An Interview With:

Jon Van Wie

Custom Mouthpiece Work


(1) I do mouthpiece work myself, Jon, changing tip openings, facing lengths, modifying baffle contour, etc. What services do you offer? How much of your work is repair, bringing the mouthpiece back to playing condition ("It doesn't play like it used to."), and how much is modification ("Make my mouthpiece play better.")?

Most of the work I do is modification rather than repair. I would say about 80% modification to about 20% restoration. Primarily, I view my job as improving the sound a mouthpiece makes, for the player. Every time I sit down to do a mouthpiece my intent is to make it better. If I didn't think I could make if better, I wouldn't do it. The question is, improved for whom? In what way? I listen carefully to what a player needs, and only when I have a concept of what they want, do I start cutting.

There is no aspect of the mouthpiece that I won't tackle. From tips being broken, to shanks being cracked or broken, to correcting poor reface work. Simply eliminating, (for lack of a better term), "production flaws" is enough to make most players really happy with their pieces. Making the piece fit the players reed of choice and correcting the lay and baffle make the piece play with a night and day difference.

Lots of players try to make their piece "play better". Unless you are very experienced at working on mouthpieces, you can easily ruin your piece. Everyone hears that the top refacers make flat tables. (Most manufactures are under the impression that a concavity is necessary for the piece to perform it's best.) So the player hears this and thinks to himself, "how hard can that be"? They take their piece to a sheet of sandpaper on a flat surface and cut the table flat. What they fail to realize is flattening the table will make the facing curve shorter. They may not have the skill or the knowledge to reconstruct the lay. Then what they have is a ruined mouthpiece. I've seen this over and over. The player will say to me, "Well, I knew you were going to reface the piece anyway, so I thought I might try my hand at setting it up myself to see what happens." This makes my life much worse than if they let me cut the piece from the start. The hardest thing to fix is the table and lay relationship, especially when someone has made the facing curve way too long. This requires me close the facing back down, and then re-open the piece to the correct size and then reconstruct the baffle profile.

(2) How do you know what is the correct size for the piece?

There are two ways: (1) looking at the piece and seeing what it has in it, and (2) going to the player and getting his/her feedback. If he can tell me what kind of piece he is playing, and what it is and isn't doing for him, I think I can help him. It's all in knowing what adjustments will yield the player’s desired results.

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(3) How would you describe your main clientele? Jazz, rock, classical, pro, general?

If you look at my client list on my web site, http://www.jonvanwie.com, you will find that no one is excluded. I have everyone from top players right down to beginners, classical players to rockers. Being able to satisfy each and every one of those player takes a great deal of insight and experience

Players that have never experienced what it's like to play on a hand finished piece that has been customized for them will all tell you that there's nothing like it. I had a great teacher, Ted Klum, who is also is also a great jazz player. He was a stickler for perfection. If my facing curve was the slightest bit off, he would detect it and make me go over it until it was exactly what he prescribed. It took years of practice and hard work. I now can "feel" the facing curve the way he taught me and detect even the slightest bit of imperfection in the curve.

(4) I find that the needs of classical tenor players are not being met with most of the production mouthpieces aimed at them. I have done a lot of tip opening and baffle work for these players (turning C*'s into good mouthpieces). For you, with your clientele, what kinds of modifications are most requested?

Probably the most requested services are refacing and baffle work. I think Selmer does a good job at making classical pieces. The new S80's are really mellow sounding pieces, very hard to overblow. This is because they have very little baffle (it's concave) and fairly large chambers. I have found that adding a baffle gives those pieces the zing that a lot of players need for playing jazz and R&B.

The old cathedral chamber Selmer mouthpieces are of much greater interest to me. Those pieces were made with a hump right behind the tip rail, which has a way of canceling out the high-end frequencies produced at the tip of the reed. Cutting that hump out of the baffle makes the piece brighter. If you compare their design to other small chamber pieces you will see that those differences behind the tip rail are subtle, yet have a profound impact on a sonic level. Opening a piece is a way to make that happen to a piece that doesn't have too low of a baffle in it already. The thing that really needs to be addressed is the entire design of the piece. Every aspect must be taken into account.

