Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Removing a Saxophone Neck Dent

There are three requirements for removing a dent in a saxophone neck.  The first is proper tools.  The second is proper technique.  The third is common sense.  I'm going to concentrate on the first two.  By proper tools, I don't necessarily mean tools that are specifically made for horn dent removal (tool N81 is the "official" version of what I'm going to do).  Those would be nice, but we are going to use things that are readily available to the common man using common sense.   

Here's my project.  This is a vintage alto neck that has suffered a dent.  It is a fairly sharp crease.  Probably more a cosmetic issue than an intonation issue, but you never know.  Best to have it removed without creating any further damage.  That last part is always important.  
  The picture was taken with a low sun angle that highlights the dent.  It isn't quite as noticeable under most lighting situations.

Next to the neck is the first tool that I used.  It is actually a bar from an old motorcycle tool kit.  This was the bar that went through the spark plug socket to allow removal and replacement of the spark plug.  This type of bar is fairly common.  It is probably about 8mm thick and has a 90 degree bend in it.  I have added a little bend on the opposite end by placing in in my vice and adding a bend to the other end.  

The amount of bend that I've added is kind of important.  What I'm shooting for is to bend it enough so that it is out of plumb a little more than the inside diameter at the point of the dent.  It can't have too much bend or else it won't fit down the neck opening.  I then insert it down the neck in the direction shown in the picture and feel for the dent with the end.  The tip is against the dent, the straight section is against the opposite side of the neck, and I twist the 90 degree section to "wipe out" the dent.  Here's a crude picture of what I'm doing.

When removing the dent, make sure that the pressure against point A is spread out enough that you don't deform the opposite side of the neck.  The force on the dent should be a point load and the force on the opposite wall should be spread out.  This tool works great for quickly removing dimples.

This dent was kind of a sharp crease.  Those are the hardest to remove and the hardest to make completely disappear.  I could push it out a little with my tool, but complete removal was taking too much pressure.  Be very careful, start with a tiny amount of effort and slowly increase the pressure.  If you go too far and push a bulge out, you can push it back, but best not to go there.  When I got sufficiently spooked about trying for complete removal with my bar, I switched tactics.  

The above picture shows my initial results after using my "new" tool, a "dent chaser."
Here's another picture of the tool.  It's a home-made dent chaser using regular wrench sockets.  Here's the way it works.  First I find two little sockets that will pass all the way through the neck.  Then I find one socket that won't quite pass the dented area.  I thread the larger one and tie the other two to the ends of the twine.  I drop a small socket though from the tenon end and then use the twine to pull the larger socket up against the dent from the tenon end.  I carefully pull it under the dent, forcing the dent out from the inside, but, because of the snug fit, not deforming the neck on any other side (i.e., again a point load on the dent and a spread load on the opposite wall).

I need the smaller sockets on both ends to pull the chaser in to the damaged area and to make sure that I can get it back out.  Make sure that your string or twine is up to the task (maybe 50 lb test or more).  

If I'm lucky, I can find another socket that's slightly larger and repeat the process.  The largest I could use on this neck happened to be a 12mm socket.  Different brands of sockets have different diameters.  Different horns and different areas of the neck will require different sockets.  A large tool supply is needed although, as we have seen, they don't have to be "horn dent" specific tools.  I'm sure that there are other common items that can be substituted for sockets.

Not shown is what I did when the first socket was lodged in place behind the dent.  This type of dent creates kind of a "smile" with the edges of the dent actually higher than the undamaged surrounding metal.  So although it is dented down in the center, the creases on both sides are often proud of the neck tube and the hardest part to remove completely.  As I slowly work the socket in to remove the dent, I tap down on the dent end creases using a resin mallet.  Something like a piece of hardwood could also work.  Anything that doesn't damage the finish and allows the dent to be worked out.  I repeated that when I used a second, slightly larger, socket.
Here is the result with the harsh sun light showing the repaired dent at it's worst.   It is basically invisible for all practical purposes.  And this is still the biggest dent on this 1926 horn.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Refacing a vintage hard rubber saxophone mouthpiece

You may have seen my blog where I refaced a modern plastic Selmer Goldentone piece.  That was just for jollies.  What I like doing is refacing the common hard rubber pieces.  Preferably, a hard rubber piece that either has no brand name on it or has a brand name that isn't popular.  Bundy comes to mind and is a perfect example of what I look for.  George M. Bundy was the president of Selmer U.S.A. for many years (1918-1951).  He had horns and mouthpieces stenciled for his company.  Both Conn and Buescher made saxophones that carried the Bundy name, and those horns sell for far less than the "official" Conn and Bueschers.  (Beginning in the 1950's, Bundy apparently began making its own saxophones in house). 

Mr. Bundy's pursuit of quality instruments is shown by who he hired.  For instance, for his flute production he employed George Haynes (who patented the rolled tone holes used by Conn and others) and he later hired Kurt Gemeinhardt, both well known flute designers who later produced their own line of flutes.  When Selmer Paris re-acquired Selmer U.S.A. after his death and later purchased Buescher, Selmer decided to use the Bundy name on it's "second line" or "student" horns and accessories.  Production quality dropped, and the Bundy name became synonymous with crappy horns.  But if the item is a "real Bundy," it is likely a quality piece.  

The brand name "Vito" has been through a similar loss of reputation.  Dr. Vito Pascucci ran Leblanc U.S.A.  In addition to importing Leblanc instruments from France, he also purchased stenciled instruments and accessories for the "Vito" or "second line" instruments, many of them also top quality.  After he left the company, the reputation that he had built, i.e., his trade name "Vito," was used by Leblanc to sell inferior products.  

Too bad for the legacies of Mssrs. Bundy and Pascucci.  But good news for us.  The Bundy and Vito names are on some very nice vintage and not-so-vintage mouthpieces produced for them by Riffault, JJ Babbitt, and other producers of fine mouthpieces.  In many instances, these mouthpiece producers also made the "big name" pieces for mouthpiece finishing businesses.  If a blank is good enough for Brilhart, Dukoff, Link, WoodWind Co., or Penzel-Mueller, it's good enough for us (even if it is stamped with the name Bundy, Riffault, Coast, some other obscure name, or no name at all).

