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Key Pad Replacement

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Key Pad Replacement

by Paul R. Coats

[This is a two-part article. The latter half: Cork Replacement]

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Saxophone Repair
and Maintenance

I have been asked many times about how to obtain pads and other repair supplies. Some of these questions are from players in small towns or countries where quality repair work is just not available, or for some reason, the prices are outrageously high. If you are lucky enough to have a good instrument repairman in your town, one that does good work and takes care of your saxophone as if it were his own, by all means, take your instrument to him. But, this is not always possible.

A whole set of pads of top quality, with any style resonator, is only about $24 U.S. for Alto Sax, $25 for Tenor Sax. I have heard that in some areas, particularly in small towns, repairmen will not sell pads. In reality, it is not the materials you are paying for-it is the skilled labor. I would like to discourage you from attempting a full repad of your saxophone without training in woodwind repair. If your saxophone needs a full repad, I highly recommend that you take your sax to a professional repairman. On the other hand, if you need only a few palm key or octave key pads, or a neck cork replaced, this is a good place to begin your own sax repairs.

Four sources of saxophone repair supplies in the USA are:
In Australia: Sax Pads Australia572 North Rd. Ormond.Melbourne, VictoriaAUSTRALIA 3204Phone 03 9578 8166In the UK: WindcraftRiverside, Mill Lane,Taplow, New Maidenhead,Berkshire, SL6 0AAENGLAND, UKIn France: Martin ChanuZ.I. La Vieville - B.P. 5 27750 LA COUTURE BOUSSEY Tel : +33 (0)2 32 36 75 40 Fax : +33 (0)2 32 36 06 In the Netherlands: De SaxofoonwinkelZHet Grote Kerkhof 30 - 31NL-7411KV Deventer Tel : +31 570 612844 Fax : +31 570, E-mail

I buy pads mostly from Ferree's Tools. Ferree's not only has pads, cork, springs, and felt, but a wide assortment of instrument repair tools. If you are going to repair your saxophone yourself, there are several things you will need to know, and other supplies to buy.

Pads must be ordered in the proper size and thickness. "Thin" pads are used on Conn and Yamaha saxes (.160" or 4mm). "Thick" pads (.185" or 4.7mm) are used for nearly everything else, such as Selmer and Buescher. Pads are available from Ferree's in mm diameters, as well as 1/32's of inches. I find that measuring in millimeters give a more accurate fit of the pads, as they may be ordered in half-millimeter sizes. Make sure you put "mm" by the size you order, and M behind the style number. For example, B53M pad style, and size 16.5 mm. Ferree's also has replacements for the Conn "Res-o-Pads" and Buescher "Snap In Pads".

Also, while the suppliers have pad size lists by make and model of saxophone, this is not foolproof. They recommend that you make your own measurements and order sets by supplying a pad list.

To measure for pads, measure the pad cup with a caliper from inside edge to inside edge. If you wish to leave the pad in place, in order to be able to keep playing your instrument while waiting for the new pads to arrive, you may measure the pad while still in the cup. Be careful not to compress the pad with the caliper in order to get an accurate reading. There are instances when you will not wish to disassemble the instrument. You may also measure the outer diameter of the pad cup, and subtract 2 mm. For example, measuring the outer diameter of a palm key pad cup gives a figure of 20.5 mm. 20.5 mm - 2 mm = 18.5 mm. Order 18.5 mm pads for that key.

Pads are available in many resonator styles: brown plastic domed resonators (as used on the Selmer Mk. VI), flat metal resonators with a rivet in the center, domed metal resonators with rivet, pads with rivet only, etc. It is important when replacing pads to use the same type of resonator as the pads already in the saxophone.

I suggest you also order other pads in the most common sizes to replace. These include the palm keys (high D-Eb-F), high E and F#, small C pad (just under the front F spatula), and both octave vent pads. Also, order pads for Eb and F#, as these pads collect moisture when the sax is stored in the case. (Water collects in the bow while playing. When the sax is placed in the case and carried home, this water runs downhill and collects in the Eb and F# tone holes.)

