How To Replace Saxophone Pads: The Step-by-step DIY Recipe for Long-lasting Pad Work

by ReverbLxnd in Saxophone

Pad work is not easy to do well. If you are wondering 'What's the recipe for long-lasting pad work?', here's how to replace saxophone pads the right way, step-by-step, completely by yourself.

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Today I want to show you how to replace pads on a saxophone. Over time, the saxophone pads will get dirty, hard and brittle and then they’ll begin to leak.

There are a lot of repairs that need to be done on saxophones, and musical instruments in general (especially old instruments). It’s kinda nice if you know how to some of these things yourself.

There is a lot to be said about knowing how to repair your saxophone yourself.

You get to save a few bucks here and there, fix your instrument even when there is no repair shop around, and understand your instrument so much better, just to name a few.

We all know that the new saxophones don’t have the same sound as the old saxophones. If you find an old one, you hold on to it.

Here’s how to make sure that your old saxophone doesn’t have any sound leaks, so it plays really smoothly and sounds great. The way only old saxophone can.

So let’s dive right in.

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How to Repair Saxophone Pads by Yourself: The Step-by-step DIY Guide

There are a few tools you’ll need to get this done:

  1. A pricking punch
  2. Pliers
  3. Crochet hook
  4. Shellac
  5. A razor blade
  6. Pad leveling tools
  7. Screwdrivers
  8. Rawhide Mallet
  9. Leak light

How Do You Know Which Pads Need Replacing?

Say you have an old saxophone with some pads that have gone bad and they’ve started to leaking but you don’t know which specific ones are still good.

You need to use a leak light to see which pads you need to change.

The idea is to put it through the inside of the saxophone so that light comes out through the holes. And then when you hold your pad down, you check if there’s light shining through.

If the light shines through a pad that’s pressed down, it means you’ve good a pretty bad leak.

So go through all your pads checking the all around. You will find that the problem might be related across pads.

And all of these leaks add up to bigger problems when you go to play the saxophone.

Step #1 — Take the Keys Off the Saxophone

The first thing we need to do is take the keys off the saxophone so that we can take those old pads out and change them.

The first thing you need to take off is the long screw that shoves through all of the keys.

You need to unhook all the springs, you want to do that first before you can pull the long screw out.

Then you need to unfasten it by turning it with a screwdriver from the bottom, and then pull it out from the bottom with your pliers. Pull it out gently all the way out.

Once you pull the long screw out, all the keys fall right off.

You might have to loosen up another rod in order to get the keys out of the upper stack. Sometimes it will be a long screw also, sometimes it’s just a little short screw that holds things together.

Once you get the little screw out, now you can access the pads that you’re going to change.

You can now begin to take off the keys to get to the ones you need to replace the pads on. Once you get the keys off you can inspect the old pads.

The old pads will be pretty dark with a bunch of gunk on them—that’s what you need to replace with new pads.

Step #2 — Heat the Key Up to Remove the Old Pad

The next thing we need to do is start a bunsen burner fire going (or an alcohol lamp or a zero-zero tip on an acetylene-air torch) and heat the key up so that we can be able to pluck the bad pad off it.

The pads are usually put into the keys with shellac.

You heat up the key over the flame, in order to warm up the shellac and get the old pad out.

This shouldn’t be difficult at all, the pad should be easy to pluck right off after heating the key over the flame for just a few minutes.

So there you go, you’ve got the old pad off.

You need to repeat this process with all the keys you want to replace pads for.

Step #3 — Heat the Key Up, Again, Replace the Pad

Once you get the old pad off you need to continue heating the key up so that when you touch the shellac to the inner surface, it will just melt onto the pad cup.

Once you get it hot enough, make sure that the melted shellac is spread evenly over the pad cup.

Replace the new pad into the key.

You can use a little wooden peg to press the pad down in so it’s seated evenly on the key.

You need to repeat this process on the other pads that you need to replace while you’ve got the saxophone apart.

You’ve got to be careful with the keys that have pearls on them because you don’t want to put the heat directly onto that. You’ll melt the pearl.

So need to hold the keys with the pearls so that you protect that pearl as you heat that key up just to the point where you can lift that pad out of there.

And then, the same story, you just reheat the key, this time holding it with a pair of pliers by the pearl, so that the heat is directed away from that pearl.

The keys on the long rods will be easiest to hold up while you heat them up, you need to be careful with the short ones.

Step #4 — Re-assemble the Saxophone

Once all your keys are replaced and glued-in, it’s time to reassemble the saxophone.

It’s quite amazing the engineering that goes into saxophones. All those parts will fit back in, you just have to be patient and get everything lined up.

When replacing back the long rod, start right at the top and start feeding it down through each of the keys in that upper stack.

That one rod holds all the keys on it.

Make sure you gently line things up before feeding the rod down through all the keys.

Step #5 — Hook Back All the Springs, Tighten the Rod

Once the long rod has gone through all the keys, the next step is to hook up all the springs.

Hook up all the springs before you tighten the rod. And then you can screw that rod in.

You need to tighten it all the way down until it’s properly tight, and then back it off just a little bit.

Next, you need to check to make sure all the keys are moving freely.

Most likely the spring won’t be hooked back yet, so they’ll just flop back and forth.

Use the crochet hook to hook the needle spring back in.

You might need to take a file to create a little notch at the end of that crotched hook so that you can push on the spring to hook it back up.

Make sure you hook up all the springs that operate on all the keys.

Of course, with the crochet hook, you can either push with that crease that you filed at the end of the crotched hook or you can hook onto it and pull on the spring to hook it up.

