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Bench Notes #11

Issue #11 - November 2012


Imagine you're at a nice dinner with your good looking significant other, the food is about to come out, and your partner says, "I'm off to the rest room, I'll be right back." You look at the spoon on the table and wonder how it got bent, did someone bite it? Weird... Oh yeah, that order from You forgot to order the Complete Tone Hole File Set to level the tone holes on that MKVI that's coming in! OK, dinner is coming, your partner is on the way, and you only have seconds to make a note of this! Don't mess up this customer's horn, but don't mess up your romantic dinner either! Do you have our contact in your smart phone? You could call us... but that's so slow and old school... We make it easy for you to get in contact with us. You could email, send a facebook message, and now you can Skype! Simply go to our homepage and click on the "Chat with Me" button on the left. Skype opens on your phone, "Leah, please add the Complete Tone Hole File Set to my order. Thanks!" Done!

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For years, the materials used on saxophone key work have consisted of various thicknesses of natural cork. Recently, with the advent of synthetics, there are more appropriate choices. In order to produce an instrument which feels good, is quiet, and remains stable, consider the material as well as the specific demands on it. Choose the exact material that will accomplish your goal. There seem to be many variables both in materials as well as key locations. Some materials compress over time, some are noisy, some sandable, some squishy and grippy, some lubricious. There are also a number of different keys with their own specific qualities that have material glued to them.

When you are repairing a saxophone that has cork at every location and you want to improve its performance with better materials, how will you choose which ones to use?

This short article is intended to show you the various synthetic and natural materials most commonly used and where to apply them. Material choice is dependent on the demands of the location. This article will also give you a quick guide so you will understand what material, or combination of materials, will work best on any of the three different contact types.


Soft Materials:
Tech Cork – High quality composite cork. Easily sanded and does not compress over time. Used on key feet, adjustment areas, and where consistency is important.
Ultra-Suede – Excellent silencing material which does not compress as much as felt over time. Use in place of thin cork on key feet or at adjustment areas.
Neoprene Cord – Stable, yet soft and flexible. Use to replace corks, adjustment screws, and felts on an instrument. Works especially well under adjustment screws on Selmer and Yamaha saxophones.
Silicone Cord – Slightly softer than neoprene cord, therefore quieter. Use to replace corks, adjustment screws, and felts on an instrument.
Felt – Quiet and soft, but compresses greatly over time and has a tendency to swell with moisture. Use for backs of pearls that contact pad cups or as bumpers for bell keys.
Cork – Natural material, compresses over time. Not stable enough for setting key heights. Best uses are for neck corks, crescents, and key risers.
Leather – Good and durable silencing material. Use for key cradles and under adjustment screws.
Hot Glue Filled Shrink Tube – Soft and pliable, conforms to small areas when heated. Functions as a silencing material in some applications such as the neck octave stem.

Slippery Materials:
Teflon Sheeting– Provides a smooth and slippery surface to reduce friction. Chemically etched on one side to allow adhesion.
Teflon Shrink Tube – For reducing friction in areas such as actuating levers, round connectors, and other areas where two keys slide against each other. Can be used over hot glue filled shrink tubing to allow a combination of smoothness and cushion.

A contact point is where two parts touch where motion is involved. Some contact points are adjustment areas, some stop a key's motion like a key foot or felt bumper. Contact points can transfer motion like some parts of a modern octave mechanism some do both like the Bis Bb connection to the bottom stack. Materials are used on saxophone keys at contact points. In the Sax ProShop, we have a set of rules to guide us when choosing materials. We consider there to be three types of keys or contact points:

1. Keys that Bump

Here one should use a soft material against another soft material. These materials can have varying degrees of softness. Soft materials include Tech Cork, Ultra-Suede, neoprene, silicone, felt, cork, leather, and hot glue filled shrink tube. The most common example of keys that bump are key feet.

2. Keys that Slide

In this situation use a slippery material against a slippery material. We usually use Teflon in sheet form or Teflon shrink tube. There is little reason to use anything else. The octave mechanism of a saxophone is one example of keys that slide.

3. Keys that Bump and then Slide

Choose a soft material against a slippery material, most commonly Ultra-Suede against Teflon. Use this combination on a saxophone where the Bis Bb arm contacts the bottom stack F#.


Using Ultra-Suede on Key Feet - Keys That Bump.
Since key feet are "Keys that Bump" they require two soft materials. Apply tech cork of the same thickness to the key feet on each of the stacks on a saxophone, for example, use .3mm tech cork on top of all stack key feet on an alto, .6mm under the top stack key feet, and .8mm under the bottom stack key feet. This method provides a nice baseline to work from once it is time to set the key heights later. When applying tech cork to key feet, use a thin layer of contact cement to adhere, then cut away the excess material. To aid with sanding later, slightly bevel the tech cork on the front and back of the key feet.

Under each of the key feet, apply a small piece of grey ultra-suede directly to the body. Add a layer of gray ultra-suede to the bottom of the key feet later and the horn will be extremely quiet. While alleviating noise issues, the addition of back-to-back ultra-suede can cause some instability as it compresses. In fact, this is a problem that technicians struggle with: softer material is quieter, but not as stable. We are always looking for a balance.

To counter this material 'squishiness,' we make certain that the tech cork on the key feet is sanded to the contour of the body. Increasing the surface area where the key foot (soon to be lined with ultra-suede) hits the body is a good idea. The increased surface area will distribute the pressure from the spring over a greater area, therefore keeping the ultra-suede working quietly for longer.

