For many years now, I have been repairing saxophones. From the very beginning of my days working on saxophones, I would look over the work I was doing and make theories about what "should happen", and then compare that to what actually happens in practice. Very often in the beginning, my theories would not actually relate to my experiences in practice. Some examples of this include: the results when dry-fitting pads were not as good as I thought they should be. My theory that every pad should install the same as the previous pad did not always work out. The theory that fitting keys should always be the same procedure every time yielded varying results. The interesting thing about this is that over time, I continually found that it was my practice and not my theory which needed improvement.
As I have improved my practice, my theories have often proven to be correct (and since most are based on very fundamental logic, it is no surprise) and they usually result in both a job that is better and processes that are more consistent and predictable. Over the past couple of years, I'm beginning to see enough evidence to prove a theory I felt was true for many years now:
When properly fit, Saxophone keys don't wear. (or not much, anyway)
In my experience of working on saxophones, I always noted the very light friction between keys. I had wondered how Brass (which gets harder as it is worked) could wear between two keys when the keys barely press against one another. When they do press against each other with some friction, the brass faces of these keys should get a little work hardened, unless there is an abrasive at work.
Also, I've noticed that vintage horns often have a good deal of play in the mechanisms, yet the hinge tube ends and post faces almost always show no sign of actual wear. That is, when the keys are removed from the instrument, the ends of the keys and the contacting surface on the posts often have their original plating or lacquer on them. If the very thin coating of plating or the relatively soft lacquer is not wearing off, where is all the key play coming from? And, why is the plating not wearing off the key ends?
Recently at the Musik Messe in Frankfurt, I was talking to a tech about this and he, like most, looked at me like I'm crazy. "Of course keys wear," he said. "If they didn't, why do we swedge them?" -That's a good question. After we discussed it, I pointed to a 1925 Buescher True Tone Alto that I was using at the booth to show tone holes tools. I said, "Certainly the keys on this instrument should be worn, right?" He agreed that this old horn had wear on the pearls and had been played a lot. Also, it had a good deal of play in the mechanism. So, on a whim, I took it apart to check the key ends and posts. All of the key ends and posts had their original silver plating on them. These keys had never even worn through the thin layer of silver.
This is very often the case on instruments that need key fitting. In fact, the most common sign of damage at key ends comes from previous technicians, not just from the saxophone being played.
About a decade ago, when I decided that key fitting must be done to a very high level to produce an instrument that is stable and will function for many years to come, I started fitting keys very well and trying to make all mating surfaces parallel to each other, perpendicular to their rods and tight together. Maybe I went too far, but I started doing about 16-25 hours of key fitting on every saxophone that I overhauled. What I'm finding is that these same instruments on which I so slowly and methodically fit every key to perfection, have no key play when they come in for their yearly maintenance. Further, these instruments are often the primary instrument for professional players who tend to play a lot. When a small amount of key wear is present, after years of use, damage to that area or some small thing that I overlooked is almost always found to be the culprit. It's odd that so little wear is happening on saxophone keys yet so many people are swedging keys over and over.
I suspect that most of the key fitting that is happening in saxophone repair is the result of bent bodies, keys, and misaligned or pushed-in posts. I think we, as technicians, are not all looking for the root of the problem nor are we accepting the fact that keys don't wear and that key play is an indicator of other problems, a symptom, and not a problem in itself.
The good news here is that when we do a great job of fitting all the keys on an instrument (which must involve straightening the body, removing dents, and aligning posts first), this work will be stable for a very long time and will only take the most minor adjustments after that time.
All of this goes to eventually prove a different theory I have been singing for years: When an instrument is not damaged, it should really only need an overhaul once in its life. After that, yearly maintenance (done properly) should keep it playing great for many-many years. But, that's a topic for a different day...