Other than a pad set, the minimum that may be ordered is a package of 10 or 12 (depending on supplier), or 100 of each size, not single pads. This is not a problem. Octave key pads, 9mm or 9.5mm, will usually fit more than one of your saxes. A dozen of 9.5mm pads are less than $4 US. 10mm pads will fit all of the high notes on the soprano sax from palm key D up to high F#. So, one package of 12 can be used efficiently. Common palm key pads on alto and tenor saxes (16mm -- 20mm, etc.) are $5--$8 U.S. per dozen. Since these, and F# and low Eb on the back side of the sax, are the most common pads to become water damaged, does it not make sense to keep some of these for repairs between total repads? I advise ordering extra dozen packages of these sizes at the same time.

Replacing only a few palm key pads or octave vent pads is usually not difficult for the novice repairman. These keys do not have the difficulty of coordination with other keys. As long as each pad seats properly, there will be little or no difficulty.

To install pads, you will need a Bunsen burner. I use the type like we all used in high school chemistry class, with a rubber hose to attach to a gas source. The one I have is Ferree's #G1A (for propane gas, #G1N for natural gas), $18.10 US. You may be able to buy one locally that is just as good. I am sure you have a gas source in your home. If not, perhaps you may have a "T" and valve attached to the gas line coming to your kitchen stove or heater. You may also buy a very inexpensive alcohol lamp from Ferree's for $20.

Pads are usually glued into the pad cups with a hot melt glue known as "stick shellac". Of the several types of stick shellac in the Ferree's catalog, I use the "clear" shellac, #G65.

In place of stick shellac, many repairmen are now using the hot melt glue sticks that are made for carpenters' electric glue guns. This type of glue may be purchased at lumber or hardware stores. Some of these glue sticks are translucent white, but the better glue is the yellow type. Use this material in the same manner as stick shellac.

Remove the key(s) to be repadded from the saxophone. You must remove the old pad from the key cup, either by scraping it out, or by gently heating over the flame of your burner to soften the shellac.

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The next few steps must all be accomplished with speed. With the key removed from the sax, heat the pad cup over the flame. Keep the key moving back and forth through the flame, being careful to not burn the lacquer. Next, heat the end of the shellac or glue stick enough to soften the material, but not enough to make it drip.

With the pad cup over the flame, melt some of the shellac into the pad cup. Use a generous amount of shellac, making sure that there is enough shellac to support the pad all the way around the edge. Set the key aside for the moment. Now, heat the end of the shellac stick to nearly dripping, and apply a little hot shellac to the back of the pad. Quickly reheat the pad cup, and place the new pad in the pad cup. If a little hot shellac or glue leaks out at the edge, fine. That is the correct amount to use. Wipe the excess glue away with a cloth.

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The next few steps must all be accomplished with speed. With the key removed from the sax, heat the pad cup over the flame. Keep the key moving back and forth through the flame, being careful to not burn the lacquer. Next, heat the end of the shellac or glue stick enough to soften the material, but not enough to make it drip.

While the shellac is still hot, quickly replace the key, and press it lightly against the tone hole with a soft cloth. This will help level the pad and form a nice crease in the surface of the pad.

Alternatively, several keys may have pads installed and be allowed to cool. After installation, the pad cup is heated just enough to melt the shellac, and the key pressed lightly against the tone hole. This allows the pad to shift and find its own level, and the heat reforms and stabilizes the felt in the pad for a nice, long lasting seat. This is known as "floating in" the pads.

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Floating the pads is really the better method, but requires another heat source, such as a handheld mini torch. There are now available small, self-contained handheld torches that utilize butane lighter refills for fuel, and are self-lighting. These work very well for our purposes. I use the larger Bernz-O-Matic Handheld Mini Torch, which is also ideal for soldering work on instruments. This torch, and other fine hand tools, may be obtained from Micro-Mark (

After the new pad is installed, check for leaks with a leak light. The light is inserted into the bore of the saxophone, and the room lights are turned off. With the springs unhooked, and the pad closed, as advised by Steve Goodson, there should be no light seen around the edge of the tone hole. This leak test should be done with the pad closing by gravity alone, not by pressing down hard on the pad. See the footnote on a very inexpensive leak light, contributed by George Thomas. Finally, a playing test is in order.

