Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

A rolling blog of everyday life on and around the workbench (Archived - March 2017)


29/03/2017: I've spent most of my working life dealing with other people's annoying squeaks - but today saw me having to deal with one of my own, and on something rather larger (and more complicated) than a saxophone. Yep, my car was giving me gyp.
I think it's been squeaking for some time now, but I only noticed it when the sun came out. How could this be? was the first time for many months that the weather's been decent enough to drive with the window down. It's a big ol' car - and with all the windows up you'd be hard put to hear Armageddon breaking out let alone an annoying squeak from somewhere underneath the rear of the car.
I guess the answer would be to wind the window up - but now that I know the squeak is there I can almost hear it even when I can't (if you get my meaning). Besides, I really don't like driving around in a car that sounds like a rusty old pram. And putting vanity aside, it probably means that something's a bit worn out and needs replacing - so it's just as well to track it down.

Given that the squeak occurs when the car goes over a bump it's a fair bet that it's something to do with the suspension - probably a rubber bush...of which there are very, very many.
So it's out with the jack and off with one of the rear wheels. Unfortunately it all looks pretty standard....lots of complicated suspension arms and lots of dried-up Hampshire mud. I gave things a good poke and a prod, but when a bushing starts to fail there's often very little that's easily visible. So it's a job for the garage then - but in the meantime it wouldn't hurt to spray a bit of rubber lube here and there. It won't fix anything, but it might cure the squeaking for a while. And yeah, it's a bodge - and I hate not being able to find a smoking gun - but what might take me an hour to track down will take a mechanic five minutes...and I'd be better off fixing your horn while the mechanic fixes my car.

With the bushes all thoroughly lubed I refitted the wheel and dropped the car down. I then put one foot on the rear passenger sill and grabbed the roof rack rail and rocked the car up and down.
No squeak! I had a hiss.
Well, I knew what that was. My car has self-leveling suspension - two heavy-duty rubber bags that are inflated by a compressor...the idea being to keep the car nice and level even when it's fully loaded. But those bags don't last forever, and while they're not terribly expensive to replace, they're also not terribly cheap. I could hear the damn thing leaking...every time I pulled the car down. Psssshhhht...pshhhhhhttt....psssshhhhht.
It struck me as a bit odd that the air compressor didn't fire up (it's always on even when the ignition's off) - but hey ho, that's another thing to get checked out.

So with a heavy heart I set about putting all the tools away. After five minutes of grunting and groaning (I swear that trolley jack has got heavier over the years) I was all done. Or was I?
Where's that tin of spray lube? I looked here...I looked there...I looked all over the place. I've got used to looking for things I only just put down, and I find it's easier to focus less on where something might be then it is to retrace my steps and look for the thing in all the places I've been in the last half hour or so. But I still couldn't find it.
And then I spotted it.
I'd left it under the car - and in accordance with the Laws Of Sod I'd left it standing in such a position that when I dropped the car down off the jack, the nozzle was almost touching the underside. As I rocked the car up and down I'd been closing that gap and pressing down on the nozzle. That pssssshhhttt wasn't the was all my lovely rubber lube being sprayed over the underside of the car.
I still have to get one or other of the bushings replaced...but now I also have to buy another tin of spray lube. Bloody typical.


Mullered head joint25/03/2017: Starting a youngster off on a musical instrument is often a risky business. There's the expense of the instrument, the cost of the lessons and the prospect of having to spend the next year or so listening to wheezy/scratchy renditions of simple melodies...many of which would sound bloody awful even if played well. Then there's the worry about whether you bought the right brand/model. It might have been affordable, but is it good enough to inspire the student or too cheap to be of any use?
And on top of all that there's always the possibility that they'll just give it all up in a year or so's time...and you're left wondering where on earth you can sell a lightly-used Chinese euphonium. But there's another risk - that of the dreaded temper-tantrum. Your normally placid and studious child can suddenly turn into the Incredible Hulk at a moment's notice, and anything in reach that's breakable is liable to end up in bits on the floor.
They say (if they get the quote right) that music has charms to soothe a savage breast - but this rather washes over the years of toil and practice it takes to achieve the level of proficiency required to produce soothing tones, as opposed to piercing squeaks and squawks. And this means that, at some point, some 'stern encouragement' may be required.

