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Advanced DIY Repair Issues
We frequently collaborate on sax resto work with individuals we know well & who have demonstrated to Bear that their technical capabilities extend considerably beyond the novice stage. These higher level excerpts will tend to be cryptic at times, so read them for the technical content — they may not be our usual mix of information & entertainment … 
1. Spot Plating an Assembled Saxophone
Q.  Can you use the Caswell plating kit on a soprano with the pads still in place? It’s the cups that I will need to re-plate or touch up.

A. Affirmative. All that’s needed is to establish the ground connection. We did the bell wash on your True Tone alto with the horn completely assembled. Of course you’ll be doing one key at a time while you have the horn apart for cleaning. Just be careful with the gator clip cuz it will scratch the plating. I have sometimes just held the edge of the ground clip against the horn metal. You have to clean & polish the area you want to plate or the plating won’t stick. On silver the best product to use for that purpose (that I’ve found) is the Silversmith Polish Caswell sells (that’s the stuff with the cyanide, so be careful with it). Hagerty’s All-Metal Polish will work, too. Read up on the main spot plating Q&A b4 you proceed, and pick a small obscure spot to do your first operation. Keep a moist rag handy to wipe up any runs from the plating fluid. It’s quite acid & will mar adjoining areas if allowed to stay there for long.
2. Leveling Empty Pad Cups
Q.  On cups that don’t lie flat on the Jewelers anvil – what is the correct way to level them? I read on your site that you have to level them with a special hammer. What is the correct hammer and where on the cup are you supposed to strike it? I need to start repadding with level cups, right?

A. You’re right in thinking that if your cups aren’t level you won’t get the pad surface in plane with the tone hole rim without a very deep & uneven rim impression. You’re starting to visualize things now, which is good. To level cups place them rim down on your jewelers’ anvil, making sure they are positioned so no part of the key is interfering with the rim laying level. Strike the cup in the very center (on the key arm ridge if it extends that far) with a very light wood or rawhide mallet. You can use a wooden extension to assure the strike is exactly where you want it. I cut a piece of dowel rod several inches long & use it like a centering tap. Anything softer than brass will work, but dowel rods are cheap & useful for lots of things when working on a sax. Get several different diameters so you can get into tight places and either pinpoint or spread out a blow, as needed. Light taps are always the order when working with brass because the metal is much more malleable (softer) than we tend to think. Don’t over do it …
Much of what you will read here is beyond the scope of DIY sax repair, but it’s interesting stuff you can use to keep your favorite tech honest. Knowledge truly is power …
3. Fitting Sax Necks
Q.  I have a  neck and body tenon that don’t fit quite good & snug. If you have any suggestions about using the tools I bought from Ferree’s Tools for adjusting the way necks fit I would be glad to hear them. There are some sketchy instructions in the catalog but not much.

A. Lock your expander (H60/61, etc.) in the vice and slip the neck over it. Tighten the expander inside the neck and pull the neck off with a twisting motion. Repeat until the brass has been expanded to the correct fit. Pull as straight as you can & don’t put the neck on the expander past the solder joint. If you do it right you won’t break the solder connection. If you break it you’ll have to re solder that joint. Check the neck fit between strokes on the expander. If you use a tool (large vice grips) to tighten the expander don’t over do it or you will break the solder joint for certain. You can also work by pushing the neck onto the expander, but getting the expander set to the right tension is a little harder that way. Visualize what’s going on both inside the neck & at the solder joint as you work. This process will both round your neck properly & stretch the brass. Go slow & check the effects of your work often until you have a good feel for what you’re doing.