Just because a piece has certain "built in characteristics" doesn't mean that's the optimum way for the piece to be. I once met the brilliant classical player Don Sinta at a trade show, and he play tested a few of my hand finished C*'s. He asked, "Who finished these pieces?" I said, "I did." I thought he was going to tell me all the reasons why he didn't like them. He didn't, he loved the way the pieces played. He liked the way one of them played enough to buy it! (On that one I made the facing slightly longer and cut only some of the high hump out of the baffle.) I told him that in refacing the piece, I was trying to stay with the original Selmer design. That led us to a conversation about mouthpiece design.

He felt the tone chamber and the neck of the horn should meet with the exact same diameter to maximize the efficiency of the mouthpiece and horn relationship. I was compelled to try to do this and send it to him to try. This idea presented a major tuning problem. It was very difficult to make the interior of the piece exactly the right volume so that when the piece went on the horn, and the inside bore met the neck, the piece was exactly in tune. I did this by adding material on the inside, to make the inside bore in the tone chamber be the same size as the bore on the neck of my sax and then subtracting until the inside bore of the piece met the neck and played perfectly in tune on my horn. It took forever!! This is not a practical thing to do to a mouthpiece because every horn plays in tune with the mouthpiece pushed to a slightly different place on the cork. I sent Don the piece to try and he wrote me back a really warm letter saying that this was an example of some of the best mouthpiece work he'd ever seen, but he hopes that I would be able to find another home for this piece.

Don is a great guy and one of today’s very finest classical players. But... he sent the piece back to me. I'm not one to quit, so I got the piece back and took another look at it to see if there was something I could do to make the piece better.

This particular piece had a tip that was broken off and I had replaced it with a clear epoxy called 2-Ton. It looked really good because you could see how cleanly the tip was re-installed, but.... This is how I learned that the material a piece is made from plays a major role in the way a piece plays and sounds.

I removed the 2-Ton tip replacement and I put a different type of epoxy, called J-B WELD, in its place. Well, I can't begin to tell you the difference the material had on the tone of the piece. It gave a much more solid vibe to the way the reed vibrated with the piece. With the JB tip the piece played significantly better. Turns out that Don's idea worked quite well. The tone of the piece was warm and it was impossible to push the air so much that the sound of the piece distorted.

I never sent that piece back to Don to try with the new tip replacement, because, the next person that tried it wanted it desperately. It's now owned by my friend and top sax repairman Ernie Sola of Saugus, Mass. Ernie works on my horns for me. He has a sixth sense when it comes to horns. When he holds the horn and studies it, you can see him almost look through the horn to see what the problem is with it. I have an immense amount of respect for guys like him that can work on a horn. It requires a great deal of instinct, experience, and knowledge.

I also did a tip replacement for my friend, John Crone. He had a Berg that he dropped and the tip broke off. I replaced it with J-B WELD. He told me that it plays better than it did before it was broken.

I think what is happening in regard to the materials, is they all have a different densities to them. That is what makes them play a role in the way they interact with way the reed vibrates, therefore, they play a role in the sonic qualities the piece has. Yes, the design is where the core of the sound is created, but you can't change the way the reed interacts with the material the piece is made from. Different degrees of density yield a totally different sound. I know a lot of players wonder about this. To me, there's no question in my mind, the material matters. Wood has it's own "vibe" as does plastic. You can't make hard rubber sound exactly like brass and visa-versa. This adds an extra twist to the perfect mouthpiece idea. It's not possible to have the best of all worlds, but here are some design ideas that I have found yield good results.

If a piece has a large chamber, the piece will sound best with a long low baffle. If it has a small chamber, the mouthpiece will sound thin if the baffle is too high. This is a big part of the balancing act in this art form. The proper balance between baffle and chamber must be met for the best sound. Chamber size has tuning consequences that must be taken into account. Adding a baffle to the inside of a mouthpiece is a way of making the piece louder and brighter. Yet adding too much will make the horn play sharp in the upper register, especially on older horns that require large chamber pieces to play in tune. The player, to a degree, can compensate for these tuning problems. However, the player must keep in mind that if he is forced to loosen his embouchure to NOT go sharp in the upper register, then the piece most probably has too much mass on the inside for the horn he is playing.

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(5) I recently modified the facing and baffle of a Selmer C* for a high school tenor player, and in doing so, noticed a hairline crack in the shank. I repaired this with a metal band (OK, a piece of copper water pipe conduit, buffed to a high shine). Well, the first thing I knew, his buddies had mailed their mouthpieces, wanting the same metal band on theirs, too But they aren't cracked, I asked, "Why do you want this done, to prevent future cracking?" "No," they answered, "because it looks so cool." LOL!

