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.

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