took off one of my boots and began to carefully work the 'toe box' of the boot over the dent ball...

And that's when a client appeared at the door of the workshop.
Talk about bad timing. This chap was bringing in a fine Selmer BA for a major service. We'd spent quite some time exchanging emails about this job - discussing options, tweaks, mods and setup. This isn't uncommon, and although I have the luxury of having something of a reputation, I still realise that clients need to be reassured that you know what you're doing, and that you're not going to either wreck the horn or present them with a bill for several thousand pounds at the end of the job.
There's also a personal aspect. For many players their horn is their pride and joy - and may well have been the pride and joy of a relative, passed down over the years from one musician to another. Handing such a thing over to a guy you've never met before and whose work you've never seen (even though you might have heard of it) is bound to be a little traumatic.
I suppose you could say that a reputation speaks for itself - but just like my boot shopping trip, when I'm paying top dollar I want more than a bit of paper that says "We know what we're doing" written on it.

So there I was, one boot on, the other placed over a dent ball, carefully working the toe box - and there was the client, stood in the doorway, holding his prized Selmer in its brown case.
There are a number of ways to deal with a situation like this - the first of which is to play the deadpan card. Act like nothing is unusual, carry on working, perhaps punctuating your actions with a 'I'll be with you in just a moment" - as though this is precisely the sort of thing you would expect to see going on in any woodwind repairer's workshop. Or you could play the humour card, though that relies on being able to come up with a witty quip off the cuff...but there aren't that many that spring to mind that involve a boot and a dent ball. I'd have been fine with the addition of a walrus or a nun, and, at a pinch, a coach party from Wigan - but with just a boot and a dent ball, I had nothing.
In the end it was the client who beat me to it with "Doing a job for Boots Randolph then?"

Inspired...utterly inspired.

And the boots? Absolutely brilliant - I even bought another pair.


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