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|Q. I’m a student in the United Kingdom, and am wondering if I can get some information from you about the materials that are used in the production of saxophones. It’s for a physics project I am doing. Cheers, Michael.
A. Thanks for writing, Michael. It’s nice to meet you. In musical instrument construction, the materials used to fabricate the structure are a secondary factor to shape. Shape is the overall controlling factor in what a musical instrument will sound like when played. In a way, shape flows more smoothly and completely into the physics aspect of musical instrument design. Fabrication techniques – force, heat, joining of parts – being the only real physics issues that come to bear in the actual manufacturing process. So in a way, materials are more associated with chemistry – and its specialized arm of metallurgy – than with physics.
Over the years saxophones have been made primarily of brass, but other metals have been used, as well. The Grafton plastic saxophones produced in Great Britain in the 1950s-60s timeframe prove that metal isn’t at all necessary for forming a saxophone’s body tube, reinforcing the premise that shape trumps material in determining musical instrument sound characteristics. Think about the clarinet for a moment. Clarinets are made of metal (brass, plated in nickel or silver), wood (many types), hard rubber and plastic composites. We can debate which material produces the finest clarinets, but any of these instruments unmistakably SOUND like a clarinet. Ditto saxophones made of the various materials. When we discuss how materials influence a saxophone’s sound we are merely discussing sound nuances — the evaluation of which are quite subjective. Players are especially unreliable sources for evaluating saxual sonic nuances because of the complex human psychological and physical factors that come to bear. All of our ears are not created equal. We do not all perceive a sound we hear in the same way. Furthermore, players tend to have a fixed ‘ideal’ saxophone sound in their heads that they are driven to attempt to produce from their instruments. This complex psychological process of being driven often precludes rational evaluation of the sound itself. So, what difference does it really make what a saxophone is made of if players and audiences have multiple — often conflicting — perceptions of the sounds they hear?
Then, there’s the matter of what mouthpiece/reed/ligature configuration you put on your saxophone. Truly, this is the single factor that has the most influence on the sound a given saxophone will produce. Since mouthpieces are a venture in solid geometry, the complex shape of the inner chamber can vary infinitely in its potential to influence a saxophone’s sound…then you have to account for the prospect that no two human oral facilities are exactly the same. So, the potential for the sound your saxophone will make starts with the player’s oral facility, traverses to the mouthpiece itself, then finally to the shape of the instrument’s body tube. Once these primary powers have done their work we have influences from secondary factors such as pad types, key heights & lifts (among other mechanical set up options), general playing condition, then finally, of what material the body tube might be made. A coating of dried spit and molds inside a body tube can alter the tube shape enough to influence sound, as well — more so than body tube material. Why? Because anything you coat the inside of a saxophone with alters its shape — and that’s a primary determinant of sound …
Saxophone materials: So what? That may not be what you wanted to hear, my friend, but at least now you know the pecking order. With today’s sophisticated, computerized manufacturing capabilities we can physically make a saxophone out of almost any material. So what? The brass ones are just fine. They may have some solid silver parts, or maybe plating (of various thickness) in nickel, silver, copper or gold (maybe several layers of different plating materials). We know we can make plastic saxophones that play as well as any other horn, and sound amazingly good. There have been experimental uses of bronze (nominally), solid copper or silver and German silver (aka nickel-silver). Oddly, German silver is NOT silver at all, but an alloy of nickel and zinc. So what? Tell me what mouthpiece you want and I’ll tell you how a sax made of any type of material will sound – as closely as it is possible to predict. Of course my prediction will be based on my own personal perception, experience and musical taste. That is as it should be of course. After all, if a saxophone is played in the woods and there is no one to hear — no music has been made …
Aside from the body tube, many other materials go into making your saxophone perform as a music producing machine. Lest we forget, that’s the purpose of all our saxual machinations: making music. Cork is a very important saxophone material. Cork comes in many grades, and like ham, can either be the straight stuff, or a disappointing form that has been ground, mixed with added solutions and adhesives, then shaped in a molding process. This sort of ‘composite cork’ is a disappointing substitute — the Spam of our saxophone world. Insist that your sax tech use a quality grade of ‘real’ cork on your saxophone, especially for your neck cork. If you see a new saxophone offered with this Spam cork product on its neck run — don’t walk — away as fast as you can. That’s a sure sign that the manufacturer cut corners on the materials that went into your saxophone.
