Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Removing a Vox microphone pickup from a sax neck

You can find information on the Vox microphone pickup at various places on the web, so I won't go into detail as to what it did (or does if you still have the equipment).  I will only note that one of the selections that you could make on the equipment was "oboe."  You could play the sax and have it sound like an oboe.  Huh?  Who decided that?  Why not play a sax and have it sound like a harmonica, bagpipe, or a chainsaw?

Anyway, with the passing of time, microphones improved and it was no longer necessary to drill a hole in your saxophone to connect a pickup.  The trouble is, horns that were played professionally, horns that were loved by accomplished players, horns that were "keepers," sometimes had a hole drilled in them for a pickup.  It seems odd now that you would love your sax so much that you decided to drill a hole in it.  A lot of really nice horns have old Vox fittings soldered on the neck.

One could choose to leave the fitting in place.  But there is a problem.  The fitting came with a little plastic plug to be fitted when the pickup was removed.  Either from the passing of time, or maybe from when new, the fittings leak a little.  You can use a suction test and see that air passes through, or you can put soapy water on the fitting and blow bubbles.  Not good. 

Here is a Vox fitting on a 1937 Conn 10M neck.  A hole is drilled in the neck even with the upper octave pip.  I'm not sure if that was what the manufacturer recommended or not.  I'm not sure why it had to be there.  I think that having a cable connected right in front of the mouthpiece would be about the worst place to put it from a player's point of view.  Whether it was best from an acoustic point of view?


I stuck some pink poster tack in the hole to get it sealed up during the rebuild/repad, but now it's time to remove it.  Rule #1, don't make things worse.

Here it is with the little screw on cap removed.  You can see the solder around the fitting.
I put a piece of bent wire down the fitting.  That way, when the solder gets hot enough to melt, the neck will simply fall away.  The reason I did it this way is that the lacquer on the horn is really nice and I want the neck to fall and cool immediately, since the melting temp of solder is just below the scorching temperature of lacquer.  Not knowing exactly what type of solder was used, I want to try to get the fitting out as quick as possible.

The fitting is out, leaving a big gob of solder on the neck.  One good thing is that the actual hole penetrating the neck is smaller than what I thought it might be.

I cleaned off most of the solder by melting it and quickly wiping it off with a wet sponge.  Then, I made sure that there wasn't any solder hanging off of the inside of the hole. 


I cut a circular piece out of a 3/4" copper pipe, which was just the perfect circumference.  I thought about using a penny, but getting a nice bend would likely have been more difficult than cutting the circle.  And there's another problem. I was soldering a penny on another non-sax project and it melted at a temp just a little higher than the solder.  Turns out that new pennies are copper plated aluminum.  Funny money.


Here is the solid copper piece laying over the hole.  I tinned the back of the copper patch, laid it on the remaining old solder, and heated the patch.


When the solder melted, I could see that the patch settled down on to the neck as the new and old solder melded.  I then checked it to make sure that it had sealed completely.


And it's finished.  I'll just let the copper age and it will blend in better.  

For those who can hear the imaginary differences caused by the galvanic potentials between disparate metals, the sax now sounds much, much better.  To me, it sounds like a really nice 1937 10M.



Sunday, November 27, 2016

Why I Don't Re-Use Old Pads


When I buy a saxophone, I'm very quick to decide to replace all the pads.  I often buy a sax and it plays okay.  Sometimes, it plays good.  So I take it completely apart and, as part of my tune-up, I replace all of the pads.  Many of the pads could be reused, but I replace them all.  Why?  Two reasons.

First, I don't buy horns to resell per se.  I buy a sax, generally a reputable vintage sax, to see if when rebuilt I will like it better than my favorite sax.  If it doesn't make the mark, I donate it or resell it.  Obviously, by donating a sax I don't make a profit.  It turns out that the same is often true with reselling a saxophone.  If I bought an old saxophone, cleaned and adjusted it, and resold it, I might make a profit, but that's not my hobby.  My hobby is to get it playing as best as possible.  That can't be done on old mismatched pads, in my experience.

