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Bench Notes #21

Bench Notes #21

Dry Fitting Saxophones: It's more than just bending pad cups

Many people ask me about what dry-fitting is and why we do it. I usually tell them that it's orienting pad cups and getting an instrument ready to be padded. I wrote this article in response to a recent email I received where a repairer asked me if it's necessary to dry-fit pads. With all that a dry-fitter does at the Sax ProShop, I consider orienting pad cups to be a only a small portion of this important job. Someday I plan to write an article that outlines each step of the dry-fitter's job. This article will provide an overview of the theories and processes that we use, and provide several specific examples.

Dry-fitting is the name for a process we designed at the Sax ProShop. The Sax ProShop functions as an assembly-line with specific stations that the saxophone visits during the course of an overhaul. The process of overhauling professional saxophones in this manner has proven to us exactly how important it is to have every part of the job done in a very specific order.

At the time of writing this article, the most logical place for the dry-fitter to do this work is before the padder and after the key fitting is complete and the tone holes and pad cups are level. However, doing the work I'm about to explain in its entirety at that time will undo some of the work done previously. Some of the work I will explain is started, and the rest must be considered, during the process of key fitting because of the significant amount of bending involved. After the key fitting is completed and the tone holes and pad cups are level, materials are installed and the dry-fitter does micro-adjusting and any job that requires a file rather than bending. If you are doing the saxophone overhaul from start to finish, you will likely do a similar thing when you correct a gross maladjustment while fitting keys. Be aware that bending keys after the tone holes have already been leveled must be done very carefully and off the instrument whenever possible.

While the work of a dry-fitter is varied, the bulk of the dry-fitting process involves manipulating the instrument into the proper mechanical order. There are several types of work that must be accomplished at this station: saxophone key systems are timed to work together with one another, key touchpieces are oriented for ergonomic concerns, key arms and feet are adjusted to accommodate material choices, pad cups are oriented over tone holes, and new pads are selected and glued in. The "dry" aspect of the process comes from putting a set of pads into the pad cups but not gluing them in, to help with timing and orientation. The point at which dry-fitting occurs during the overhaul is after many hours have been spent making the body straight and free of dents, meticulously fitting the keys, leveling tone holes to perfection, leveling pad cups and choosing and installing materials that will function predictably for as long as possible. Dealing with the real world of instrument overhauling, we have changed and evolved the job of the dry-fitter over the years and continue to do so as we strive toward consistent perfection, regardless of what type of saxophone it is and what condition it arrived in.

Why Dry-Fit?

First, consider that there is a downside to repairing an instrument too well: when you repair or re-manufacture an instrument to a high level, the tolerance between the systems becomes smaller. Factory tolerances often allow for 'slop' to exist within the mechanisms so that even if things become somewhat mis-aligned, the instrument will still be able to function. When tolerences are great and there is more "play" in the mechanism, interactions between mechanisms have more play, small compromises are made at the expense of one another and the result is always a ceiling where it cannot get much better without the technician entering into a world of diminishing returns. With tighter tolerance, or better foundational work on the instrument however, the point of diminishing returns becomes much later. The end result is an instrument that is able to play better, faster and quieter for much longer with less work at the very end of the overhaul.

Although tone holes and pad cups have been leveled and the keys are fit, there are many things that can prevent the pads from closing or installing consistently. Consider that a seriously bent pad cup that has been made level may now be unparallel with the tone hole. Key arms may have moved from swedging and need to be put back in place. Very fine adjustments are necessary to allow consistent material thickness and smooth action between keys. This must be corrected and set very precisely before the instrument is padded, set-up and tuned. If done well, the instrument will not require another bend again unless it is damaged. This is the task of the dry-fitter.

