Soldered Tone Holes

Most modern instruments have drawn tone holes. These are the kind you see where the tone hole is formed from the body of the instrument and there is no seam. When the body of the instrument is made it has small holes punched out of the metal. Then a specific diameter metal ball is then drawn up through the hole which widens it and forms the tone hole.

Another technique is to cut the appropriate diameter hole and then place a separate metal ring which forms the wall of the tone hole on the body of the instrument. The wall is soldered to the body of the instrument.

The advantage of soldered tone holes over drawn tone holes is their superior ability to hold their shape and not warp because of dents or over time as the metal relaxes. The disadvantage is that on very old instruments, the solder can disintegrate causing leaks.

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Pictured above is a soldered tone hole on a Conn bass saxophone I was working on. You can see a massive space has formed between the body of the instrument and the wall of the tone hole. To repair this we simply re-solder the tone hole to the body, filling in the gap.

Although the procedure is simple, usually where there is one un-soldered tone hole there are others and fixing this requires many keys to be removed. An inexperienced repair person my not notice these problems when they estimate the repair job. That’s why it is important to always estimate carefully and use a leak light.

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Farewell to my teacher Ed Coles Jr.

The man who taught me instrument repair was murdered yesterday by his own son.

Edward Coles Jr. was a world class repairman. I feel that the meticulousness and artistry of his work was unparalleled. I’ve seen lots and lots of repair work on all types and levels of horns, and if you’re lucky enough to have had Ed work on your horn, you’ll know that I’m not being hyperbolic. Ed’s passing is an enormous blow to myself, and I’m sure to his friends, surviving family, and to the Delaware Valley musical community at large.

Ed’s repair work really embodied his spirit in general. He was always open to new ways of making repairs and learning from anyone that had a good idea. A lot of big time repair people think they’re the end all, they know everything, any way but theirs is wrong. Ed wasn’t like that. I remember lots of occasions where he wanted my opinion on a repair he was making even though he taught me everything I know. When he asked me, he wasn’t just trying to make me feel good (though it did), he genuinely wanted another perspective, to get another set of eyes to see if he’d missed something. Sure, Ed knew he was talented; but he didn’t lord his abilities over anyone.

In fact, Ed was also a great educator. Besides mentoring myself, Ed has taught many other repair technicians over the years. Recently he had gotten a gig at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia teaching repair part time to music students. Ed was also an annual feature for music ed. majors at Rowan University in Glassboro where he held clinics for aspiring band teachers as well as ran a free repair both at the Jazz Festival.  If Ed had the opportunity, he would have been teaching repair full time. It’s really a shame more people didn’t get to train under him.

He was a musician and a band director as well. He directed the Bonsal blues concert and dance bands off and on for decades. I had the pleasure of playing in both bands and let me tell you, Ed really knew his stuff as a director and as a musician. He dedicated a ton of time to these bands, he truly loved being involved in music.

Ed was funny and he was generous. He always let me work on my own instruments in the shop after hours, never charged me for any parts, even did free repairs for my fiance before I had learned how to do them myself. And it wasn’t just me, he did so many favors for so many people and he never asked for anything. Lot’s of people asked for favors, believe me, lot’s of people who had no right to be asking for favors, but Ed did them anyway. Ed never burned bridges, even with people who treated him like crap.

And Ed loved his family more than anyone I think I’ve met. By all accounts he should have hated some of them for things they did to him…but he didn’t. It’s strange that I know so much about his family life, normally I don’t think bosses tell their employees as much personal stuff as he told me, but because I was privy to a lot of the comings and goings in his life when I worked with him and I knew his family pretty well, I think I really got a good sense of who he was.

The circumstances of Ed’s death are tragic for so many reasons, maybe the most tragic is that the man who killed him, his son, doesn’t understand or appreciate that his father loved him dearly. If he did he would never have done the evil that’s he’s done.  Edward Coles Jr. was a great man. I doubt I will ever meet anyone like him again. Ed was the most generous man I’ve ever know and one of the kindest. I will not forget him.