Another thing you can do on neck fitting is examine the slot that the neck screw closes to see if fatigue has caused that slot to narrow because the brass in the outer neck tension ring has stretched. If so, the neck itself may not be the total issue. You can take a piece of sandpaper folded so that the abrasive is on the outside & run that through the slot to create a wider space that will allow the neck screw to pull tighter. Easy does it, of course. Between the two maneuvers you should be able to get a nice, snug fit on your neck. The right approach is to do a little of both techniques cuz that’s the way the fit issue was created in the real world. You probably should check the slot first …

Additional Comments
An ill fitting saxophone neck can cause myriad response problems. A loose neck is annoying to the the player during performance, but more critically, acts as a tiny leak in the upper reaches of your pads & keywork. Leaky neck joints can cause the same sorts of response maladies as leaky octave pads, loose octave pip solder joints, or misadjusted octave mechanisms. If you’re having issues that suggest octave mechanism implications (weak middle D-G or crackles when you go from low B-A-G on down to F-E-D), and you’re absolutely sure your sax has no conventional pad leaks, you may very well have a neck fit issue.

Ferree’s also sells a sax neck tenon expander, item H59 that is more expensive than the H60/61 type, and that works in a much different fashion. Since the H59 needs to be permanently mounted on a work surface it’s probably better suited to commercial repair shops. Expanding necks is easy to over do, so if you try it use extra caution against stretching the brass too much.
4. Bis Bb Key & Other Stack Relationships
Q.  I’m having trouble coordinating the bis Bb and the A/C pads on a very old (19xxx) Martin alto. I can’t seem to find a good way to get them to play nice with each other.  As it stands right now it’s the bis Bb that isn’t closing — by a smidge.  Both are adjusted to seal well on their own though.  I’ve run into this thing on my other alto, and I just can’t figure out how it’s done. None of the methods I can think of are very precise or expedient.  The arm on the A/C key could be out of whack.  Maybe that’s what this whole thing depends upon — but that’s not easy to adjust either. Ryan…

A. I am going to change your life, Ryan. Adjusting the A/bis Bb relationship can be a daunting task – if you don’t know a simple trick. I have several pieces of sheet cork in varying thicknesses & widths cut so that they can be placed between pads & tone hole rims. There are lots of reasons to place these cork buffers in between the pads & rims when working on setups, but the reason applicable to your plight is to allow minuscule bends to that A key arm that closes the bis Bb pad. If it’s the bis pad that isn’t closing, place the buffer under the A pad & then press down on the A key arm. If you go too far & have a leak at A (the bis Bb now seals) place the buffer under the bis pad and press on the A pad cup. When you get really close — but there’s still a tiny leak at A — you can lightly sand the underside of your A pearl felt. If you’re good at these pressure adjustments that sanding step won’t be necessary, though. If you don’t have access to cork sheets to make your buffers you can accomplish the same thing by folding some printer paper until you get a thickness that allows you to bend the A arm. 

Once you’re done with the A/bis Bb interface you need to check the relationship of the bis linkage to your lower stack. When this interface is correct the bis Bb key height is set by its meeting with the A pearl felt – and the actuator arm on your lower stack combo pad has no discernible gap before it meets the bis actuator arm. This relationship between bis Bb and the lower stack is one of the most critical (AND overlooked) aspects of setting a saxophone up correctly. When this relationship is correct the key heights of the two stacks are coordinated to the designer’s specs*. What that means to a sax player is smooth action & the best intonation a given saxophone can deliver (all other factor also being properly adjusted). This inter-stack interface is your final play adjustment when setting up a saxophone’s upper & lower stacks. It can only be accomplished by manipulating the stack key heights. The pros will leave both their upper & lower stack heights a little low during the foregoing setup steps so they have room to coordinate the two stacks AND have the key heights they want when the setup work is all finished. What I have just told you is one of the secrets of the saxophone universe. Guard it with your life … :-)

Actually, having the bis not completely close is a condition that we sometimes intentionally create so that the A key’s relationship with the upper stack combo pad can be correctly adjusted. As you might realize, either the relationship to bis OR the relationship to the combo pad arm can cause a leak at your A pad – and sometimes it’s both relationships contribute to a compound leak at A. The way to recognize compound leaks is to stay alert when making all your adjustments. If one of your actions doesn’t seem to cause the expected reaction then there’s a darned good chance you have a problem with a compound cause. Learn the key relationships where maladies have more than one potential cause & you will avoid much saxual anguish. Of course you could also be totally wrong in your approach to a problem and get a non-responsive result, but recognizing the failure of your actions to produce an expected result will always lead you out of the wilderness.