I don't normally use a metal sleeve to fix cracked shanks. I have a process that is like winding the voice coil on a speaker, with a little pressure. The pressure is evenly exerted around the entire shank. I then use epoxy to hold the repair in place. It won't ever crack or fall off. The repair is permanent. Brilharts are the pieces that seem to crack most often.

I learned this process from my Dad. He's a great man and a diehard fisherman. He makes his own fishing poles and in doing so he needs to attach the eyes of the pole with nylon thread and then he epoxies the thread spinning the pole so the epoxy doesn't run and drip off. He taught me how to tie the thread so it doesn't come unraveled. I adopted this technique for the sax mouthpiece and it works great. I also found that if you heat the epoxy a bit, it becomes thin and allows the air bubbles to get out. You can see the repair on my web site. It shines so much you can actually see trees in the background of the picture, along with my friend and web master, Jai's head who was taking the picture!

(6) Is there any pattern to what you see needing repair in the average mouthpiece coming to you... cracked shanks, warped tables, damaged tips, etc?

Mostly what I see are poorly crafted pieces. Most stock pieces these days are made poorly. They have facings that don't perform well and they don't hold a seal. I often see poorly constructed tables with concavities that cause the air to leak under the reed. Often tip rails aren't shaped like the reed. These mouthpieces play stuffy and respond poorly and unevenly over the range of the horn. Low notes don't come out easily and altissimo, in many cases, is much too hard to access. Most times, the side rails are too close together. That makes it so the piece can't produce all the frequencies the reed has to offer. I have to study the piece to see just what needs to be done to fix all these problems and more. Beyond that, wear is the biggest offender.

You can really see and hear what a reface can do with a piece that has been overly used. I completely understand why players do it. Once you are really comfortable with a piece, you want to stay with it. That's why you need a backup. Having a back up that I can reface to beat your main piece is my goal. That's the reason why I do this. It's a challenge. It's like building a better, faster, race car. I approach every piece with that in mind. The magic in the piece is found in many different shapes and sizes. Each has to be custom tailored to the player and his horn. It's great when the player has a second piece of similar design that works well. What's harder is using your instincts to get the player the sound they are looking for. A player needs experience on an instrument to recognize whether not a mouthpiece has something that they can make good use of. I can put a different sound on your horn, but you need to know how to make it sound good. My goal is to get you the sound you want, but you must have a concept of the sound you are looking for.

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(7) When a metal mouthpiece is manufactured, it is plated, usually with chrome, silver, or gold. When you cut through the plating in refacing or baffle work, is it important to re-plate the mouthpiece, or is it safe to play it with exposed brass?

If you don't dry your brass mouthpiece off after use it will tarnish like crazy. Gold plating will stop that from happening for a while. Gold is softer than brass and it eventually wears right off. Wiping the saliva off your mouthpiece is a good way to prolong its life, if the piece has not been plated. Another suggestion to prevent a non-plated brass mouthpiece from oxidizing would be to wipe the piece down with a cloth treated with a few drops of olive or sesame oil. (Change the cloth periodically so the oil doesn't become rancid.)

I think that it is possible for some players to have a reaction to raw brass. I've heard the term "brass poisoning", but I've never known anyone that actually had it. Brass tastes funny to some people. Those people have to have their pieces plated with gold for that reason.

(8) You mentioned in your forward, "In search of the truth" that you could increase the integrity of the piece’s facing and vent. What did you mean by that?

What that means, in a nutshell, is that something magical happens to a piece when the reed, on its travel to the tip, ends at the exact time that the baffle starts to vent the air. In this area of the mouthpiece is a hidden secret. It is directly related to how the reed vibrates in its environment. Smooth facing curve + nice even vent = very happy reed! Most of the reasons that the reed doesn't want to vibrate are directly related to the facing curve and the integrity of the vent. If the tip rail of your mouthpiece is not correctly shaped, you can't get the full benefit of hearing everything the reed has to offer. A facing curve can end at the tip rail, or you can have a flat spot at the end of the facing curve, provided it doesn't happen too abruptly. Facings with a flat spot at the end of the curve love to have a very thin tip rail. Pieces that roll all the way out to the tip can have a thicker tip rail without ill effects. Some players need the facing curve to roll all the way out to the tip to access the altissimo range, while others can play in the altissimo range without a problem with a flat spot at the end of the curve. This is a very interesting aspect of the mouthpiece.