-David Horowitz

 

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How to get a factory fresh clarinet tenon cork

Do you remember what your tenon corks looked like when your clarinet or other woodwind was brand new? Next time you have a tenon cork replaced, take a close look at the job. Does it look brand new again?

Here’s how I get my tenon corks looking fresh:

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First I apply the cork, taking care to cut it carefully to fit between the rails.

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Next I put the clarinet body into the lathe. It’s held in place by a live center which spins and one end and a bench peg in the chuck. As the lathe spins the body, I use a strip of sandpaper to cut the cork down and shape it.

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I check the fit with the socket of the instrument every so often and gradually get the fit I want. I don’t want to sand too far. The fit should be so about 1/4 to 1/2 of the tenon can fit into the socket dry without any cork grease.

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I shape the cork into a barrel shape, tapered on each end.

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Finally, I impregnate the cork with wax to lengthen its useful life and then apply cork grease to check the final fit. I wipe the excess off with a paper towel and q-tips.

Using this method you get a tenon cork that lasts and looks like it did when it left the factory.

Trip to the Burkart Flute factory

 

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Sorry for the bad quality, this was taken during my pre-iPhone days

 

 

I went to the Burkart Flute factory just outside of Boston a few years for a repair clinic and while the clinic itself wasn’t all that interesting, the tour of the factory defiantly was worth the trip. Burkart makes top of the line flutes with their lowest priced model starting at around $10K and their highest listed flute being close to $50K. They actually have and even more pricey model but it’s by request only. I don’t know anyone who’d spend $50,000 on a flute, but I asked one of the craftspeople how many flutes they actually sell and she told me they were backlogged a year at that point if I remember correctly.

Much of the price point is accounted for by the cost of raw materials; silver, gold, and platinum don’t exactly compare with the price of brass. Burkart had a safe full of gold and they let me hold a big piece of round silver stock that must have been about 3 pounds. Probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever had my hands on! In addition to the materials, the machines they use are very expensive as well. They had a few CNC lathes that run around half a million each as well as computerized milling machine which was very cool.

They also showed us some instrument bodies and parts they were manufacturing for other instrument makers. The owner wouldn’t tell us who they were doing work for but they had a bunch of french horn rotor assemblies as well as Oboe bodies they were making with the computerized milling machine I mentioned. That thing was amazing; once it had been programed (which was a lengthy process), it could churn out a flawless Oboe body in something like 5 minutes. The measurements were so exact that when we tested putting a rod screw through the posts, the alignment was absolutely perfect; you could drop the rod right through and it wouldn’t catch or wobble one bit.

Burkart also makes piccolos from grenadilla wood which they let season for two years before using. They told us that a big reason so many clarinets crack these days compared to times past is because the manufacturers are not waiting nearly enough time and letting the wood season properly. Apparently this is due to the shrinking numbers of the African Blackwood trees available as an increase in demand. It may be that sometime in the near future, there will be no more grenadilla instruments because of over-harvesting.

Finally, we got to see how their flutes are actually made. As you can see in the above picture, the manufacturing floor isn’t very fancy; just a big room with lots of benches and soldering torches. All the flutes made there have soldered on tone holes if memory serves and most of the parts are made from precious metals. I think it would be nerve-wracking to be soldering onto solid silver and gold body tubes all day; too much heat and you melt the thing. They told me it happened sometimes but it really wasn’t a big deal because they can just melt it down and remake it, a luxury afforded in manufacture that we defiantly do not have in the repair shop. All of the parts they use are made on site apart from pads and some screws from what I gathered. They had mini-arc welders that they used to tack the parts together before they did the silver soldering. I got to try the machine and it was very cool but I wasn’t very good at it. Oh well.