The piece that I'm going to reface is badged "Selmer Elkhart - New York." Selmer USA began in New York, was operated by Mr. Bundy, and later moved its production facilities to Elkhart.  It kept a New York facility until 1951, but I don't know if that means that my piece was made prior to 1951.  The reason I say that is because in a 1956 catalog, the Selmer USA mouthpieces (made in the USA by JJ Babbitt) were simply called "Selmer Elkhart," so my Selmer Elkhart - New York piece may be from prior to 1951.  Click on the picture to see the pricing.  They are worth three times the original sale price today, although sometimes sellers ask for 30 times the original price by claiming that the pieces are really a "Dukoff blank."  There is no such thing as a Dukoff blank.  I'll say that again. there is no such thing as a Dukoff blank.  

The vintage Selmer Elkhart - New York mouthpiece, like a hard rubber Dukoff piece, has a large chamber.  It is actually a chamber that was used by Babbitt on various mouthpieces made prior to the Selmer Elkhart - New York and the Dukoff hard rubber pieces.  These older mouthpieces are never claimed to be Dukoff blanks or Dukoff Zimberoff (DZ) clones because they have different exterior shapes from the Dukoff.  
Hmmmm.  Once again, we are faced with the issue of what controls the sound produced by a mouthpiece, the interior shape or the exterior name?  I am of the opinion that it is the interior shape (duh).  Therefore, a DZ style of mouthpiece can be made either from one of the four or five Babbitt blanks that look like Dukoff mouthpieces (on both the exterior and interior), or from more than a half a dozen earlier Babbitt blanks that have the identical interior chamber but different exterior shapes.  (The same goes for vintage Brilhart, Link, WWCo., etc. if you believe that it is the chamber shape that controls sound).  

The only problem is that if we use a blank that has an identical chamber but a different exterior shape, then our pathetic pedigree claim would have to be "it's just like a Dukoff Zimberoff Supersonic on the inside."  We saw this problem with comparing the Porche 356 coupe with the 356 cabriolet in a prior blog.  Sure, the Porches are identical on the inside and from a performance point of view, but the really big money is paid by the people who are concerned about the exterior, i.e., about how it looks.

But back to my project. Here is a picture of the generic student Babbitt blank labeled as a Selmer Elkhart - New York #3.  It is the same one that was shown in a prior blog where it was compared to a Dukoff Zimberoff piece, since Dukoff sometimes finished this particular JJ Babbitt blank as its hard rubber alto mouthpiece. 
 You can see the giant nick in the the middle of the right rail.  That's not a problem here because the new facing curve will take care of it.  The original tip opening is about a .060, which is considered very small by today's standards even for a student tenor piece (a new Selmer Goldentone 3, now the king of student mouthpieces, is .066).  With a hard reed, the stock Selmer Elkhart - New York produces a sound that blends well with the woodwind section (it's intended purpose).

As we noticed in the blog about using this blank to mimic a Dukoff Zimberoff, the DZ had less material on the butt end of the table, thereby altering the angle of the entire chamber to the neck of the saxophone.  I'm going to do the same here, for two reasons.  First, it does tend to brighten the piece a bit (which makes it not blend as well with a traditional woodwind section).  Second, and just as important, it opens the tip without removing material from the tip.  This piece has almost enough tip material so that I won't shorten the piece excessively by the new facing lay, but a "butt cut" to the table lay will make sure that it is shortened very little, if at all, by a new facing.  By not removing too much material from the tip, I also have more material to work with when forming a baffle.

The "before" butt showing the original "denim" look milling pattern.
So here goes.

A couple of things to notice in the picture.  I'm using 100 grit aluminum oxide paper.  That is considered extremely aggressive grit for mouthpiece work.  Notice, however, that the leading edge of the sandpaper (below my thumb) would be about at the window opening on the piece.  In other words, I'm not touching the paper to the curvature lay of the piece, I'm only altering the table in relationship to the original lay.  

The curvature lay of the piece, i.e., the rails and tip, have a fraction of the amount of material as does the entire table area.  If I use course grit paper on the rails and tip, I'll quickly open the piece too much.  If I used a fine grit paper on the table, it would take hours to remove the amount of material I need to remove (>1 mm at the butt end).  I'm using a course grit very carefully.

I don't really need to emphasize the pressure on the back of the table too much to reduce it at the back (the butt cut) .  Since the back of the table travels much further across the sandpaper, simply using even strokes cants the slope towards the back.  The table is then finish-leveled using finer grit paper (which tends to bring the tip opening back down a bit, but not much).  I ended up with a tip opening of about .078 before even touching the tip and rails.  

You can play the mouthpiece at this stage, and it can be very instructive to try it.  Most likely, the curvature lay will be extremely short for the increased tip opening and it will have a very pronounced "take off" point where the curvature lay leaves the flat table.  A soft low note will be impossible.  Resistance throughout the scale will be very high.  This is the point at which you will be convinced that you have ruined the mouthpiece.  Good thing that you didn't fall for the "It's a Dukoff blank" scam and paid $80 for the piece.  You only paid $12 for it, right?

I can't find my notes on what the length of the lay was originally on this piece, but it really doesn't matter.  What matters is that when I'm leveling up my new table surface I end up with a "take off" point where the lay curvature leaves the flat table (usually measured with the .0015" feeler gauge) that is less than my intended finished take off point for my new lay.  

Let's say that my original tip opening was .060 and the .0015 feeler gauge read 42 (in Brand numbers).  I'm going to call 42 my take off point (even though the actual point at which the curvature lay leaves the table lay is further back from the tip).  Let's say that I'm shooting for a .085 tip opening on the refaced piece.  A .085 tip opening typically has a take off point above 44.  So as I do my fine tuning on leveling the butt cut on the table, and I get a take off point below 44, I'm ready to go.  