Timing Key Systems

A goal of the dry-fitter is to deliver an instrument that can be set up without bending or filing once the padding has been completed. After working on saxophones of all kinds year after year, it becomes apparent which modifications, subtle key changes, and set-up issues will be a challenge. In the past, we have spent many hours at the end of an overhaul to make these small changes that were unique to the instrument at hand. However, with enough practice and thoughtful consideration and communication, which included lists of tasks for each instrument type, we now know most of the small changes a certain instrument will need. Considering that metal has a memory, there are many aspects of key relations, key touch feel, and motion from key to key that we are able to predict. The experienced dry-fitter knows what work will need to be done to minimize the work of the set-up person and give him or her an instrument that is already close to functioning once it is assembled. To achieve this, we break the instrument into systems and consider each system and the changes it will need.

For instance, every instrument has a system of pad cups, hinge tubes, and levers. This pad system is usually straight forward. In the bottom stack for example, there are three key feet, F, E, and D, and the top of each foot contacts the F# back bar and the bottom contacts the body. In order for these four keys to function together, the timing must be set between the body, feet, and backbar. The space between the foot and body of each key must be the consistent and the space between the top of the foot and the backbar must be consistent as well. Each pad cup should be oriented to the tone hole so that when the pad reaches a level state, the pad contacts the entire surface of the tone hole simultaneously.

One exception in the bottom stack system is the lowest pad, D. Traditionally, the key was often set up similarly to E and F due to the saxophone's keywork originally being designed based on flute keywork. However, the saxophone's D foot should not need to contact the F# backbar at the same time as the E and F key feet. The desired result is that the D pad does not close the F# pad when pressed on its own. The benefits and possible uses of this set up include longer lasting adjustment and some possible modifications, which will need to be explained in a separate article.

As the dry-fitter is working on various systems, he must also consider how all of the systems work together. For example, how does the top stack operated by the left hand relate to the spatula keys operated by the left hand pinky? There is a whole different process to getting these keys oriented and you can learn about the Left Hand Table here. This specific task requires extreme thoughtfulness. On left hand table set up alone, I've given two hour long NAPBIRT clinics and always felt like there was more to cover. When the left hand table is right with itself, it must be in a comfortable orientation in relation to the top stack keys. Again, the dry fitter must take this all into account.

Key Touch Ergonomics

Another consideration of the dry-fitter is the placement of the key touches. This requires a thoughtful player's perspective.
For example, let's look at the upper stack of a vintage alto. From top to bottom, the five touches in the top stack are: Front F, B, Bis Bb, A/C and G. The curve or angle that the touches or pearls reach the player's hand give the player feedback and change how the player feels about the instrument and certainly affects their technique. Generally, key touches should be parallel to the body and even with each other when the keys are closed.
With Front F specifically, the technique of the player is often taken into account. Some players roll up to Front F and some lift their finger and place it on the Front F. Out of necessity, some players lift or roll but would prefer to do the other. Depending on the player's technique, which can often be ascertained by looking at lacquer or key touch wear, the location of the Front F is set. On some vintage instruments, this includes choosing the correct pearl for the Front F touch. Generally, a concave pearl of the same height and parallel with the B pearl is a quick and comfortable set up to a player who lifts his finger to play Front F. For the player who rolls up to Front F, a convex pearl tilted at an angle to the B pearl is fast and comfortable. To achieve the latter, it is often necessary to file the base of the pearl holder where it contacts the B pad cup.

Of course, the purpose of the Front F is to open the Palm F pad. The dry-fitter notes how far the Front F touchpiece opens the Palm F key pad and make adjustments to a vintage mechanism which was never intended to be adjustable. The goal in this adjustment is to achieve a proper key opening without the introduction of lost motion.

With the now parallel orientation of the B and Front F, any misalignment of the A pearl will feel even more awkward to the player. Much like it's more awkward to be the only one playing out of tune than it is when the entire group is out of tune. The A touch, which rests on the Bis Bb pad, is often higher than the B touch, even from the manufacturer. This causes an uneven feel in the player's hands. When the keys are pressed, the player's middle finger sits higher than the others. Players often practice this problem away, but the dry-fitter can fix it. The correction here is similar to the job performed on the Front F. The A key pearl is lowered by filing material and leaving the key in the proper shape and orientation to accommodate the appropriate material. The A pearl feels comfortable in the stack when given a very slight forward curve compared to the B pearl.

