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An Interesting DIY Dialog…

Understanding is merely our mind hooking together related insights. Education is organizing our human understandings in a rational manner & naming them so that we may all know what we mean when communicating our thoughts. Both education & understanding follow insight, which is our human mind’s true treasure. When we help another human being achieve insight we are serving our fellow man to the highest degree possible. Occasionally a person writes in to Bear who both asks pertinent saxophone questions, and shows the capability of achieving & stringing insights together in a manner that enables them to accomplish meaningful saxual goals. Our friend Fred is one such individual. We are starting this dialog with Fred in the middle because of the relevance of the set up issue to everyone of us who either works on or plays the saxophone. Though the player group may not yet recognize the relevance of understanding the nitty-gritty of how your saxophones really work, gaining insights into these critical mechanical inter-workings will lead to your higher saxual fulfillment. You can thank Fred for the insights you might experience from reading our correspondence. We will be adding additional pertinent discussions as they develop, and as time permits. Please do not take these discussions as detailed procedures on which you can rely to work on your own saxophone. Fred has a unique mechanical & professional background that enables him to perform advanced mechanical tasks — once he understands them. :-) Fred is also assembling shop equipment required to perform saxophone repair in an effective way. I cannot emphasize just how much one’s mechanical aptitude, the availability of professional repair tools, and access to the appropriate supplies figure into one’s suitability for (and likelihood of success in) attempting to work on their own saxophones…beyond normal cleaning & essential, common maintenance tasks. As information, Fred owns over thirty saxophones…

Saxophone Set Up & Regulation Discussion

Q.   I got distracted and laid the old Buescher down for a while. I’ll check on it soon. I got side tracked with 2 other horns. That gold plated handcraft is almost there re: regulating; but I’ve got all sorts of thin material to replace under the feet to get it to feel right. It’s a bit spongy. This is something I’ve had a real hard time with. I’ve made sure the pads hit together to try and eliminate the spongy feel but there just is something else on the lower stack that doesn’t feel right. It seems the bottom stack adjustments are just so “out of whack”, creating a big difference in the thickness of the cork the feet I  need. And then there’s that auxiliary Eb (fork Eb) key to contend with. There just seems to be so much friction going on with this combination. I was thinking after looking at new horns how nice they look at the feet and the stack drive bar with thin  pieces of cork both under the feet and on the bar — all the same thicknesses!

It got me thinking about taking the pertinent keys off — the ones with feet — and making them as identical as possible, then laying the cups on a level, flat surface and trying to match the height of the feet as closely as possible. Then, maybe there would be less of a disparity between the feet. I hate bending stuff, especially around the combination keys. It always gets me into trouble. As always I leave your emails enriched. Thanks Bear. Fred…


A. The stacks are the heart of regulating a saxophone. One day you will perhaps experience an insight that will clear the fog – if this is something you are meant to do seriously. Here are a couple hints:
 

1)  Each stack key’s pad height is determined by a series of clearances. The key foot bumper is one. The buffer between the slave bar & the key foot is another. Pad thickness is a third. Your pad height (clearance over the tone hole) is the governing specification in setting up stack keys. 
2) It’s a given that each of the clearances in the series for each key within each stack were uniform when the saxophone was new. What’s the problem when an older instrument no longer will set up correctly with pads, bumpers & buffers that are uniform?
3) The upper & lower pad heights are related. The two stacks are tied together by the bis Bb arm, such that one stack’s pad heights are a function of the other’s. The job is right when your bis Bb arm barely touches the actuator extension on your lower stack slave pad, AND each key in each stack immediately moves the slave arm when lightly touched. A gap between the key foot & slave arm is noticeable by both sight & feel.
4) G# and bis Bb are complicating factors to stack set up, as is a fork Eb mechanism, if present. Get your stacks right before adding these elements to your set up, then add them individually.
5) In saxophones equipped with fork Eb mechanisms the E key pad height is controlled by its own key foot, by the key foot & felt bumper of the fork actuator arm, and by the D key’s tie to the E cup. To avoid confusion over which element is causing a set up problem set up E first without the fork arm or D key present. Once the E key is in harmony with both F and the slave pad add the fork arm & do your adjustments there. Finally, add the D key & do your adjustments so that the D key both properly closes and in turn, closes E. Once your stacks are in harmony, the only clearance you can adjust when adding the fork Eb pad is at the juncture of the fork actuator pin and the foot of your E key. Don’t be fooled into messing with the arm that closes your E key above the foot. That will undo your adjustments at E pad and NOT be of help in closing the fork pad correctly.
6) If your sax is equipped with G# articulation your low Db, B & Bb mechanisms are tied to your stack relationships. Keep in mind that in ANY driver/slave relationship ANYWHERE on your saxophone, movement of the driver key must cause an immediate response of the slave key.
7) Your life will become much simpler if you seat each pad in a combination BEFORE adding any corks or felts. That way you have eliminated one critical variable that can have you fixing things that aren’t part of your problem. Set up is all about isolating the element of clearance that is the source of your problem. Adjusting the wrong clearance can hopelessly complicate your problem. I suspect that is something you’ve learned on your own. I know I did… :-)

Once you can visualize all these relationships & clearances in your mind your life setting up saxophones will miraculously become serene. Then it’s simply a matter of working through the relationships in the ‘right order’. If you truly understand saxophone set up/regulation, the ‘right order’ becomes obvious.

