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Tips on Disassembling and Reassembling Old Conn Saxophones
(and maybe a few other brands & models)

a personal note from Bear to kids, village idiots and the mentally fragile on the subject of taking your sax apart: DON’T

Q.  I just read the ‘Cleaning and Polishing Saxophones’ section on your site’s Q&A area. I’ve been considering taking apart the entire sax, getting rid of the tarnish with Tarn-X, and then polishing with a silver polish to make it look new again. While in the process I would like to repad the keys, as well.  It was repadded maybe 5 years ago, but the low Eb/C keys have always had a small ripple in their tone which I have always adjusted by changing my embouchure. 

The serial number on my horn is 229xxx. It’s the silver plated version of a Conn New Wonder 2 (according to some pictures I saw at  It looks like a silver satin, not a really shiny silver.  There is a lot of tarnish mainly underneath the main left hand assembly and right hand assembly. My biggest concern with taking the entire instrument apart are the main right and left hand assemblies.  I’m pretty sure I can handle taking off the keys that are not tied to any others, but the stacks look daunting.  My biggest question is whether or not my horn is one that has a fairly simple assembly as you noted in the answer to the polishing question on your site. 

As far as removing the rod, then taking the key off, and moving the rod back into place.  Is this a fairly straight forward thing to do?  Is there a way to take the whole left hand assembly off in one large piece?  Or do I need to do it key by key cleaning what I can as I remove keys? Any suggestions would be most welcome. I appreciate any help you can give me. Thanks, Dave…

A. Let’s take one step at a time, my friend. Disassembling a sax for cleaning & polishing is daunting enough for a virginal saxophile. Leave the repad for another project once you’re more confident in your saxual prowess. A new set of pads over an existing set up won’t result in a playing saxophone, anyway. Let’s get the horn polished, then let your local tech work through your play issues. Besides, you’re probly gonna’ have more of ‘em when your polish project is done. Why? If you go through the entire polish process without damaging a single cork or felt bumper it will be a miracle akin to virgin birth. As an aside that might help address those low Eb/C issues let me refer you to our Q&A article on the purpose of — and proper uses of — the Conn neck tuner. Response issues such as low note gurgle are frequently attributable to improper use of a neck tuner, or to tuning problems, themselves. Always tune your sax to a known standard pitch source before you play (even casually) because saxophones can react poorly when the air column you introduce to their system is not what their design ‘expects’ it to be. Keep in mind that a saxophone is merely a machine for manipulating a vibrating column of air based on controlling the length of the air column and the micro pressures that result when air is forced through an open-ended tube. If this all seems mysterious & magical, it’s not. There is an area of theory in physics that deals with open-tube fluid dynamics. So now you have a good reason to pay attention in physics and science classes, huh? Pay attention in math class, too — especially geometry — if you want to really understand your saxophone better.

You just need to relax, take a deep breath, and get started with this disassembly.  Make sure you have a good set of precision screwdrivers before you start to work, and don’t try to force anything that seems stuck. You run across all sorts of disassembly issues on old saxophones, so err on the side of caution. Write to me again if you run into resistance. It is a good thing that your sax was apart for the repad a few years ago. With luck all the residual disassembly issues were solved by a (hopefully) competent tech at that time. It’s not very likely that rods or screws will have become stuck within a few years of a repad…save instruments used to bail water from dinghies & such (as I suspect was the fate of a Conn Cmel we received in here from Jamaica last year)

Create a neat organizer for rods & screws from a small cardboard box to make your sax life easier. Tape the box securely closed. Tape on scrap printer paper strips for your labels. Punch the holes with an ice pick or small scribing tool used by welders. With this organizer you can separate your rods & screws from their posts & keys — makes handling & polishing a lot easier when you don’t have to worry about rods sliding out of their ferrules, or pointy pivot screws catching & scratching on your person…

You will need a spring hook, too. The Ferree’s item F2 (shown above) is a fine tool, but a couple crochet needles will do in a pinch. For best results unhook your needle springs before you start turning screws. Look out for the one or two springs on some older Conns that fit through a hole drilled in the key (as opposed to resting against a hook fixture). These keys need special handling on reassembly, so mark them in some way that you can keep up with them for when that time comes. Why do I not just tell you how many & which keys on your Conn alto have spring holes rather than hooks? The answer is that Conn had at least four variations on its keywork between 1919 and 1930 – and all of these horns are grouped into that basket folks want to call “New Wonder”. You will note that I never use that term in my CS materials (not without quotes, anyway). That’s cuz the horns that folks want to group together under that term aren’t really the same — and I won’t foster the belief that they are. If you have doubts just go looking for a replacement part amongst a bunch of Conn junkers (like I’ve done so many times). You need lots of luck finding what you’re after. Conn constantly tinkered with its saxophones during the 1920s. That’s a fact we just need to accept and get on with life.