The Bis Bb pearl, between the B and A keys, can be similar to the Front F. Some players only use it from the up position, pressing B and Bis Bb at the same time. Some players roll off the Bis Bb to play chromatically from B to A. Likewise, some roll onto the Bis Bb. The shape and height of the Bis Bb Pearl, its location relative to the B pad, and its surface texture, can help facilitate the player's style and quell distraction.

The G touch has a longer traveling distance than the other keys in the stack. It is also often necessary, especially on many vintage altos, to set the height of the G key (pad that sits over the A tone hole) higher than its neighbors in order for the note A to play in tune. The result is a G touch that moves further than the other touches in the stack. Generally, the dry-fitter will set the G key touch to be parallel with the other keys in the stack when the pads are all closed. The angle of the G pearl is also very important. The dry-fitter will angle the G pearl similar to the new angle of the A pearl.

This type of set up feels very good to most players. The keys fit the fingers well and moving from key to key is easy. Most importantly, when the player closes the keys, his fingers are all even and the key work is very predictable. The player's technique often instantly improves and the instrument feels comfortable and fast to them, though they seldom know why. Considering the amazing range of instruments, mechanisms, and designs that the dry-fitter works on and you can see why the dry-fitter must have ability as a player to make decisions.

Using similar reasoning and a thorough check list, the dry-fitter goes through the each system on the instrument, correcting each one and then considering how the systems relate to one another. This includes the octave mechanism, the palm keys and side E, the top and bottom stacks, right hand side keys and the low C and Eb keys.

Making Space for Proper Materials

The materials we choose are very specific. The function of a material is only useful given that it is in the correct environment and it is the proper thickness. For example, a piece of 3.0mm tech cork will compress and feel very different than a piece of 0.3mm tech cork. Materials are selected based on whether the key is bumping, sliding, or bumping and sliding. Materials are generally not selected based on the space that the manufacturer or a past technician allotted, except when further modification of the key is not feasible.

From a material stand point, dry-fitting is creating a space between keys that allows for a proper material of a pre-determined thickness. To create a situation where materials can be standard, the dry-fitter removes all lost motion between keys and sets each key to open a prescribed amount. In order to facilitate flexibility during set-up, some specific materials are left off the keys until it is time to add them later on. The dry-fitter takes this into account by placing the missing material or a gage in the space intended for the material while making adjustments.

Orienting Pad Cups

One of the dry-fitter's jobs is to get an instrument into the pad room that can be padded using the same technique as all previous instruments. Pads are all the same, tone holes are always level, and keys and levers are consistent once all lost motion is removed. So every pad should install the same, right? Right. In practice, that is a very lofty goal and one that we are always working toward in the Sax ProShop.

To that end, the dry-fitter is certain to orient each pad cup using the same thickness and style of pad that he or she intends to have installed. The dry-fitter must create an environment for the pad to rest where the instrument's default is to lay the pad level on the tone hole. To do this, a pad is placed in the pad cup without glue. The dry-fitter uses special tools to perform a job that a padder would do at a factory to install pads. The level pad cup is oriented over the tone hole to be centered and parallel.
The "dry-fitting" part of this job requires "dummy pads." Some of the pads, their leather or felt, will become damaged during the dry-fitting process and this damage results in frustration during padding, or worse: leaks that are not visible. These small leaks would translate to less longevity of the repairs and phantom warbles in the instrument. If you try dry-fitting in your shop, I suggest you consider using tools that will not damage the pads, tools that localize bends, and to be safe, use dummy pads.

Selecting and Gluing in Pads

Once all of the bending, moving, and filing of metal has been completed, the dry-fitter finishes the task by selecting pads and gluing them in. The dry-fitter must select flat, even pads that will fit snugly in the pad cup without becoming distorted. We use clear synthetic shellac to glue in our pads because it doesn't expand when heated or change over time. The shellac is applied generously to the back of the pad, the pad cup is heated evenly, and the pad is placed into the warm pad cup, which heats and disperses the shellac. It is important that the pad is floating on an even bed of shellac that comes around the sides of the pad but does not overflow.

