Tech Topic: Saxophone Tone Holes . . .

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Tone holes are arguably the single most critical element in saxophone design. Their size & placement are the major determinant of pitch, and they are highly influential on tonal characteristics. The lip or edge of the tone hole, of
 course, makes contact with the pad to form a seal. Thus the tone hole lip design influences a saxophone’s potential
     to leak and, indirectly, it’s pad life. Two basic techniques have developed for producing tone holes on the
                       saxophone, each with its distinct advantages & disadvantages: 

Soldered Tone Holes
Extruded or Drawn Tone Holes
Holes are cut in the sax body & a separately fabricated tone hole assembly is soldered into place. Tone holes are extruded or drawn from the material of the sax body & the tone hole itself is formed from the same piece of metal that comprises the body.
Pros:  Flexible hole & lip design possibilities
Easier repair of heavily damaged areas
Cons: More expensive to construct
Extra care must be taken when doing solder repair work near the tone holes


Pros:  Single piece construction has greater strength & structural integrity
Lowest cost method currently available*
Cons: Design limitations on possible configurations
More difficult to recover from severe damage



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 Perhaps the most recognizable soldered tone holes are found on the Martin saxes, where a beveled design with a slightly flattened lip allows for excellent sealing characteristics. Notice the wide indention where the pad seats onto this Martin tone hole. The beveled design doubtless influences the Martins’ distinctive tone. 

The Holton Rudy Wiedoeft model from the 1930′s was among the most intricately engineered saxophones of its time. Features included soldered straight tone holes. Note the rims are quite tall and have a thicker wall than the straight, extruded tone hole of the Reynolds sax just below. The thicker Holton rims offer a wider seating surface for the pads to aid the seal & increase pad life.

The typical *straight, extruded tone holes as found on this French built Reynolds sax have a thinner rim, the same or a little less in thickness as the metal from which the sax body is made. This thin pad seating area may initially seal well, but will eventually wear a deeper groove into the pad than a wider seat design. Sticking is more likely and slight mis-alignment will cause the pad to no longer match the tone hole. Pads which normally remain closed under spring pressure may eventually wear through from constant contact with the sharper seating surface. This design is predominant today because of the low production cost.

Inside views: Left, Definite rim is visible on inside of Martin soldered tone holes; Right, Reynolds extruded tone holes make smooth turn from body into tone hole. 


Conn developed an alternative to the sharp-edged, extruded tone hole, by rolling the edge of the drawn tone hole opening over toward the outside into a rounded shape. This rolled tone hole design presents a wider surface for the pad to seat against, yet the rolled, top-most portion of the tone hole surface (though narrow enough to form a seal) makes a gentle imprint into the soft, thin pad leather. The rounded imprint does not severely cut into the pad, promoting pad life. The rolled tone hole was produced beginning about 1920, and  the process was abandoned to reduce cost in 1947. Instruments with rolled tone holes are widely regarded as Conn’s best playing saxophones, and, arguably, some of the finest saxophones ever produced.

It is worth mentioning that the German firm, Keilwerth, has developed a hybrid method where tone holes are extruded from the sax body material, then a rolled lip is soldered onto the straight-cut top. Labor cost is higher than when leaving the tone hole rim straight, but less than that of jigging & soldering the complete tone hole assembly into place. This Keilwerth solution also addresses the issue of damage repair in that a new rolled ring can be soldered onto the tone hole should the original be damaged.  This process preserves the favorable sealing & pad life properties of the rolled lip design  at a cost savings over other rolled tone hole production methods. Keilwerth still produces all its pro saxes with rolled tone holes.



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