Tech Topics: 
Interesting Questions . . .
Flex-Lite at work in alto body ...

Back to Q&A Topic Directory

Stuck Screws & Rods
Q.  I have just found your web site. Thanks for all the information. I have several screws which are stuck. Can they be unfrozen? What can I do to loosen them?
Thanks for your help. Joyce … PS: I will have to go back and print some of your other articles so I can reread them. Thanks!!!

A. Here’s the protocol for removing screws & rods:

1) Make sure you have a screwdriver head that fits the slot exactly & turn slowly & carefully, applying sufficient pressure towards the head of the screw that the screwdriver doesn’t slip & bung up the slot. Be sure to turn the screwdriver counterclockwise (duh) – but if you get a little motion going, a rocking back & forth, even within a very slight range, can help break up the cause of your sticking. A little corrosion dissolver may help (without prolonged soaking) when there’s some motion going on. It’s not unlike getting your car out of the mud, sand or snow. You can increase the leverage on your screwdriver by either gripping the handle with a small vice grip device, or if it has the fluted handles that accept a small wrench you can slip the wrench over the handle (sometimes the end near the shaft) for additional torque. Of course you need to be darned sure to apply sufficient pressure to the handle to keep the blade from slipping out of the rod or screw slot, causing damage. Remember that your torque is multiplied considerably with this sort of ‘cheater’ appliance, so don’t get too happy with your force. Also be darned sure the sax itself is held securely so it can’t move from the forces you are applying to the screw or rod slot. Wear gloves & eye protection when appropriate – and when in doubt, it’s appropriate. A small screwdriver blade can make a nasty cut if it slips under force.

2) Apply a corrosion dissolver (Ferree’s J88, WD-40, etc.), allow it to sit overnight, then repeat step 1. Keep in mind that not every corrosion source is the same, so trying two or more different corrosion treatments (alternately) may yield favorable results. J88 is great for rust & moldy corrosion, but isn’t as efficient on gummy residues as WD-40 — like when a horn was lubricated with vegetable oil (believe me, it happens).

3) Apply heat & vibration in addition to the corrosion dissolver. Heat the screw & post head with a small butane torch, then tap the post head with a light mallet as the head cools. Try turning the screw as in step 1. Repeat several times. If unsuccessful, apply corrosion dissolver, then repeat this step. Go over this process until you run out of patience or time. Persistence eventually pays off – usually … and time is your ally.

4) If you’ve run out of time & patience there are a couple alternate, decisive measures you can apply. Which you select depends on circumstances.

Option A) Saw through the rod (not for screws) at the slot end using a jeweler’s saw (thinnest blade available, like 4-0 or 5-0). You have to position the saw carefully so that the blade fits flush up against the post and cuts down in plane with the flat inside post facing. If you do the job carefully you won’t lose a lot of key ferrule material, though the key will likely need some swedging as part of refit & assembly. After you’ve sawed the rod through you need to bend the key upwards rather forcefully (too much though & you’ll be staring at a dislodged post or saddle in your hand) until it can be pulled off the rod (that’s still screwed into the threaded post). Some straightening may be necessary in order to refit everything. Now drive the slot end stub out of the one post with a small punch & use your curved nose pliers to work the screwed end out. Obviously, you’ll have to make a new rod. This method is preferred when working with a lacquered sax body because if you’re skillful (and a bit lucky) no resoldering will be needed. Of course if you have a key mounted in a saddle type post arrangement (like Buescher palm keys) this is the only practical option. Conn used separately mounted posts (no saddles), so you’re never forced into this process on a Conn.

