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Stencil Saxophones
Q.  I recently purchased a C Melody With the engraving “Harry M Curtis, Lynn Mass.” on the Bell and “45746  Low Pitch” on the back.  It was cheap and I plan to overhaul it. I never heard of this Brand before.  Do you have any info on this company or the possible manufacture date?

A. That’s a stencil, meaning someone had it built by one of the major manufacturers with their name on it – and possibly to some cost spec that might change the features somewhat from the builder’s main line instruments. The most common stencilers were (in order of likelihood) Buescher, Martin, Conn and Hilton. I’ve never seen a King stencil, but there may be some. Both Martin and Buescher will have the serial number written in a slight curve or arc. Buescher tone holes are straight and cut off even at the top rim, while Martin used a fabricated tone hole assembly that has a beveled (inward sloping) top rim. This makes distinguishing these two brands rather easy. Conn stencils almost always have a 5-digit serial number preceded by the letter ‘P’ and written in a straight line. Conns also may have a letter above the s/n, such as C, which indicates a C pitch instrument. There is usually a letter ‘L’below the Conn s/n, which signifies ‘Low Pitch’, meaning modern A440 tuning. The others usually have the words written out. Holtons can be tough to ID because they used the arc s/n and have straight tone holes, however their tone hole assemblies are soldered on (earlier models), whereas Buescher’s are extruded or ‘drawn’. You might want to read our article on tone holes.
Additional Comments
We obviously can’t date an instrument until we know the manufacturer. Even then, the serial number sequences on stencil horns did not always follow that of the builder’s regular line, It appears that sometimes the serial numbers were either specified by the ‘stencilee’ or perhaps the builders chose to assign different numbers, perhaps when the spec to which these instruments were built made them substantially different from the regular line. Many stencil horns do not have full keywork like the regular line. The front alt F is frequently left off very early instruments and some don’t have things like the forked Eb or G# trill common on saxes of the early days. Cosmetics are all over the map, from very plain — even without key pearls — to extremely fancy. Lyon & Heally (the harp people) had their stencils built with extra engraving and many have extra touches of class like gold plated keys against satin silver bodies — beautiful instruments. Of course it’s a safe bet that most C-Melody saxes were built in the 1920s. We have a complete article on C-Melodies accompanying our feature on the Conn Artist model instruments that may be of interest to our many friends who are rediscovering these wonderful saxophones. Stenciling is a very common practice throughout business, though it was used in earlier times for different reasons. Today, we are very familiar with ‘house brands’, perhaps the most familiar of which are the Sears lines called ‘Silvertone’ (musical instruments and playback devices), or Kenmore (household appliances). In the early part of the 20th Century advertising media was largely under developed, so a stenciler that had a recognizable regional or local name had superior marketing leverage to sell saxophones locally versus the builders themselves.

Stencil Saxophone Quality
Q.  Any insight into the quality of vintage stencil saxes from around the 20′s? Mark …

A. I don’t know that ‘quality’ is the word I would pick in order to distinguish between the various stencil saxes of the 1920s. That’s because the concept of cutting back on quality by using thinner metals and cutting corners by changing processes & using workers of lower skill wasn’t on the radar screen back then. A stencil sax from the 1920s would be from the same body tube as the branded line, though the keywork might not include ‘extras’ like the front F, G# trill or fork Eb. I say ‘might not’ because
these stencils were made to a cost spec, and depending on the priorities of the stencilee, the instrument could have either less or more features than the branded horns of a builder. Lyon & Heally (the harp people), for instance, ordered full featured, highly decorated saxes that rivaled the top line of the stencilers. L&H stencils are almost always silver plated, and frequently have gold plated keys and gold inlaid engraving. Harwood, on the other hand, ordered mostly brass finish horns with less than full keywork and often not even pearled finger touches. The underlying horn in each case, however, is basically the same as far as tone quality and mechanical function.

Conn did not generally offer features like rolled tone holes or neck tuners on stencil saxes, but the underlying horns have the same body tube and keywork. Conn also didn’t offer the straight neck C-Melody generally as a stencil. Instead you usually see the serpentine neck models in Conn stencils. With Conn though, you never say ‘never’, and I have seen one straight neck Conn C-Melody with rolled tone holes & neck tuner that did not bear the Conn name.

In general, the quality & functionality of 1920s stencil saxes follows that of the builder’s branded line. That changed in the early 1930s though. After the U.S. builders had gone through their re designs in order to meet the Selmer challenge, they no longer built stencil saxes from their leading designs. Starting in the early 1930s you see stencil saxes with the body & keywork of the older designs, modified to accept a bell with two left tone holes for the low B & Bb. At first glance these saxes look like their
current branded counterparts, but they are mechanically different. Even here, I still would not use the word ‘quality’ to make a distinction, because the stencil horns were built as well as that design ever was. They just did not have the full array of current features. If you think the 1920s designs were obsolete and died out long ago, consider this: The Conn ‘Shooting Stars’ model of the 60s & 70s is a ‘Chu Berry’ with two left bell holes, and the early Selmer Bundy is a True Tone with left bell holes.

You have to get into the late 1950s & 1960s before you see thinner metals & pressed components that are obviously less sturdy than their vintage counterparts. At that point I would agree that quality was lower in both stencil saxes and in some of the branded lines.