Keep in mind that you also need to keep your butt cut level from side to side.  If you tip the table a little while butt cutting the table, you will have different Brand numbers down the left and right rails and have to correct the entire way when putting on the new curvature lay.  You will also have to rework the baffle to even it out.  Better to avoid this.

I hope you can see that the rear of the table was shaved down compared to the orginal table.

Here is my new table with the butt cut.

Next, I put on the facing curve.  I can either use the one on my Dukoff or I can use a Meyer, Link, etc. curve.  I'm not claiming to create a Dukoff Zimberoff Knockoff or "DZK" so I'm going to use something closer to a vintage Meyer 8 (most of which were also made from JJ Babbit blanks).  The baffle I'll shape more like the Dukoff, but with a little bit of a two-stage baffle.  Hard to describe and even harder to photo.  I spent 45 minutes trying to get a baffle picture and haven't gotten it yet.  So I'll just skip to how I compare baffle shapes.

I use a cotton swab with a little olive oil on it.  I apply a thin layer of olive oil to the chamber.  Then, using a single source light (like a single LED), I can sight through the chamber and really get a good look at the shape of the chamber by examining the reflections.  (For a quick look, soapy water can do the same thing.) 

Here, my calculator served as my pedestal when I attempted to photograph the reflection.  You can get the general idea, but normally I just hold it to the light and inspect the shape of the chamber.  Very simple.  

My experience is that Dukoff rubber pieces tend to have an almost straight baffle down through the chamber with just a slight divot (when viewed as above) about halfway down (or right in the middle of the reflection above).  That's the part that I couldn't get to photograph, i.e., the fine details of the chamber shape that can be used for comparison.

Don't be confused by my use of the term "straight" baffle. That area of the chamber is also "domed" when thinking of it as a chamber (with the table facing down).  With the table facing down, maybe think of a stairwell that has a domed ceiling.  The ceiling height above the stairs increases slightly at the middle of the flight and then goes back to it's original height at the " second landing" (the neck bore).

The baffle right at the tip is almost a flat plane.  However, as the "domed stairwell" part of the chamber starts, it creates what is sometimes called a "clam shell" baffle that is prominent on the Dukoff Zimberoffs.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get a picture of mine.  Here's the real deal, although I don't know if the photographer was actually trying to get the DZ baffle, but it is a great picture.  This reflection is a little misleading because of the "V" look to the reflection in the first picture.  Looking through from the shank, as above, would show that the domed chamber that creates the curved reflection at the top actually goes almost all the way to the neck bore.

 By contrast, a Link Tone Edge chamber is flatter side to side and, therefore, the drop off from the baffle is closer to a straight line reflection (or follows the curvature of the tip, whereas the drop off for the DZ is always more exaggerated than the curvature of the tip).  Using the above stair analogy, a vintage Tone Edge has a flatter "coved" ceiling on the stairwell with the small increase in height right at the top of the flight which returns to normal right at the landing.  I'd be amazed if anybody is following this.  I'd do another blog, but getting photos is a pain, as would be creating diagrams with arrows.

My baffle shape is a little different from a DZK in that it is sort of two-stage.  The "first stage" is shown in the reflection.  The baffle angle then increases again and the clam-shell effect is really prominent only on the "second stage."  This secret process increases the tonal vibrosity by altering the nodal pulsations through impedance re-alignment.  Nah, I just made that up.  I do it because it's quick and easy.  Here's what it looks like. This picture just shows the first drop off, which follows the tip curve.  Only the second drop off has the "clam shell" look (which doesn't look like any clam shell I've ever seen).

As I put the curve on, I test the mouthpiece when I get close to my goal.  In this case, I had to decide whether I would really improve the piece by using some old numbers that somebody else had copied from a Meyer 8.  I'm guessing that those numbers were never etched on a stone tablet.  I've always assumed that curvature lays varied a little.  It makes sense because the tip openings aren't absolutely accurate on the best of pieces.  A case in point would be vintage Berg Larsen pieces, where tip openings can vary a lot from the manufacturer's claimed tip openings.  Yet, when a person finds the right Berg, they don't care if the tip is off by .004 when compared to an "official" chart? (I have a Berg tenor piece that's off by .007 narrower).

I was happy with my curve and then measured the tip at .083.  It might not blow great for other players or maybe on some horns or, who knows, for some altissimmo notes outside of my range (which is basically all of them).  Tant pis.  I was just looking to make a zippy little mouthpiece for my Kohlert 57 alto.  Mission accomplished.

Here is another blog on fixing up an old vintage piece that was basically ruined by somebody trying to change the facing. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Stencil Mouthpiece Hoax Part 2

If you've read the Stencil Mouthpiece Hoax part 1, you've seen the comparison of different stencils based on the way the tables were cut.  Some of the mouthpiece finishing businesses changed the tables from the general design of the common blanks from which their mouthpieces were made.  This blog is just to add a little more understanding of the variations between pieces.

I'm going to talk about two different "lays" on a mouthpiece. Generally, the term lay is used to discuss the curvature from the table to the tip on a mouthpiece.  But there is another lay that effects how the piece plays.  That is the lay of the table to the shank or neck opening.  Normally, that is taken as a given and only the "curvature lay" is discussed when adjusting or refacing a mouthpiece.  But if you placed your various mouthpieces on a table (assuming that all players have dozens of mouthpieces) and thought of them as tiny cannons that shot out of the shank, some would shoot high and some low (although probably with only a 5 degree difference).  Still, that's a 5 degree difference on the angle of the baffle, it changes the aspect of the tip opening to the shank opening, the amount of material left to form a baffle, etc.  The overall thickness of the table can also effect how a mouthpiece plays.

I'm going to again look at the Dukoff hard rubber saxophone mouthpieces.  These are pricey little buggers.   Most of them play nice.  Most of them are blanks from JJ Babbitt (like my Selmer I'm going to use for comparison).  Most of them have different "table lays" than the JJ Babbitt blanks used to make their "cousins," as discussed in Part 1.  Here's what I mean.