The often seen statement describing a saxophone that is for sale is "playing well on older pads."  Or the seller says "some pads may need replacing in the near future."  I guess replacing a few pads to keep the horn playing is fine for a grade school student whose parents don't think that the saxophone will interest the student for long.  Or for somebody on a really tight budget (although new pads are cheap if you do you own sax work).  But for all other situations, trying to guess which pads should be replaced is simply not worth it.  From the used horns that I have seen, it is only when the pad is really, really bad (and really really obvious) that it gets replaced.  That is like waiting for the core to show on your tires to decide that they need replacing.





I think I can get to Las Vegas on this one. I don't see any light coming through.

Because I have the saxophone already taken apart when I look at the pads, I simply replace them.  Even if they look good.  First, I'm trying to determine whether I like the horn when compared to my other horns.  I can't do an apple to apple comparison if one horn has old mismatched pads on it.  Second, I've found that "good looking" older pads can be junk.  Even popular name pads can go bad and still look good.

I just finished completely rebuilding a 1951 Conn 10M.  It had eleven different styles and vintages of pads on the horn.  Clearly, it had gone through the "this pad looks okay" type of care for many years.  I could also tell that some of the pads had been replaced without the keys having been removed (and lubricated, swedged, etc.).  It had received the type of maintenance where the owner tells the repair person "Do the cheapest stuff to get the horn to play." Or the flip side, where the repair person thinks "Replacing two or three of the worst pads will be such an improvement that the player will be thrilled." After a couple of decades of this type of "service," the horn gets put in the closet, or sold, or given away.

One reason is that the "perfectly good older pads" are leaking.  Not leaking so that a leak light shows, which is why they are considered "perfectly good."  The problem with older perfectly good pads is that it has deteriorated in a way that makes the leather very porous.  I think that it could be years of high moisture that causes the deterioration.  Sometimes the pads look stained, but other times not.  It is hard to tell which ones are suffering from "rotten leather."  So, I just replace them without having to guess about each pad's condition or quality.

Here is an example of a "perfectly good pad" that is extremely porous.  This horn had several different types of pads on it and they varied from obviously old and crappy to brand new (although I suspect that the  "new" pads were new many years ago when the horn was put in the closet).  So by new, I mean this pad had the least amount of hours of play on it.  

I'm going to scratch the pad with my fingernail.  I don't have particularly sharp fingernails and I'm just doing this to show you how easily the leather tears.  The leather looks really good, in fact, it hardly even has a seat ring set in the leather.  It would not be a pad that would be replaced in a "this pad looks okay" type of maintenance program.

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This would not happen with a new pad.  New leather is very tough, especially the kangaroo leather pads.  

Well, don't do that to an old pad and just reuse it, right?  No.  Here is how I came to find out that some leather pads were "rotten."  I was cutting pad leather to use on various parts of the saxophone when I did a rebuild, usually on the "U" posts that stabilize a long key rod.  Lining the "U" with leather holds the rod more securely while still allowing it to rotate and not make any noise.  I found that when scavenging old pads that had just been removed during the rebuild, some had tough leather and some had a weird "fluffy" leather.  When applying contact cement glue to the "fluffy" leather, it simply passed through the leather, making it grip the key rod in the "U".  The easily torn leather was permeable to the glue.  It was also permeable to air.  

I could hold the easily torn leather to my lips and blow through it.  I was amazed at how easy it was to blow through the leather.  Not very scientific, but it seemed to me that pad leather that "passes gas" is not what I wanted.  That old leather would keep light from shining through, but it was like having pads made out of denim.  Several pads with "rotten" leather would keep a horn from passing the vacuum test when checking a horn for leaks.  

One of the pads on the project sax (the B bell pad) seemed to be identical to the pad that was easily torn. The leather on that pad was much better, probably because it hadn't been exposed to moisture as much.  Still, the leather was quite permiable and, since I have no idea the quality of the old pad, it gets replaced.

I haven't found a good non-destructive test to determine whether the leather on an old pad is still good.  Not looking good.  That's easy.  But functioning good.  It is possible to scrape the pad inside of the seat ring and, assuming that the leather is strong, then reuse it (although it might have a scuff).  That might also pull the seat ring out of round and it wouldn't sit back in the same place.  Again, for the cost of new pads, new high quality pads, I just replace them all.