One day I was working with a player who had the ability to play the sax in the altissimo range with the flexibility of a penny whistle. When he tried the same thing on a piece with a flat spot at the end of the curve, he could only go so high before the notes choked off. That was how I learned how to fix that problem for a lot of players who need a facing curve that rolls all the way out to the tip.

(9) You have probably seen my Mouthpiece Sizes article on Sax on the Web. This was intended to give guidelines to young players. I gathered this data from players of all ages, from teachers, and from the manufacturers themselves. In particular, the people at J.J. Babbit and Runyon Products, who manufacture their own lines and also for others, were very helpful in lengthy phone interviews. I covered specifically classical and jazz playing.

Rock and Roll is another category altogether (and as Steve Goodson points out, an almost totally ignored category). What tip opening ranges do you see being used successfully for rock alto, tenor, and bari sax?

I thought everything you said was right on the mark. It very much has paralleled my experience. Students generally need smaller openings, with lighter reeds, but another thing that helps students is having enough baffle in the piece to support the air. This is something that is sorely over looked by manufacturers making student model pieces.

I've also come to find that pieces need different amounts of baffle that work in a synergetic way with the tip opening. Favorite sizes are something I've noticed in certain pieces. For example, a Meyer works best for most jazz players in sizes that range from .070"-.080" for alto, with a medium to hard reed. Otto Links seem to work best from .100"-.110" for tenor, also with a medium to hard reed. Those two pieces are the most popular with a lot of jazz players. Their designs seem to work best at those sizes, because of the amount of baffle is relative to their chamber sizes. The more baffle in a piece, the more open it can be without causing the player to tire. For example, a Lakey starts to really sing at about .090" for alto. That might seem large for an alto piece, but it's not because of the design of the piece. It has a very long and high baffle that goes into a small chamber. They're very loud and fat sounding pieces that play easily when set up right. Naturally you can't expect a hard reed to work easily on an opening that large. This is an area that needs to be addressed. The reed is really what you are hearing. The harder the reed the thicker the sound. You can't expect a really hard reed to play easily on a very open piece. That's where I have to get with the player and unravel what kind of sound they are going for, what reed strength they feel comfortable with and at what opening. Everyone has a different amount of strength in his embouchure. It's always changing and getting stronger the more you practice. I believe that in general, the best sound comes from the hardest reed you can comfortably play. Light reeds have a buzz to them that a lot of players find very appealing. This, I understand too, but the bigger the tip opening and the very soft reed, means the reed will die much faster than a hard reed on a smaller tip opening. Finding the comfort zone for you takes some experimenting whether you are a student or a pro. How open a piece feels is something that can be changed via the facing curve. A piece with a small tip opening can feel like it's more open if the facing curve is very short or very long. Players tend to get very used to a particular facing curve. Sometimes simply putting their favorite curve onto a different piece can make them immediately happy. With a longer facing the reed often doesn't respond easily right away and can also be difficult to play softly.

Some players need resistance in their piece for it to work effectively for them. I learned this early on in my mouthpiece refacing experiences. I had the chance to meet and work with the great player, Paquito D’Rivera. At that time I was under the notion that there was one facing length that was the best for everyone. Paquito proved differently.

I had set up a crystal clarinet mouthpiece for him. Most crystal clarinet pieces have a great deal of resistance built into them. I got out as much resistance as I could and it happened to be the right amount for him. I didn't know enough about removing resistance at the time to get anymore out so I left it the way it was and he happened to really like the piece!!!

Then I met Paquito in person and he had with him his old alto mouthpiece that he was no longer using because it had worn out. He handed it to me to reface. When I was finished he tested it and then said to me, "I thought I would never say this, but man, your stuff is too free!!!" We laughed, but inside I was disappointed. Then, I asked him if he would let me measure his main piece. The facing curve was extremely short. Well, I'll always remember that. Resistance can be created via the facing curve. Shorter facings are harder to blow than medium and longer facing lengths. That's only one facet of the many variables to take into consideration. This is another reason why I find mouthpieces so interesting. The sound factor is a whole other thing to take into consideration.

You mentioned our friend, Steve Goodson. Steve's right, there's not much available for the rock players. I did many pieces for Steve. One that sticks out in my mind was a Berg. Bergs are usually considered high baffle, bright pieces. Well, not for Steve!!!