I used my calipers to measure from the table to the top of the beak lip on a Dukoff hard rubber alto piece.  I've already measured the barrel diameter, length, etc. to ensure that it is the same Babbitt blank as my Selmer.  The curvature lay hasn't begun at this point, so it doesn't influence this measurement.  I'm just getting a measurement as to how much was ground off to produce the flat table from which the curvature lay was then formed.

Now, I'm going to put the calipers on the Selmer Elkhart-NY that is one of the mouthpieces often erroneously claimed to be a Dukoff clone or a Dukoff blank.  I changed the aspect of the calipers so that the white background could show through better.  

There is a difference of about 1mm less on the Selmer Elk-NY.  That means that the table on the Selmer was ground down 1mm further at this point before the facing curve was put on.  This could mean one of two things.  Maybe the quality control was such that the generic blanks differed by as much as a millimeter on the table accuracy on every piece that they produced.  Or maybe Dukoff not only put on a different curvature lay (and baffle), but also put on its own table lay (or ordered a different table lay from Babbitt, the manufacturer).  

Not shown here is a similar measurement I took at the back of the barrel, measuring the distance from the mouthpiece table to the top of the barrel right before the shank starts.  For this measurement, the Dukoff is less than the Selmer, meaning that the mouthpieces don't just differ because of a butt cut that only lowered the back of the Dukoff's table as was shown in part 1 by just looking at the tables.  A closer examination shows that the Dukoff's entire table was canted such that more material was left at the front of the table as compared to the Selmer Elk-NY.  The effective difference is actually increased because the entire table is tipped.  Or, using a different point of reference, you could say that the tip opening and internals of the mouthpiece are effectively tipped different as related to the neck of the horn.

What does that mean to the claim that a Selmer Elk-NY can be used to clone a Dukoff Zimberoff?  Well you can do a butt cut to lower the rear of the Selmer to get it to the Dukoff"s reduced thickness at that end, but how are you going to add material at the front of the table to get it up to the Dukoff's additional thickness?  Answer:  you're not going to.

One of the many other issues in trying to mimic one vintage piece by modifying it's lesser known cousin is whether you will end up with enough material at the tip to form the same type of baffle.  Part one showed the difference between the generic blank baffles and the generally more refined "big name" baffles.  It looked a little iffy as to whether simply opening up the tip on the generic would leave enough material.  It could well be that a little rollover baffle commonly put on a generic piece precludes ever having enough material to mimic a "big name" baffle.

If that's the case, no need to despair.  You just need to pick which "big name" baffle you can imitate, if that is your desire.  Here's our Selmer Elk-NY blank on the left compared to an older Dukoff on the right (a Fluted-Chamber hard rubber piece).  Click to enlarge.

The Fluted-Chamber model, which also has a cult following, just has a simple rollover baffle.  So the Selmer can definitely be made into a "Dukoff Fluteless-Chamber," if you need to claim some type of strained pedigree.  If there is enough material after the tip is opened, it can be brightened by adding the exaggerated clam shell style baffle and then it will become an "Almost Dukoff Zimberoff," if you want some more strained pedigree.  Of course, we will need to ignore the difference in the cant of the table in making our feeble pedigree claims.

Or maybe, as I suggested in part 1, we should use the great vintage mouthpieces for guidance in improving their generic cousins, rather than slavishly following the fallacious idea that we can faithfully reproducing a great vintage piece (and paying huge vintage prices based on a mistaken pedigree).  It's quite an accomplishment to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but to then say that it's really a Louis Vuitton purse is a little too much.   Same with calling a modified generic Babbitt blank a Dukoff or a Brilhart (even though that's exactly what Bob Dukoff and Arnold Brilhart did).  Mssrs. Dukoff and Brilhart began by modifying generic blanks.  But when I do that, or you do that, it's a __YOUR NAME HERE__ mouthpiece.

The goal for me is to take my old $30 or less vintage Babbitt-made Selmer Elk-NY mouthpiece and make it into a fun to play, warm, interesting, med-large chamber vintage hard rubber mouthpiece.   It already has a little nick on one rail that could be fixed with some refacing work.  Looks like another blog is in the making.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Simple Method for Distilling Homemade Hooch

I thought about writing this blog during the "Holiday Season" (in the U.S.) last fall.  The reason being that butter, sugar, pumpkin spices, etc., go on sale for the holidays.  I'm only going to use one of the ingredients for making hooch, and it's not the pumpkin spices and butter. 

First, a quick word about hooch or moonshine and the saxophone.  I told you in the overall introduction that this blog may contain some non-saxophone articles.  This is one of them.  For those of you who are disappointed, I can include some saxophone related content by a link to a group called, coincidentally, Moon Hooch.  That fits nicely in a blog about moonshine/hooch.  And the group sometimes features a contrabass clarinet, which you will notice from my other blogs is another interest of mine.  You can open this tune in another window as a backing track for this short blog.  If you want to hear what a contrabass clarinet sounds like over its full range, try this link.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.  I buy brown sugar on sale during the holidays for making homemade rum.  It is usually featured in a big display at the grocery store for about $1 a pound.  Be sure that it's brown cane sugar, and organic turbinado is probably the best.  Regular brown sugar is sometimes just white sugar that has been coated with molasses.  Turbinado, a less refined cane sugar, tends to have more molasses in it even though it doesn't look as brown.  Anyway, I buy about 12 pounds, which allows me to buy the cheaper two or five pound packages.

You put that in a 5 gallon glass carboy with your yeast, both of which can be purchased at a brew supply house.  You can go cheaper by using a food grade plastic bucket (and bread yeast), but you aren't likely to get high grade rum in the end.  Best to use champagne yeast, as the alcohol content in our brew is going to be fairly high.  Also, champagne yeast can work at lower temperatures so that you can put the carboy out of the way somewhere for a couple of months if you want to.  