Both cork & felt are used throughout your saxophone to set the tolerances that make your keys work together effectively, and to quiet noises. Often referred to as ‘bumpers’, the function of these cork and felt inserts goes much farther than that term implies. A top sax tech will spend hours when setting up your sax assuring that each cork or felt is perfectly placed and sized so that the precise thicknesses required to set your saxophone’s critical play adjustment tolerances exist. We do this with very fine grades of sandpaper, cut into strips so that it can be pulled through your saxophone’s keywork to precisely shape and thin each cork or felt to a precise thickness. And yes, felt can be sanded — provided that it is the correct weight and quality of real wool felt. As with cork, felt comes in grades & weights, as well as in real and synthetic fibers. If you’ve ever seen a felt bumper on one of your large lower pads that leans like the Tower of Pisa, you have seen low quality felt on a saxophone. Learn to find a way to get access to bumpers on a horn you are considering so that you can give ‘em a little squeeze. The felt should be quite firm. If it’s mushy, that’s another saxual danger sign. Of course you can have these large bumper felts replaced easy enough, but be forewarned of the implication that the instrument you are considering was set up in a less than quality manner. Avoid new horns with mushy felts altogether, and factor the likelihood of a vintage horn needing the complete play set up redone into your evaluation process.
While we’re on the subject of set up and the materials used by sax techs, many modern materials can make for a slick setup and smooth, trouble free action. At CS we use sheet Teflon at every friction point where it is possible to get it to stick & stay. The difference a few well placed Teflon strips can make in your keywork mechanisms is astounding. Something you also will see on saxophones today is various forms of plastic or Teflon tubing. This tubing is placed on round parts of your saxophone to act as bumpers or spacers. There is both good and bad news in this scenario. If plastic shrink tubing (tubing that shrinks when heat is applied to form a tight fit over contours) is used in the wrong places on your saxophone it actually adds friction to your mechanisms. This thin plastic tubing (usually black, but can be other colors) needs a teflon strip on opposite surfaces where there is a rotation or sliding motion. Otherwise — just like with cork — the mechanism tends to bind when urged into motion as you select your saxophone’s keys during performance. About the only place we see a good use for tubing on round parts is the octave actuator pin that operates your neck octave pad. Even then, if you don’t have Teflon tubing available it is helpful to place a Teflon strip on the inner edge of the neck activator ring. Such details that you may observe in a saxophone you are considering are good signs. When you see extensive use of Teflon, real cork and quality felts (all dyed to match) you know someone that knows what they are doing — and who cares about how the saxophones they work on perform — has set the instrument up.
We still need to consider some additional materials to complete a saxophone’s mechanics & play set up. Pads alone are a quite complex subject that I think I will leave to another discussion, but pads should include a good quality leather (sheep or goat), a hard, real felt inner, a heavy cardboard or metal backing, and glue and/or heavy thread to hold the pad together. In addition, we see rivets (steel or plastic) to hold resonators in place, and that anchor the center of the pad to prevent the inner materials and leather surface from shifting around as we play, and as the constant wet/dry cycles a saxophone endures stretches & relaxes the pad materials. Some pads even have a metal ring around the edge to keep the pad leather surface taunt, as in a drum head. The Conn Res-O-Pad is the most familiar example of this pad design strategy, but others have used the principle, too.
