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Leveling tone holes with a power drill!

Update: We have received a huge response to this blog post. So, this blog entry is now an article on our site.

Here is a link to the Tone hole article:

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Leveling Sax Tone holes

For years we have been working in the shop on saxophones and leveling tone holes. After trying several different techniques, and many different tools, we have now achieved a new level of success. That is, if you measure success based on the quality of the job produced taking into account the time. At our worst, we used to spend as much as 6-8 hours at the bench leveling, de-burring and polishing the tone holes on saxophones. Now that Job is reduced greatly and takes us less than ½ the labor. The results we are achieving with this method are faster but they are also better in many ways.

The procedure I'm about to outline may seem extreme to many technicians. If you do not know the level of work we are producing in our shop, you may think this method is too fast with a great likelihood of damaging the instrument. Consider that we are a saxophone-only repair shop that caters to the needs of professional players around the world. The lever of our work is very high and most players that find us demand perfection. Don't be scared by the idea of using a drill, if you try this technique, you will find it to be less damaging and more precise than the method you currently use. If this is not the case, please contact me and let me know the method you are using!

A bit of history:

At one time, in our shop, we were using a tone hole file similar to any file that one draws on metal to cut. This file works fast but the cut is not often flat and the file will not reach every tone hole. Further, the results obtained with a draw file are far from smooth and flat tone holes. We quickly switched to a round brass disc covered with sand paper to cut the tone holes down. This method was a little slower than the file but the results, due to the round cutter, were more consistent. Using different grits of sand paper, we were able to bring the tone hole to a nice polish removing even the smallest scratches in the tone hole surface. Shortly after using sand paper, I began to use the diamond grit JS files (which we now offer at The Diamond grit on these "files" is very useful for cutting brass. The time taken to level tone holes was greatly reduced and the jobs were more consistent. I wrote an article about this technique which can be found in the articles section of our site. The resulting finish to the tone hole was not as nice as the sand paper but the the job was good. To compensate, we would finish out our cutting by lapping the tone holes. To accomplish this, I cut a series of steel discs on the lathe and precision leveled them. Using the lapping compound in place of sand paper, we could get better results than sandpaper. After experimenting to reduce the time and improve the job done by the Diamond tone hole files, we came up with our current method and I believe that we now have a very useful procedure that is not only faster but produces a finer job with less burrs and an even tone hole surface.

This method is very easy to use and the results are excellent. We have found that the drill method cuts fast on a non-level tone hole but it cuts very slow on a level tone hole. So, leveling a tone hole with a drill takes only about 20-60 seconds. However, cutting too much metal off the tone hole is very slow. Once the tone hole is level cutting too much would take a long time. To test this we leveled and cut a tone hole right down to the instrument body. Leveling that tone hole took about 1 minute, cutting it off completely took about 15 minutes of constant drilling.

The Procedure:

Leveling tone holes with a power drill the procedure.

What you will need,'s Complete JS tone hole set with extra pilots and the drill file extension. This will be on the site soon. Email us to order the Drill File Extension, the other parts are on the site.

UltiMax medium weight synthetic oil.

A cordless drill with a low speed around 320rpms.

The procedure of leveling tone holes using a drill is excellent in that it removes human error. The rotating file is held in the tone hole via a pilot and spun under power by a drill. If the technician does not touch the file itself and light pressure on the file is used, the resulting cut will be smooth and even.

1.Insert the long file extension rod into you drill chuck making certain that the drill is set at about 320rpms. Set this drill aside.

2.Choose a file disk that will fit on top of the tone hole without colliding with nearby posts or guards etc.

3.Choose the largest pilot that fits inside the tone hole.

4.Screw the pilot onto the file. Shown here front and back.

5.Apply UltiMax medium weight oil to the file surface.

6.Place the pilot/file combination on and in the tone hole.

7.Hold the instrument with a cupped hand behind the tone hole that you are planning to file.

8.Place the rounded tip of the extension rod into the Allen bolt on the file.

9.Start the drill and cut the tone hole for about 5 seconds.

10.Remove the file and check the tone hole. Note where the tone hole is getting cut and where it is not. Then flip the file over and put a leak light into the instrument. Using the flat side of the diamond file, you should be able to see your progress.

11.Continue to cut the tone hole down with the drill and check until your work is done.

12.As you become more accustomed to this process, you will not need to check your work as often while cutting. You will also see that leveling a tone hole is very fast but cutting it down after it is level is a time consuming process. This is a good thing!

13.When the tone hole is level, you can de-burr using any procedure you were using previously. I will outline our procedure in a later entry.

Good luck!

Update: We have received a huge response to this blog post. So, this blog entry is now an article on our site.