Music is an emotional force - and a youngster is, essentially, a seething cauldron of the same...and when you add a pinch of stressed-out parent into the mix you get what's known in chemistry circles as 'a rather large conflagration'. And so it is that every few months or so I'll get a call from a distressed parent who tells me that there's been a 'domestic incident' and their child's instrument needs a bit of attention.
It happens. It's just one of those things. Nine times out of ten the child will slam a door or throw their geography book across the bedroom, and not much harm is done. But when the red mist descends during practice time, the result is often pretty much what we have here.

It looks quite nasty but it's by no means the worst I've seen. In fact you can often tell how keen the student is by how little damage they do to their instrument when they throw a wobbly. A relatively keen student will have their temper tempered (did ya see what I did there?) by a couple of dents...but a disinterested one will practically flatten the poor thing.
It's at this point that the wise parent ought to intervene. Not to scold, mind you - as that will likely make things worse (and you can always do that later...when they least expect it) - but rather to save the instrument from the effect of the inevitable guilt-trip. Yep - it's often the guilt that does the most damage. The child knocks the crap out of the instrument, feels suddenly calmer and then panics at the thought of the inevitable telling-off they're in for - at which point they try to put things right. This is like trying to fix a cracked window by tapping the glass with a can only go one way.

Leaky chimneyThis poor old flute (quite a decent student model, a TJ10x) stood up pretty well to the beating it received. A couple of nasty dents in the head joint and a bent lip plate, a very slight and gentle bend in the body and a few keys shaken out of regulation...and the inevitable bent G# key arm. No big deal really - in fact not much worse than many youngsters' flutes suffer in the course of a normal year.
But it was made all so much worse by sticking something underneath the lip plate in an effort to straighten it out...which it did, mostly, but not before it tore the chimney off the head.
You can just see a chink of light shining through the soldered joint at the rear - and if you look carefully you can see where the plate was levered at the front (just left of centre). It must have taken one hell of an effort because that joint is around 3mm (1/8") wide all the way round.

So the moral of this sorry tale is that parents should perhaps explain to their children that no matter what they do to their instruments, it can always be sorted out...but it will always cost much, much more if they try to fix it themselves.
It might also be a smart move to check under their beds for crowbars...


22/03/2017: It's always heartbreaking when you get that call. "We brought our child's saxophone in to you a couple of months ago and you did a lovely service on it...but now it's been dropped and doesn't work anymore".
I remember this horn. It's a funny thing, but I'm absolutely terrible at remembering people these days. They can rattle on all they like about how they came to see me last week, and I simply don't have a clue who they are...but as soon as they mention a horn - bang! I'm right there.
Yamaha YAS275 bell jobSo this wasn't "Mr so-and-so" or "Mr very keen to support his child's musical progress" but rather "Mr Japanese 275 that put up a right old fight, but played like a demon when sorted".
It might sound a bit callous, but believe you's far better that I remember you this way than as "Mr struggles with the top notes but prefers to splash out on fancy mouthpieces instead of practising".

So - all my lovely setup work gone to pot.
The young lady that plays this horn, bless her little heart, had an unfortunate slip 'twixt sling and the ring - and the poor old Yamaha hit the deck...bell dead centre.
Credit where credit's due, she did what any sane young musician would do and swore blind it must have happened while the horn was in the case (probably overheard me talking about the dangers of case shock on the last visit). Nice try - but a large dent in the front of the bottom bow that had been neatly textured with the grain of tarmac was a bit of a giveaway.

But here's the thing - I'm always banging on about the design of bell braces, but this trusty Yamaha had taken a proper tumble onto a rock-hard surface and got away with a dent in the bottom bow and a misaligned bell...and just a wee bend to the front lip of the bell.
No body damage at for the lower key stack having been shocked out of alignment a touch.
Almost all of what would have been a considerable impact has been absorbed by the bell brace - and as such it has performed its function perfectly. However, there's a price.
When you fit a brace that's able to deform so effectively, it has to come at a cost of rigidity - which means it's that much easier to knock the bell slightly out of alignment with careless handling than it is with a horn that has a more substantial brace. Swings and roundabouts, though - had the Yamaha been fitted with a sturdier brace it, I'd probably be posting a shot of a bent body.