Today, almost every sax we see has resonators on its pads. These resonators come in all sizes and shapes, and are made of many different materials. The most common resonator materials are chrome plated steel and plastic, but you can find them in solid silver, bronze, aluminum or copper, too. The shapes and sizes of resonators varies widely. There are flat, thin metal ones, domed metal or plastic ones, cone shaped plastic ones, and all manner of crinkle cut or machined metal ones. Any tech worth his salt knows that the size and shape of resonators must be taken into consideration in setting up your saxophone. Radical resonators require radical set up & fitting adjustments. Piling radical on top of radical is NOT a formula to assure dependable, trouble free operation of a complex machine like your saxophone. Great music has been made for decades without the need for radical saxophone resonators, yes? So when you’re considering a set of whoopy-do radical resos for your horn please ask yourself, “Am I just looking for a mental crutch — one that might bring me more trouble than good in the longer term?” Competent saxophonists can make great music on a horn with ordinary resonators; while with the incompetent, no trick add on is going to make any difference at all. As one pro player friend once observed about boutique pads and radical resonators: the only folks pushing ‘em are the ones that do repads for a living…’nuff said.
Some of the more visible secondary materials in your saxophone are the pearlescent touches added to your main stack keys and to rollers on your spatula keys. The very first saxophones had plain metal touches and no rollers. The earliest rollers I’ve seen were tiny hard rubber ones on a Conn alto made in 1895. By WWI spatula rollers were a standard design feature on American saxophones, and the better instruments had real mother of pearl (MOP) key touches. Rollers were still seen in hard rubber (Buescher), but were starting to be made of MOP in other brands. About 1932 we see the first use of plastic spatula rollers, but there are still some made of hard rubber. In fact, Buescher used a tan plastic roller on brass horns, but a black hard rubber roller on silver finish saxes. The yellowish rollers that start with our transitional Conns are plastic, so don’t get acetone or other high evap rate petroleum based cleaners on them. Most rollers & key touches are synthetic today, except on the finest saxophones.
The last materials we have to consider are those for your springs, rods and screws. I prefer plain old tempered alloy steel for all these parts, but there are issues that make other materials a reasonable alternative. For one thing, alloy steel will rust and/or corrode under less than ideal conditions. Enter treatments to combat rust and corrosion, such as bluing (as in guns) or stainless steel. Blued springs tend to be a bit brittle, which makes them quite hard to shape when setting a desired key response rate.
In theory, spring holes are drilled into saxophone posts at such an angle that a perfectly straight spring of the correct diameter to precisely fit the hole’s drill size will automatically exert the correct force. If you like the feel of machine made things I suppose that’s OK, but the problem is more complicated. For one thing, posts get resoldered, and spring holes wear with age — and what if you can’t get a replacement spring that has the EXACT amount of ‘springiness’ as the one you’re replacing? In short, there are more factors than you can shake a stick at that cause us to need to adjust a saxophone’s spring tensions. Personally, I’ve had more blued needle springs break off when trying to fit & tension them than I care to recall — and it’s almost always some spot where you have to tear a horn back down to remove the broken end stub from your post so you can get a replacement mounted. The old alloy steel springs like on the classic pre war American saxophones cause none of this trouble, but they are hard to find, save salvaging ‘em from old parts horns.
Stainless steel springs are useful at times, but they have their drawbacks. Since stainless springs are square cut at both ends (no needle taper) their loose end may not always seat well into the spring cradles of some of a saxophone’s keys. SS springs tend to be larger in diameter for a particular amount of springing force, which exacerbates this seating issue. Other than that, SS springs can be tensioned just like our old faithful alloy steel springs. Just don’t believe the catalog when it says one end has already been flattened for you, ready to press into your post hole. Count on doing some fitting with the hammer & jewelers’ anvil yourself. You will need to file off the end you cut to fit, as well. Otherwise the jagged edges left by your side cutters are both unsightly AND DANGEROUS. Getting poked with a needle spring is mostly annoying. Getting lacerated by a sharp burr on your SS spring will make you bleed. At CS we don’t like to mix SS springs in with our needle springs. We like to make the switch to all SS springs on our bare brass restos where the existing steel springs are mostly toast. Matched springs are still another way to judge the quality of a saxophone’s set up by examining the materials you can see & feel. BTW, we don’t like to change out springs unless they are broken or in danger of doing so. Steel springs can be cleaned easily & a horn’s original springs will always perform as the designer intended. It’s a lot of work to get replacement springs to where you can say that about them.