You put on an air lock to keep wild yeast from entering your fermenting container and making your brew smell like sauerkraut.

The air lock also keeps these guys out if you ferment in the garage. 
I have a mother-in-law apartment above my garage (with no mother-in-law in residence), so I can ferment for months on the countertop, on the stove, in the sink, in the shower, etc.

Here's what it looks like when there is plenty of yeast sitting in the bottom (I'm not going to use any brewing terms here.  You can learn those on other websites).  
So, that's the easy part.  The difficult part is how to build and operate a still.  Unless, of course, you cheat like I do.  I bought my still at Sears and Roebuck years ago.  

It's actually a water distiller for people who live in places where the water is bad.  They are available on Ebay for between $50 and $100.  And you can, of course, use them for distilling water if you have the need.  

It has a stainless steel interior that heats up like a slow cooker.

It has a fan that sits on top and blows cool air through a heat exchanger made of stainless steel with aluminum fins.

The condensate then exits the side though a little filter pocket that can be filled with activated charcoal (a la Jack Daniels) if you wish.
You can only do less than a gallon at a time, so you will need to fill it more than five times from your fermentation carboy.  Throw out the first few drops of condensate to lessen the hangover potential of your hooch (read about it on brew sites).  You will get just under a quart of hooch per fill.  I estimate the alcohol percentage by periodically dipping a strip of paper towel into the condensate and lighting it.  

Keep in mind that this is my super-simple proofing method.  Here's how it works.  The first part of the condensate will be over 150 proof, the last will be simply distilled water.  If it lights, then it's over 80 proof.  If it doesn't, then it's under 80 proof.  When the condensate dripping out of the still stops being flammable, I note the amount in the collection container and continue to distill until I have doubled that volume.  That generally gets me at right around 80 proof for the condensate from that still fill.  

Also keep in mind that super-high alcohol liquor is a gimmick for kids.  Like adding cinnamon candy to liquor.  We are looking to produce a nice sipping hooch.  If you are looking for something to mix with KoolAid, or for a drinking "game" involving ping pong balls, just go buy some rum made in Hood River, Oregon.

Don't worry if you get busy on another project and forget to catch the little still when you are at the 50/50 point (half flammable and half not flammable) and your container is now full of low proof hooch.  All you have to do is pour it back into the still, with or without additional liquid from the carboy, and start over.  The 50/50 test still works even though you are now starting with liquid that may be 25% alcohol.  The final test is your choice.  Taste, bubbles, or flammability.  The bubble test will be explained on home brewing/distilling web sites.  Flammability is basically that 80 proof (40% alcohol) is flammable (although somewhat dependent on the temperature of your product).  As for taste, you are on your own, but again, 151 proof isn't a taste, it's a gimmick.

The first thing that you will notice about the taste is the deep dark secret of the hard liquor industry.  Distilled alcohol and distilled water tastes like pure alcohol and pure water.  Distilled hooch made from Irish barley and water from a mountain stream tastes like pure alcohol and pure water.  Distilled hooch made from turnips and water from your toilet tastes like pure alcohol and pure water.  The distillation process removes impurities (i.e., "character") from the distilled liquid (as well as kills the germs in the toilet water).  That's generally the purposes of distillation and the primary purpose of my Sears still.  It's actually what the distiller does after distillation that gives a particular hard liquor it's distinctive character.

How do we get our flavor back?  In this case, we are making rum.  We distill out about 25% by volume of our fermented sugar water so that we have our alcohol and water at 80 proof.  Then put a new container under the spout to catch the remaining 3 quarts (approximately).
Then we go ahead and let the little distiller continue on it's merry way, churning out pure water (as the alcohol is all gone).  The unit has a thermal switch in it so that when the water is all gone, it shuts itself off.  But in our case, our water was "contaminated" by the brown sugar that fermented into alcohol.  That "contamination" is removed by staying behind in the pot as a residue, again, the original purpose of my Sears still.

Sorry that I don't have a shot of this, but the remains in the stainless pot when it finally turns itself off look sort of like caramel syrup (or slightly darker if you were able to find a really good dark brown cane sugar).  It is a weird substance.  It looks and smells like it would be sweet, but we have fermented almost all of the sugar out of it, leaving the brown sugar "flavor" without the sugar "sweet."  It is sort of a zero calorie "essence of brown sugar" syrup.  

That's what we put back into our hooch to make it rum.  It only takes a couple of tablespoons or less to flavor the gallon of rum that we will end up with.  That's about the amount that will be left in the still pot after completely fermenting a one gallon batch of liquid from the carboy.  Be sure to taste it first.  If you had any wild yeast get into your carboy, the flavor may be off.  In that case, you might be better off adding a couple tablespoons of molasses (per gallon) to flavor and color your rum.  It will have a sweeter flavor, but that's better than a tennis shoe flavor.  I haven't had this problem (yet) with rum.  You can, of course, add both the residue and molasses for a nice dark rum that isn't as cloyingly sweet as some of the commercial dark rums.  

It is best to add tiny amounts of your proposed flavor to tiny test batches of distillate to make sure that you'll like the flavor.  Straight pot residue may seem like a strange flavor because it is so concentrated.  When the concentrated flavor is added to the distilled alcohol/water, it suddenly becomes rum.  And by testing tiny amounts, I mean tiny amounts.  If you start testing using a shot glass, you'll quickly find that your ability to discern good liquor flavor from bad liquor flavor will be diminished.