After these, all your keys should rebound instead of flopping around back and forth.

Step #6 — Check with the Leak Light Again

The next step is to check with the leak light again and usually, you’ll have to do some adjustments on the keys to get them sitting properly so they don’t leak.

If you replaced the pads perfectly level and flush, however, everything will be nice and good.

There are several keys that work together—you push one down and it closes two keys—you need to pay attention to them, especially. Make sure that those keys are sitting both pads as you press it down.

I usually sit down here and stick that leak light down through the top. This way I can look at both sides of the pads and make sure there are no leaks whatsoever, as I go along.

So check one side and then look around the other side to make sure you catch any leaks.

And that’s it, everything looks great and now you have replaced the pads.

Top 2 Must-know Tips when Replacing Saxophone Pads by Yourself

If you’ve ever tried to do pad work that doesn’t seem like it seats, here are a few tips you will need to keep in mind the next time you go replacing saxophone pads by yourself.

Tip #1 — Pay Attention to Pad Sizing or Fit

You need to pay attention to pad sizing when selecting replacement pads—specifically, the diameter of the pad that goes in the pad cup.

What does a good pad fit look like?

Hopefully, your pads are good quality, they are round.

Pads are sized in either 37th of an inch, or half millimeters. Most are made of felt wrapped in leather and cardboard. In most cases, even pads of the same size are not they are not evenly sized, one to the next—some will be a little lumpy, bigger, smaller, etc.

Say, for instance, you get 50.5 mm. pads, they’re going to measure in a range between, say, 50.2 mm. and 50.8 mm.

The pad cups that you are putting the pads into should be all uniform. Sometimes when you are working on old saxes, someone might have scraped the edges and gotten them misformed.

The reason I am mentioning all of this is that when replacing pads, you need to test-fit different pads until you find the one that fits the way you like.

This is one of the reasons why you should not buy pad sets.

You need to individually fit every pad to get the best results.

The pad fit that I think is good is a bit snug. It shouldn’t fit exactly in there. This means that without applying any pressure when fitting the pad, you should see that it’s sitting on the proud pf that pad cup.

It should be just too tight to go in easily.

If you go ahead and just snug it down, the skin of the pad should sit a little bit lose, but when you actually seat the pad with shellac, that skin will tighten up from the heat that you apply on the back.

And also you can use a pad slick if you want to. A heated pad slick should let you tighten that skin in there.

Some of the looseness will also disappear on its when you heat it up.

If you have the pad fit too tight, then the felt is going to buckle. Keep in mind that the felt will shrink down a little bit when we apply heat to it.

So down worry if the pad skin is still a little bit loose because when there is a resonator holding it down, and when you heat it up with the shellac at the back, and then you iron it, it ends up being perfectly snug.

There should be no gap around the edges when it is tight enough.

That is super important because if there is any gap when you heat up the adhesive, it will go to flow into that gap and squirt out the sides. That makes it really difficult to seat the pad.

When you have a pad that is perfectly snug, it becomes pretty easy to seat them—you just heat it, and as long as you’ve got everything in the correct orientation, the pad will naturally settle into the position it needs to be in.

If the pad pops into the pad cup a lot easier, it probably one size down.

Even though it looks pretty good to start with, it seats unevenly—you’ll see that some places it touches the edges pretty snug and some places it doesn’t.

That how a lot of pads look like coming out of horns, but in my opinion, that’s a little bit too loose.

So keep in mind, even pads of the same size from the same manufacturer will have a different fit on the same pad cup.

That’s why I think it’s best to individually fit your pads because even if you measured and ordered, you don’t always get a snug fit.

Tip #2 — Pay Attention to How Much Adhesive

If you want to have a really clean looking pad that sticks out from the pad cup and it’s all the same from all sides, you need to make sure that the adhesive behind the pad is even, so it’s hitting all around the tone hole all at once.

That’s is the recipe for long-lasting pad work.

Our adhesive when installing or replacing saxophone pads is natural shellac.

For your pad work to seat properly, you need tone holes that are relatively level and pad cups that are straight and parallel to the plane of the tone hole.

If you get these two, the issue most likely is that you’ve got too much adhesive, too little adhesive or air bubbles behind the pad.

What we’re trying to do is add enough adhesive to the back of the pad so that the total thickness of the pad and adhesive fits, exactly, the empty space between the back of the tone cup and the plane of the tone hole when they are parallel to each other.

Behind the pad, you have a cardboard back, a rivet in the middle and the leather wrapped around the side.

The leather is wrapped around the side leaves a hollow space in the middle.

We want to put enough adhesive on so that the pad evenly meet the tone hole, so we need to have a little bit more adhesive in the middle than we do on the edges.

The overall amount of adhesive you will be applying onto the pad will be somewhere in the thickness of a business card.

On older saxophones that have been around the block, or that have seen previous work where someone tried to maybe make a pad work when it shouldn’t on that horn, it can be extremely difficult and time-consuming.

This is the foundation of your pad work, and if you do it right, it makes everything work really, really, well.

The trick here is to make sure you end up with a nice bubble-free bed of shellac, so when you install that into the pad, and you melt it, it will flow to cover the edges properly…

…and some will flow towards the middle because the pad cap is usually arched…

…to give you the overall thickness that you need.

You want it to be nice and flat and bubble-free.

Got it?

Air bubbles when you’ve got them will expand as you heat them and push the pad away. You’ll think you’ve got it seated but when it cools, it will shrink back then you end up with a pad that’s not really nice and flat.

Starting off with the adhesive evenly distributed makes it a lot easier to set things up properly.

I hope that helps.


I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email I'd love to hear from you.

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