How this repair technician looks at a used woodwind instrument.
First, let me give you a little background about who I am and about Melmer Flute Centre. I’ve been repairing for almost 15 years now and I’m a flute player. I started off repairing in a couple of mom and pop shops until about 10 years ago when I met up with my current business partner and husband, Elmer. Elmer has been repairing for over 25 years and before that played clarinet, saxophone and flute professionally here in the Detroit area. The 2 of us make up Melmer Flute Centre. We specialize in woodwind instrument repair and more specifically in professional flute repair and are the repair department for Muramatsu America (the national distributor of the Muramatsu flute). Lots of local flute players, students of flute players and smatterings of clarinet and saxophone players also visit us for repairs. When instruments come in, they all need a quick evaluation of quality and of what repairs can and need to be done. Since an evaluation for repair and an evaluation for purchase of an instrument is much the same, the following article is about what goes on in my mind during those first 5 minutes I spend with a flute, clarinet or saxophone. (I’m also writing with a student instrument in mind. At a later date, I might write an article about a few extra concerns I have when looking at a step up, semi professional or professional model.)
First on my list is to check the brand. If I’m recommending a student instrument I stick with the usual suspects – Yamaha, Bundy, Artley (flute, clarinet), Vito (saxophone), Selmer, Gemeinhardt etc. A long time ago I stopped trying to fix the cheap stuff that nobody’s ever heard of. With most of these instruments there are fatal flaws. The metal in the keys can be too soft and to hold it’s adjustment for more than a week. Sometimes the keys (especially with clarinets and piccolos) can be made of pot metal (an inferior metal which can’t be soldered and breaks easily). In poor quality saxophones the bell braces are usually weak allowing the bells move easily constantly throwing off the adjustment of the bell keys. Once I ran into a clarinet that played flat because it’s barrel was 2mm longer than standard. Nothing can be taken for granted. I like the good old brands. A few pads here and cork changes there and a 40-year-old instrument can play as good as new (and better than some of the new cheap stuff). That is, provided live has not been too hard.
A look at the instrument and a look at the case. I’m just checking out how nice everything looks and I’m not concerned with playing yet. There is nothing tricky here and my first impression is usually accurate. I look for scratches, patchy lacquer and dents. Rubber clarinets can get an unappealing gray or green patina from being washed in soapy water (clean, functional, but a little ugly). I look at how the plating is holding up. Silver-plate seems to hold out better than nickel-plate (which many times can develop an opaque milky look), but I look both over carefully. When silver-plate goes bad (from damp conditions or bad silver-plating to start with) it develops this pockmarked pitting that looks bad, feels bad and can continue to deteriorate. And speaking of shiny metals – I don’t trust pictures of shiny instruments (like you can find on eBay). The camera is too kind. Later on are 4 pictures of the same flute Because of a slightly different angle with the light the 3rd picture makes the flute look much nicer than it really is. At a quick glance the finish looks almost new, so don’t trust pictures. Now I move on to the case. I look to see that its not warped and closes well, that the latches work, and that the inside velvet’s in good shape (blue seems to be the favorite color of flute plays currently). A flute case should also have a cleaning rod, and a saxophone or clarinet case should have a mouthpiece, cap, and ligature.
Next I make a quick parts check. Many times in band different instruments parts get mixed up and saxophones seem especially prone to this problem. It’s important to check that the neck fits because finding a replacement neck for an old saxophone can be very difficult and costly. I check clarinets and flutes for matching parts as well. While checking that these parts match sometimes other things can come up. If I see dents or bulges where a saxophone neck goes in it can be a sign of serious trouble. In flutes, where the parts join (the tenons) dents seem to happen all the time and if they’re not horrendous are not a big problem. And while I’m on the subject of dents – most dents that cause distortion of a tone hole are big repairs and sometimes can never be completely restored.
Finally I arrive at the nuts and bolts of the inspection. Does the instrument need work and if so, how much? Here I’m going to switch and just talk about flute inspection to keep things more condensed, but much of this applies to all woodwinds. There’s 2 parts to what I check. First I play test to see if the flute is in adjustment or out of adjustment. I play with a light touch and check all combinations. Everything should come out easily without squeezing. Second I look at the pads and corks to see if they are worn out. These 2 things can be quite separate. A flute can play great, but need an overhaul because, even though everything is in excellent adjustment, all of the pads are worn out and can rip though any day. The opposite is also true; a flute can play terribly, but have new or almost new pads in it and need a complete adjustment (which happens a lot when a flute has been overhauled by someone unqualified). The reason I mention this is because an adjustment is generally a lot cheaper than an overhaul. So, first I play test the flute to check for leaks and then I check the mechanism, pads and corks.