If you are really in a hurry, or prefer not to use a flame and shellac, pads may be glued in with a hobby and craft glue sold under the name "E6000", or with Micro Pad & Cork Cement from Ferree's. I keep E6000 in my kit for "on the road" emergencies (even during a gig!). E6000 is sold in hardware, lumber, hobby and craft stores, as well as the craft or hardware departments of Wal-Mart. The Micro Pad & Cork Cement takes much longer to dry, but is easy to use.

The manufacturer of E6000 advises that this material is an SBR adhesive. SBR is "Styrene Butadiene Rubber". E6000 is a thick, clear glue that slightly flexible when dry. There are probably other brands of similar adhesives, but I do not know the names in other countries. If readers can advise on this, please do so, and this information will be added to this article.

While the keys are off the instrument, take the time to clean well around the posts and tone holes. A damp cloth will usually take care of the accumulated grime. Clean the post pivot holes and key hinge tubes with pipe cleaners, using a little key oil as a solvent. Verdigris, which is actually oxidized copper, on the tone hole edges may be cleaned off with fine steel wool.

Once the new pads are installed in the saxophone and everything is playing well, you will want to waterproof the pads. This is known as "doping the pads". This is a term from the old days of applying banana oil to the fabric of airplane wings. The fabric was "doped", to seal the pores of the fabric. So, we do the same to the leather, "doping" the pads to seal and waterproof them. Commercial products for doping saxophone pads are: Runyon Pad Formula II, Mamco Pad Treatment, and Ferree's Pad Preservative (#T80). Other products that may be used are: Neat's-foot Oil, Old English Furniture Oil (Lemon), various silicone oils used for waterproofing shoes and boots. These products are best applied with pipe cleaners... you know, those fuzzy wire cleaners for cleaning tobacco pipes, and children's arts and crafts projects.

There is no need to remove the keys to treat the pads. "Dope" the pads with the oil generously, wiping the oil onto the entire leather surface of the pad. Repeat the treatment a week later. Yes, it will darken the leather, but who cares? How the sax plays is what matters. Dope the pads again in three months, and after that, every six months. If you play outdoors in cool weather, the water from your breath will not damage the pads so easily.

Heat shrink tubing may be used in place of the plastic tubing on the octave key lever, the side Bb and side C keys, and other places to silence the keywork in place of cork. This tubing may be obtained from Ferree's (#s O41-O45). This material may also be purchased from electronics supply stores in assorted sizes. The heat from an ordinary hair dryer will shrink the tubing tightly onto the key.

Additionally, you will need to order some 1/16" (1.6mm) sheet cork. This will be used for keywork and neck corks. 1/16" cork may easily be sanded thinner, and two or more layers may be glued together to form a thicker piece.

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Created: June16,2000.
Updated: January3,2005.

©2000-2005 HarriRautiainen
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Additional notes:

Richard Booth advises that a small crochet hook makes an excellent spring hook. Further, by filing or grinding a notch on the opposite end, that end may be used for pushing springs from the opposite direction.

Gary Hodo cautions about the use of CA glues with black lacquer saxes. The vapors may cause a frosting near the freshly glued cork. This is not usually a problem with the gel type CA glue when used sparingly. A spill of CA glue can seriously damage the lacquer.

George Thomas contributed information on making an excellent leak light. In lumber and home improvement stores (such as Lowe's) you may find an assortment of items for the "Cable Light" or "Rope Light" brands of decorative lighting. This consists of a power cord and a clear flexible plastic "cable" with tiny light bulbs spaced every inch. You will need:

#1308 "18" Repair Section", $7.96 US

#1301 "Power Pack" 6' cord, $5.97 US

Total cost was $14 and tax. All of the plugs and parts I needed were in there. It can be assembled in just a few minutes. I did not even use the included switch, as I will plug and unplug as needed.

Woodwind players that travel a lot can carry this leak light easily. Every saxophonist needs one of these. No soldering, no tools to assemble it. It easily fit down the bore of all my saxes, and easily snaked around the bell bow, even on my little curved soprano. I knew I could get into the straight soprano from the bottom, but the light went right down the neck socket, too.

Steve Goodson contributed tips on use of the carpenter's hot melt glue sticks for shellac, and how to correctly check the pads for leaks.

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