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. 


  1. I am mostly interested in baffle work as refacing a piece in good shape seems not to hard. Have you got any tips on producing a baffle like the one on the Dukoff or is that type of baffle down to the mould?

  2. Can you share the secret on creating a baffle like yours?

  3. how to make clam shaped baffle?