I did take some video of the "fingernail" test on some other pads. I couldn't get a kangaroo pad to tear by using my fingernail.  I couldn't even get it to tear using a dental pick.  Nor could I blow air through the leather.  Here is a Roo pad that I stained for a different project and then never used.  There is a big difference in leather strength and permeability.  The pad is also firmer and requires more care in floating, but worth it.

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Here is a look at a Conn Res-o-pads.  Probably original to the 1951 10M.  This was a bell pad on another project and had "survived" for decades because it hadn't been exposed to as much moisture.

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Keeping it clean

I have been amazed by the statistics as to what people are researching on the internet when it comes to saxophones.  This blog site has an automatic statistic compiler that shows which blog gets the most attention and the search terms that were used to reach the site.  Aside from my diversions into non-sax topics, this blog is basically about getting the best out of your saxophone.  Repair, if you will, but some care and feeding of a saxophone.  So what gets the most attention?  Which blog is viewed the most?  What is the most common concern of saxophone players?  Turns out that it is my blog about removing lacquer.  Most people are searching for how to make their lacquer look good.  It's like writing a big blog about automobile maintenance and the most hits at the site are from people who want to make their car shiny.

Lacquer, i.e., the most frivolous aspect of saxophone ownership, gets the most attention.  Will you play better if your lacquer is better?  I doubt it.  But this blog is going to be about your inner-self.  Actually, your horn's inner-self.  I've torn apart and rebuilt enough saxophones that I know that it's what's inside that counts.  And I really mean what counts.  What is inside your horn, stuff that you don't know about, will really, really effect the way your horn plays.  People talk about whether a re-lacquer effects the way a horn plays.  It is a complex issue with lots of hyperbole and folk lore.  But what's inside your horn will absolutely effect the way the horn plays, yet nobody talks about that.

Every new player gets the admonition about swabbing out their horn when they are done practicing.  Good advice, often ignored.  So what bad stuff happens to the horn that isn't swabbed regularly?  The same thing that happens to the swabbed horn, just much faster.  Even a horn that is taken care of suffers over time.  Here, I'm talking about quite a bit of time.  Since I generally work on older horns (1920's-40's), I often see stomach-turning filth, and some of it is on well maintained horns.  Think of it like brushing your teeth.  It's a great idea, but when you're 100 years old you probably will have some issues even if you brush just like your dentist says.  Same with swabbing.  You will also need a periodic deep cleaning.

One of my recent repads was a 1951 Conn 10M.  Compared to most horns that I've worked on, that's a new horn.  I always look inside when I take them apart and this one was normal.  There was stuff.  Stuff that wouldn't come out with a swab.  I have a stainless steel wire bottle brush that has adjustable bristles.  I can make it narrow or as wide as a wine bottle.  Perfect for cleaning the inside of the body tube after all the key mechanisms are removed.  Here is  a view down the bell.



See that little pile of stuff in the bow?  You can click on the picture to enlarge.  That's what came loose from the body tube with a little brushing.  Here's a different angle of what was in the bow.  This picture isn't the bottom of the bow, where stuff really accumulates, this is just what the sides of the body tube looked like.




This stuff was also in the neck.  It is formed by condensation attracting dust and stuff over the years.  How can that not effect the way the horn sounds?  Who cares of the horn is a re-lacquer on the outside if this is what's on the inside.

Here is a picture of the stuff I got out of the neck and the horn.  Notice that there is a little yellow plastic piece, probably from the octave mechanism, that came out when I brushed out the horn.  It was cemented inside of the horn with the gunk.

Because some of the stuff wouldn't come loose with just a brushing, I used my abrasive blaster and soda (a relatively mild abrasive) to blast out the stubborn stuff.  Here's a picture of what I had to blast out.  This is after I had gone through the tube with the stainless steel bristle bottle brush, so this stuff is really stuck on.
That stuff isn't in the bow, it's on the side wall of the body tube, looking in through one of the lower tone hole chimneys.  With all of the keys off, I was able to blast the entire tube.  Soda is abrasive enough to remove this scale but doesn't leave a rough or satin finish like sand.

I have never cleaned out a horn without changing anything else.  A cleaning like this requires the keys removed, and if they are removed, then the horn is repadded, the keys are swedged, the full works.  So I don't know how much of the improvement in the horn's performance is due just to removing the fuzzy crumbles from the interior.  I have to believe that a layer of scale can't be good.

