Three years ago I bought an old Dolnet Bel Air alto saxophone. These were made in the sixties in France and have the reputation of being some kind of a lost gem. It went on the bay for a bargain price and the pads had been changed recently. I ended up completely refurbishing the case and not playing much. It stayed stowed on a shelf like a decorative piece of furniture until I felt it was time to give it another chance.
So here we go! First I want to say I didn’t buy anything special for this job but just relied on stuff I found at home. Second, I went by the rule that if you’re not sure what you’re doing, don’t do it. Better have a dirty horn than a broken one. Hehe.
Cleaning a saxophone first means dismantling it. I didn’t count the pieces, but the Dolnet has a carload, it sure wasn’t designed cheap or simple.
This is the mess a saxophone is made of. Just like the hardest part of a hike is the way down, the trickiest part when you dismantle a saxophone is reassembling it. So you want to lay down the pieces in order, from the first taken down to the last. Here I used small DIY cabinet trays to order parts out in groups of rods and screws. The first time I did this to a sax I used the little number stickers you get with cassettes – a bit old school you may say! Either ways work a treat.
I started taking down all the simple parts. If you picture the tray as a clock with each box an hour, my order was 5 o’clock to midnight.
Then I dismantled the more complex mechanisms, from the top of the tablecloth to the bottom. The body now stripped naked, I gave it a bath of lukewarm water and washing up liquid, brushing it with a used (but clean!) toothbrush. Be careful and affectionate with your baby, any bang against the sink could cause a dent.
Once dried, I grabbed a piece of the finest sandpaper in the house (“PG101”), some pure cotton and some white Neutrogena moisturising cream. Basic actor’s makeover stuff, and there’s a reason why. Cotton is nature’s most absorbent produce and the cream is great at diluting crud and corrosion marks. I applied some everywhere outside and wiped it off with fluffs of cotton. Feels nice on the hands too. I applied some inside and gently sanded over the 20th century saliva traces, wiping the excess. Next I slightly sanded almost all the chimney holes, you want those to be clean to keep the pads clean. Wow, looks new already!
Now here comes the tedious part. Parts and pads cleaning marathon. Put some music on, pour yourself a cup of tea, this takes all afternoon. Each metal part I creamed up and swiped with cotton just like I did the body, using a compass needle and kitchen knife to dig out the more sedentary specks of dirt, rust or dried glue. Way back in the nineties I tried to learn the trombone and from those days I kept a tube of Trombotine lube. I swiped the old blackened grease off the rods that articulate the metal keys and applied some of that instead.
The pads needed cleaning. Mother nature is again to thank, all you need is the most powerful diluent out there: water. Apply some to the leather, then wipe off with a swathe of cotton. I felt brave and tried a few drops of cassette head cleaner (yeah, again old school) on one pad and it smudged the dirt rather than remove it, so I recommend you save any kind of alcohol for your personal consumption to keep both saxophone and owner happy!
Once you’ve done all that, it’s time to dress up the sax, starting with the last part you took off making your way up to the first (just like it’s wiser to put on your underwear before your coat rather than after). Testing the length of rods against the hinges and figuring out pad-to-chimney logics, I couldn’t help thinking how freakin’ complex a saxophone is. My hat down to the designers and craftsmen, starting with M. Adolphe Sax himself (who other than a Belgian could have invented such a crazy yet brilliant device?)
Last screws of victory and final inspection. Epic moments!
Back to its full glory… make a wish and blow!