What you really need is something that's stiff enough to keep the bell in position during normal use and that can shrug off light knocks...and yet cope with all the energy resulting from a drop. A shock absorber, in other words.
It'd be fiddly to design - but it'd mean that if you dropped your horn it wouldn't be me you'd be'd be Kwik Fit.


20/03/2017: Made a start on an 'underhaul' on an old Borgani soprano. This was of those dreaded 'borderline' calls. If someone brings in a nasty old banger that needs a rebuild or a fine old Selmer in need of an overhaul, it's always very clear-cut choice. The cheap old banger is beyond economic repair and the Selmer gets the go-ahead. Simple.
Borgani dodgy pillarBut there's often quite a large grey area inbetween the extremes in which lie any number of horns that aren't, on the face of it, worth a great deal of money - but which have a saving grace. That might be something as intangible as the memories it evokes (your first horn, perhaps, or one that's been passed down) or a particular quality that the player finds useful. Strip that away, though, and you're often left with a horn that appears to have nothing going for it at all.

This was the case with the Borgani.
Modern Borganis are very nice horns. Granted, the build quality can be a bit hit and miss around the edges but the playability is generally right up there with the best of them. Older Borganis, however, have something of a reputation of being...shall we say...not very nice. And in build quality terms this soprano is certainly not very nice. But - it's a soprano, it's sort of on its way to being vaguely vintage (circa 1970s at a guess) and if nothing else it's reasonably uncommon.
Borgani broken pillarIt needs a lot of work. It's been knocked about a bit and there's some evidence of less-than-wonderful repairs - and as the owner has no real attachment to it, it fell to me to make the call as to whether it was worth doing up. Well, on paper it ticked all the wrong boxes - but I gave it a few emergency tweaks and managed to get it to (sort of) blow. And, you know, it wasn't bad at all. Definitely had that 'thang'.
So it was decided to go ahead with the job.

Having stripped it down and sorted out the dents and the bent body, I decided I didn't like the look of that pillar in the middle of the top stack. There wasn't really anything mechanically wrong with it on sight - it just looked messy. Strictly-speaking fixing it wasn't part of the deal, but's just a spot of messy soldering - how long could it take to whip it off, clean it up and put it back all nice and tidy?
You know what they say - if it ain't broken, don't fix it - and halfway through removing it I found out that the post of the pillar had broken away from the base. That's why it was so messy, someone had built up a shedload of soft solder to secure the post to the base.

Pillar alignment jigSo it needed cleaning up and silver-soldering back together, but it's not just a case of plonking the post in the base and making large with the gas gun - oh no, it's all got to be correctly aligned so that when it's refitted to the body the hole for the rod screw lines up with all the others on the stack. If it could be placed on the horn and held in position with the rod screw, it'd be a breeze...but as it'll need to be brought up to red hot it'll mean all the surrounding pillars will fall will most of the lacquer in the general area.
You could 'eyeball' it over on the brazing hearth - but if you're even a fraction out it'll mean the rod screw will jam in the hole and you'll spend more time sorting out a problem you created than it would have taken you to do the job properly in the first place.

What's needed is some sort of a jig, so that you can set up the alignment away from the horn and solder up the pillar without fear of damaging the horn. I keep meaning to make up some nice all-purpose jigs. Ideally they'd be fitted with interchangeable clamps to accommodate a variety of key parts and these would be mounted on slides so that you could adjust the orientation of the clamps in every possible axis...and all with micrometer accuracy.
Back in the real world the only critical dimension is the height of the rod screw from the body. So I measured this and made up a pair of brass bars and drilled them appropriately, then fixed them to a base. I could now feed the rod screw through these bars and suspend the broken pillar from it. Some allowance would have to be made to accommodate the curve on the base of the pillar. This would mean having to ensure the base of A simple barrel extension jigthe jig matched the curvature and taper of the body section beneath the broken pillar - which could be done by taking the time to turn up a tapered bar of the correct diameter...or you could just take a file to the jig's base and give it your best guess. Provided you're sensible you should be able to get the position of the pillar base within a fraction of a millimetre or so...easily enough tolerance to adjust with a file later, or for the soft solder to take up when refitting the pillar.