Q.   What can I say? This is great Bear. I’ve read your last email a few times, took it to work and read it again. I have a couple of texts, Eric Brand and Ronald Saska’s. They have a ton of info, but are rather “generic” and less insightful than I would have hoped. Your email contained much of what I feel these where missing. I tried to methodically develop a routine, but when things still didn’t sit right I lost track of “order” and was basically flyin’ by the seat of my pants. I’ve been running to each problem and in turn creating another — so much for routine and order. 

I tried to look through my fog to come up with a standard method, now that I realize what I’ve been doing is not the way. The thing I found most helpful was doing bits at a time — without the finer adjustments (corks & felts) — and concentrating on the order of which keys need to go after or before others. I really needed to hear/read this last information you sent. Usually I had put the whole thing back together and took it from there — sealing the individual keys 1st, and then going after the combos — but not really feeling confident of an order I was pursuing. This way makes much more sense. A side benefit is the mere fact of the physical ability to see the pad and the tone hole clearly instead of trying to peer under and over hinge rods. Thanks Bear, I really appreciate what you sent. Fred…


A. It sounds like you are at the outer fringes of insight, Fred. Let me introduce one more variable into your thinking that is often overlooked: Pad rim impressions. The best set ups have minimum rim impressions, especially on the keys that are normally in the open position. There are a couple reasons for minimizing rim impressions. The first is that when moist, these ruts in your pads act like little suction cups that slow action & promote sticking pads (problematic locations like G#, the two stack slave pads & bis Bb especially don’t need any sticking encouragement). The second reason for minimizing pad rim impressions is that they modify one of your composite pad clearance factors, thus changing the effects of your set up work to that point [think about it: putting a little dent in the surface of a pad leather means that the pad must travel farther before it meets the tone hole rim]. If we seat each pad BEFORE we add any of the other clearance factors (corks & felts) we eliminate the influence of rim impressions on our work. I hope this solves one mystery for you: How work you thought was good turns out to need adjustment later. That will always happen when you do something to change the depth of rim impressions after making other set up adjustments. 

Now you know why I am so dead set against players using key clamps. How do we (sax techs) create rim impressions? Duh…by clamping keys closed in a systematic manner. What happens when a player throws key clamps onto a wet set up after the gig then shuts the horn in its case? And what if tomorrow night they put the key clamps on in a different position on the pad, or with greater tension? If one swipe too many on a buffer cork with 1500 grit sandpaper will take a set up out of sync, then repeated, erratic key clamping is bound to have a negative effect on a horn’s set up.

OK, now I’ve added my spiel on rim impressions. You have all the information you need to incubate effectively through the process of saxophone set up insight. No need to rush. Just keep working in a logical manner & it will come. The good news is that this isn’t fiddle sticks. It’s every bit as complex, but you always start from the same chaotic muddle… :)

Q. I remember reading on your site about key clamps and at the time, and I forgot about a question I had…to Iron or Not to Iron? From what I’ve gathered it sounds like both ways [of treating pads prior to installing keys onto your saxophone] are acceptable.  I have tightened some loose leather on a pad after inspection, but have not yet attempted ironing on the whole horn. I gathered this [pad heating/ironing] is a fix for a slight wrinkling on a pad in lieu of replacing the pad (one of those in-between sizes or an out-of-round pad cup I guess?). With application of a bit of water and ironing you can do this [heat treat] successively to get the desired results. Obviously the pad leather becomes tighter, but I imagine [pad leathers also become] less prone to deep impressions. So, do you believe in ironing the pads wholesale, or just on certain applications? I imagine the action and feel of a horn would be somewhat quicker with all-around tight pads. Is this [heat treating pads] more compromising relative to maintaining tight seals? 

I’m not only asking relative to action and feel. One horn, a Chu alto, had some weird twist at the crotch of the bow and bell that threw the Eb, C, and C# tone holes out of true. With straight tone holes I have done my dent work, then ended up filing the problem holes. Obviously, the [tone hole] file was not going to work on this horn [because of the Conn rolled tone holes]. I didn’t want to take this one apart to get to the weird twist for dent work (the bottom of the bow was also flattened). I’m trying to leave “things be” as much as possible rather than re-soldering [major body joints]. I got the dents out and it looked pretty good, but as I mentioned, the tone holes where warped and off [out of their design position relative to the keywork] on these 3 holes [low Eb, C & Db/C#]. I finally got these tone holes to a reasonable flatness [in plane with themselves], now I’m [left with] hoping the pads will take up the difference. I had to use a wooden dowel I shaped like a chisel to push the metal around the holes to get them level [obviously a free-thinking problem solver is our Fred]. This twist [warp to the bow] did affect the metal around these tone holes. To my great surprise it worked and they did move the right way… Adolfus, the Sax God, heard my prayers! 

In a case like this where there are rolled tone holes with some [alignment] issues — and you want the horn to have good action and feel — how would you handle the pads; i.e., to iron, or not to iron? This pad issue was a concern of mine. I do feel more confident [now] that I can get these horns to play the way they should so a prospective buyer will be pleased. I will work diligently to do so. I’m very grateful for your time.