We were allowed to sort of wander around the factory floor much of the day and talk to the different people working. All of the workers do most of the different parts of the flute manufacture and rotate every so often. That seems like a good idea so people don’t get bored and when someone is out, someone else can take over a certain job if need arises. I got a chance to get my grubby fingers on some of the flute models in the show room, actually, holding those flutes might have been the most expensive things I’ve held as opposed to the silver rod, I’m not sure. Anyway, those flutes are just extraordinary: I can’t comment on the tone, I don’t play flute well enough to know, but the construction is of the absolute highest quality. Burkart uses a system called micro-Link to connect the keys to each other which is a system where there are no pins as there would be on most flutes. Visit their website to read about it because they can explain it better than I can, but generally I think the idea is to get a very tight feel with as little spring tension as possible. An added benefit would be that unlike on pinned key work, there are no pins to wear and eventually cause wobbly keys. That’s a guess on my part though so don’t quote me.

So it was a cool trip other than the fact that my junky car broke down on the way there, but that’s another boring story which I’ll spare you.

http://www.burkart.com/

 

Quality of instruments getting worse and worse

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There’s a disturbing trend in musical instrument manufacture: Companies are producing lower quality instruments with a higher price tag.

I’ve worked on thousands of instruments. As I’ve repaired, cleaned, and tested, and sold these horns, I’ve gotten to see all sorts of levels of quality in their manufacture. I’ve worked on $89.99 purple clarinets made in Chinese sweat shops to $10k bass saxophones made in the 1920s. Anyone who’s done a decent amount of repair work can tell you there’s a wide spectrum of quality in instruments. It’s from getting my hands dirty tearing these horns apart and building back up again that I can give you my opinion regarding the general state of the musical instrument manufacturing business: It ain’t what it used to be…mostly.

The good ol’ days!

A hundred years ago, there were no student level or pro instruments. All the instruments  were generally offered in one standard. There were different models available; a trumpet suited for jazz vs a trumpet for orchestra work; but all the instruments were suitable for a professional player. No one would know what you meant if you said you wanted a ‘student level trumpet’ back then. Different manufactures were known for certain instruments and models and they were all constantly trying to out-do one another with the latest advances in instrument design. It’s one of the reasons you’ll find such huge number of models of vintage instruments. It worked somewhat as the consumer electronics industry works today with iPhones and Samsung Galaxies, this tablet pc and that HDTV. And this sort of competition drove advances in instrument manufacture and design.

The original student  level instruments:

At some point the instrument companies decided to split their production into student and pro level instruments. The idea was that the student instrument would be more affordable than a pro instrument, more durable as far as accidental damage, and easier to play for a beginner. Take for example, the original Bundy line of instruments from Selmer. These horns were tanks: You could drop them, never clean them, forget to oil the valves and keys and they’d keep playing. The construction was solid and well designed. You can find them today relatively inexpensively and have them overhauled or cleaned and they’ll play for another 50 years. Student instruments opened new markets for the manufacturers and and new opportunities for the masses to get involved in music.

Corporate management and the ‘intermediate’ level horn:

With the successes of the student level horns, companies now had an entirely new market and a new system in place to mass produce instruments. Eventually, someone came up with the idea of the ‘intermediate level’ instrument. From a business standpoint it was a clever move. Lots of other consumer products had entry, mid, and upper level products being sold, so why not musical instruments?

The intermediate level horns being offered then and today (for the most part, yamaha saxohpones being an exception to the rule) aren’t really much different than the student horns apart from some cosmetic upgrades and a few changes in materials here and there. Some would disagree with me, but in my experience, you’re paying for silver plating and some mildly interesting engraving on intermediate horns and that’s about it. Intermediate horns, in my mind, are best left alone. They may look somewhat like a pro instrument, but when it comes to actually playing them, they’re really not any better than a student instrument and in some cases are actually worse. I see them like I see those Hummer H2 SUVs that were popular in the mid 2000s: They may look similar to an actual hummer, but try to drive them the same way and you’re going to get yourself into some serious trouble. But hey, they sold! And that’s why they’re there.

