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Leaks & Saxophone Mechanism Issues
Q.  Received the leak light and found a few already. Tough to fix! I really enjoy your packaging. What do I do with the pencil torch? I’m a model airplane enthusiast and tools like this are very handy. Thanks!  Wally (who just purchased a leak light and some other tools from CyberSax and seems to need some coaching).


A. Leaks aren’t as hard to fix as you might think. The leather pad surfaces are always changing due to the effects of being wet and dry, and tiny bumps can change a key’s alignment. The cork spacers between key contacts can shrink, wear or fall off, too, so a saxophone is constantly changing. We don’t like ‘em to have leaks, but the tiny ones that you can barely see in total darkness don’t affect play that much. You need to really understand the mechanism in order to fix leaks, of course, and depending on which keys, the tactics differ. Often there is a bit of scum or debris on the pad or rim that causes a space. Try cleaning both the pad and rim with either water or acetone on a Qtip – or even do the dollar bill trick. That type leak sometimes looks ‘saw toothed’. If you see one you’ll know what I mean. That effect is the texture of the leather passing light through. Next step with the tiny ones that aren’t in much of an arc is just to ‘fluff’ that area of the pad. This is just like fluffing a pillow, because the stuff inside that pad has shrunk away or warped itself from the wet/dry cycles. The back side of a large sewing needle is a good tool, or your fingernail, if you can get to the spot. Anything that will reach and not damage the leather will work. I suppose if you had a ball point pen that was out of ink you could hang on to it for the purpose, or maybe put some plastic wrap over the tip of a working pen.

Don’t over react just cuz you’ve got a light. If you were happy with the way the horn played before you looked then you should still be happy. It’s a lot like finding out who all your wife slept with before you met her. It doesn’t change anything current, but you think about it a lot. I suppose the analogy for regular checks so you know when a ‘real’ and new leak develops in your ax is heading off trouble on the home front by being the best spouse you know how to be. It’s required maintenance – something you need to do as a matter of habit to assure the status quo. Check your sax once a week or so with your light and your saxual heartaches will be minimum (you will always have to initiate it ;-).  BTW, don’t operate that light without the end cap on it. You might want to glue that puppy on, but then if the tube goes bad you would have to get another cord kit, too. If you run across that rope light material – and a lot of lighting stores have it — you can get them to cut you a piece twice as long (36″), which is handy for larger saxes, like tenors and baris.

Now, about that torch….first, those are some more old stock from when we used to sell tool kits. I’ve never worked so hard for a few bucks in my life, so tools ain’t us anymore. :-)  Pads are installed with a heat sensitive glue. In the past it was stick shellac, but today many techs are switching to the modern hot glue sticks. The pad floats on a bed of glue, more or less. When you get a leak with a substantial arc the first thing you need to try is to re align that pad on its bed of glue. You have to heat the pad cup to soften the glue so the pad will move for you. Caution, though, the motion can only be up & down. NEVER rotate a pad in the cup cuz you will misalign the pad imprint to its tone hole and that means the pad will have to be replaced. When you heat a cup keep the torch moving in a circular pattern. Even with the low heat from butane you can burn lacquer, so be careful. You can be a little more casual with plated surfaces that aren’t lacquered (your silver tenor), and if you get a little haze from the heat it will polish off with your Hagerty’s Silver Duster cloth we sent with the horn.

Once you’ve heated the pad cup, press it firmly, but gently closed (it’s hot so use a rag to protect your fingers) and hold it there until the glue has set back up. If glue oozes out around the edges of your pad you pressed too hard, so go easy until your ‘floating’ chops come around. On some keys you can block them with a piece of cork or wood shaped as a wedge (old reeds are great for this if you break them off evenly at a point where the slope starts to form a wedge – maybe about the 1/32″ thickness point. If that doesn’t do it, then re heat the cup and try pulling the pad out a little at the center of the leak’s arc (the point of a needle is a good tool), then close the pad with very light pressure until it cools. If that still doesn’t do it the cup has gotten bent to a point that the pad will no longer come into plane with the tone hole, which means you have to bend the cup back into position. Of course the pad could also have multiple warps which means it has to be replaced (I never said this was simple :).