In the above pic you can also spot a pair of curved-nose pliers. These pliers have a smooth jaw bite surface that won’t leave marks on the things you grip with them. That smooth jaw is a major issue for any gripping tool you use when working on your saxophone. Smooth jawed pliers are a bit hard to find, but they are out here if you’re persistent. The curved nose is great for gripping the ends of rods so you can pull them out of sticky key ferrules, and these pliers are also capable of pressing a spring that has popped out of socket back into place (once you learn the proper way to do the job). Click on that picture to see it enlarged. You can take a sax apart & reassemble it with what is shown there. Read my key labeling to get hints on how to notate your own organizer. My labels relate to formal key names, but yours need only be capable of reminding you which parts go where. Do note that we identify upper & lower pivot screws, and that we insert the longer rods into the end of the box where their extra length is more manageable.

The pix below show standard stack key nomenclature — if you’re interested. Also shown below is a mandrel that’s useful for holding a sax body while you clean & polish it. Our mandrel is simply an unfinished wooden table leg that can be bought at home stores & lumber yards everywhere. The tapered end is covered with foam pipe insulation, held in place with duck tape (the miracle product made famous by The New Red Green Show on PBS). If you don’t have a neat woodworking table handy with its built-in wooden vices, just use a pair of large clamps to firmly hold your table leg to any (stable) surface you like.

(click to view pix full screen)

Now here’s the most comforting bit of news I have to share with you tonight, Dave: No two keys on your saxophone are exactly alike. The significance to you is that they won’t fit back on your horn in the wrong places. This is true of all saxophones, really. The only exceptions being that a few later horns with two-part side Bb & C have the pad cup portion of those assemblies that are very close, if not identical. If you aren’t changing pads your rim impressions will tell you what goes where. And if you are changing pads you can mark those two keys as to where they came from. On your old Conn alto that side Bb/C thingy isn’t an issue, though. Your side Bb is a single part type. The main point is that even if some keys may look alike to you (at an inexperienced glance), they’re not. There are a few reassembly traps & tricks I can share with you from my Conn experiences, though:

~ One secret to Conn success is to never completely remove those tiny set screws that hold your pivot screws in adjustment. Just loosen these little devils enough to get your pivot screws out, then run ‘em back in so they don’t escape. Even if you find one that you drop (we keep a huge magnet on a stick for such searches since I’m too old to crawl around on my hands & knees anymore), it is maddening to get it started back into its lil’ toady hole.
~ Another Conn assembly issue on alto & Cmel is that the actuator arm for your two part side C assembly must go back on before the upper stack keys. The reason is that there is not enough clearance between the lower end of your upper stack slave pad key and the upper post that holds the side C actuator arm to allow access to the pivot screw for your upper side C key mount.
~ Still another assembly issue on Conns with split bell holes (and on Conn stencils produced with dual left bell holes after about 1930) is in the octave mechanism. If you lay both parts (the one that has the thumb button and the one that has the neck actuator ring interface arm) in place, then insert the rod for your element with the button first, things will go much smoother. On some horns the rod for this button-bearing key will bind against either the actuator arm itself, or with those two little guide tabs soldered to the top of your neck receiver.
~ I’ll mention this last one for the folks that may be trying to put a 6M or 10M back together. Your low B & Bb need to go back on before the low Db, but you need to slip the low Db key in under your keyguard first (leaving it loose, but in approximate position). The low Db key won’t go back under the low B/Bb keyguard once those keys are in place unless you remove the guard itself. While that’s not impossible to accomplish, it’s a lot more trouble than simply following my advice on handling these three keys.

While I’m admonishing you, Dave, be sure to mark your pivot screws both as to the keys they fit, and with whether they came from the upper or lower end of the key (lower being the direction of the bow and upper the direction of the neck receiver). Why? Because key length, key use frequency and spring location/pressure cause each end of each pivot mounted key to wear in a certain pattern. The steel screws wear to some extent, too, creating matching wear patterns over time. This combination of wear patterns needs to remain matched to prevent balky key action and exacerbated wear patterns on your pivot-mounted keys that will result from mismatched screw/key interfaces.