Once all of the pads are glued in, the upper and lower stack rods and pivot screws are lubricated and the upper and lower stacks are installed on the body. The saxophone is now ready for the pad room!


One of the bigger challenges during the dry-fitting process is to not undo any of the good work which has already been done. Because the dry-fitter will need to subtly bend and adjust keys, they need to be careful to not add friction into the key mechanisms. Additionally, when they are orienting pad cups over the tone holes, great care must be taken to avoid bending the pad cup and making it unlevel.

When you consider the scope of work that is done by a dry-fitter, you may begin to appreciate that this work must be done before the set-up process begins. Subtle bending, filing, and manipulation is not something that should be done as a final step of a saxophone overhaul.

The job of dry-fitting is only possible to do well when the previous steps of the overhaul, or Uberhaul in our case, are done correctly. Great dry-fitting results in an instrument that is easy to pad and feels great to the player. Set-up is then very straight forward and the instrument will never need to be bent again unless it is damaged or a new improvement is applied.

SoftFeel Pads

Curt has been busy traveling all over the world these first few months of the year. He's already been to Italy, Germany, China, Portland, Minnesota, Idaho, Canada and California... and it's only May.He's been bringing our newest products and tools with him, and we've received some great feedback from techs and players alike.

One new exciting thing that Curt has been debuting at trade shows and clinics, is our expanding saxophone pad line, including our new SoftFeel pads. Our Soft Feel pads are made from the same high quality materials as the standard ones and they go through the same quality checks, but they contain medium soft woven felt instead of firm woven felt. The result is a superior quality saxophone pad with a softer feel than that of our Standard Feel pads. These pads are very forgiving and easy to install, but maintain the superior quality standards of all woodwind pads.

Technicians looking for a softer pad for the closed keys such as Low Eb, Low C#, G#, etc. now have an option that doesn't require putting a different color or thickness on the horn. The Soft Feel pads will also take an impression more easily for those situations where tone hole leveling is not an option.

Along with SoftFeel pads, we have added SoftFeel Thick pads, offering a thickness of 4.5 - 4.7mm. Use the Soft Feel Thick pads whenever you need a thicker pad or when you need more pad protrusion in the pad cups. In the Sax ProShop we often use thicker pads on vintage horns, on bottom stack keys like Low D, as well as Low Eb, C, and the bell keys.

Our full line of pads, which is always growing, can be found here on our website.

The Sax ProShop is quickly becoming a Mecca for players

Get yourself on a plane or in a train, your dads wagon, whatever it takes, just get to the Sax ProShop.

We are adding more lines of horns, a players lounge, a tryout room and the best horns in the world to the shop. If you want a saxophone that is just OK, don't come to the ProShop. If you want a new horn that has been completely gone through by the same technicians that restore, new and vintage horns for the finest players in the world, this is your new destination.

We've expanded our saxophone line and now offer a wider selection of bothvintage and new horns.

Our entire stock of Steve Goodson's horns have been added to the website, and we are offering even more horns from the Chateau line. We also just added Antigua Pro-One horns to our showroom! Our new horn selection can be seen here.

More horns are on the way and we'll let you know when they come in. If you're wondering which models we will have, send us an email If you want your new horn purchase to be exactly what you want without question or compromise, and you want to be able to compare your choice to the finest vintage and Pro horns out there, then the Sax ProShop is your place. Come to the shop and try a horn with 5 specialists on hand, ready to address any issue you have, all with a strong desire to make you Uberhappy with your new horn.

Just be sure that you tell us you're coming. Because, as always, the ProShop is strictly by appointment so we can be sure that there will be plenty of people to help you choose, modify and set-up your new horn!


Sax Pad Leveler Set
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Sax Pad Leveler Set Bench Peg