If you find you need to replace a pad we can sell you singles providing you can measure the cup accurately (there’s no such thing as a standard size for certain brands and their keys) and tell us the type pad you need. We stock Buescher snap ins, Conn Reso-Pads, and a good flat metal reso pad from Ferree’s Tools. We have a few nylon buttons and some plain pads, too, but not a full size array as with the one’s we stock. When measuring pads either do it in centimeters or to the 1/32nd inch level. If you like we’ll bracket them over and under so you’re more likely to have the exact fit – sorta like good photogs do with their exposure times and stops. Some things in life are worth making sure of …

Speaking of never, NEVER take bending stuff on a saxophone lightly, but by following the steps, you can be pretty certain the cup needs to be straightened. This isn’t as frightening a prospect as it first seems. The technique is to put something between the pad and tone hole rim on the opposite side from the center of the leak arc to wedge the pad open, then press down at the center of the leak arc. The gradual approach is called for; so if the first light presses don’t do the trick then press a little harder next time. If you over correct you will need to work back the opposite way. Be patient and go slowly. What you put as your wedge between the pad and tone hole rim is an issue. Obviously it needs to be flat, or perhaps slightly wedge shaped (because pads do not raise straight up in their operation). The material cannot be harder than brass or you risk damage to the tone hole rim. If your tool is too wide it won’t go into tight places, and if it’s too narrow you risk making an indentation in the pad that you will then have to fix. There are special tools, of course, but teflon spatulas can substitute adequately. There is a teflon orange peeler on the market that works really well, too. (hint: the kitchen stuff racks at Wally World are a good place to start looking). We’ve also used sheet cork in a pinch, or even folded paper …

Pads that don’t respond to this series of operations probably need to be replaced, or perhaps the pad cup itself is out of round or out of plane with itself (meaning if you put it face down on a flat surface without a pad installed it would not lie flat). Take that sort of thing to a tech cuz the fix is going to require pounding that key cup with a special rawhide mallet (yup, off the horn). It’s called leveling a pad cup in the tech’s vernacular. This is an operation NOT for the ill equipped or squeamish do-it-yourselfer, It’s definitely in the ‘don’t try this at home’ category for most of our visitors … :-)

Leaks that do not take the form of an arc (in other words, you see a gap where the pad does not meet the rim anywhere) can occur on the keys that work in combination with one another. The fix depends on whether you are dealing with the driving key or the driven key, and usually requires adjusting the thickness of the cork or felt spacers that make up what we call the saxophone’s ‘set up’. Corks and felts that have become damaged or compressed and no longer provide the correct thickness to do their job (providing the correct spacing between key contacts) must usually be replaced. Sometimes with undamaged cork that has shrunk or compressed from key action we can get away with inserting another thinner layer of material – cork, teflon sheet, or even paper in a pinch — to make the clearance right again. Cork or felt that is too thick can be sanded to the proper thickness, but make darned sure you don’t have a compound problem with combination keys before you take the sandpaper strips out of the drawer. This is another place where slow and cautious is only way. Leaks that are not due to the setup can occur in combination keys, too — and even super nasty compound leaks from more than one source can occur (see below). Part of fixing these leaks is a good diagnosis, otherwise the water is going to be much deeper and swifter than you thought. :-(

Of course before you tackle leaks you will want to study the saxophone’s mechanisms so that you understand who does what to whom — and when. Spend some time observing the different ways that a saxophone’s keys function and you will reap huge dividends in your understanding of your instrument. Some keys are normally closed (palm keys) and some normally open (stacks, low C, B, Bb). Some keys are sprung by needles (stacks, Low Eb & Bb) and some by flat springs (palm keys, neck octave vent). Some are independent (high E) and some are either drivers (stack F & E) or driven (the unnamed key at the top of each stack). Some keys can operate either independently or be driven (low B high F). Some are double or even compound springed (G# & octave mechanism). Some keys make a ‘selection’ depending on the action of other keys (G#, octave mechanism). Some keys are mounted on steel rods (palm keys & some stack keys), while some are supported at each end by pivot screws (high E, low Db). Some keys operate in a rotary fashion (stacks & low Eb, C), then some sit on a teeter-totter (palm keys & neck octave arm), while still others have compound mechanisms using both modes of motion (side C, octave mechanism). You will find that older saxophone designs use more steel rods, while the current trend is to use more pivot screws. Modern horns also tend to have adjusting screws instead of cork or felt at some of the particularly troubling combination intersections (G# & bis Bb). Some saxophones like the Conn Conquerors had these adjusting mechanisms at every key intersection – which is more an issue of what a designer can do than what they SHOULD do. A few more adjusting screws in the stack combinations can be nice, but that’s about the limit as far as this Bear is concerned. Too many of the darned things and they will either get loose & lost — or frozen…either of which is a nightmarish experience exceeded only by the laughter when you go to your supplier to ask for replacements … :-(

