How Modern Saxophones Are Built
(Page 2) 

At the right are pictured our friend, Mr. Sugo (L), along with Mr.
Yanagisawa (R), who represents the second generation to manufacture fine saxophones under the Yanagisawa name. The family tradition in music and musical instruments in Japan carries back into the Nineteenth Century and also includes instruments built by Mr. Yanagisawa’s ancestors under the name of Nikkan. 

The bow connector is the part that joins the body and bell of the curved saxophones. Using a separately formed bow joint permits the classic “J” shape we identify with the instrument. Bow joints are pressed from sheet brass in two separate halves that are then welded (or silver soldered) together. The low C and C# tone holes of most curved model saxophones are found on the bow joint, so these tone holes must be placed, extruded, formed and finished after the two halves are joined. A critical part of bow building is sizing the two main openings so that both bell and body tubes fit perfectly. Leaks in this area would be devastating to the instrument’s performance. 

Adding the keywork …

Thus far we’ve centered the discussion on forming components of the saxophone body, which is no doubt a huge factor in determining the sound of the instrument. The sound, however, is immaterial without the mechanics to establish keywork with which to technically operate a saxophone. Many early saxophones had a wonderful sound, but were severely lacking in keywork when compared to fine modern day saxophones. Some keywork assembly parts on a saxophone are simply cut from stock brass (sometimes nickel-silver alloy) tubing and rod, but the critical components must be custom formed under pressure from billet, bar and sheet stock. The sheet, bar or billet is first cut to a rough pattern, which is then formed to the exact configuration under pressure using heavy press machines and special dies or tooling. It is the tooling that is the real key to the technical capabilities of a saxophone, and which also makes it possible to manufacture these instruments to a standard and in quantity. The central investment in a saxophone manufacturing operation is, in fact, the tooling for the keywork — that investment being measured in all relevant terms: time, talent, creativity and money. Each piece of keywork has several component parts, most of which must be forged from cut pieces of raw material using presses and tooling. Take a typical key such as the high D rocker which consists of four (4) separate parts: pad cup, lever shaft, keytouch and a section of hinge tubing. The pad cup is pressed from sheet brass. The keytouch and lever shaft are forged from cut bar stock or billet, and the hinge tubing is cut from tube stock. The component parts are then welded together, after which finish machining, as required, takes place. Three separate sets of tooling and numerous manufacturing operations are required to build just this one small key….probably the simplest saxophone key to fabricate. More complex keys may require six or more separate pieces of tooling. While it is true that some tooling may have common uses, those pieces of tooling also wear out quicker and must be replaced sooner. Over time, the practical result is that one piece of tooling is required for every component of every part of a saxophone. Now consider the different models (sopranino, straight soprano, curved soprano, etc.), and the import of the investment in a sea of tooling becomes quite apparent. 

Pictured above (left) are one of the presses used in forming keywork components and a (right) small portion of the tooling used at the Yanagisawa facility. We’ve come a long way since Adolph first hammered out brass into saxophone keys blacksmith style — almost two hundred years ago …

Assembly …
Once keys and posts are built the cosmetic finish can be applied and the assembly process can begin. First, the posts that will hold the keywork in position must be soldered onto the body, bow, neck and bell. Exact location of each post is critical if the standard designed keywork is to fit and function correctly. After the posts are in place the body and keywork components are polished to ready them for a final finish coating of protective lacquer. Before keys holding pad cups are lacquered the pads are glued into the cups. Installing pads before lacquer is applied prevents the heat used in activating temperature sensitive pad adhesive from discoloring the freshly lacquered surfaces. Applying lacquer evenly by hand is an art, requiring great skill and experience. Lingering even the slightest bit over an area is likely to produce messy runs which must be reworked. Rework is a stigma in a total quality shop such as this. The goal is to do the job right the first time, every time.

Above left: large buffing wheels are used to polish body components. In the center are several of the smaller buffing stations where keywork is polished, and at the right is a station where a technician is applying lacquer to keywork. Note the protection the polishers wear against tiny particles of cloth, buffing rouge and possibly brass, that fly from the high speed buffing wheels. The lacquer is applied in a carefully designed spray booth with an exhaust system which takes away hazardous excess fumes. After lacquering these ‘graduated’ new saxophones are finally ready to be engraved … 

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