A. I’m not a fanatic on pad ironing like some folks, but I do use the element of heat to manipulate leather. I often advise clients to use a hair dryer on certain pads that may be problematic, given the complaints they are raising in messages to me. Heating the top octave pad is especially effective when there is a slight leak there that is robbing low note response. There is no question that environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and even atmospheric pressure (think elevation…New Orleans, Denver, or spots in between) affect the saxophones we ship all over the globe. Leather, cork & felt, all being organic materials, are subject to the effects of environmental change. Keep in mind, though, that what heat does to leather for the short term, humidity & the wet/dry cycles of our play can (and will) modify. If merely having stiff pad leather was beneficial, would not the oldest, most dried out pads be the very best circumstance? Like Mork from Ork, saxophone pads are born at their peak and slowly deteriorate with time & use. 

I don’t really iron pads, per se. I do manipulate the leathers with my heat gun [a dual temp B&D model 9756] when installing pads. I use the heat gun in place of a torch on all but the tiniest pads. A heat gun is much more effective at heating a large area because the air stream is diffused (a torch flame inherently concentrates heat in a limited area). A secondary benefit of the heat gun is there is no open flame to burn lacquer or ignite the many combustible materials on a saxophone, or around a tech’s workbench (having oily rags ignite while you are seating pads is no fun…and this is experience speaking now). I simply turn each installed pad into the stream of the heat gun (once it is seated in its cup) for a few seconds to taunt the surface. You can actually observe the wrinkles stretching out as the heated air does its work. The advantage of the gun is I know the temperature of the air stream is constant (either 500 or 1020 F, depending on my gun setting). Maybe someone makes pad irons with heat indicator gauges, but if so, I haven’t seen ‘em yet. Consistency is a valuable characteristic of one’s tools when uniform results are the aim, yes? Pads often get heated several times during installation & set up. It is this overall effect (cumulative heat treating) that assists in our work with the leather surfaces of saxophone pads. 

One of the characteristics of Conn Res-O-Pads is an especially taunt surface. As I mentioned before, this trait allows a pad surface that is both better in-plane, and more likely to remain in-plane over time. Setting up pads is nothing more than assuring two separate planes (pad surface and tone hole rim) meet at the same time & place. The truer the two planes, the more effective & efficient our set up/regulation work becomes. Taunt leather is more in-plane than slack leather…duh. So it makes perfect sense that the metal rim around the circumference of a Conn ROP creates a drum head effect, allowing the pad leather surface to become very taunt (and hence, nearly perfectly in-plane with itself). Pad rim impressions are often the result of two planes meeting that are either not completely true to themselves, or are not meeting at the desired parallel position where the two planes can become congruent (it was true that your 10th grade geometry class would one day come in handy, huh?). A slight bit of cheating is possible using rim impressions, but too much of a rim impression is both sloppy work and detrimental to the instrument’s top performance. I’m primarily speaking of rim impressions on your keys that rest in a pad-open position. Rim impressions are not so objectionable on the pads that rest in closed position, and on open-position pads that are very large — and therefore sprung heavily enough to overcome the suction effect of damp rim impressions. Larger pads can be problematic to seat without slight rim impressions because by definition, as the area of your pad’s leather surface increases, the less likely the entire surface can remain in-plane with itself. Obviously, our pads that are sprung closed will develop rim impressions over time — which, in turn, triangulates my deduction that clamping any pad closed will sooner or later create (unwanted) rim impressions in its leather surface. 

I seldom put a file to tone holes. Usually, I only do so to remove slight surface pitting or to dislodge foreign material such as corrosion or lacquer runs (and then, quite gingerly). Removing material from a saxophone is seldom an acceptable answer to your set up problem. Unfortunately, too many techs are much too quick to pick up the tone hole file. Remember that two-planes-a-meetin’ issue we just discussed? How sure are you that the new plane surface you are making with your file will be either true to itself, or in the same plane as the original factory tone hole rim? Hmmm. Sounds to this ole Bear that filin’ on tone hole rims is a lot like throwing a pass in football: Of the three possible outcomes, two are quite undesirable…

Except in the most extreme situations, your tone holes did not get out of plane by someone or some-thing adding material. So why, then, is removing material a suitable solution to the problem? Why not take a small hook burnisher in your hand and run it around the inner tone hole to straighten it back to round? [an over simplification, but you get the point] Then, why not find the low spots (using something flat over a lighted hole) and seek to raise them from underneath with either hand burnisher pressure or by lightly applying dent equipment? After all, the tone hole most likely isn’t level anymore cuz it got pushed in, right? Even if you can manage to get your file to work within a single plane (phfff!), and to boot: The RIGHT plane (double phfff!) — your efforts will shorten the tone hole chimney. Do you not think the instrument’s designers built it with tone hole chimneys of a specific height, for a definite musical performance/response purpose? And what about rolled tone holes….or soldered & fabricated tone hole assemblies (both Martin & King, in addition to early Conn & Buescher)? A guy should think long and hard before either trimming a mules ears so they don’t spook him when they brush against the barn door sill — or filing on saxophone tone holes. One is gonna’ hurt you bad, here & now. The other is gonna’ hurt you forever…

Additional Comments
OK, let’s discuss a workable order of events in setting up a saxophone’s main stack keys. If you do not understand what we mean by the term “stack keys’ you are already in way over your head — so go do some more research on your own before going further down this road with us. This is not presented as the ‘one & only’ method for setting up your stacks, but this order of doing things will work if you adhere to it. Each step contains complicated procedures and/or skills one needs to be proficient — in that you will have to learn in detail from another place. Some of these sub procedures are covered elsewhere on the CS web site. Some may not be. Underlying this entire discussion is an assumption that the reader has a good mechanical aptitude, access to the proper tools, and a broad saxual experience base. You are welcome to read on for entertainment, or to begin establishing a base for further study. If all you do is realize that you don’t know what you don’t know, a useful purpose will have resulted. Philosophy buffs among you will recognize that I have just described the first stage of saxual enlightenment … :-)

