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A leak happens when something on the saxophone such as pad closing is not an airtight seal. The symptoms are squeaking or notes not sounding properly and generally a feeling of resistance. A good indication of a leaking saxophone is when you suddenly find you can no longer play a low note pianissimo.
Common causes of leaks
- The leather pads being distorted, (or missing!). The pad should create a nice seal all the way round, with only the lightest of finger pressure.
- The actual keycups and/or toneholes not being level.
- The key mechanism itself:
- Sometimes a tiny bit of cork can get worn or fall off, causing the keycup to not close. This only applies to keys not actually being held down by the pressure of your fingers. A common culprit in this case is the A. The A key should close the Bb above it, but if the cork is missing then you will notice when holding down A that Bb may sprung open slightly.
- Many newer instruments have screw adjusters, and although these cannot compensate when cork has dropped off, they can be used when cork has worn down slightly.
You can often find pad leaks with a leaklight. There is a good article on Stephen Howard’s site Making and using a leaklight. A sometimes better, but lengthier, process is to use a sliver of cigarette paper. Lightly hold the pad closed and see if it grips the paper (needs to be checked on four sides at least)
Although it’s useful to be able to fix this kind of issue yourself, reseating pads and/or levelling keycups are quite a skilled operation. See below or ideally get the Haynes Saxophone Manual. Bits of cork that have dropped off and/or adjusting screws can be a DIY fix, and all saxophone players should know how to do emergency repairs of this nature. Always carry at least a basic repair kit including small screwdriver, cork, and some superglue or contact adhesive. More on this below
Even if you can do an emergency fix, it’s often usually best to get a tech to fix leaks, or at least check if your DIY work was up to scratch. It’s always worth asking them to show you the diagnosis and fixing process, this helps with future diagnosis that can often be fixed at home.
Leaks you can’t find with a leaklight
- The leak is too small for light to show it. In this case a cigarette paper or very thin feeler gauge can often find the leak. Not that sometimes a tiny leak can cause big problems. (It’s also the case that sometimes a big leak doesn’t seem to cause problems)
- Anywhere that the body tube fits together, body to bow joint or bell to bow joint. This can be due to damage or just bad manufacturing. Visit to tech required.
- Where the neck fits to the body. Even if the screw is tight and the neck doesn’t move, there can still be a leak if the tenon or receiver is distorted. Visit to tech required.
- Where the mouthpiece attaches. If the cork at the end of the is cracked or the mouthpiece is too loose for a snug fit on the cork there can be an air leak. Visit to tech required, but you can learn to fit neck cork – there are plenty of Youtube videos around. (See below)
- Warped mouthpiece table. This seems like it might be a DIY fix, e.g. go at it with a sanding block but I would advise against that as it is very easy to mess up the facing. The answer is to find a good mouthpiece refacer such as Edward Pillinger or get a new mouthpiece.
Usually pads are stuck in with shellac which melts when a flame is applied to the key. Replacing a pad should not be attempted at home unless you really don’t mind if you burn the lacquer off your saxophone or fingernails, only to find it’s still leaking . A pad should seat against the tonehole with no leaks: if you can slip a thin sliver of cigarette paper in between the pad and the hole, there is a leak. If you are prepared to risk holding a flame under the key, you need to heat the pad cup up until the pad moves, lever up the part where the leak is with a screwdriver or similar, then very very gently close the cup to straighten the pad up still applying pressure with the screwdriver so the pad rests squarely against the rim of the tone hole. Repeat until either there are no leaks or you have completely ruined your horn and have to take in to a proper repairer.
If the pad has fallen out on a rehearsal or gig, it’s best to stick it back in with something that is not too permanent because the chances are you’re going to want to get it repaired properly and your friendly local saxophone repairer will not be too happy about wrestling with super glue, although he/she will be able to dig the pad out.
A small blob of Evostick should hold a pad in to get you through the gig, although getting it to set without leaks may not be easy. You can also use a hot glue gun if you have one lying around. If the pad has disintegrated you just get away with covering it in clingfilm or wrapping it in a Durex. It might get you through at least par of the gig.
Always carry a piece of cork and Evostick, ideally a few different thicknesses. If not you can cut a bit off a wine cork. You will need a sharp knife and steady hands. Glue on with Evostick.
Compressed Neck Cork
If the neck cork has become too compressed or you have a new mouthpiece that’s too loose for the cork, you can expand the cork by holding it in the steam from a kettle or wetting it and holding it over a gas flame, or a hair dryer. Hold well above the flame and rotate. Don’t hold it so close that you burn the lacquer off the neck. Ideally wrap something protective (but non-flammable) round the neck to protect it from the heat.
For over five years I have entrusted my precious saxophones, ancient and modern, to world renowned saxophone repairer and restorer Stephen Howard. I can honestly say that after what seems like a whole lifetime of searching for a reliable, competent, friendly and fast technician that I have found Stephen Howard.
He has now authored the Haynes Saxophone Manual (That’s right Haynes – the people who make the famous car manuals have now branched out into many other areas)
Being Stephen Howard, this is not just a quick start bodge it yourself guide, but a very thorough and easy to follow text on how to maintain, repair and service your sax. It stops short of being a text book for professional saxophone repairers, but that is exactly the point. Using this manual you will save yourself countless trips to your repairer. In my case, er, Stephen Howard, so I hope he sells a lot of copies of this book to make up for the lost revenue of my custom.
Routine Home Maintenance of Your Saxophone
Tools & Equipment
There are some basic things that any performing player should carry in his/her case, you never know when an emergency repair or adjustment might be necessary. (Usually it’s just before you go on stage or worse, just before your big solo spot).
- Small jewellers screwdrivers for loose rods and adjusting screws
- Elastic bands
- Cork 1/16“
- Contact adhesive
- Lighter fuel
- Cigarette papers
- Stanley knife or scalpel