Other types of hooch are possible, though slightly more complex to make.  You can make various types of whisky or scotch by using barley malt, also available at a brew shop.  You can find barley malt at the grocery store, but it's way cheaper at a brew store.  12 pounds is going to cost you about twice as much as making rum, but still under $40 a gallon for your 80 proof end product.
You can go a little cheaper by adding corn sugar for American style whiskey.
And you can actually add ground corn to the carboy.  Since I got this corn flour on sale, a batch of straight corn liquor was about $15 for a gallon.  That's as cheap as my "holiday" rum.
Adding corn meal or flour complicates things in a couple of ways, but it gives a nicer flavor to the "syrup" left in the bottom of the distiller.  Here, I'm adding barley malt, corn sugar, and corm meal to my carboy for a small batch of bourbon whiskey in a 2.5 gallon carboy.
The corn meal has to be mixed into a "pancake batter" slurry to get it into the carboy.  Kind of a pain.
I then fill the carboy with water.  I'm still using a little more than 2 pounds of sugar/malt per gallon in the carboy.  That produces an alcohol content higher than most beer yeast can tolerate, so I'm using champagne yeast.  There are yeasts at the brew shops that are super fast and can ferment into the 20% alcohol range, but I've never tried them.

The corm meal tends to settle at the bottom of the carboy.  I sometimes stir it with a sterilized wand, but I'm not sure that that does much, as it quickly settles again.  Here is a carboy with only corn sugar and corn meal for a batch of traditional corn liquor (moonshine).  As it ferments, tiny bubbles tend to keep the corn flour moving around.
It's okay that it settles because one of the complexities of using corn meal (or any meal/flour) is that, if a lot of it gets into my little distilling pot, it cooks into cornmeal mush (and then burns on the bottom if I don't catch it).  Hard to clean up.  So when adding this type of mixture to the still pot, try to leave all the meal in the carboy.  A little won't hurt because we are not distilling every batch down to flavor syrup.  Best to distill your first pour from the carboy down for your flavoring residue as it will have the least amount of meal/flour.  In the end, especially if you are making straight corn liquor, you need this delicious yellow corn-flavored syrup that the corn meal creates.  The residue left from just pure corn sugar doesn't really have any flavor (as would be the case with just pure white sugar).

You can get fancy and add additional flavors to your hooch.  You can buy oak chips at the brew store or make your own (if you have the right type of oak).  The chips can be charred to add additional flavor, or burnt when making scotch.  Purists will shudder, but then purists probably didn't get this far into the blog.

The only real problem that I've had is one batch that fermented out "funky."  It had an odd smell and flavor, but I know from experience that you can distill the funkiness out (as per above) and just not use any of the funky syrup for flavoring. The problem with that was the funkiness also seemed to make the fermented liquid foam up inside my Sears still.  It foamed up, got into the cooling coils, and then flavored the batch with the tennis shoe funkiness that I was trying to avoid.  $12 literally down the drain.

On the other hand, $12-15 for my next gallon of nice rum makes up for it.

My best hooch to date was straight rye whiskey.  I ground the rye berries myself (by hand, which was slow), but I'm thinking of trying rye flour next time.  It would be expensive at about $30 per gallon, but worth the extra trouble, in my experience.  

I guess this blog was not as short as I thought it would be.  And there's a lot that I did not cover, so you will have to use common sense (those of you who have it) and maybe look to some of the brew web sites.  Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Fitting the Reed to the Mouthpiece - The "Pop" Test

Every once in a while, I find a reference to testing whether the reed and mouthpiece are compatible by using the "pop" test.  That is where the air is sucked out of the mouthpiece, forcing the reed to seal up, and then watching to see how long (or whether), the fit is good enough for the reed to "pop" loose after a period of time.

I'm not a big fan of the test, as I don't believe that it answers all of the issues of whether the reed is compatible with the mouthpiece (or mouthpiece compatible with the reed).  Sometimes an incompatibility can show up as "resistance," which some players prefer.  Sometimes incompatibility shows up as a combination that easily subtones.  Sometimes an incompatibility can manifest as an easier altissimo or effect the intonation of different registers.  

Clearly, "incompatibility" is too strong of an accusation.  How the flex of the reed agrees with the lay of the mouthpiece has both good and bad results, and a simple "pop" test doesn't address all of the variables.  For instance, I've found that when sucking the air out at just the tip, I can usually hear air already leaking in further up the lay towards the ligature.  That generally doesn't matter, as that's where my lips will be when actually playing and my embouchure will take care of any "incompatibility" there.  In fact, not having a perfect match right there probably gives the player more flexibility in using embouchure to control the reed, and thus the complexity of the sound.

The one instrument I have that seems to want a lot of compatibility is my contrabass clarinet.  It could well be that my lack of familiarity with the clarinet, and the difference between the contrabass clarinet and the saxophone embouchure, requires that I have a facing that is smooth and predictable.  For the contrabass, I like the reeds that pass the pop test.  What is a passing grade?  Here's one.  You might need to hit the "full screen" icon at the lower right before you start in order to see the tip clearly. 

I had to work on this reed quite a bit to get it to this point.  I then suck the air out of the mouthpiece (and the "barrel" in this case) and see how it holds.  When it holds the vacuum this long, I know that the low bottom notes can pop out with just a puff of air, changing registers will be more fluid, and the high notes will have more volume.  All of that only happens once the monster and the giant slab of cane is warmed up, of course.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Great Stencil Mouthpiece Hoax

What's a "stencil" mouthpiece?  As with saxophones, stencil is a term applied to designate a mouthpiece that was ordered by a woodwind manufacturer, an instrument wholesaler, or a music store to be used as a private label piece for their exclusive sales.  Most mouthpieces are stencils. There have always been far fewer saxophone mouthpiece manufacturers than saxophone manufacturers.  Saxophone manufacturers simply outsourced the mouthpiece (as they do with pads, cases, etc.).  It simply wasn't economically feasible for the sax company to make the mouthpiece. 

The word stencil doesn't exactly explain what went on (and is still going on) in the world of mouthpieces.  There are two different situations here.  First, a saxophone manufacturer generally needs a mouthpiece in the case when it sends the horn to the retailer.  It finds a mouthpiece manufacturer, has it's own name put on the mouthpiece, and sends it to the retailer along with the horn.  In this situation, the mouthpiece manufacturer (as a supplier) could be called a "jobber" because the horn manufacturer is purchasing a finished product, including it with its own finished product, and in turn selling it to the retailer.