Tech cork is a very stable material, which is why it is ideal for setting key heights, because it will not compress and the heights will remain the same. When setting the key heights, you may find that the original tech cork used under the key feet is not thick enough. If this is the case, remove the original tech cork and apply the thickness which corresponds with your preferred key height. With the key heights set, sand one thickness of our grey ultra-suede off the key foot. Now that the tech cork on the key foot matches the contour of the body, glue one piece of grey ultra-suede on the key foot.

For larger saxophones, such as tenor, baritone, and bass, thicker ultra-suede on both the body and key feet is recommended due to the often higher key heights and greater force when the keys bump against the body. Using thicker ultra-suede in this situation provides quieter results. However, remember that the softer the material you adhere to the key foot, the more the material will compress and the less stable your key heights will be.

It is also important to note that all key feet should get the same combination of materials. For example, on the bottom stack feet of a tenor, all of the key feet may end up with gray ultra-suede on the key feet and black ultra-suede on the body. You generally wouldn't want to put gray-gray under one key, gray-black under another, and black-black under the third, because different materials on each foot will cause slight differences in height of the three keys and create poor feeling action or lost motion in the mechanism as the materials compress.

Teflon Against Teflon - Keys That Slide.
In case of a point of contact which is not necessarily noisy, but which may add friction due to its sliding action, choose Teflon against Teflon. Sliding motion is often created between two keys that fit closely together and rub against one another, thus creating friction. Because the keys are in close proximity, "filler" material is not usually required and Teflon against Teflon is able to fill any present gaps and avoid friction. One instance where you may encounter a sliding motion on a saxophone is the octave mechanism. There is often a forked contact coming off the octave thumb touch, joining a round contact and connecting to the upper portion of the octave mechanism.

Without materials on the keys, assemble the mechanism to help determine which materials to install. For the forked arm, apply a thin or medium piece of Teflon to the inner wall of the fork. If the contact which rests in the fork is the same shape as the fork cut-out, as for example on a Selmer-style mechanism, a thin layer of Teflon can be applied to that contact as well.
Reassemble the mechanism and test the material choices. If the mechanism moves sluggishly, the Teflon on either side may be too thick, not providing enough space for the mechanism to move freely. Conversely, if there is still play in this portion of the mechanism, thicker Teflon may be used.

For mechanisms which have a forked arm connecting to a round "post" contact, use Teflon heat shrink tubing. Smaller forked contacts can be paired with Teflon shrink tubing. Simply cut the Teflon to size, slide into place, and heat to shrink over the area.

If the fork is significantly larger than the contact, apply a hot glue filled shrink tube to the contact first and then cover it with a piece of Teflon shrink tubing.

This method reduces friction and removes lost motion within the mechanism. Using hot glue filled shrink tube in addition to Teflon shrink tubing is also a great option for forked side key connections (see article here).

Using Ultra-Suede Against Teflon – Keys That Bump, Then Slide.
One of the most prominent "Bump and then Slide" contact points on the saxophone is the F# adjustment arm, which regulates the G# and Bis Bb arm. A soft surface against a slippery surface is necessary in this case, therefore Ultra-suede against Teflon is the best choice.

Apply a medium thick piece of Teflon to the Bis B arm. Some saxophones have an arm for the G# pad, while others rely on the F# adjustment bar hitting the G# pad cup directly. For the purpose of this article, lets say our saxophone has an arm on the G#, so cover the G# arm with Teflon.

When applying Teflon to a key, use a small amount of super glue and hold the Teflon in place until the glue is dry. It is best to wrap the Teflon around to the back of the arm to increase the contact surface and ensure it will remain secure. Cut away the excess Teflon.

Now that the 'slippery' material for the "bump and slide" is finished, you can move on to applying the soft materials. Vintage saxophones rarely have adjustment screws for regulating the F#-G#/Bis B adjustment and often require sanding to set the timing.

Apply a piece of tech cork to the F# adjustment bar where it will hit the G# arm. If the tech cork is too thick, the G# pad will close first, and you will need to sand the tech cork until the pads close together. Conversely, if the tech cork is too thin, you will need to use a thicker piece. Once the timing between the F# and G# is set, sand the tech cork further until you can fit one thickness of grey ultra-suede between the adjustment arm and G# arm. Set the timing for the rest of the bottom stack and come back to set the F#-Bis Bb (1+1) timing using the same process as setting the F#-G#. When the tech cork for both the G# and Bis Bb regulation is sanded with enough room for one piece of grey ultra-suede left, apply a piece of ultra-suede over the tech cork on the F# adjustment bar.

For horns equipped with adjustment screws on the F# adjustment arm, use a different method. Like the vintage instrument, the G# and Bis Bb arms are covered in medium thick Teflon. Remove the adjustment screws and any old materials completely. Determine which thickness of cord fits best in the adjustment screw and glue a small piece to the screw using super glue. Shape the neoprene to a dome so there is only one point of contact and cover it with a small circle of grey ultra-suede.Without a layer of ultra-suede, the neoprene works, but may be too 'sticky' and may add too much friction. Re-install the adjustment screws and set up the timing as normal.

In both instances, we have created an area which is quiet and smooth by choosing the appropriate materials. The neoprene and ultra-suede combination creates a soft and stable contact, which can glide smoothly on the Teflon.

Using materials of the highest quality and taking the time to apply them in a thoughtful manner is essential to creating a saxophone that feels great and maintains stability. Factories choose materials that allow them to produce large quantities of instruments quickly and inexpensively. As they wear, those materials compress and become much louder than the materials discussed in this article. Taking the time to choose the appropriate materials for each type of contact point ensures a saxophone that is quiet, precise, and stable.

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