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Custom key risers

SugruI'm always on the look-out for new products that might prove useful to woodwind players, and this often involves looking a little further afield than retail catalogues of musical instrument accessories.

A good example would be the use of cigarette lighter fluid as a pad degreasant, or vinegar for cleaning built-up crud from mouthpieces and removing corrosion spots from brass.
So I was rather excited when I chanced across a new product called Sugru that's being marketed as a ready-made silicone rubber putty.

Silicone putty itself isn't a new idea, modellers have been using it for years to make casts and moulds, but it's generally only available as a two-part pourable mix. It's too thin to be of much use for hand-shaping, and works out quite expensive because of the size of the pots it's sold in. It also doesn't quite have the density of Sugru, which is an important requirement in this case.

The product has thousands of uses - you can use it to fix things, adapt or improve things, make, stick and generally have a good time bunging on almost anything - and it occurred to me that it might be an answer to a particular problems that's been the bane of many saxophone players for years now...the palm key riser.
Palm key risers are used to increase the height of the palm keys - typically the top D, Eb and F keys, but can also be found on the side trill keys too. Many players find these keys have their touchpieces set too low for speed and comfort, and the addition of a riser can help matters considerably.
Rubber riserThe riser itself is typically a rubber 'sock' that slips over the key's touchpiece, and hangs on by friction alone. The problem is that friction isn't always enough, and many players resort to gluing the risers on. This leads to worries about whether the glue will damage the finish, or whether it will be strong enough.
It also tends to be a one-size-fits-all solution. If you need a larger riser - tough. Likewise if you only need a small riser.
In an effort to overcome this problem some players have resorted to gluing cork and other materials to the touchpieces - or have opted for quite expensive (but good) solutions such as the Oleg range of key enhancers.

Sugru overcomes all these issues by virtue of providing almost limitless customisability. If you want a taller riser - no problem. Shorter? Easy. Need to extend the touchpiece a tad? Simple.
But what about the problem of damage to the finish?
Well, one thing Sugru doesn't do very well is bond to brass (or silver, or any non-ferrous metal) or lacquered surfaces. This might well be considered a drawback in other applications but it suits our needs perfectly, as we'll see shortly.

Unwrap the SugruIn this example I'm going to make a custom riser for a top D key.
The first step is to ensure that the key touchpiece is clean - a wipe over with a cloth is sufficient, but it wouldn't hurt to use a little cigarette lighter fluid to clean off any oil or grease residues. You must also ensure your hands are clean too - probably to prevent contaminating the compound with dirt or oil, which might diminish its adhesive properties. Not really an issue in this case - I didn't wash my hands prior to using it and I didn't notice any adverse effects.
The manufacturers warn that some people might be allergic to the product and find that it irritates their skin, in which case wearing a pair of latex or vinyl gloves would be a sensible option. I didn't bother with gloves and didn't find the putty too messy, though if it gets under your nails it can be quite difficult to remove without the aid of a stiff nailbrush.

I used a 10g packet, which contains sufficient compound to make two generously sized risers. If you don't need such large risers you might find a 10g packet will be enough to modify all three palm keys.

Applying the SugruNow, I mentioned that Sugru doesn't stick well to brass, lacquered or otherwise, so although it would be convenient to simply place a blob of it on top of the key and push it into shape, it won't stick well enough to stand up to heavy use. I tried it and found that with enough sideways pressure my custom riser simply peeled off. I also tried a small 'lip', just curling under the touchpiece - but this wasn't enough either. So, what you have to do is fully enclose the touchpiece.
Start by placing a blob of Sugru on the touchpiece and working it roughly into shape. Push it around over the edge of the key and work it underneath the touchpiece. You don't need a lot underneath - I found a layer a couple of millimetres thick is plenty .
Once this is done you can concentrate on shaping the riser.

Testing the riserThe choice of profile is completely up to you, and it's not a decision you have to make in a hurry as the compound takes a long time to set. You've got time to hold the sax to see how the riser fits under your fingers, modify the height, the width, the profile and the length - you've even got time to have a cup of tea and a sticky bun...

Once you're happy with the shape you can tidy it up. I found that tapping the compound with my finger helped to smooth out any wrinkles, as did stroking it - and you can certainly use tools to help make for a neat job...the flat of a knife blade is excellent for tidying up the underneath of the touchpiece.
If you're not happy with your riser you can add more Sugru or remove some of it - or simply pull the whole lot off and start again.
You might find that it's a bit of a fiddle trying to work in quite a confined space, in which case it might be easier to remove the palm keys. This isn't difficult, all you have to do is remove the rod screws. In general you would start by removing the D key, then the Eb and finally the F - though on some horns you may have to vary this order depending on the design of the palm keys.
Refitting is simple too, just reverse the sequence. The only 'gotcha' is to ensure that you seat the flat spring in its channel on the body before fitting the key between its pillars. If there isn't a channel just make sure the spring is aligned centrally to the key (it's often a good idea to check that the spring retaining screws are done up snugly).

Modified keyHere you can see how I've enclosed the touchpiece, thus ensuring the riser won't be able to slip off sideways or backwards.
Once you're happy you can move on to the next key - or leave the Sugru to set.