The second situation is the "finishing house."  That's where a mouthpiece business purchases a blank from the mouthpiece manufacturermodifies it to its own specifications, and stamps its own trade name on the piece before selling it to the retailer.  I'm calling the business that molded the mouthpiece the "manufacturer", any manufacturing for a second party is "stencilling," and any subsequent reworking and renaming of the piece by a second party is "finishing."

Let's look at some mouthpieces made by JJ Babbitt, a mouthpiece manufacturer and supplier of both blanks, stencils, and finished mouthpieces.  Here is a fairly common stencil that JJ Babbitt provided (as a jobber) for Buescher.  They were stamped Buescher, probably by JJ Babbitt as there is no evidence that Buescher ever finished mouthpieces, and included with Buescher saxophones.   Click on the picture for more detail. 

Here is the same blank stenciled for Selmer (Selmer U.S.A., which at the time was a separate company from Selmer Paris), and included with Selmer U.S.A. horns of the era:

Here is the same blank branded by the manufacturer as an actual Babbitt mouthpiece:

What is interesting about these Babbitt pieces stenciled for Buescher, Selmer, and others, is that they are often advertised as "Dukoff- Zimberoff House of Note Supersonic" mouthpieces.  Why?  Because Mr. Dukoff, as a finishing house, also bought some of these blank mouthpieces from JJ Babbitt before he finished them to his specifications and sold them through a Los Angeles music store.  The Dukoff pieces gained a cult following, in part because they had a larger opening than the standard .065" tenor stencils.

Here is a Babbitt blank originally finished as a Dukoff.  Like the pictures above, they are both tenor pieces (the second picture was foreshortened by the copying process).  Neither has the two bands on the shank, although some of the Babbitt blanks purchased by Dukoff do have them.  The Dukoff pieces usually have serial numbers.

But it isn't the serial numbers or the bands on the shank that turns a Babbitt blank into a Dukoff-Zimberoff House of Note Supersonic.  It's the lay, the tip, the baffle, and the general finish work.  Let's look inside at a couple of real Dukoffs (keeping in mind that the Dukoff pieces, as with other refinishing houses, sometimes had different chambers, especially when they changed blank suppliers).  Click on these pictures for a good look.

Interesting baffle, yes?  Nice work.  So what did the original Babbitt blank look like?  Turns out that they are like this Selmer Elkhart (advertised on Ebay as a Dukoff-Zimberoff clone).

See the difference?  Here's another Dukoff-Zimberoff:

Here's another Selmer Elkhart that was also claimed to be a Dukoff blank:

And here's a Buescher claimed to be a Dukoff:

I hope that you can see that the baffle (or lack thereof) is completely different.  As is the lay.  As is the tip opening. As is the table (more on that later).  The windows on these pieces look longer or shorter based on the same foreshortening problem with the pictures as noted above, but they are basically the same except when effected by the table.  Again, more on that later.

So why would somebody call a common Buescher #3 a Dukoff Zimberoff House of Note?  A couple hundred dollars.  That's right.  Some of these Babbitt blank student pieces sell for a couple hundred dollars because Bob Dukoff used the same blanks for some of his pieces.  Go figure.  Although Buescher and Selmer are the most common names that shared the blank with Dukoff, there are at least six branded stencils of this piece (and the actual Babbitt Artist).  They are not common as dirt, but Babbitt sold a lot of them as a generic student piece, often in a #3 lay.  In fact, some of these blanks are stamped Geo. M. Bundy and shipped with the Bundy horns.  I don't know if anybody is claiming that a Bundy is a Dukoff (or whether buyers are swallowing that one).

Keep in mind that the molding of blanks utilizes two mold shapes.  A "plug" controls the initial shape of the chamber.  It is placed inside of the exterior mold.  The exterior mold controls the external shape of the blank, although both the interior and the exterior can be modified after molding.  The exterior shape can be "updated" while using the same interior "plug" to form the chamber.  Some of the "older style" Babbitt Artists (shown below) actually have the same chamber as the later Dukoff-Zimberoff/Selmer/Buescher etc. blanks.  The mouthpieces aren't the same shape on the outside, but have identical insides.  Guess which characteristic effects how they sound?

The confusion also happens with other blanks.  Arnold Brilhart's first mouthpieces (prior to his plastic pieces) were custom made from hard rubber blanks that he had purchased from a blank manufacturer (the first from American Hard Rubber Co. in Butler, NJ).  The identical blanks were sold to other finishing houses, of course, but because they are sometimes claimed to be "the Brilhart blanks," they can also sell for 4 or 5 times the "normal" price of this fairly common vintage no name blank.

Here's a Brilhart refaced by Brian Powell and listed at $599:

  Here is the no name version that usually sells for $25-40 on Ebay (unless it is listed as an Arnold Brilhart vintage hard rubber piece).  

Here it is as a Bonacio Custombuilt, probably its most obscure iteration:

A "Brilhart blank" is often claimed to be a rare vintage piece made from special hard rubber when, in fact, there were even more stencils of this blank than of the Babbitt-made Selmer/Buescher/Dukoff etc., etc. blank shown above.

Turns out that variations of this theme, sometimes called "rebadging," have occurred in the auto industry.  Auto Carrier Ltd. in England produced an nice little sports car with an aluminum body and a 100 horsepower 4-banger, the AC Ace.
American auto designer Carrol Shelby imported the Ace chassis and put a Ford 427 V8 in it (sort of as a "finishing house") and created the Shelby Cobra, the fastest production car in the world at the time.  If I were selling an AC Ace, I could advertise the car as Shelby Cobra "blank."  Turns out that car enthusiasts are more discerning than mouthpiece enthusiasts and won't pay the extra money.  

I'm not saying that the vintage mouthpieces originally sold as Buescher, Selmer, Vibrator, Bonacil, Bundy, Penn, Coast, etc., etc., can't be turned into something similar to a Dukoff-Zimberoff or a Brilhart Hard Rubber.  It's just that it may take a lot more expertise than a superficial refacing.  

Back to a car analogy.  Say that I have a vintage Porche 356.