Here are some assumptions about what you have already done to the saxophone you are about to set up and regulate:

1) Disassembled, removed all old pads, corks, & felts.
2) Thoroughly cleaned the body, neck & keys, inside & out.
3) Performed all necessary dent work, solder repairs, body/neck straightening, and other damage repairs.
4) Leveled tone holes & pad cups, replaced any springs that require it, cleaned and straightened all your rods & screws, and cleaned out the inner rod ferrules. You have also made replacement rods as required, all specked to the proper length, diameter, slot cuts, and thread size. You have checked all you posts holes and ends, cleaned them, rounded them, and re-tapped threads as needed.
5) Completed all cosmetic work like polishing, spot lacquering, plating repairs, bell wash replenishment & re-cutting the engraving.
6) Installed the new set of pads for the instrument in the proper fashion, and your new pads are all of like kind, of the proper diameters for each cup, of proper thickness for your saxophones keywork design, and have the correct resonator type.

These terms ‘set up’ and ‘regulation’ are not exactly identical, but they each do encompass processes that overlap one another to a great extent. It could be argued that a total saxophone set up — in the pro player sense — completely includes all the articles of regulation…but that the best set up artists significantly exceed the minimum work required for a successful saxophone regulation as they go about their work of maximizing the mechanical performance & musical response of the saxophones on which they work.

Now that you have a saxophone that is ready for you to begin your assembly & set up work, let’s lay out that order of proceeding that will allow you an opportunity for a successful result, accomplished within a reasonable amount of your time (this time element will vary greatly, depending on your personal skills & experiences, so your own ‘reasonable amount of time’ is not predictable). let’s get started…

1) Identify your upper & lower stack rods, then run them through their post positions & screw them into place. As you run the rods through you need to check for binds caused by posts that are out of position or that have had their holes damaged or erratically worn. You are finished fitting your stack rods when they slip in & out of each post along their route smoothly and without using significant force. The rods must screw into their end-post threads easily, tightly & smoothly. The rod does not protrude from either end of the post positions when it is fully screwed into position. If you don’t carefully perform this step you will not be able to correctly identify binds in your stack keywork, which in turn may lead you to make unnecessary adjustments in locations that do not need them. Those of you who have ever attempted to straighten out a saxophone’s poorly regulated stacks will know that fixing things that aren’t broken always adds unnecessary complication to the matter at hand. The whole purpose of this order of proceeding with set up/regulation is to allow you to isolate your real issues that require real correction. Once you have performed this rod/post exercise without the keys coming into play you can be certain that any binding is being caused by something other than the way your rod fits into the post positions. This is a valuable piece of knowledge considering what is to come…

2) Identify your stack keys for each stack and place them with their respective rods. Run each key onto its rod one-by-one to its approximate home position. Each key should spin on the rod freely, and easily slip to its approximate home position. Make corrections as required until every key & rod combination passes this test. Before you call it all good, run the stack keys onto their rods in the correct assembly order & in relative position to one another. The whole assembly should move in unison when you hold the rod level from its ends, then turn the rod between your fingers in rotary fashion.

3) You now know that your rods are true, and that your key ferrules are straight (and in alignment within themselves). It is time to slip each stack assembly into place on the saxophone. Please note that you have not yet installed any corks or felts on your keys, but you have leveled the cups (and tone holes) and you do have your pads installed properly in their cups. As you slip each key into place, check the spacing between posts, and note gaps (of more than a few thousandths of an inch) between keys. We want our keys to fit flush against one another where they meet, and also against the respective posts with which they make contact. If the spaces seem too tight we need to take a look at our North/South post positions & make adjustments. If you do end up adjusting any posts you need to start over from step one. Any remaining issues with key fit are now in the too-loose direction. So this is where we swedge to take up gaps between keys, and/or tighten keys onto their rods where there is a sloppy fit (keys worn inside so that they now fit loosely over their rod). If you need to make swedging adjustments to your keys you need to repeat the prior steps before going on.

4) You are done swedging & fitting up rods & keys, and you have one of your stacks on the horn — springs set. There still are no corks or felts, so things are quite clanky. Everything moves freely, though, and there is no lost motion or up/down shifting of your keys on their rods. You are ready to look at how pad cups align OVER their tone holes. You do not have general license to bend keys, but you do have license to CORRECT for prior bending (whether due to accident or to the intentional acts of an idiot) of your keys into a position that is not consistent with the instrument designer’s intent. Go ahead & center your pads over their respective tone holes and be sure that the key touches are in their correct positions. Try to move the cups ONLY to the right & left. Try to avoid changing the pad’s orientation to its tone hole (corresponds to maintaining pitch & yaw on an aircraft). When you’re done aligning pads over their tone holes every key is still moving freely, pads are centered over their tone holes, cups have adequate side clearance to one another, and all your key touches feel like they are in the right place for comfortable play. BOTH these aspects — pad & key touch placement — are essential for an efficient saxophone set up. Many keys have touches that are mounted on separate stems from their pad cups, or are mounted on extension arms that separate them from the cups the touches operate. Your key touches could very well have been bent out of position separately from the alignment of their associated pad cups. You need to fix that at this stage, too.