I went to Steve's web site (http://www.saxgourmet.com) and there I heard a sample of his sound. Steve's music has a way of making you feel like dancing until you fall on the floor! Once I heard the sound he was making I knew right away, this man is an extremist!!! I put a huge baffle in his Berg and moved the window back and expanded the chamber and wham, that piece was the extreme that he really liked for his music. He loves the work I do for him and he calls on my services on a regular basis.

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(10) How does a Rock and Roll (or R&B) mouthpiece differ from a "jazz mouthpiece"?

Jazz pieces usually have a small rollover baffle for a darker sound like Jerry Bergonzi uses. Most players that have tried Jerry pieces complain that his pieces are too dark. This is because of the way Jerry plays. If he has too much baffle, it sounds too bright for him. He takes on quite a bit of the piece in his mouth and that has a tendency to make your sound quite a bit brighter, not to mention the fact that Jerry has enough air to blow a house down!!! Jerry knows a lot about mouthpieces. He knows his own facing and has studied the art of mouthpiece refacing from one of the greatest clarinet mouthpiece refacers of our time, Everett Mattson. Everett has his own very unique way of measuring pieces. He taught me many ways of measuring and coming up with concrete ideas which work well for the clarinet and the sax.

The first time I went to Jerry's house he also had Billy Pierce come by. Bill is the head of the saxophone department at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I found him to be one of the nicest people that I've ever met. He and Jerry sound completely different, but they both play Otto Links. They are both very particular about what pieces work for them. They called me and asked if I would be interested in taking another trip to Boston to do more work. I told them I would love to! There's nothing like being in the same room with musicians with such command of their instrument. They make the hair stand up on the back of my neck! Both of them play with a great jazz sound that many other players aspire to.

The other end of the sound spectrum is Rock and R&B pieces. They have high and long baffles for a bright and punchy sound that cuts through the inherent fullness of that music. I add baffle to pieces that already have what would be considered a high baffle, (like I did for Steve) as well as Links that don't. I add an epoxy baffle, and as I mentioned before, this can throw the tuning of the piece out of whack. So to compensate for the added material I go inside and make the chamber even bigger. What happens in the chamber has less of an impact on the overall sound of a piece as compared to what is happening in the baffle area. A very high baffle with a very large chamber can be a really free blowing and louder than thunder!

(11) If one size fit all, then the Woodwind & Brasswind catalog would not have page after page of mouthpieces and reeds. The number of possible combinations is staggering. No wonder young players are confused! What guidelines do you have for high school and college players in choosing a tip opening for jazz (big band) or other professional playing? The player has three "brand X" mouthpieces, a #5, #6, and #7. How does he tell which is too large or too small? What do you recommend he do as a playing test?

These are some of the best questions anyone has ever asked me. Guidelines are a very difficult thing to have because everyone is so different and the design of the piece plays such major role. I feel everyone’s needs can only be met through experimentation. However, some general guidelines for student model sizes would be: .035"-.045" for clarinet, .045"-.055" for soprano, .065"-.075" for alto, .075"-.100" for tenor, and .090"-.110" for baritone. Now this is a very general rule of thumb because as I said before, the facing as well as the chamber that is installed on the piece, both play a major role in the overall picture. Let’s say the piece has a very small tip opening and a very long facing curve and the student is using a very soft reed. That piece will close up very easily. In that case the student should try a harder reed to see if he can find the right combination. The old Master Links were made with very long facing curves with very small tip openings. I think that was because at the time those pieces were made, the reeds were generally harder and needed a longer facing curve to vibrate properly.

(12) Any final thoughts, Jon?

There's so much to learn and share with each other and I'm the type of person who has a sincere desire to really help the individual who wants to give me the chance to do so. Playing the saxophone is a life long project, finding the right mouthpiece for yourself is something that will change as you grow. Your conception of sound will change as well.

Younger players often seem to want to be louder and brighter than the next guy, whereas more experienced players tend to be more concerned with blending. Whether you want a very loud or a very mellow set up, is entirely up to you. I believe, that everyone has, or at least should have, a general concept of what they want to sound like when they play.

I've been lucky to have the pleasure of being able to help many people realize the tone they've been trying to achieve by adjusting their mouthpiece, using methods and concepts that I know yield definite results.

Jon, from all of us, thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.

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Jon Van Wie

Jon Van Wie passed away on April 2nd, 2003. He will be missed by the saxophone community for his professionalism and personality.

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