Additional Comments
We get asked a lot whether the vintage saxes from the 1920s-30s-40s are ‘professional’ models. The concept of ‘Student’, ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Professional’ model instruments is relatively new, developing sometime after W.W. II. Until about 1930 there were the branded horns and the stencils, all of which were the best the builders could muster. Beginning in the 1930s the older designs continued to be produced (as discussed above) along with new and greatly improved instruments, but all these designs had at one time been the builders’ best. These early saxophones were designed to perform to the individual musicians’capabilities, and if you have any doubt that a 1920s Conn can keep up just take a listen to the work of Leon ‘Choo’ Berry from the links below (BTW, we’ve come to write the name ‘Chu’, but the man was actually called ‘Choo’by his contemporaries).

Chu’s ‘A’ Train Solo Chu Berry Jam Chu’s ‘Jive’ Solo

Between the late 1930s & the 1950s Conn, Buescher & Martin each introduced dressed down versions of their stencil lines and began to target them to the school band market. You will recognize these models as ‘Pan American’, ‘Elk Hart’and ‘Indiana’, respectively. Today these are some of the more sought after, lower priced vintage saxes by people in the know, and many music educators & professionals seek out these saxes for their own children to play. The reason is simple: they are simply dressed down examples of proven saxophone designs. Unfortunately, that’s far from the case with today’s ‘student’saxophones. In fact, the distinctions between ‘Student’, ‘Intermediate’& ‘Professional’ models are virtually meaningless because there is no objective standard that applies so that we can distinguish between the classes. A model is whatever the marketer wants to call it, with only price — the most unreliable standard of all — on which to make a determination. 

Seek out a great vintage sax if you want to be sure you are getting a timeless design of top quality — and a fantastic value. Unless you are willing to spend the really big bucks on a new horn — and restrict yourself to only a handful of top drawer names — you are quite likely to shell out an inflated price for a horn you may not even be able to resell at less than half what you paid. Vintage saxes, on the other hand, will make you money if you take proper care and maintain them — so make a sound investment …

Why can’t I just look up who made my stencil saxophone on a list?
Q.  I recently found a long list of stencil saxophone names cross referenced to saxophone builders at a link [link deleted to protect the innocent] on a web message board. From what it says, one of my saxophones isn’t what you told me it was when I sent you pictures. What should I believe? Andy…

A. Lists attempting to quantify very complex issues by nature mislead as often as they help. If I wanted to take the time I could write you several pages of exceptions & amplifications to what is on that list you saw. The only way to approach the subject of identifying stencil saxophones is see the horn itself, or some good pictures of it. Absent that, it’s better to give people the tools with which to ID these horns as opposed to a list of what one of us – or a few of us – have seen. For instance, Conn never used saddle mounted tetter-totter keys. Buescher, Conn & Martin each have distinctive lyre mounts. Both Buescher & Holton neck screws tighten from the left, while Conn & Martin tighten from the right.

Caveat: be sure that parts like lyre mounts & neck receivers haven’t been replaced or repositioned.
(click to enlarge)

With info such as that you can help people. With lists, you set folks up to trip over the exceptions – and once put in writing, these things tend to become viewed as fact. To Wit: innumerable Holtons bearing the Gretsch name have been passed off as Conns because of these lists. Being accurate gets serious when you discover you’ve paid Conn prices for a Holton … 

And perhaps an even more ubiquitous example of falsely attributing stencil saxes from the 20s-30s-40s-50s-60s to Conn is Orpheum. Now it may be that Conn once made saxophones stenciled under that name, but they certainly are NOT the sole source of such instruments. To wit: A rash of rolled tone hole saxes under the Orpheum name that have two right bell holes. Anyone worth their reeds that tells you Conn ever made a RTH sax with two right bell holes certainly wants to avoid any sort of standard drug test. If a sax has two right bell holes you can scratch Conn off the list — no matter where you happen to read the information. Didn’t happen. The first Conns with two right bell holes weren’t made until the 1980s …
Additional Comments
Buescher made ‘Elk Hart’. The engraving will have an elk’s head inside a heart outline. The name ‘Elkhart’ can appear as the principle name on other builder’s horns (Martin is one). Wurlitzer didn’t make saxophones. Yes, Holton did make some Lyon & Heally saxes. Silvertone is the Sears house brand for music products (they were made by the lowest bidder). Holton made some Gretsch horns. Vito can be LeBlanc, Yanagisawa, Yamaha or undetermined Taiwanese firms. Heimer is often seen on saxes made in China (which brings up the sad subject that many of the old dependable saxophone brand names have been sold or licensed to people that today make Oriental junk instruments under them). That’s just off the top of my head after briefly scanning the list referred to by Andy. The thing that makes these lists so dangerous is that much of the information might be true, which lures one into buying in on the bogus stuff, as well.

In general, be wary of what you read on the web unless you can trace it back to a competent source. There are idiots who may have taken one or two old horns apart & have projected those pitiful experiences onto the whole of vintage saxdom. Ditto lists that purport to tell you what your horn is worth or that attempt to reduce complex subjects like who made what stencil sax to a simple table where you can look up any sax that comes your way. There are no vintage saxophone cook books. The recipes are too fraught with substitutions and exceptions. If you look closely at who participates on the various message boards you’ll see conspicuously absent the guys that really know. That’s cuz they’re bizy working on horns and answering the questions of folks that come directly to them for one-on-one advice.

Check the details: octave mechanisms, neck braces, left pinky clusters, lyre mounts, key guards, tone hole engineering, and location of special keys like the front fork Eb on this Peddler made by Martin all can provide excellent clues. 
(click to enlarge)

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