How Modern Saxophones Are Built
(based on a tour of the Yanagisawa 
manufacturing facility in Tokyo) 

We at CyberSax are fortunate to count as friends both a noted saxophone collector and an accomplished player who are trusted within the world class Yanagisawa manufacturing facility in Tokyo. On a recent visit they obtained permission to take these photos to document the saxophone manufacturing process. We are both pleased and honored to be able to share these rare views with our many worldwide friends and visitors who crave this sort of detailed knowledge about our beloved instrument.

 Over 500 different pieces of material are processed in order to build a modern saxophone, and arguably no one on the planet builds them better than the fine crafts persons and engineers at Yanagisawa in Tokyo, Japan. Whether these fine instruments are crafted of mere brass or of the more exotic metals like solid sterling silver, the Yanagisawa saxophones are admired the world over for craftsmanship, mechanical precision and intonation. Though all Yanagisawa saxophones are truly world class, perhaps the most undeniably superior examples are of the curved soprano. Pictured above are mint examples of the SC900 and it’s predecessor of some 20 years, the Prima. If it says anything of the Yanagisawa tradition for excellence, these two, along with an A990 alto and T990 tenor are the only new saxophones in the CyberSax collection (which consists of nearly 100 instruments!). And yes, we bought them of our own free will long before we had any formal introduction to the Yanagisawa organization. Now, please follow with us along the trail as we observe how cut pieces of bare brass are processed to form a perfectly finished saxophone ….

The saxophone body starts from milled brass sheet, which is cut into patterns that are formed into the tapered body tube with the aid of powerful presses and precision engineered tooling. After forming, the open seam must be silver soldered (welded, as the term relates to brass) to complete the air tight body tube. 

After the body tube is formed the tone holes are carefully located and drawn, from the inside out, in a process known as extrusion. Precision machinery locates the exact center for each tone hole before the extrusion process proceeds. This is an extremely critical phase of the manufacturing process because if the tone hole location is the slightest off its exact mark the intonation of the instrument will suffer. Tooled forms or molds keep both the inner and outer edges of the tone hole in perfect shape and attitude during the extrusion process. After extrusion, the tone hole rims are machined to exact height and leveled into plane so they match up with the keywork which is to come. By now I can sense that you all are developing a healthy respect and admiration for the sophisticated equipment and skilled craftsmanship required to build a quality saxophone … 

Special processes are required to form bells, necks and bows. The bell flare is formed by a process called ‘spinning’ (center), where the tube spins at high speed while a craftsman applies pressure with a special tool to shape the flare and rolled edge. Visualize a potter at the wheel, gently nudging clay into a desired shape with the hand. The pressures and speeds required to shape brass are of course much different, but the techniques are similar. Right: tapered tubing used to form necks is first bent to the main curve, then pressed over a metal forming tool called a mandrel to complete the shape and press out the flattening needed to properly form the main bend without rupturing the soft tubing metal. Above (right), we see alto, tenor and bari necks, in silver and brass at various stages of forming and polishing. Note that even silver tubing comes from the mill in a dull gray state before it is polished. Critical steps in completing sax necks that are not shown are drilling the octave vent and compressing the neck shoulder to fit the sax body tenon. Yanagisawa makes necks (and bells) of both brass and sterling silver. Silver is even softer than brass and it is very malleable.

A word about materials …

The bell and neck forming processes discussed on the previous page demonstrate the malleability (a metallurgical term) of brass, which is an alloy containing copper and zinc. Malleability is a relative softness which allows a metal to be shaped, but also includes a characteristic ability to hold it’s shape….under reasonable conditions of use. To better understand malleability think about other metals that have only one of the two important components of malleability. Lead is soft, but easily loses or changes shape. Iron stubbornly holds a shape, but due to its brittle nature cannot be worked into complex forms without first being melted and poured into molds. It is its malleability that caused pioneering craftsmen to select brass as the ideal material for forming musical instruments. These craftsmen understood that the ability to easily form and control shape was essential because it is shape and contour that dictate sound. As evidenced by the wonderful Grafton plastic saxophones made in England in the 1950′s, shape is more a determinant of sound than is the material of which an instrument is made. Over the years, production wind instruments have successfully been made of a number of materials: wood, silver, brass, plastic and copper, among them. Today, inexpensive student bassoons are made of polyurethane….a type of plastic material with a wide variety of uses, including irrigation piping and trash bags! What future saxophones will be made of is anyone’s guess, but for now brass and/or sterling silver set the standard for workability, sound and performance. As usual, Yanagisawa leads the way in saxophone material research and development. What next, Mr. Yani?

please continue on to page 2 of this presentation

you may also go directly to other pages of this article using these links:
page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4

Main Collection Hall Gallery Tech  Links

 Phone Sax: 918-625-9773 

email CyberSax