The big problem(s)

So intermediate horns sold well. But the companies still wanted to make more money. But how? Shorten production time. Musical instrument are still made mostly by hand, automation simply hasn’t been completely developed nor integrated into instrument manufacture and for some work, like padding a woodwind instrument, it probably won’t be any time soon. So you could hire more workers or you could increase the load on each worker. It’s much cheaper to simply increase work load and since there’s still only 8 hours in a workday, now a trumpet bell maker in an instrument factory might have a quota of 20 bells a day vs the 15 he had ten years ago. All of that means less time spent on each part which inevitably leads to lower quality.

Another example of the cost of the speed up can be seen if you look at clarinet manufacture: They’re made of African Blackwood and the wood should really sit for a few years and dry out before it’s machined to ensure the piece won’t crack. But while in the past the wood might sit for 3 years before it was made into a clarinet body, negating most instruments from developing cracks, today it might only sit for a year. The result is a whole bunch of unstable clarinets cracking.Finally, and this is something that really bugs me, there’s a growing problem with the finishing of brass instruments; specifically the buffing and degreasing process but I’m going to write about that in a later post.

A conclusion (sort of) to my disjointed rant

SO! What we have today is a multifaceted issue but the driving force that’s causing most of the problems is modern business management techniques: More work + less time x marketing spin = more profit. In some fields that might work fine, retail for example, but in manufacturing, it isn’t conducive to a quality product. If I was wrong, why do serious musicians often seek out vintage instruments and hold them up as examples of quality not seen in modern productions? Heck, look at Selmer; they have the Reference series of saxophones that are supposedly a sort of copy of their famed Mark VI line. They’re basically admitting they can’t make their own horns the way they used to! The Bach part of Selmer is doing the same thing with their Artisan series trumpets. There’s even some company that bought the old Bundy name and is slapping it on junky Chinese instruments and you know what their slogan is? Bundy: The return of a legend! I don’t know who thinks the Bundy name is legendary, but anyway, it proves my point, the instrument manufacturers are seriously lost.

Why do repairs cost what they cost?

 

There are a few different factors that contribute to the cost of a repair: Cost of materials, cost of tools, cost of time, and cost of training.

Cost of materials and tools:

Because instrument repair is not a common trade, the tools and materials used are not mass produced like the tools used in other trades. For example, there are hundreds of manufacturers of tools and materials for electricians, plumbers, mechanics, etc. But in the instrument repair field, there are only five manufacturers of the specialized tools and supplies repair technicians use. When a product is mass produced and there many manufacturers of that product, the price of that item is relatively low. Instrument repair tools and supplies are not mass produced and there are only a few suppliers of those items.  Thus, the price of these tools and supplies are expensive.

Cost of time:

Instrument repairs vary greatly in the time they require to complete. Some repairs, like soldering a loose brace on a trumpet or replacing one cork on a clarinet, are usually simple and might take less than half an hour. Other repairs, like removing lots of dents from a brass instrument or overhauling a saxophone can take a couple of days to do well. Instrument repair, when done properly, is an exacting and time consuming process. This is necessary to ensure a lasting and quality repair.

Cost of training:

To learn the instrument repair trade and be skilled requires many hours of training and hands on experience. There are very few places a person can learn the repair and even fewer places that can produce an excellent repair person. Not that instrument repair is rocket science, but it is not something that can be learned in a month or a year. It takes many years of experience, innate mechanical ability, and fine motor skills to repair instruments well.

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Ultrasonic cleaning and why it’s great

I love my ultrasonic cleaner. You should love it too. Here’s why:

Ultrasonic cleaning is a process where transducers, on the bottom of a tank of water and mild cleaning detergent, generate millions of microscopic cavitation bubbles with sound waves transmitted through the water. These bubbles get into every tiny space on the object you’re cleaning and gently remove the dirt.

The cleaning process is fast, safe for instrument lacquer and finish, second to none in quality, and environmentally friendly to boot. The only downside is that the machine is expensive…very expensive. But hey, that’s my problem not yours. You as a customer get all the benefits. It’s recommended that instruments, especially brass instruments, be ultrasonically cleaned and serviced once a year. This prevents build up of calcium and dirt which can rot your leadpipe and damage your valves.

I can’t say enough good things about ultrasonic cleaning.

www.davidfrostmusic.com