Auto parts stores sell gasket material & craft stores sell sheet felt, both of which can be used to fashion your setup adjusting bumpers. Another use for these bumpers is for avoiding unintentional (and unwanted) rim impressions when leveling cups & floating pads into plane with your tone hole rims. Remember that deepening a rim impression can change all your setup relationships involving the affected pad. It’s just like putting in a another pad that’s thinner than all the others. Manage your rim impressions carefully because they can help or hurt your saxophone’s performance. These critical implications that your rim impressions have on your saxophone’s setup & performance are why I hate to see people use key clamps.

*Assuming no keys have been bent out of original configuration. All bets are off until you have returned the keys to their original shapes if you find that’s the case.

Additional Comments

Having trouble with your key names? Bear prepared exhibits for Ryan to assure the advice was on target …
(click images to expand)

5. Bass Sax Considerations
Q.  I’ve recently purchased a Beaugnier bass sax. It needs a complete overhaul and I’ll do the job myself since I repair instruments for a living. However, this job will present three firsts for me. 1) I’ve never fully restored a bass, 2) never seen a Beaugnier before except for pictures of a couple of altos and tenors on the web, and 3) this will be my first overhaul of an unlacquered sax.  My question: What do you recommend for a good hand polish treatment? (I feel that Brasso is just too abrasive and too brilliant.)  And after the job, would you think that anti tarnish strips or cloth in the case would help preserve the natural brass luster?

By the way, thanks for the most intelligent and useful article on the general question of relacquering saxes; it cut straight through to the real-life issues at hand and has made me revisit many controversial repair topics in a similar manner…with much benefit to my continuing education. [I don't have lacquering equipment anyway, but at one point was considering the investment.] With much thanks, Rufus.