Must have been my lucky day, because I got it bang on.
However, I had to make a decision with regard to the placement of the pillar. The keywork isn't very well fitted, and there's a lot of end-to-end play in it. If I placed the pillar back in its original position I'd have to take up this end play over four keys. But if I moved the pillar slightly I'd only have to take up the play on one key...but it would be quite a lot of play.
Extended Bis Bb keyIt helps to think a little way down the line. I have to address the end-to-end play, and the existing rod screw has a broken thread - so I'm going to have to make a new one. I can kill two birds with one stone by fitting a slightly oversized rod screw, and this will take up the free play on the rod in the key barrels and in the pillars. I'd have to ream the keys a tad, and this will also stretch them slightly - so it should sort out most (if not all) the wear issues in one operation...leaving the barest minimum of swedging to take up any remaining discrepancies. It's easier on the hands and on the plating, and provides a much more accurate and longer-lasting fix than trying to swedge around all those key arms.

So I opted for the single key option - and this meant fitting a barrel extension to the Bis Bb key.
What's needed is a constantly adjustable jig with a variety of clamps that...etc. etc. - but a simpler method is to turn a piece of brass rod to a very snug fit in the key and the barrel extension tube, then drill a hole through its centre. This is poked into the key and the extension slid onto it. Now everything lines up a treat and the extension can be silver-soldered in place.
It's always nice if you can do 'invisible' repairs, which is why the extension tube is nickel plated (to match the finish on the existing key. Nickel plating is tough stuff, and with the right choice of solder it ought to be possible to make the joint without losing it...though I'll admit a degree of luck is called for. A quick visit to the scrap bin turns up an old key off a Weltklang alto. It's nickel plated and it's the exact dimensions of the existing key barrel. How cool is that?
Once done it's a simple job to drill out the rod (that's why it's pre-drilled...stops the drill from wandering out of true) and then ream the joint to size. Cut the extension to size and Bob's yer uncle - job done. Here's the almost finished key - it'll need a spot of polishing, and I've got to make a domed pearl for it
Just goes to show...there's more than one way to get jiggy with it...


Aircon tool fail18/03/2017: I thought I'd try out something new.
Like many people out there I'd been posting informal updates and photos to various social media platforms, and while this is all good fun I've always had some misgivings about the way those places are run - and I've not been all that keen about my content being used as a platform for data gathering and advertising.
Yeah, I know - it's quick and easy, and it provides a way to keep in contact with friends and associates...and to make new ones. Well, I can relate to the quick and easy...but if I want to catch up with friends I can just fire off an email. And if I want to make new friends I can do much the same thing.
And then, if you're any good at it, it gets to be quite demanding work - keeping up with what everyone else is up to, liking this and sharing that...and that's before you add any of your own content. It's all rather noisy - like the bit before the conductor taps the baton on the stand and blissful silence falls.

I also have the luxury of being reasonably well established. The site's been up for almost twenty years now, and in that time I've collected a very large number of followers worldwide. I regularly get quoted and/or linked to which means I really don't have to go looking for new viewers.
So I thought I'd bring it all back 'in house' and see how it goes. If no-one likes it...well, I might just carry on anyway...

It's going to be a pretty relaxed section. There's a lot of stuff I do which (some) people might find interesting, but which doesn't really merit an article by itself - and there's also a lot that goes on behind, say, the drafting of a review. And then there's the stuff I do that's not really related to instruments, but which comes as part of the package when you have a workshop, a box of tools and a couple of scary machines. It won't be Twitter, and it won't be Facebook (I did think of calling it Twatter or Arsebook) - but that's kind of the's mine, and I can do what I bloody well like with it.
We'll see how it goes.

And to kick off, what better than a job that's as far away from a horn repair as you're likely to get - unless you've always had a hankering to knock out a solo on an aircon pump.
I picked this one up a few years ago by way of a spare for the one that's fitted to my car. Didn't cost me much, and as mine is a tad noisy at times I thought it might not be a bad idea to get a spare in and give it a good service. This appeals to my philosophy of having stuff around 'that I might need one day' on the basis that if you've got a spare, you won't ever need it. Zen insurance, I call it.
Not that I know owt about servicing aircon pumps - but if someone put it together it means it must come apart...and someone else out there will have already done exactly this kind of job already, and very probably bunged a video up on Youtube. What could possibly go wrong?