The last type of saxophone spring to consider is the very special Norton screw-in spring used by Buescher in the 1930s-40s-50s. These are gold plated steel springs with a special base that screws into a small threaded hole in the post. They come pre curved, but since there are a limited number of sizes you should expect to have to trim to length & adjust the tension. Norton springs are initially gold plated, but that invariably crinkles & flakes over long usage. The gold is quite thin, of course, so once it’s broken & the steel underneath starts to corrode/rust the party is pretty much over. It’s a fact of life that things done for beauty’s sake are rarely enduring.
We are now seeing some saxophone flat springs made of phosphor bronze (see the bronze link above), which won’t rust, but because they are a copper color may look a bit odd unless you replace all the flat springs on a horn at once. Replacing flat springs isn’t that difficult. It’s another matter of detail by which to identify superior tech work.
Your saxophone’s rods are invariably made of good old fashioned alloy steel, though we occasionally see some SS rods in the mix. Since SS does not have the strength of of alloy steel your SS rods will invariably be thicker. There are a number of associated implications for rod thickness. It’s not a bad thing to have oversized rods inside your key ferrules. In fact, B&S uses oversized rods on their fine saxophones to provide a smooth feel with increased leverage. Think of it like putting oversized tires on your automobile to improve the ride comfort. It’s the same sort of thing.
We also see some SS pivot screws and utility screws on saxophones. There are often brass utility screws on the finest instruments to fasten on keyguards, braces, and the like. Of course brass screws are much too soft for moving parts of your saxophone. While stainless pivot screws are not supposed to rust, they can and do become stuck at times. When SS screws stick you can experience significant problems removing them from tight spots, as on the lower mounts of a Mark VI’s spatula keys. The strength issue with stainless means the slots are easier to strip. If you don’t have a screwdriver with a dead-on match to your screw slot you are well on the way to a heartbreak over a stuck stainless screw.
The other annoying thing about stainless steel is that it isn’t magnetic. Why do you care? Well, If your tech drops an alloy steel screw on the floor (or worse places) in all likelihood they reach for a big magnet mounted on a stick to quickly sweep the carpet for a recovery. The satisfying ‘plop’ as your screw attaches to the magnet let’s you know the task is done. With stainless screws you do the old hands & knees routine — which is rougher on some of us than others — and invariably puts us in a fowl mood. Trust me, you do not want your tech in a fowl mood when your repair ticket gets priced. Fair or not, music is a human experience — and there is a human aspect to everything to do with your saxophone …
No discussion of saxophone materials is complete without mentioning adhesives. You know, the stuff that holds your corks, felts & pads in place. Without adhesives you’d be staring at a pile of stuff on the ground while your horn’s mechanism clanked about like a nursery school rhythm band. To say the least, there is a great deal of controversy over the correct type and manner of using saxophone adhesives. To work effectively on a saxophone a tech needs an adhesive that is strong, fast acting and will easily bond different materials (leather, cardboard, felt or cork to metals) together. You also need an adhesive that will not mar your instrument’s finish if it is accidentally spilled or leaked some place it should not be. These requirements vastly limit the potential universe of adhesives that can be used on a saxophone.