You’ll find that if you remove your rollers from spatula keys your polishing will be easier – plus you won’t be risking clogging up the rollers with polish residue. Just be sure to use a screwdriver blade that fits your roller rod slots perfectly, and stop trying to remove a roller if its rod is obviously rusted stuck. In the case of stuck rollers just work carefully with your polishing techniques to minimize introducing polish residue into their workings. Rollers tend to get stuck rods because of the proximity of acid from your fingers, and because the porosity of MOP holds moisture. Unfortunately, rollers are all too frequently ignored during routine repads. The practical effect is that a 70 year old saxophone may have never had its rollers off — even though it’s been repadded several times. Of attending to such detail is excellence made, of course. Every repad/restoration includes removing all the rollers, servicing them, and assuring that they function smoothly. It’s something you need to do every time your sax is apart if you want trouble free spatulas action over the long run. And chances are that a roller you find stuck today wouldn’t be stuck if someone had taken it apart for cleaning & lubrication a couple times over your horn’s life.

You can safely do your polish work with leaf springs still attached to your keys, but if you take these springs off be sure to mark which keys they go on. Also be sure to corral those tiny spring screws so they don’t run off and hide from you. NEVER try to remove your needle springs, even if it’s tempting once you discover how polishing your sax body is a lot like messaging porcupines (which it is, by the way). If you encounter loose needle springs, that’s probably one of those things you will need to refer to your tech once this polish project is done. Mark them with their locations if springs fall out on you (which they might), and slip them back into place as you reassemble your saxophone. Be sure to note which direction the spring pushes (or pulls) before you get your keys in place around a loose spring. Why? Cuz some spring locations cannot be accessed with surrounding keys in place. Sometimes a spring seems loose when it is unhooked, but stays in place under tension. While that isn’t an ideal situation, it will work until you can get your tech to tighten the spring’s fit back to spec for you. Fitting springs requires special tools and a certain touch. It’s also quite dangerous in that you can launch a spring like an arrow (more precisely, like a dart) in the process of slightly flattening its large end so it will fit snugly once more. Trust me on this: I’ve pulled many such a dart from my flesh, or had the spring fly off into space on a Dick Chaney move (where it remains in an undisclosed location). “Now where did we put that big magnet I was talking about earlier?”, muttered ole Bear…

This epistle concentrates on the disassembly/assembly part of your project cuz that’s what you seemed least comfy tackling, Dave. I’ll leave the polishing strategy to you. Watch out for the springs and remember that less is always better when it comes to applying polish products to satin silver surfaces. And yes, take the whole horn apart before you start your polish work. Reassembly is a bit more challenging than disassembly (usually), but manageable – especially now that you are armed with the fruits of my many years experience working with old Conns. Promise me you’ll write me again before you do anything to that saxophone your instincts tell you is wrong, k?

Additional Comments
Kids: Make sure you discuss taking your saxophone apart with your parents before you attempt it, and NEVER take a saxophone apart that doesn’t belong to you. Bear’s gramma wielded a mean switch, which is exactly what you deserve if you violate this rule. You should even have to go out & cut that switch yourself…’nuff said on that.

While this topic specifically addresses certain Conn quirks & characteristics it can serve as a general guide for taking any brand of saxophone apart & then getting it back together. Many of the ‘gotchas’ in reassembly order apply widely to saxophones of similar design. The main thing when taking a sax apart is to be observant about what lies under, over and around the key you are working on. Adopting this global approach will help you scope out potential reassembly issues on other brands & designs. Generally, these assembly order quirks subside as saxophones grow larger, and are pretty much absent altogether on the straight sopranos. Curved sopranos, on the other hand, can be maddening to reassemble because of all the tight spaces and minuscule tolerances involved in their set ups.

Starting in the 1930s we see a paradigm change in general saxophone design philosophy. Newer saxophones have many more pivot mounted keys than their 1920s counterparts. There is a detailed discussion of this Conn design philosophy change in our article on the differences between Chu Berry & 6M Conn models. While the article relates to two Conn models, the design trends that started in the early 1930s spread rapidly to all the world’s saxophones — those that remained competitive in the musical instrument marketplace, anyway.

If you are working on a Buescher saxophone watch out for the high E key in your reassembly order. There is a good chance it will have to go back on before you install the upper stack keys. And if your sax (of any brand) is equipped with a front F key, the little rocker arm that runs from your front F button over to the high F key must go on before the high E pad is in place. Otherwise you risk damaging the high E pad while trying to insert the rod for your high F rocker arm.

These are NOT by any means all the reassembly order traps you are likely to run into. You are well apprised to watch out for them now, though, aren’t you? If you ever find yourself in an assembly order trap it is wise to just bite the bullet & remove the keys that are blocking your progress. Force and coercion have no place in putting a sax back together — certainly not one that you expect to play when you’re done. Staying observant is your best strategy for avoiding assembly order traps. Take it slow & easy, and think through reassembly steps thoroughly as you go. NEVER start a disassembly project on your saxophone where you have deadlines tight upon you to have the project completed…unless you are a professional tech, of course — or are seeking to validate your status as the alpha village idiot. :-)

Related article: Cleaning & Polishing Saxophones

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