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Keilwerth Stencil Saxophones
Q.  Hi Bear: Do you know anything about a Keilwerth Stencil “The Oxford” made for Boosey & Hawkes? Curious about the quality. Am considering buying one and wish to have expert opinion. Would appreciate anything you could comment on. Thanks, Dave …

A. I’m not familiar with that one, but since B&H owns Keilwerth they’d have no incentive to short cut quality on a stencil. I’d say that if the sax has rolled tone holes it should be top drawer. If the tone holes are straight some corners were obviously cut on cost, but that would not necessarily mean the sax was bad. The acid test is how it plays & sounds. A good JSK stencil in proper playing condition has a big, fat sound and responds easily from top to bottom. Play it and see….hope that helps.
Additional Comments
Julius Keilwerth started his business in a small way in 1925 in rural Germany. The full story appears on the Boosey & Hawkes web site. JSK copied Conn designs, specifically the rolled tone hole, but so generally sometimes that his horns look a lot like the Conn ‘M’ series horns. Curiously, JSK did not use his own name on instruments, so they show up under many brands, and sometimes even say they were made in France. Common names on JSK saxes are ‘Graslitz’ & ‘Kohlert’ (often in combination with other names), and later he used ‘The New King’. Keilwerth stencils are often very ornate, with pearl touches on every key and sometimes even sheet metal key guards with the ‘JSK’ initials worked into the design from multiple views. If you ever run across a sax marked Germany that has rolled tone holes and a strange name, it is almost certainly a JSK stencil — or at least a horn over which he had influence. The story is that during the war the JSK craftsmen dispersed all over, and worked where ever they could. It was a very troubled time in that part of the world, but after the war JSK picked up the pieces and came out stronger than ever. The New King, Kohlert ’55 and Kohlert ’57 are all wonderful examples of JSK’s post war accomplishments.

JSK saxes appear with both right and left bell keys, and some tenors have neck tuners. The rolled tone holes on JSK horns are not achieved like on Conns, either. Instead of turning the metal of the tone hole itself into the ring, as Conn did, JSK cuts the holes off level and then solders a wire ring on top (You might want to see our article on tone holes). The effect is the same, but with reduced labor cost and throughput time. There are implications on damage repair with the JSK technique, as well. While we say JSK copied Conn, he also took their ideas as inspiration and tried to improve on them. He was an innovator, for sure. 

In 1960 my parents bought me a new Kohlert ’57 tenor that I played professionally for years and still have to this day. It’s sound is big and fat like a 10M, and the old beast has buttery response. We picked up another Kohlert ’57 tenor recently and I sent it to a friend in Texas so he could see how these great horns play. This gentleman had a new Selmer Reference 54 that he just wasn’t satisfied with, so I wanted him to try some horns before he jumped into another deal that didn’t work. He arranged to have a nice Mark VI arrive at the same time. Of course he found out what we already knew, that a Keilwerth stencil (priced at a fraction of the Selmers) blew them both away in terms of sound and response. If Texans know one thing, it’s breeding stock, so the Ref 54 is out to pasture and a brand new Anniversary SX 90R is standing stud. Of course the Kohlert would have played just as good for him — and cost him a lot less money … but don’t get me started on Texans … ;-)

Stencil Saxophone Quality
Q.  Any insight into the quality of vintage stencil saxes from around the 20′s? Mark …

A. I don’t know that ‘quality’ is the word I would pick in order to distinguish between the various stencil saxes of the 1920s. That’s because the concept of cutting back on quality by using thinner metals and cutting corners by changing processes & using workers of lower skill wasn’t on the radar screen back then. A stencil sax from the 1920s would be from the same body tube as the branded line, though the keywork might not include ‘extras’ like the front F, G# trill or fork Eb. I say ‘might not’ because
these stencils were made to a cost spec, and depending on the priorities of the stencilee, the instrument could have either less or more features than the branded horns of a builder. Lyon & Heally (the harp people), for instance, ordered full featured, highly decorated saxes that rivaled the top line of the stencilers. L&H stencils are almost always silver plated, and frequently have gold plated keys and gold inlaid engraving. Harwood, on the other hand, ordered mostly brass finish horns with less than full keywork and often not even pearled finger touches. The underlying horn in each case, however, is basically the same as far as tone quality and mechanical function.