Sax techs typically use two different adhesives — one a chemical agent and the other a heat sensitive type. Most agree that contact cement is best for corks and felts, though some techs do use a heat sensitive type for everything. The main drawback to using heat sensitive adhesives is that they are rather messy when used outside of constrictions such as pad cups. If you’ve seen many older, unrestored saxophones I’ll bet you’ve seen the brownish runs caused by spilling hot (liquid) stick shellac on keys or body in the process of getting melted shellac from the heat source to its intended location on the horn. The stuff sets almost immediately in small quantities, especially when it strikes cold metal. As nasty as shellac is (it’s made of melted beetle bodies), it is also a fine heat sensitive adhesive. Just try to get those runs & spots off a horn if you doubt that premise. Until the recent development (say, maybe the last 25 years) of ‘clean’ heat sensitive glues, the melted bug guts option was the only choice. Since the musical instrument repair trade has traditionally been taught by the apprentice method, old habits are deeply ingrained in the trade. They die especially hard, and therein lies the basis for controversy over which heat sensitive adhesive to use — and how to use them.
I’ll surely get hate letters for saying this (the brave will write me direct, while the cowards just dis me on the web saxophone boards behind my back), but a good quality, high temp melt commercial hot glue is a fine pad adhesive. You need to get an even, thin layer over the entire cup surface, for sure, but once you’ve done the spreading job right your pads are in for good, and are readily adjustable for fine leveling by slightly heating your pad cups with an adjustable output heat gun (torches can burn lacquer). The contrarian view is that hot glue is a weaker and messier adhesive than shellac. Rubbish. All the old pads I’ve seen pop out of saxophone cups have had a mass of shellac on their backsides. As for the stringy/messy accusation, I submit the pic below of how pads mounted with stick shellac come out of their cups.
The other controversy involving mounting pads with your adhesive is how much adhesive goes under the pad. One school says you have to put a thick layer of adhesive in your cups so that you can float your pads level in this mushy, semi heated mass of adhesive. Hmm. Is the implication that you don’t have your saxophone’s mechanisms and tone holes in good mechanical alignment to begin with? I say do the job completely right and you need only a thin layer of adhesive inside your pad cups. If you mechanisms are aligned correctly, your tone holes & cups level, and you have selected the correct pad thickness for the instrument at hand, your sax will set up beautifully without the need for a thick, messy bed of adhesive underneath every pad. Having torn down countless original-pad vintage saxes I can tell you that the builders didn’t use beds of shellac under their pads. In fact, famous and innovative pad types such as the Buescher Snap-On, and Conn Res-O-Pad were specifically designed to function with no pad adhesive whatsoever. Buffet also used a screw-on resonator to hold pads in place on some of its Super Dynaction horns. So if your pad adhesive is part of your set up you are either leaving something undone or doing a lot of extra work.
There are a few other adhesive products that show up in the discussion of saxophone repair. One is something called ‘French Cement’, which resembles chewing gum on hot pavement in consistency. It goes on without heat, but will come off after heating the pad cup. There is usually a glob of the stuff when you encounter it, and boy is it messy. Some versions of it smell terrible, as well. Needless to say we avoid French Cement at CS whenever possible. Another substance you see in instrument repair kits is called ‘pad cement’. It’s a first aid treatment — not meant for permanent repairs. Over the years I’ve found all manner of wild, smelly and messy substances under pads. I don’t know what they were and I certainly don’t care to know (beyond the desire to avoid them, of course). You can do anything you need to do on a saxophone using common contact cement for corks, felts & Teflon, and a good high melt temp grade of commercial hot glue for pads.
If you search the stores for ‘modern’ adhesive products you can find more exotic substitutes that work. Before diving into these products I urge you to please read the labels. I have seen specialty adhesive products espoused as ‘wonderful’ for use on saxophones that have some pretty scary warnings on their labels. I sure don’t want to breathe these chemicals or get them on my body — and I sure as heck don’t want a cork or felt falling off your horn and ending up in the mouths of your kids or pets. Being innovative carries with it the obligation to be responsible, as well.