[General Observation: You are working one stack at the time. It doesn't really matter which stack you tackle first. There are persuasive arguments for either one. The overriding truth is that in the end the two stacks are tied together at bis Bb, so we need to keep that interchange fully in mind as we proceed. If bis Bb is the single most significant element (read: potential to drive you mad) in saxophone set up, the second most critical element is G# (and on saxophones so equipped, the fork Eb follows closely behind these two in the potential misery classification). Many older saxophone designs have the G# on the main lower stack rod and the bis Bb on the main upper stack rod. Earlier, more thoughtful saxophone designs have the G# pad on a separate rod. In the 1930s most saxophone makers (those who wanted to compete successfully) made both the bis Bb and G# independently mounted. The fork Eb either went away completely, or was only offered as an option that could be ordered. The final refinement in main stack design came when the G key was separated from the upper stack as an independent, pivot mounted key. What you do with the G key won't throw your stacks off initially, but it can wreak havoc when it comes time to add the octave mechanism. While the octave mechanism isn't part of this presentation, it is the next most complex set of key interactions on your saxophone after the main stacks. Th. fact that your octave mechanism is tied to the upper stack via its dependence on the G key to tell it when to switch octave vents as you play should tell you all you need to know about its significance.]

5) OK, refresh yourself on where we are if you need to do so. We are about to do an operation that is extremely crucial, and from which you are in jeopardy of not recovering should you ere here: We are going to seat your stack pads. If you are working the lower stack (F-E-D) and your G# key is not included on the main lower stack rod you need to install it and seat it along with the lower stack. If you are working the upper stack, be sure to seat B, A/C and your upper stack slave pad (the little pad at the top of the stack that closes with either/both B & C — sometimes with bis Bb on sopranos) as a group. Seat bis Bb separately, regardless of whether it is independently mounted, or not. If G fits onto your upper stack rod then seat G along with the B, A/C group. If G is independently mounted you can safely wait to seat it until you are ready to add the octave mechanism. I recommend seating the slave pads in each stack first, followed by their driver pads. Seat G# & bis Bb independently of other stack pads, regardless of your mechanism’s design. Install these two pads alone on their rods or pivot mounts and seat them before going on to other stack pads. Since you do not yet have any cork or felt spacers/bumpers installed (and therefore you can’t damage any key-foot corks should you need to clamp & heat a pad cup), all your pads should seat freely, without any binding (or even touching) between related keys. Should any two related keys make contact with one another at this stage you have something bent out of its design position is a rather severe way. Such instances must be corrected before the affected pads can be properly seated. The corrected clearances you create in the course of your corrections must allow for cork or felt spacers/bumpers of the appropriate thickness for their given locations to be placed into the tolerance spaces you create (and yes, this sort of seat-of-the-pants correction does require a modicum of experience). Keep in mind as you are contemplating a DIY repad project that this sort of unexpected clearance issue can occur anywhere, on any saxophone. You are now at least apprised to be on the lookout for something about which you would otherwise have not a clue… ;-)

6) Take a moment after your pads are seated to check for spring tension issues. Loose springs must be removed, flattened a bit at the ends (NOT Norton screw-in springs — they are a special case requiring specialized corrective procedures), then pressed back into position. You do not want springs that move in their post holes cuz the steel will eventually eat away enough brass that the springs rotate freely, robbing your pad of proper action (or worst case, falling completely out). Often you will find that springs cannot be properly tensioned with their keys (or surrounding keys) mounted on the saxophone. In those cases you will need to take the stack assembly off to make your adjustments. I often have a stack on & off a horn a number of times during the course of set up/regulation. It is this willingness to take the time with your saxophone that is required to do a quality job which distinguishes the folks you want working on your ax from those you want to avoid. [You will note that we have worked without adding any oil to your mechanisms up to this point. That is for the specific reason that handling oily rods, screws & keys creates a mess that you will later need to clean up. Devote this clean up time you save to making your set up adjustments more thoroughly.]

7) Now you should have the stack you chose to with work on your saxophone, pads seated, springs adjusted, but no corks or felt bumpers in place. We are about to cement into your memory the elements that make up your net pad clearance over the tone hole. This air space is a very important factor in your saxophone’s performance, so we want to manage it carefully. Often called tone hole clearance, or possibly key heights, this air space will affect the quickness of your keywork, your instrument’s sound, it’s response, and in extreme cases, even your intonation. There is no single ‘right answer’ about what a saxophone’s key heights should be, but there is a definite protocol for how your key heights must relate to one another. As long as these protocols are present, you can adjust your key heights — all of them, in unison — within a range (bearing in mind the overall effects/consequences mentioned above). You will need a group of sheet cork strips in all the sizes you have on hand. To minimize sanding your cork buffers to exact tolerance you should have all the sizes available from at least 1/64th inch to 3/32nds inch”. You will also need either felt strips from the stock you will be cutting your bumpers from, or a selection of pre-stamped, stock felt rounds. There are lots of good uses for felt in your saxophone’s set up besides the usual rounds at front F or the A/C key, so it is recommended that you obtain a supply of good quality sheet felt that you can cut to fit other locations. It is much easier to minimize key noises in certain locations using felt — even if you need to affix a thin felt layer over cork to make the tolerance exactly what you need.