Conn did not generally offer features like rolled tone holes or neck tuners on stencil saxes, but the underlying horns have the same body tube and keywork. Conn also didn’t offer the straight neck C-Melody generally as a stencil. Instead you usually see the serpentine neck models in Conn stencils. With Conn though, you never say ‘never’, and I have seen one straight neck Conn C-Melody with rolled tone holes & neck tuner that did not bear the Conn name.

In general, the quality & functionality of 1920s stencil saxes follows that of the builder’s branded line. That changed in the early 1930s though. After the U.S. builders had gone through their re designs in order to meet the Selmer challenge, they no longer built stencil saxes from their leading designs. Starting in the early 1930s you see stencil saxes with the body & keywork of the older designs, modified to accept a bell with two left tone holes for the low B & Bb. At first glance these saxes look like their
current branded counterparts, but they are mechanically different. Even here, I still would not use the word ‘quality’ to make a distinction, because the stencil horns were built as well as that design ever was. They just did not have the full array of current features. If you think the 1920s designs were obsolete and died out long ago, consider this: The Conn ‘Shooting Stars’ model of the 60s & 70s is a ‘Chu Berry’ with two left bell holes, and the early Selmer Bundy is a True Tone with left bell holes.

You have to get into the late 1950s & 1960s before you see thinner metals & pressed components that are obviously less sturdy than their vintage counterparts. At that point I would agree that quality was lower in both stencil saxes and in some of the branded lines.

Additional Comments
We get asked a lot whether the vintage saxes from the 1920s-30s-40s are ‘professional’ models. The concept of ‘Student’, ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Professional’ model instruments is relatively new, developing sometime after W.W. II. Until about 1930 there were the branded horns and the stencils, all of which were the best the builders could muster. Beginning in the 1930s the older designs continued to be produced (as discussed above) along with new and greatly improved instruments, but all these designs had at one time been the builders’ best. These early saxophones were designed to perform to the individual musicians’ capabilities, and if you have any doubt that a 1920s Conn can keep up just take a listen to the work of Leon ‘Choo’ Berry from the links below (BTW, we’ve come to write the name ‘Chu’, but the man was actually called ‘Choo’ by his contemporaries).

Chu’s ‘A’ Train Solo Chu Berry Jam Chu’s ‘Jive’ Solo

Between the late 1930s & the 1950s Conn, Buescher & Martin each introduced dressed down versions of their stencil lines and began to target them to the school band market. You will recognize these models as ‘Pan American’, ‘Elk Hart’ and ‘Indiana’, respectively. Today these are some of the more sought after, lower priced vintage saxes by people in the know, and many music educators & professionals seek out these saxes for their own children to play. The reason is simple: they are simply dressed down examples of proven saxophone designs. Unfortunately, that’s far from the case with today’s ‘student’ saxophones. In fact, the distinctions between ‘Student’, ‘Intermediate’ & ‘Professional’ models are virtually meaningless because there is no objective standard that applies so that we can distinguish between the classes. A model is whatever the marketer wants to call it, with only price — the most unreliable standard of all — on which to make a determination. 

Seek out a great vintage sax if you want to be sure you are getting a timeless design of top quality — and a fantastic value. Unless you are willing to spend the really big bucks on a new horn — and restrict yourself to only a handful of top drawer names — you are quite likely to shell out an inflated price for a horn you may not even be able to resell at less than half what you paid. Vintage saxes, on the other hand, will make you money if you take proper care and maintain them — so make a sound investment …

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