A. Here’s a collection of information I’ve assembled when discussing bare brass restos with others considering the process. Some of it is repetitive, but those are the really important thoughts, too. Some is also aimed at folks who don’t have your background in instrument repair. I’ll let you separate the wheat from the chaff … :)
  • Essentially, cleaning up bare brass is a lot of hard work. Both Flitz and Hagerty All-Metal Polish will do the job. Avoid products with high abrasive content such as Brasso. If you try the work with springs on be sure to get your tetanus shots up to date. In addition, visit our Q&A article on cleaning & polishing saxophones for the hint on using knitting yarn as an assist (to avoid springs & reach tight places). If you have a Dremel tool (or the like) you can use brass and steel brush attachments to clean stubborn areas. Don’t use steel wool, as some might advise, because it causes terminal surface scratching. If you use rotary tools be sure to WEAR SAFETY GLASSES – the kind that completely seal off your eyes. There are some Dremel buffing wheels that are also of some use, but rag strips and yarn are your best bets for polishing larger areas. Brass will shine like old gold if you work at it, but be prepared to go over bad areas repeatedly. You’ll never get pitting out, so be prepared to accept sufficing results.
  • A mandrel can be made from a table leg (large home stores sell them here in the USA for a few dollars) wrapped in duct tape to protect the sax bell. Your mandrel can be held on a table top by clamps, or in a vise. We use a heavy table designed for woodworking that has two large wooden vises built onto its edges. You will find that if you can hold the sax firmly with your mandrel that two handed efforts will shorten your work. Of course an attractive lady friend could be induced to hold your sax for you, as well … :)
  • There are issues to deal with in a bare brass saxophone that you don’t have with a lacquered finish. You have to decide early on just how aggressively you wish to combat the tendency of your brass to darken, or tarnish. Unless poor, wet or dirty conditions are present, brass will age & darken evenly & cleanly. Your bare brass sax will eventually reach an equilibrium point where the finish color stabilizes in an antiqued state, and will change little after that. This is pretty much the same look that the old jazz horns have where the lacquer has worn off over the years to allow them to reach that antique brass look. These great old horns are true musical treasures. There are worse fates your bare brass saxophone can suffer.
  • If you want to put up more of a fight against tarnish — keeping more of an old gold luster on your saxophone’s finish — we recommend a wrap for inside your case of Hagerty’s silversmith’s cloth. This cloth keeps sulfur that is dissolved in air (which is the cause of tarnish, whether on brass, silver or gold) away from your instrument. This wrap strategy, combined with periodic touch up polishing with a treated polish cloth (we recommend the Hagerty Silver Duster), will keep a bare brass saxophone looking like the soft sheen of old gold for an indefinite period. If you are brave enough to take your sax apart (they will all come apart & play again after reassembly as long as you don’t damage corks, felts, pads or springs in the process) every few years to touch up the polish job you can retain the old gold look until your next repadding. At the time of each subsequent repad your tech can redo the thorough hand polish that followed our initial stripping operation. If the horn is stored properly those subsequent touch up hand polish jobs will be much easier than your initial ‘reclamation’ work.
  • You’re right to avoid the Brasso. In addition to being very hard to work with (the residue is a Bear after it dries on a surface with lots of details & crevices), the product relies too much on the abrasive side of the polishing product balance for its effectiveness. As information, most polishing products contain a chemical brightener, but the 100% chemical approach can only do so much. Chemicals are fine on very light tarnish (like on gold & lightly tarnished silver), but not at all effective on the tougher metals (nickel, brass) or the really dug-in cases of tarnish. On the other end of the polish product spectrum are the pure abrasives, such as the cutting compounds applied to buffing wheels (which come in all sizes & methods of drive). If you have the right equipment you can shine any metal surface using abrasive products. The trade off with abrasives, of course, is that you also lose metal from your instrument in the polishing process. By definition, abrasives work by ‘wearing’ off a layer of your instrument’s material to reveal the bright, untarnished metal underneath the surface. This abrasive wearing of your metal is the truly objectionable part of saxophone refinishing. The amount of metal removed by hand polishing is nil in comparison to that removed by abrasive buffing. That’s why we only perform hand polishing here at CS. We don’t even own any buffing equipment — which is something you might inquire about of anyone you are considering having restore your instrument’s finish. Most commercial metal polishes rely on a mix of chemical and abrasive components. They contain a chemical brightener, a fine abrasive (often as mild as talcum powder, but sometimes more aggressive), and a binding agent that holds the mixture together (and makes it smell like something you’d want on your hands or horn). The very best products for use on saxophones rely about 30/70 on the abrasive/chemical brightener ratio for their effectiveness. That means these polishes do a lot of their work short of drying on a surface. If you work quickly over small areas with products such as Hagerty’s All-Metal Polish or Flitz the stuff never dries to a pesky film. You can go the other way, of course, and apply these products, rub a bit, let ‘em dry, then use the elbow grease to rub off the dried abrasive residue. Both ways work, but the former is relying more on the chemical actions, while the latter is relying on the abrasive actions to a much greater extent. With products like Brasso that are fully effective only when allowed to dry, the red flags should immediately go up: HIGH ABRASIVES AT WORK. In high abrasive polish products the liquid medium is merely a method to evenly distribute your abrasives over your target surface – and maybe to add a pleasant smell. So there you have it: a crash course on polish products and on how to decide which you want used on your saxophone.

Enough of the re-hashed stuff. A bass sax is no different from any other saxophone – aside from there being a whole lot more of it. You’ll find that all the mechanism interactions function the same. You’ll have your normal keywork interfaces & body contacts where you must set your operating tolerances (regulation/set up, as you will) using cork or felt bumpers. Some of the keys will appear strange to the eye because of accommodations necessary place the player’s touch points into a reachable configuration, and you will find more multipart mechanisms that provide for player leverage and appropriate key heights/lifts. The analogy in the smaller saxes is that some instruments have one part mechanisms at side Bb and low Db, while others have a more mechanically advanced multipart mechanism at these points. You know how the older, single part mechanism at side Bb can lift really high if you aren’t careful. You know how tough it can be to get the large pad at the end of a single piece low Db to seal off on a tenor or bari (where the rod run is well over a foot). The multipart mechanism solves both these issues, right? As you encounter these added multipart mechanisms on the bass sax think of them in the same way as you would similar multipart mechanisms on a smaller sax as you set them up…and you’ll do fine.