If in doubt, eat the toolsWell, as you can see, I didn't get off to good start. Barely two minutes into the job and I've busted my wire cutters.
Damn and blast these cheaparse tools - they're about as much use as a chocolate spanner...which, incidentally, is exactly what we have here.

C'mon - admit it, you were completely fooled.
Ain't no shame in that - when I first saw these they fooled me too. They're made by a company called The Amazing Chocolate Workshop - and these three items are just a tiny fraction of the stuff they make. They do nuts and bolts, hammers, chisels, scissors, monkey name it, they do it - though, strangely enough, they don't seem to do a chocolate teapot (as in 'As much use as').

They also don't seem to do a chocolate lathe - which brings me neatly back to 'proper' work.
Had an email from a chap in the States who'd just bought a TJ RAW tenor. Loves it to bits but, like me, he suffers with a touch of arthritis in his thumbs. The upshot of his email was that his old horn, a Yamaha 475, gave him no trouble at all - and would it be possible to fit the thumb rest off a Yamaha on to the RAW?
Good question.

Turning a nickel silver thumb restThe Yamaha has a plastic thumb rest that's a press fit over a solid stub that's fixed to the horn - and the RAW has a detachable thumb rest that sits in a sort of brass doughnut...and is held in place with a small grub screw. This makes it a breeze to remove the thumb rest - unlike the Yamaha's one, which has to be prized off. Still, at least it comes off...on many horns the rest is soldered to the body.
I have a few Yamaha rests in stock, and with the aid of my own RAW I did a few measurements.
Turns out it wouldn't be a straight swap, the socket in the Yamaha's rest is larger than the diameter of the stub on the RAW.
However, the RAW's rest is a simple enough design (looks a bit like a mushroom) - which got me thinking about knocking up custom thumb rests. It's a job I do from time to time, but usually to replace one that's busted or worn down - and it's usually a job for a repairer because there's often a certain amount of glueing or soldering to be done. No such problems with the just undo the grub screw, pull the rest out of the stub and replace it with whatever you like.

Emails passed to and fro. The project interested me because I fully understand how you can have something completely wonderful but not be able to use it because it sets off your damn arthritis (which is why I have several pairs of posh walking boots that I can't wear - bought before I found some that I could). We established that he thought the horn felt 'big' in his hands, and that he prefers to 'reach up' for the octave key rather than roll down onto it - so it appeared that a thinner rest would be just the thing. He confirmed this by nipping out to a hardware store, buying a metal disk and glueing to the top of the stub on the RAW.
I wasn't having any of that! Gluing a shonky old bit of metal to a RAW? Perish the thought. So I fired up the old lathe and knocked up a couple of custom thumb rests.

A brace of ultra-thin thumb restsI did one in black Delrin (which is a kind of hardwearing plastic) and another in nickel silver - because it's always nice to have a choice and, frankly, while I had the lathe running it made sense to make two rather than one.
It also gave me a chance to try out a new lathe tool. I'd been toying with the idea of getting some 'insert tooling'. It's not generally recommended for small(ish) lathes like my Maximat V10P, nor for non-ferrous work - but quite a few guys out there seem to be getting good results with it.
As luck would have it I scored a bit of a bargain at the local tip recently and picked up an old toolbox with a few engineers' tools in for a couple of quid. In among the bits and bobs was a handful of carbide inserts which, as I later found out, can be brazed onto a steel shaft. Seemed like the perfect (i.e. cheap) way to suss out how effective they'd be.
And I'm pretty pleased with the results. They work as well on nickel/brass as they do on mild and stainless steel - and with more careful selection of inserts I ought to be able to improve the results still further (I've no idea what this insert is for - but it looks like one designed for Aluminium...which seems to be a good bet for smaller lathes). At least I will when I've stopped borking at the prices.

I'll test these on my RAW and then send them off to the chap as a bit of a surprise, and I might give some thought to knocking out bespoke RAW thumb rests in a commercial basis.
It's on my To Do list.


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