Next is the pads and tone holes.  Since I always have the horn stripped down, I really don't ever clean a pad off and use it over again.  It's just not worth it.  I'll use an analogy.  I completely rebuild my car's engine. I save the old oil and oil filter because they look okay and I don't know how many miles are on them.  That saves me $25.  Really?  Ever heard of anybody doing that?

Good quality pads and resonators are about $100 on a tenor.  If the horn is taken care of, they should last over 10 years.  That's less than $10 a year to play on good pads.  Of course, if you don't work on your own horn and install the pads yourself, it costs more.  

Here is one of the issues with old pads.  This is verdigris.  
Verdigris is kind of a generic name for a green layer of corrosion that forms on metal alloys containing copper.  Citric acid, chloride, whatever, can form verdigris.  It can occur simply from salts, acids, and gases in the environment.  And moisture helps.  It tends to be a blend of copper acetate, copper carbonate and, if near the ocean, copper chloride.  Other tarnish colors are caused by other acids, but the term verdigris (vert-de-Grece or "Green of Greece) is the common term.


This is what heavy verdigris looks like on a pad.  It can be cleaned off, but don't bother.  The damage has been done.  The crystals are not just on the surface.  The moisture that helps verdigris form also carries the verdigris into the leather.  Leather used in other applications, especially structural uses of leather (think horse harnesses), have know for years the deterioration of leather caused by verdigris on brass rivets used in leather.  The tanning process leaves residual chemicals that produce verdigris.
(If you want to see how pad leather can fail while looking perfect, check out this blog.)


The affected leather can been cleaned and the verdigris on the surface removed, maybe even the verdigris formed in the moist leather, but I'm not convinced that damage hasn't been done by the crystalline structure of the verdigris.  The leather around a saxophone pad seat will be supple enough to look like the pad is sealing, but the actual seat area will have been compromised.  

Speaking of supple, go back and look at the pad shown in the third picture.  See the "water spots" on it?  Sometimes that is just a stain and sometimes that discoloration indicates a hard spot on the leather.  Check those spots carefully and decide whether you want to save a pad like that.  

You will also need to look closely at any tone hole chimney that has a layer of verdigris.  The amount of copper that makes the green patina may be minuscule, but it may also be enough to effect the sealing ability of the tone hole.  I use a flat diamond lap file, often used for sharpening carving knives, to gently put a shine on the tone hole.  That way I can use a magnifying glass to see if the tone hole is level.  



Right in the center of the picture is an area that isn't completely shiny after being lightly lapped.  The combination of leather, copper, spit, and who knows what else had, over the years, caused some metal loss.  It doesn't take much of a pad seat to hide this size leak.  The tone hole needs to be filed down a tiny amount and all is good.  Except for one problem.  I still have brass directly against leather.  And I will have moisture.  By taking good care of my horn I can minimize the amount of time moisture is present, but I can't eliminate it.

What I have done in the past is to cut to the chase and corrode the newly exposed brass so that it won't further corrode.  It's similar to the anodized finish that is put on aluminum to prevent further corrosion.  I need to corrode the copper with something so that no raw copper is exposed to acetic acid, etc. (the common causes of verdigris).  What I have used is a mixture of selenic acid and phosphoric acid.  It is the same stuff that I used on another blog to produce a brownish patina on the whole horn.  Although that horn is un-lacquered brass, there has been absolutely no verdigris formed on the patina surface in 6 years.  Not on the inside, not on the tone hole chimneys.

Shortly after putting the patina on that horn, I leveled some tone holes and was concerned about the leather/raw brass issue.  Leveling the tone holes produces a sharp edge.  I run bronze wool around them to round them over a little bit and get rid of any sharp burrs.  Not a rolled tone hole exactly, just an edge that is friendlier to the leather.

I then run my acid wash over the newly exposed brass.  I've already done it here, and it's basically invisible.  It doesn't effect the lacquer and simply takes the sheen off of the brass.  It corrodes the brass to a soft brown color and, so far, does not subsequently generate any green crud.



Now I have a surface that is clean, flat, and resistant to verdigris.  With the keys off, I can clean and inspect the inside.  Time to repad.  AND THEN KEEP THE HORN CLEAN.