Now for a final observation: If you bought that Beaugnier bass recently (9/04) on eBay from a gentleman in France, I’ve seen the horn. It looks complete, relatively clean & the visible damage isn’t unreasonable. The thing the gentleman didn’t know that scared me off was whether it’s an A=440 horn. With a bass it’s hard to say from looks or measurements cuz there are so darned many ways to wrap a pretzel — and consequently, to fold up the tubing on a bass sax. Add to the confusing mix that the European sax builders always wrapped their large saxes (both bari & bass) tighter than their American counterparts, and you have a significant mystery surrounding that horn. My best advice is to try to get it playing at least enough to say if it’s an A=440 horn before you sink a lot of labor into restoring it. There’s not much you can do with a high pitch bass sax aside from making it into an umbrella stand…and it would be fine for that service exactly as it sits. I hope this message has helped, Rufus. I wish you the best on your project …

follow-up question
Q.  Thank you for the advice on bare brass restorations and the general bass sax comments, for it will surely help me. As for the Beaugnier bass, yes, it is the same sax you saw on ebay. My observations were the same as yours — that it looked complete, reasonable damage, etc., and when it arrived all this was confirmed (despite the alarmingly fragile box it was shipped in). But I totally, totally forgot to consider the high pitch/low pitch question –  so caught up, was I, in the idea of getting a bass — and forgot the advice I’ve given to countless people, to boot! Well, I’ve just spent the last two hours taking your advice on getting it playing enough for a pitch determination. The notes down to fingered G lock right in at A440 (man, was I sweating throughout the process). I feel lucky, humbled, yet happy. Thank you very much for the help and advice. I’ll be a better craftsman not simply for the pointers but because of the encouragement this exchange has given me.

A. That’s great, Rufus. It’s always better to be lucky than to be good. Feel free to contact me along the way as you work on the old honker. Send me some pix as you progress if you get the chance …

Additional Comments
Lighting a bari or bass sax for set up work needn’t be a daunting task — just resist the temptation of sticking a whole conventional light bulb down your bell. A large bulb creates way too much heat, plus the full house/shop electrical current is a huge hazard. A wiring short or broken bulb and you’re an instant crispy critter. Not cool. Twelve volt automotive bulbs come in a variety of shapes & sizes. Some are small enough to go all the way into the upper reaches of a sopranino, C-Soprano or the small curved saxophones. Medium sized bulbs fit easily into most bari tone holes, and any you’ll find on a bass sax. You can pop off a side Bb or C pad to reach every pad from high F down to low C. These small bulbs will provide a lot more light than the ‘rope light’ products (which can lull you into a false sense of security), plus go places the rope product can’t reach. Besides, a rope light in the deep reaches of a bari or bass sax body is as futile as spitting in the river hoping to get your canoe over the sandbar. The one thing you need to watch is the heat these small, powerful bulbs generate. They can scorch pads or corks — or heat up the sax body enough to give you a real thrill if you grab the brass sax body carelessly in the wrong place.

The problem of supplying 12 volt current to these small bulbs can be solved in several ways. You can operate them off an adjustable transformer, from an AC adapter of the right output, or even from a 6 volt lantern battery. The battery route is a temporary solution since these little power houses drain one rather quickly, and unless you hook up two 6 volt batteries in sequence your resulting light isn’t as bright (but on the plus side, it’s not as hot, either). If you’re at all handy you can take these hints from here to make your own serviceable light. [additional hint: try to avoid using an automotive mounting socket for the widest access for your light.] I won’t insult you if you read this light info & felt baffled, but if this flew right over your head you probably need to develop a broader general mechanical background before seriously attempting to work on your own saxophone.

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