Let’s end the suspense: You are now going to hold down one of your driver keys in your stack combination (let’s assume you are working the lower stack for simplicity, so you hold down the F key touch), then observe the gap created between the slave pad’s driver bar when you close the slave pad fully (this is a two hand job). Use light pressure on the driver key, but a bit more pressure on the slave pad cup. [Remember: you have assured that all your pads seal perfectly before taking this step.] Now, select one of your cork strips that most closely fits the gap between your slave bar and the driver key (some trial & error is OK). You will be fine tuning this tolerance later using a very fine (800 to 1500 grit) sandpaper strip, so err to the large size. If you lighted these two pads on which you are working right now the slave pad is sealed perfectly — once the cork strip you selected is inserted into the space where you will be affixing this key’s driver buffer — and the driver pad (let’s say F) is either perfectly sealed (unusual, but it happens), or there is a slight light rim (aura) showing around the full circumference  of your driver pad. If you’ve done everything right to this point your cork buffer just created a type four leak (you might want to revisit our Q&A article on finding & fixing leaks). You know from our article that this type leak indicates your slave bar is keeping the F pad from completely closing. The solution to your problem is to take some thickness off your cork spacer using a thin strip of sandpaper. To minimize sanding you always want to use the size cork for this key that shows the smallest leak aura. Your sanding will take place AFTER you have affixed your cork to either the drive bar, or to the driver key foot (which you will do depends on the design of your saxophone), so make a note of the proper size cork buffer for this key and go on to the next key. There are reasons that every cork buffer may not be the same thickness, so you need to check every key (making notes) before proceeding to affix your cork drive buffers. Once you know what size cork buffer you need for every driver key you are ready to go on.

8) Our next step is identifying the other locations in this stack where felt or cork buffers/bumpers are required. Your key feet are obvious cork locations. These cork foot bumpers serve to suppress key noises, and to set the final key height/pad lift of your keys. We will work on these foot buffers in the same manner as with the drive arm buffers — by trying different sized cork strips until we have arrived at the best fit for our application. You will need to insert the cork buffer you have already selected to fit between the key and the drive arm into place before you can get a true feel for where your overall key heights will end up (remember that pad height is built by a series of tolerances, including your rim impressions). Unless something has been significantly bent on your stack keys you should get more or less the same cork foot thickness for each key within a stack. The raw cork thickness you select should result in a slightly lower key height than you really expect. You will be sanding these foot corks to final tolerance, and also shaping them so that they follow the curvature of your saxophone’s body. Each of these adjustments will cause your key heights to rise slightly, so shoot low on your foot corks (slightly thicker than appearances suggest) rather than for a given height. Once these corks are mounted and your stacks are fully assembled it’s a lot of work to redo your key foot corks. You can remove a little cork with sandpaper, but you can’t add any material short of redoing the foot. If your sax is equipped with front F and/or fork Eb don’t forget to check those two keys for foot corks, too. Let’s turn our attention to felts now. Typical felt locations in the upper stack are under the front F button (must contact B & often contacts the slave pad) and under the C/A key (closes bis Bb). On sopranos the G key often sets your pad height for the C/A key (which in turn sets the height of bis Bb). Some saxophones require no felts at all in their lower stack. On some saxophones the D key also closes E; and depending on the way in which the D key does this, either a cork or felt may be required — both to regulate the action and to govern the E key height (which will probably also be governed at the E key foot). In saxophones equipped with a fork Eb mechanism the E key height is also governed by the fork lever (that closes your fork Eb pad during either E natural or D play). When you encounter a fork Eb mechanism you will require a cork foot for the lever, plus a buffer on the upper foot where this lever meets your fork Eb pad cup assembly. You will find that if you use a thin bumper on the upper lever foot you can later work with the exact tolerance by adjusting the fork Eb cup assembly. This will allow you to proceed with stack set up without having to disassemble the stack later when you add the fork Eb pad. The fork Eb pad is the last thing you add before covering the area with your low note linkage. Set both your stacks up before adding the fork Eb pad and you will safely isolate this pesky little key’s effect on your lower stack so that you can adjust it efficiently. Use this same approach of sizing corks & felts while your keys are on the sax bare for other keys, too. Once we have located every spot where bumpers/buffers are needed (noises and/or leaks are your clues), and sized our materials properly, we are ready to attach our corks & felts to the keys. The one place we do not yet want to measure for buffers is underneath the activator arm that extends upward from the lower stack slave pad cup (to drive both bis B and G#). That is the only bumper space you will leave empty at this time.

9) You now have your stack keys off the sax, and have your rough dimensioned corks & felts attached. You also know that each individual pad mounted on each stack rod seats when no other key is involved with it. We are now going to deal with the most critical juncture of interacting keys on a saxophone: Where the lower stack slave pad meets both your bis Bb activator arm and your G# pad cup (on larger saxophones there may be an extension arm running from the G# pad assembly down to meet the arm on your slave pad). Your G# pad cup is part of the lower stack on some saxophones, or may be mounted independently on others. Your bis Bb assembly may also be either independently mounted or fit onto the main upper stack rod. You need to determine which design you have. If your bis Bb and G# are independent of their respective stacks these pads have not yet been individually aligned over their tone holes and seated, so mount them and do that now. Leave them on your saxophone once the seating is accomplished. If either of these pads is part of one of your main stacks (they don’t both have to be of the same design approach) it is already seated, right?