I find out that the cabriolet model (the convertible) is worth a lot, lot more, so I cut the top off of mine to make it into a cabriolet.  That way, I can sell my car for 7 times more.  

Again, it turns out that car enthusiasts are not as easily fooled by the superficial similarity as are mouthpiece enthusiasts.  You can imagine that starting with a coupe and actually changing it to a legitimate cabriolet is going to be very difficult (if not impossible).  Same is often true with a mouthpiece.

Which brings us back to the issue of the table on the blanks, the stencils, and "finishing house" pieces.  After comparing a lot of old mouthpieces, both collector pieces and their no names cousins, I saw that the tables were not always cut the same on what appeared to be identical blanks.  When the table is cut in such a way that it is closer to parallel with the neck opening, it creates more of a "streamlined" mouthpiece, i.e., something more like a Personaline style of mouthpiece.  It has the effect of increasing the tip opening without removing material from the tip.  It changes the angle of the baffle all the way through the piece.  It changes the way that it plays.

In some cases, it appeared that the finishing house altered the table on the generic blank with what is known as a "butt cut" (removing material at the back of the table).  In that case, simply opening the tip on a supposedly identical Babbitt-made "Dukoff" blank, as is commonly done, does not produce a piece identical to a Dukoff.  So a blank that started out similar to a famous vintage piece might not easily be refaced to produce the identical thing.  Just putting a Dukoff tip opening, lay, side rails, and baffle on a similar blank isn't likely to create a Dukoff (more on that in Hoax part 2).  Sort of like trying to change a coupe into a convertible.

Maybe pictures will help.  Here are three  identical vintage mouthpieces.  A Penzel-Mueller Artist Model, a JJ Babbitt Artist, and a no name.  The P-M Artist Model has the good reputation, so lets say that we are looking for blanks to make a mouthpiece "just like a P-M Artist Model."

In case you haven't noticed, I lied.  One of these is not like the others.  Although very similar, the one on the right has a shorter beak in comparison with the other two, which means that there is no way that it came from the same molded blank (although it appears to be a Babbitt-made piece).  When you are purchasing a mouthpiece that's claimed to be "just like a Dukoff," or "just like a Brilhart," or  whatever, you have no way of knowing unless you have both the generic blank and an original in your hand.  And if you have a real Dukoff, Link, or Brilhart, why do you need a fake one?

The middle one is the P-M Artist Model and the one on the left is the Babbitt (which is called simply Artist although Babbitt used this name on many of it's pieces, including one of its white plastic models).  Guess where Penzel-Mueller bought the blanks that it used to make it's Artist Model?  Give up?  Here's a clue.  It is made with that super-special vintage Penzel-Mueller hard rubber.  Yeah, it was made by Babbitt using the same hard rubber Babbitt used on thousands of other vintage pieces.  So hundreds of other brand mouthpieces feature that super-special vintage Penzel-Mueller hard rubber.  Get the story here.

But wait, remember we were talking about the differences in the tables?  Here they are looking from the other side.

The middle one is the P-M Artist Model and the one on the bottom is the "identical" Babbitt.  But look at the difference in table width and how the shape of the table differs at the shank.  That is because the Artist Model has had a lot more material removed to form the table before the facing was put on.  This effects the width of the rails, the shape and length of the window, the angle of the baffle to the bore, the amount of material between the table and the chamber, the amount of material left with which to form the baffle, etc., etc, even if the same curvature lay is used.  

If we are attempting to make a brand X Babbitt into a Penzel-Mueller Artist Model clone, we can "kind of sort of make it look similar maybe."  The same is true with turning a Buescher Babbitt into a Dukoff-Zimberoff House of Note Babbitt.  I'm not saying that the no name student versions of the blank can't make really great mouthpieces, I'm just saying don't pay a $150 premium to get a chance at trying it.  First, you have paid too much.  Second, you can only make something similar.

Which brings me to my final point.  "Similar" isn't a bad thing.  I'm not convinced that attempting to claim that "it's reallyDukoff" or "it's just like an Artist Model" or "it's actually a Brilhart hard rubber piece" should be a goal.  Good quality vintage hard rubber student pieces from respected manufacturers are readily available and (should be) inexpensive as blanks.  As we have seen, the no-name pieces often started as the same blanks.  Once properly refinished, they are a fraction of the cost of an original Dukoff, Brilhart, etc.  And that "original" Dukoff or Brilhart may have already been refaced (like one of the examples above), so in a way, refacing a $15 blank can get you exactly the same thing, i.e., a vintage hard rubber mouthpiece "in the style of" a Dukoff (as was done here) or a Link Tone Edge  (as was done here).  

Just remember that when you hear a claim like "it's really a Dukoff-Zimberoff House of Note Supersonic," it isn't and it never will be.  Don't despair.  It's also possible that your refinished no-name piece will play better than an old Dukoff, Brilhart, Link, etc.  The only downside is that you don't get to drop the famous name.  If that's important to you, you'll be interested in buying my Porche cabriolet.

P.S.: That Brilhart hard rubber piece refinished by Brian Powell shown above . . . well, it isn't.  I mean that it isn't a Brilhart.  It was a Brilhart, but not now.  Why?  Well, what made it a Brilhart in the first place?  Bonacio and many others used the same blank, as shown above.  If Bonacio stamped their pieces "Brilhart" would it be a Brilhart?  No, it's not the name stamped on the outside.  It is the Brilhart finish work that turned a generic blank into a Brilhart.  That generic blank now has different non-Brilhart finish work.  It is now a Powell.  Not that that is bad, in fact it is likely better, but let's get real about what's going on here.

A friend's brother-in-law has a Model T pickup.  It has a Cummins diesel engine.  The running gear is mostly Dodge, although some of the tranny is Japanese (which was used by Dodge).  Gauges are all new, etc.  The only thing that is still remotely Model T is the body shape and a Ford V8 logo on the radiator.  People will believe that it's a Model T pickup, but lets get real here.