I’m sure I left somebody out, but that’s pretty much saxophone adjustment and care 101. That’s enough to have swirling around one’s head, anyway. Once the gelatinous matter returns to a semi solid state you will likely never think of your saxophone in the same way again. Going back to the relationship analogies, I suppose the difference that understanding your horn makes in your life is a lot like making the transition from a young man out to please yourself, to becoming a mature man who understands fully that to please oneself you must first please your partner. To traverse such paths in life requires, first of all, enlightenment — the ability to see what you do not know. You will find your leak light is the second stage to achieving your saxual enlightenment. If you are reading this now you have achieved the first stage … :)

Now go have some fun …

Additional Comments
Leaks come in 4 basic types that call for different strategies. Type one is a spot leak or a serrated ‘saw toothed’ leak (think about the mouth of a Halloween pumpkin). These may clear up with a good cleaning of the tone hole rim and pad surface. They can also be caused by a damaged pad or one with too deep a pad impression, which means the best bet is change it out.

Type two is a small spot leak that looks like a little gap that takes up only a few degrees of the 360 degree tone hole circumference. These can be ‘fluffed’ as mentioned above if the pad is in good condition. You may have to repeat the fluffing periodically as the pad is played and suffers additional wet/dry cycles. If you get a light and use it regularly you can keep your sax free of type one and two leaks and you will enjoy a much better response from your horn. To our minds not enough players do this and with the price of the flexible, portable leak lights around $20 there is little excuse not to have one.

Type three is an arc leak or more accurately a crescent shaped leak since it isn’t really one dimensional. An arc, of course, is a portion of a circle’s circumference. In this type leak the pad is not resting level on the tone hole surface. In other words, the surfaces of the pad and the tone hole rim cannot meet flush because they are not aligned in parallel planes (brush up on that high school geometry you thought you’d never need). Our many engineer friends are probably going, “kewal” at the moment, which is cool by us, too. We deal pretty well with this sort of leak in the answer to Wally, but another dim prospect to consider is that the tone hole rim isn’t level (in a plane with itself), so no matter what you do to the pad the leak still persists. Again, it’s time to buy lunch for your favorite sax tech. :-) This serious situation is not likely to just ‘develop’ in a sax you’ve owned and had properly maintained, so unless you damage your otherwise healthy instrument you can sleep peacefully. If you buy a used horn from an unsure source, though (eBay, anyone?), or practice a lot of casual sax — like loaning your horn to buds that especially like Bud — you might should stock up on the seratonin.

Type four leaks are the ones where there is clearly an open gap between the tone hole rim and pad surface. These type leaks indicate a set up issue that is best handled by a pro unless you are experienced at such a matter. Every tech in the country — and many who are not — is going to cringe when I say this, but the best way to learn about setting up a sax is to persuade a good tech to let you watch. Now this is akin to some to asking to hide in their bedroom closet, so a lot of greasing may be in order before the subject is even broached. That means a lot of lunches, a dinner or two, and a good bottle of scotch here and there — but well worth it cuz the instrument repair trade has traditionally been taught by the apprentice method. That’s the main reason the literature shelves under ‘sax repair’ are so bare. We are trying to make up that gap, though, as this new area of our site demonstrates. If you can’t crack your tech write to tha ole Bear & we will try to walk you through your situation. The only cost to you (at the present) is to humor ole Bear and at least make him think you don’t skid right past his philosophic ramblings. Once a guy reaches the prime of maturity he feels like he’s got a right, you know? ;-)

Keep in mind that these types of leaks can be compounded, either mixed between the types on one pad or in the case of the combination keys on your sax, you might even find two type fours affecting a single pad — or two type fours and one (or more) of types one and two, plus a type three…better make that scotch for your tech a single malt … :-)

Now that I’ve scared you half to death, if you invest in a leak light and just handle the ones and twos for your self in between necessitated visits to your tech you will be rewarded personally, creatively and financially. Your sax will play great longer and your tech will be a lot happier, too. For one thing, he can concentrate on the stuff that makes him the big bucks…and then there’s all that scotch … ;-)


It was never more true that discretion is the greater part of valor than when you are contemplating working on your own ax. Know your capabilities (and limitations) before tearing into your horn, and especially before you alter something that cannot be undone — like when you sand a cork or the glue squirts out from under your pads. Make sure you have the right tools for any job before you start, plus any supplies that might be needed like felts, corks, glue, springs, pads, etc., etc., etc. You can always write us here for advice. Just explain the problem and what you are considering doing about it — and write BEFORE you start any corrective action. Remember: a horn that plays lousy is better than a horn that doesn’t play at all…and always remember Bear’s Prime Directive about your ax:

Never Mess With A Good Playing Saxophone
 



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