Add the lower stack slave pad and the F key (also add the G# pad if it is part of your lower stack) onto your saxophone using the lower stack rod. Run the rod all the way to the lower post & screw it into place. Check your slave pad for seating & be sure it still seals independently. Do this without using the F key to drive the slave pad. Now close the slave pad using the F key and observe whether F closes completely. If the bumper you selected for the F key was perfect (it happens, but it’s not real likely), then both the slave pad and your F pad close & seal perfectly. If you did your rough cork sizing correctly, what you are more likely to see is a sealed slave pad, and a type four leak at F (this is the halo all around the F tone hole where your leak light is escaping). We know this means that our bumper between the F key foot and our slave arm is too thick (not at all unexpected). Sand your cork buffer to the correct tolerance. [Hint: Separate the F key & slave arm, insert your sandpaper strip as far as possible between the two keys (grit side toward the cork), then pull the sandpaper out while allowing the keys to meet under spring pressure. If you are not experienced at this operation check frequently until both your F & slave pads seal completely without you having to press abnormally hard on the F key. Remember that if you sand off too much cork you will have to replace it & start over.] Your F & slave pads are now seating correctly, and your F pad is driving the slave pad closed. If your bis Bb was not independently mounted it is not yet on your sax, so add it to your select key group using the main upper stack rod (in rare instances where these selected keys are not fixed into their exact locations by your posts you will need to assure they stay in position during the upcoming measurements & adjustments).

If your sax does not have adjustment screws in the lower stack slave pad activator arm (most vintage saxophones don’t) you will need to measure for buffers to close both your G# and bis Bb pads by your F or E (and often D) keys of the lower stack. Hold the lower stack slave pad into closed position and manually (since you don’t yet have the second part of your G# mechanism installed) close the G# pad, too. You will note a gap between the activator arm on your lower stack slave pad and the G# cup. Find the best fit for a cork buffer at that location and make a note of the size. Now check your bis Bb activator arm for position under the lower stack activator arm. The bis lever should not bind with either the G# cup or the lower stack slave cup (problematic on smaller saxophones). Correct the bis arm alignment as required, then repeat this buffer fitting process you just completed on G# with the bis Bb arm/pad — measure the gap for closing tolerance and note it. Remove your lower stack slave pad assembly from your sax and affix these two cork bumpers you’ve just measured. If they are exactly the same size cork you can install this bumper as one piece. Otherwise, install the two cork thicknesses separately. Never go with the thicker of the two and rely on sanding for adjustment. That’s a sloppy look, plus it’s easy to misjudge your sanding and have to start over with a fresh cork of the correct thickness. The whole point of this order is to keep things simple & as foolproof as possible. [One possibility we haven't covered is that your lower stack slave arm meets either the G# cup or the bis Bb activator arm (or both) in the absence of any buffer at all. In this instance something is badly bent out of position, so figure out what and correct it by straightening your parts back to their original positions. Then you can proceed with sizing & installing bumpers.]

Now remove your bis Bb pad assembly from the saxophone. Install G#, the lower stack slave pad and the F key once again. Close the F key and observe what happens with these three pads. The most likely (and most desirable) occurrence is that your G# pad is closed, but you now have type three leaks of the same magnitude at the other two pads. All you need do in this case is sand the cork over your G# key to exact tolerance. If the G# is not completely closed you have misjudged your bumper thickness (it will need to be redone). If you have the miraculous little adjusting screw at G# simply turn it to the exact position that allows all three pads to completely seal (techs LOVE these tiny little screws!). Once G# is adjusted into sync with the lower stack slave arm add your bis Bb assembly and perform the same check/adjustment cycle. You lucky folks with the adjusting screws have it made. You should now have four pads on your saxophone, all of which close when your F key is pressed. The insightful among you who are simply reading this for entertainment should now have a much greater appreciation for the complexities of your saxophone — and how this little intersection can wreck your saxophone’s performance when it is not diligently adjusted to the critical tolerances required to make the two stacks play nice together. The truly insightful amongst you will also realize that the key heights of your saxophone’s two main stacks are inseparably intertwined…

10) We are now ready to complete the lower stack set up. First, remove all the keys you now have on the saxophone (there should be four). You are ready to install the lower stack. This will be the final time if your G# is not mounted on your main lower stack rod. If that is your case it is time to apply a small amount of key oil to the first ferrule opening of each key. After applying the oil run your main stack rod through the key to push out any excess oil (which you will wipe up, of course). We want to apply just the right amount of oil. Over oiling is just as bad as under oiling, and maybe worse, since oil turns to gunk over time and makes for sluggish key action. In extreme cases the oil gunk (that’s left when the lighter constituent petrochemicals evaporate) can actually fuse keys to your rods in a kind of saxual tar pit. On the other hand, a saxophone that has properly fitted keys will function just fine with minimum — or even no oiling — but we do want to oil to prevent rods rusting inside our key ferrules, and to minimize wear to the soft brass that rides on our harder steel rods. If your sax has G# mounted on your main lower stack rod you want to perform the following steps without oiling. we will do that later when we are ready to install your lower stack for the final time.