This is where the product's biggest (perhaps only, in our case) drawback comes into play - it takes a long time to set.
The makers say it cures 3mm deep in 24 hours at 21 degrees C (70 deg. F), but with an average riser being around 5mm thick I found it takes a good 48 hours before the compound is hard enough to take any use. Even then I noticed a slight squishiness in the 'core' of the riser - so the longer you can leave it, the better.
Heating the Sugru speeds up the cure time, and this can be done by placing a small desk lamp over the touchpieces.
Clearly this product isn't a quick fix, so before you use it you'll need to be sure you'll have a spare couple of days when you won't be needing your horn.

Once set the compound is quite tough - it has a little bit of give in it which provides a touch of cushioning, but it's firm enough to feel very positive. Better still, because the riser is in complete contact with the touchpiece it feels a lot more immediate than the push-on risers.

Cutting the riserIf at this stage you want to modify the riser still further you have a couple of options. To make the riser smaller you can slice the hardened compound with a sharp blade - in fact it cuts very well. This will leave edges though, which might prove to be uncomfortable when pressing the key down - but with a little care and patience I found it was possible to sand them down with some medium/fine sandpaper.

If you want to increase the size of the riser you can simply stick more Sugru on.
It bonds to itself reasonably well, though I found it performed considerably better if I roughened up the surface with a bit of medium/coarse sandpaper first. Bear in mind that thin layers will take considerably less time to cure, so you won't have to wait a couple of days before you can use the instrument.

Removing SugruIf all else fails and you're staring at a hardened riser that isn't anything like what you were hoping for, all you have to do is tear it off.
It's that simple. Just grip it firmly and tear it away. It'll probably leave a few bits behind, but these can be rubbed off easily enough with a finger - and a couple of minutes later you'll be left with the original touchpiece, all nice and clean.

I've tested the product on a number of surfaces likely to be found on woodwind instruments and haven't noticed any adverse effects. There's no tarnishing to brass or silver and it doesn't seem to do anything to vintage or modern lacquers.
I also tested it on a number of plastic bodied instruments, as well as ebonite (hard rubber) and the various tropical hardwoods that are commonly used.
It grips rather better to these materials than it does brass, but it's still by no means permanent. It holds on well enough to make it a viable option for custom hand rests, and can be removed at a later date with a firm tug.
The only adverse effect noted was that it left a dark stain on rosewood, one that couldn't be removed with solvent or gentle abrasion with fine grade wire wool. It's quite possible that it left a stain on ebony, but as both the wood and the compound are black in colour there was no visible sign of it. If using Sugru on ebony it would perhaps be wise to avoid the other colours the product is available in, and unless you don't mind it leaving a stain you should avoid using it on any lighter tropical woods.

Modified thumb hookIf there's a 'killer application' for this product I suspect it's in the modification of vintage palm keys with the domed type touchpiece. It offers the prospect of being able to effectively convert them into oval touchpieces on the cheap, without ruining the original design.

The possible uses for Sugru on saxes don't stop at key risers.
Here you can see a vintage style thumb hook to which Sugru has been applied. Such thumb hooks are very simply made and can be notoriously uncomfortable - and if you want to adjust them it usually means unsoldering them and refitting them in a new position, which doesn't do a lot for the horn's finish.
This custom cushion was made by wrapping a blob around the hook and holding the horn in playing position to imprint the desired position and angle of the thumb.
The bottom of the cushion has been tucked under the hook to help secure it, though the curvature of the hook itself will help to hold the cushion in place.
This kind of modification can be used to great effect on clarinets, which often have mediocre and static thumb rests - and it offers the possibility of making thumb rest for flautists who have trouble supporting the instrument.

Modified thumb restStaying with thumbs, you can use Sugru to mod the octave key thumb rest too. Many players find the thumb rest a touch too small - especially on vintage horns. It's a simple matter to pack the compound around the thumb rest to increase its upper surface area.

Players with hand problems could find the product invaluable. Many repairers will have been asked to fit cushions and hand rests to instruments for clients who perhaps suffer from a spot of arthritis or tendonitis. Such modifications are usually quite simple, such as a shaped piece of cork glued to the upper joint of a clarinet to help support the player's arched hand.
It can be quite difficult to get these cushions exactly right, as no-one really knows what's required better than the player. A couple of sachets of Sugru and a few minutes' work would result in the player being able to fashion a cushion that fits perfectly.

You can buy Sugru from almost anywhere these days (Amazon, Ebay, local stores etc.), but if all else fails there's always the company's website -
A small pack, which contains five 5g sachets, costs £7 (or just over $11) - which isn't much more than a packet of three push-on rubber risers. It's available in a range of colours too, so if you want to jazz your risers up you can make them in green, red, blue or a combination of colours. If you find you have a bit left over, why not have a go at making a Sugru octave key pad?

Sugru's 'catchphrase' is "Hack Things Better" - and their website runs a blog on which inventive 'Sugruers' can post their ideas. Perhaps in time we'll see a number of instruments featured!

Addendum: Since this article was published, Sugru have changed the compound slightly to improve its setting time. They very kindly sent me samples of the new batch and I repeated the tests with the new compound and found that it cures slightly more quickly. This upgrade to the product caused a few delays for people wanting to get hold of the stuff, but I'm told that supplies are now readily available.

Update: Two years after this article was posted I asked players who'd used Sugru to mod their horns how well it was standing up to wear and tear. The response indicated that the mods were holding up well. This ties in nicely with the mod I made to one of my screwdrivers - fitting a new rubber swivel cushion to the handle. This sees daily use, and is still going strong.

'Sugru' and 'Hack Things Better' are registered trademarks


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