When I evaluate the mechanism I study the solder joints and check that all of the keys move freely. Solder joints get broken from the flute being hit. I look all along where everything is soldered directly to the tube of the body, but especially around where the last keys are on the body (near where the foot joint connects) are soldered to the body, where the ring that the foot joint actually buts up against is soldered to the body and up near the top of the body section where the trill key post is soldered. Next I check the keys for freedom of movement. Needless to say if the keys don’t move freely and I see rust around the area I see a repair that could take a lot of time and my customer will see a pretty good bill. But, without signs of rust and if it’s just one set of keys that don’t move well, chances are the keys are bent and shouldn’t be much of a problem.
Now I look at the pads. The above pictures show some pretty bad pads. The picture on the left shows the flute’s right hand pads. This flute was in storage for a long time and bugs got in and ate a number of pads (which are made of wool felt). The picture on the right shows the left hand and if you look closely you’ll see that the pad on the right side has what looks like an interruption in a black ring. The cleaner patch is where the skin has torn away. All good pads have 2 skins and in this example the 2nd skin is still intact, but with one ripped skin the pad still needs to be changed. The pad in the cup next to him also looks pretty worn – I wouldn’t mind changing him either. This particular flute will get an overhaul. Along with the 3 you see here, there are 5 other bad pads on this instrument. Since there’s only 16 pads on a flute I will start from scratch. In the picture below are a couple of examples of worn pads taken out of their key cups. The 2 pads at the bottom are ripped and show what I call train tracks. Even if the pad is not technically ripped, when I see deep train tracks I know that this pad can rip anytime and I will automatically replace it. The pad example at the top doesn’t show the worn part (which the picture cut off). What you can see would be perfectly acceptable (I’d guess it’s maybe a third of it’s way through it’s life).
If my instinct tells me that this is an older instrument (as in the case here) I check for loose and missing kicker corks. First let me explain about kicker corks (or if felt is used, felts). When keys are pressed down, they stop when the pad closes the hole. But what stops them on the way up? Each key has a kicker or foot, a stem of metal on the back side that hits the body and stops the key, and on that kicker a piece of cork or felt is attached. The cork/felt has 2 jobs, to make the mechanism quieter that metal hitting metal and to regulate how high up the key goes. In the example above the kickers have cork. The picture on the left shows one kicker and the picture on the right shows 2 kickers (touching the body) and the Bb adjustment above the thumb kicker. Corks and felts are put on with glue or shellac both of which will let go when they get too old, and this is especially true with the shellac. Many times when the corks are very old they can fall of with barely a touch. So, as a test and if the owner doesn’t mind, I usually just take my fingernail and try and flick it off. If the cork comes off, all of the corks need to be checked out and many times at least halve if not all need to be replaced. Needless to say, if corks are missing to begin with, it’s even more of a reason that they’ll need to be checked.
Now, I didn’t mention smell when I talked about my first impressions because a really musty or bad smelling instrument is really bad news. I would not advise gambling on a smelly instrument. Years ago in my former life (before mostly flutes) there was a saxophone case that a cat had peed in. The smell of the case and instrument was pretty impressive and it was an ongoing project for a long time to get the case clean. One day a customer came into the shop who worked for a chemical company which specialized in deodorizing – this man took it as a personal challenge to get rid of the smell from this case. We told him that whatever he used it had to be safe for the saxophone and he said that it wasn’t a problem. After a number of attempts with different chemicals the case did smell much better – not completely fresh, but OK. So, thinking that the problem was solved we put the saxophone back into the case. Within a week all of the lacquer had flaked off the instrument like some kind of dandruff. Luckily cat pee problems are a bit rare, most of the time the smell in question is a musty mold. Depending on how strong the smell and your repair tech’s bag of tricks, there’s a chance that the case can be cleaned and aired so that a new case doesn’t have to be purchased, but the instrument will need a bath and all pads replaced, in short, a repad or overhaul. I personally think that there are better fish in the sea.
In general many, if not most instruments easily fall into the fairly good or completely bad camps. Hopefully you have a good local repair tech that you know and trust and can get ballpark figures of pricing and overhauls. It’s also not a bad idea to get his or her opinion. There are many other things that I check for, but it would be impossible to include or explain them all and so I pruned down to what I thought might be more relevant when considering whether to buy an instrument. Here is just a taste of what and how to look.