With your full lower stack in place (rough-sized bumpers installed, no G# or bis Bb on the saxophone) first check to see that F is both closing and closing the slave pad when depressed using light finger force. Then go on to E. Make corrections to E as described above when you regulated your F key, then go on to D & repeat. If you have the D arrangement that also closes E, here’s a hint on finding the correct spot to which to address your corrective action. If neither D or E seals perfectly (and you already know that they do when key combinations do not interfere) your first target is the cork bumper between the D key foot and the lower stack slave activator arm. If E closes, but not D, your first target is the bumper between your D & E keys. If D closes without closing E you have mis-sized the bumper between these two keys. Keep in mind that these maladies can occur in any combination, and fixing one will not completely resolve your regulation issue. Don’t over-correct, or you will have complicated your problem. Go slow with sanding your corks/felts to tolerance, and reassess your diagnosis frequently. Here’s a saxual axiom to live by: Applying corrective action to the right place is imperative cuz fixing something that ain’t broke in saxophone set up/regulation will hopelessly exacerbate your problems. It may be that you need to work on target spots alternately until everything plays nice together. In some rare instances a saxophone’s design has D neither interacting with either E or your lower stack slave pad. While that makes setting up your lower stack less complicated, it also means that some alternate fingerings won’t be available to the player of this instrument.

The reason we are being so darned careful to make EVERY design facet of your saxophone work properly is just so all the possible alternate fingerings WILL be available to anyone that plays this instrument. There are those among us of great saxual acuity, and those of us who aspire to such, so we don’t want our failure to address every set up/regulation design detail to hinder this saxophone’s performance potential. You have to think in terms of both standard fingerings AND altissimo in order to achieve the sort of ‘Total Saxophone’ set up that top players demand. This brings up the subject of test play routines. In order to completely assess a saxophone’s set up/regulation — IOW, playing condition — your test play routine must exploit the instrument’s full capabilities. That means you must execute every alternate fingering, every scale and every possible interval jump in order to effectively evaluate your set up/regulation work. Furthermore, your saxophone must be able to execute these essential test play elements at either PPP or FFFF. Include long tones in your test regimen, too. Make sure that every note sounds immediately and in full tone, at minimum & maximum volume levels, regardless of the articulation you employ (hint: no articulation is the most difficult note initiation method, so is the method that best addresses a saxophone’s response issues. In the case of alternate fingerings, each must have acceptable sound quality and intonation, considering the design limits of this particular saxophone. Speaking of which, are you beginning to get the idea that all saxophones are NOT created equal. Good for you. Now you have the capability to understand why certain saxophone brands/models play & sound differently, and nebulous concepts like why there are so danged many alternate altissimo fingerings. Things like available keywork facets, bore taper, and both tone hole placement & size do differ among saxophones. It’s a fact of life we have to live with — and these differences affect how a saxophone plays, sounds and responds. Adolphe Sax just got us started down a road that has lots of curves, bumps & pot holes…plus a lot of very beautiful scenery… :)

OK, saxual philosophy session over for now. Those of you who are working with saxophones that have G# on your main stack rod need to remove your fitted stack keys, apply oil as described above, then reassemble your lower stack, including G#. If your G# is on a separate rod, install it now, oiling as prescribed. [This is the last time I will say 'as described/prescribed' concerning oiling, but go through the steps for proper oiling any time you are installing a key on your saxophone for (hopefully) the final time.] We now all have our lower stack, plus G# on our saxophone. Slip your leak light in, close F, E & D one at the time, and check to see that each respective key closes without a leak, and that both the slave pad and G# do, too. If your D pad is designed to close E, then D must close every key on your saxophone at this point, except for F. Should the described actions not occur in each respective case, you need to go back over your steps and figure out what’s wrong. Once your lower stack is interacting properly — both within itself, and relative to G# — it is time to add bis Bb and check your lower stack actions again. You should get the same result as when only G# was added to the lower stack, but with bis Bb now closing, too. This is where you will truly earn the money you are (hopefully) saving by doing this repad DIY. :) 

If all is well you deserve a large serving of your favorite adult beverage and a big hug (at the very least) from your significant other (you can tell ‘em Bear sez so, too). You now have a functioning lower stack, sans fork Eb, if applicable, and which we will add later. Remove the bis Bb until we get to the upper stack. we’ll tackle that next…


To Be Continued…
We will be adding more of the steps in the systematic set up/regulation process for your saxophone as time permits. The point we have reached thus far in this order of things has served my purposes well if it has caused one of three possible sets of thoughts on my readers’ part. 1) If you have the mechanical savvy, tools, supplies and equipment to permit you to successfully work on your own saxophones, then you have a valuable start to help you avoid some basic mistakes right out of the gate. 2) If you do not really intend to work on your own saxophone, but are simply trying to gain insight into how your instrument functions as a complex machine (which is a VERY good reason to be reading in the CS Q&A section), you have already gained a healthy appreciation for the details that go into the repad/set up/regulation process on which you depend to assure your tool of the trade does not misfire under the pressures of your musical performances. Furthermore, you have a better appreciation for what to expect from ‘bargain basement’ saxophone repads, and what extensive & detailed thought a truly qualified set up artist is putting into your saxophone (in return for their fair charges for this extremely important service that they perform for you). [And if we have helped you to simply avoid saxual molestation caused by loss-leader repad offers (often a bait-and-switch proposition, as well) our purpose is also well served] 3) Or, you were contemplating a repad of your own saxophone and have now realized that you need much more information, experience, basic metal working skills, tools, supplies and equipment before proceeding. If you fall into the basic requisites of our 3rd purpose and are still bent on giving it a go, you have my sympathy. You have at least as good a shot at overhauling your car’s engine with the tools, supplies & equipment found around your house — on your first try — as you do successfully repadding your saxophone, using essentially those same resources.



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