Option B) Unsolder the screw end of the rod so you can work the threads loose. Often you will find that the threads weren’t the main issue, but that the rod was either bent or corroded at some point inside the ferrule, or maybe even stuck only at the slot end post. You will know where the rod is stuck by how easily the threaded end comes out of its post. At this point a little common sense can replace paragraphs of this text. Test some motions & figure it out (if you’re still stumped after some study, write ole Bear again). Once you’ve got the rod loose from the threaded post, see if you can slip the key tube off the rod and (still attached) post. If necessary use a small mallet & punch to loosen the rod up so you can slip it through the key ferrule & out of the opposite post end. If the rod is stuck at the slot end first work the key tube off, then grip the rod firmly with smooth jawed pliers to twist & remove it. Note that too vigorous an approach with the rod can break the other post loose, so take it easy – you’re holding all the cards now … play ‘em right & you’re gonna’  win. This method requires one resolder joint, but is overall much less invasive to the sax than the jewelers saw. Method B is preferred where you have a plated finish, since careful, properly cleaned up soldering work can be undetectable on plated horns. Choose carefully which end you unsolder (both with pivot screws & rods), keeping in mind the ease of solder cleanup and/or camouflage cover from other keys after you reattach the post. This method saves your rod, as long as it’s not so severely pitted from corrosion, bent or gouged up, that you can’t get a smooth fit inside the key ferrule anymore. 

If your stuck element is a pivot screw then option B is pretty much it unless you’re up to drilling out the screw & using a screw extraction device. Drilling out rods or screws is really the sort of thing that should be done by a fully equipped instrument shop. It requires drilling tiny precision holes into a screw head, then working a very small extractor tool into your hole. These minuscule extractors are very hard to find and quite expensive. Alternate tools that work as screw extractors are left hand taps or even left hand screws in the sizes like 2-56, 1-64, 1-72, etc., but these alternates are no easier to obtain than tiny screw extractors. Obviously one must use considerable care when drilling small steel objects in the vicinity of soft brass: Cuz one slip of the drill bit & you’ve got a nasty gouge to your brass – if not a hole – with which to contend. Of course you should only have to unsolder one end of the pivot mounted key, then use a tiny vice grip device to turn the screw in the post of the end still attached. In the end it’s best to avoid the drastic steps of either option A or B, if at all possible. 

There are other ways to go about removing rods or screws with buggered up heads, such as slotting the screw & post end at a right angle to the existing slot (jewelers saw again), but I view the resulting permanent scar to the post end as unacceptable considering the more cosmetically viable options. Such expedient measures might be justified if an instrument is not much of a looker, but weigh all the circumstances before performing an operation where the poor cosmetic result is both permanent & unavoidable.

I wish you the best of luck with those screws. If you need any clarification to my ramblings jes’ run it back by …

Additional Comments
Hopefully you won’t get much practice at these techniques if you have enough time & patience – and a bit of luck in choosing your carcass horns. Years ago I obtained a junker parts horn & practiced all these techniques each time we needed a contribution from the poor old cadaver. Everyone won’t have that luxury, but if you do, the increment by which confidence in your skills increases is worth the exercises.

