Of all the woodwinds, saxophones are the most forgiving when it comes to leaks. Because they are generally softer than other woodwind pads and sit in much larger key cups, saxophone pads can be pressed harder onto the tole hole by the player and be made to cover in almost any condition. As the pads start to leak, the player unconsciously compensates by pressing the keys harder and harder as the leaks worsen. Eventually, the horn is leaking so badly, it won’t play.
Now my definition of ‘won’t play’ is probably different than a musicians. When I test a horn, I’m looking for the lightest possible key pressure, the firmest contact with the tone hole, and snappiest response. So if the horn isn’t playing like it’s new, I’m not satisfied with it until it does. Many times, after I work on a horn, it plays better than new. That’s because factories don’t always do the best job building these horns or setting them up.
So what do I consider to be good pad work?
You must you have 3 things before you start the actual padding of a key: A level tone hole, a level key cup, and a good quality pad.
Level tone holes:
The tone holes are supposed to be level however when the holes are drawn up from the body brass(this doesn’t apply to soldered on tone holes) when the instrument is made, the brass has ‘metal memory’. Metal memory is the stress that is left in the material when it is shaped. After a certain amount of time, the brass will relax. When this happens, the tone holes tend to warp and have dips in them. Tone holes will also develop dips and rises if the horn is dented or bumped severely. To remedy this situation we use rotary tone hole files that leave a perfectly level tone hole surface.
A level key:
Keys are most commonly made from nickel-silver, also known as German silver which is a copper alloy. German silver is harder than brass and more brittle but it still will bend somewhat easily. After lots of playing and pressing done the keys, they will sometimes warp. To make them level again, we use a small anvil and a wooden hammer to tap the edges of the key cup until they sit level on the anvil.
A quality pad:
Not all sax pads are made equal…not by a long-shot. A good quality pad will be made to exacting dimensions and have felt and cardboard inside that have not warped. If the pad is warped or the wrong size for the key cup, we will have a very hard, if not impossible, time of seating the pad on the tone hole.
Installing the pad:
So we have all our prep work done now and everything is level. Next we have to find the right pad diameter and thickness for the key cup depth. Generally, Yamaha saxes all use thin pads while everything else takes the thicker ‘selmer-style’ pads. We want our pad to be snug in the key cup but not so much as to warp. The ideal pad will have no space between the key cup wall and the pad skin. You can observe this when you look at a brand new high quality saxophone.
After we choose our pad, we glue it into the key cup. I prefer using the ‘Z-gun’, available at musicmedic.com, which uses a synthetic shellac that is more durable but retains the firm feel of natural shellac. I like to scratch up the inside of the pad cup with a sharp point; this allows the shellac to adhere better to the key cup surface. I reheat the pad cup with my torch to melt the shellac under the pad and use my thumb to rotate that pad to spread the glue evenly behind it.
Once the key is back on the horn, it is time to seat the pad on the tone hole. Using my torch I carefully heat the key just enough to melt the shellac a little and I use my pad slick and other implements to get the pad to come done on the tone hole with no leaks. I use a leak light which goes down the bore of the instrument and allows me to see every minute leak. I shift the pad until have no leakage with the lightest possible touch on the key.I let the key cool and let the glue harden again. Then I check my work and make the necessary adjustments until I have what I want.
So those are the basics of good pad work. If you see glue has run out the sides of the pads, that’s a good indicator that the person who worked on the sax before didn’t do a good job. The great techs strive not only for functionality, but also for a neat, clean, aesthetic. Check the key corks as well, if they have jagged edges and look wildly uneven in thickness you can almost 100% be certain the rest of the work on the horn stinks. The neatness of our key and neck corks is a matter of pride among good repair technicians and quite often we can tell who worked on the horn before simply by making a quick observation of the key corks. I’m not kidding.
As always, any questions or comments, feel free to contact me!