The worst experience I can recall with stuck screws was on a Selmer Balanced Action alto we had in from a client to restore. The horn had literally been a clinical study in screw & rod removal techniques, so I had nothing to alert me that anything other than normal causes were affecting the screws attaching the low C key guard. We might normally work around a screw-on key guard in our resto work, but this particular one had some dents in the area, plus the guard itself wasn’t sitting exactly straight within the two mounting feet. Long story short, a quality result depended upon getting these two stuck guard mount screws out. We went through the protocol step-by-step — with no result whatsoever. This was a particularly long cycle resto job, so I even poured a couple inches if Ferree’s J88 into a container so I could immerse the whole key guard, two feet & its stuck screws (which had been unsoldered as a unit so the dent work could proceed) for a while. In total, I think these parts soaked in their J88 bath for maybe 6 weeks, with several intervening attempts at removing the screws. Finally, the time available for soaking was up, so something decisive had to be done. Since the screws were brass it was fairly easy to grind down the heads to get to the shafts for drilling an extractor hole. And since these are reasonably large (4-40, I believe) screws, drilling the hole wasn’t particularly difficult, either. So we drilled a small hole & inserted a tiny extraction device. The result was a bunch of chewed up brass fragments where the tool was ‘biting’, but absolutely no movement of any kind. So we expand the width & depth of the hole in the screw & try a larger extraction device: more brass scraps and still no movement. Now we have a small hole carefully drilled through the entire approximately 1/4 inch length of this brass screw, and a reasonably large screw extractor extending most of the way through the center of our screw. It’s ‘damn the torpedoes’ time — so as I begin thinking of where I can find replacements for a couple Selmer BA key guard mounting feet — I reach for the ‘beeg job’ tapping handle and cinch this key guard up tightly in a rubber jawed vice. Something is about to give. With brass scraps falling in all directions from the poor screw shaft, I press the tapping handle into the hole & turn with as much force as needed to drive the extractor through its hapless victim. I remember seeing the end of the extractor start to protrude through the back end of our hole in the screw & noting that the larger front end (this extractor sloped from maybe 1/16th inch up to about 1/8th inch over a run of maybe 1.5 inches) was beginning to severely expand the brass like a mushrooming hollow point bullet head. It was not a pretty sight — but then the screw broke loose & turned in its mount hole. When the grip released, the screw backed right out — effortlessly. Now screws this badly stuck from conventional sources don’t typically surrender immediately & completely. It’s typically a matter of grudgingly working ‘em loose through their entire length. This was curious — and so was the silver that coated what was left of the brass threads. Hmmm. Could it be that someone had long ago soldered in stripped brass screws rather than replace damaged screw and/or re-tap the holes? Further examination revealed that exactly what had happened, cuz when we heated the other stuck screw & turned while it was still at soldering temp it came right out! Talk about feeling silly. I bet we had heated those screws half a dozen times already, but had always done the tap & cool thing before trying to turn ‘em. The moral of that story is that idiots can do unfathomable injustice to saxophones, so if you have a screw or rod that won’t respond you might try thinking outside of the box before taking really drastic steps. If specifications are truly a summary of everything that’s ever gone wrong in a process, then I suppose we have  anew specification in our screw removal protocol: Try ‘em while they’re hot!

On the replacement screws:
You need to ask your supplier whether the screws they have are meant for use on the sax of s/n on which you’re working. Conn, for instance, used several different pivot screw designs over the years. The Conn pivot screw that uses a locking set screw has an unthreaded (smooth) area between two sets of threads so when the tiny lock screw meets the pivot screw body the end doesn’t get buggered up from pressing on threads. If you’ve never seen one of those screws they are different from any other sax screw ever made. 

If suppliers like Ferree’s don’t have the screws you need you may have to find ‘em off a junker horn, but even those are hard to come by. You may have to adapt a different screw, which may entail re tapping the threads. If you go that way be sure to get a longer pivot screw so it will go all the way through into the key nest, then file down the center threads so your set screws have a ‘friendly’ place to do their work. Keep in mind, too, that Conn used two different locking pivot screw designs – one with conical key-nest interface & one with a longer, cylindrical interface. The key ferrule ‘nest’ ends are machined to match the style of screw, so you can’t mix & match without additional machining to the key ends. There are both types of stock screws, so you need to know which fits your sax to have a shot at successfully adapting non original pivot screws.

A lot of people won’t sell vintage parts at all (including us) cuz the right one can be worth as much as a whole horn – if you happen to find the bargain sax that’s missing what you’ve already got. Applying that principle, the side Bb key off the junker Conn I mentioned above (practicing on) went on a classic silver Pan Am ‘Globe’ engraving alto that was missing it when we found the horn. The Pan Am cost $45 at a junk store, but sold for closer to a thousand after our resto – which was made possible by having the Bb key off that old junker already in hand. 

Back to Q&A Topic Directory

Phone Sax: 918-625-9773

email CyberSax