Pads are extremely influential in the saxophone's sound delivery. The pads are the small cardboard disks covered in leather and felt that are responsible for sealing the tone holes so that your saxophone can produce its notes. With that said, their leather and felt covers can harden, a situation that could worsen their overall performance.
Below are the steps to take to soften saxophone pads:
- Spray distilled water on the troubling pad
- Wipe the excess water and wait for the pad to get softer.
- Apply one of the following products: Foam pad conditioner, leather conditioner, or pad softener, and let it soak in
Note that these steps only work if the leather is the only part of the pad that's hardened.
In this article, we'll be elaborating on the process outlined above in a bit, but first, let's make some preliminary considerations.
Why Do Saxophone Pads Harden?
There is a myriad of factors that contribute to a pad's hardening.
The first and most important factor is age. Leather hardens as it ages, especially if it's not correctly treated or moisturized. Fortunately, if it's not hardened beyond repair, you'll be able to salvage it.
Another factor is compression due to use, as the pieces of felt get compacted by constantly getting pressed against the tone holes.
Finally, the felt can be hardened due to the gradual deposition of minerals gathered from our saliva and our condensed breath as the water particles evaporate. These minerals create formations similar to stalactites, which naturally cause the pads to turn stiff.
In the last two scenarios, replacing the pad is virtually the only option.
Related article: Do Saxophones Get Better With Age?
How To Soften Saxophone Pads
Before moving on with the explanation, I need to get this point out: in most instances, you won't be restoring the pad to its original state. In fact, if all the inner parts of the pad are hardened, the chances of ending up with a working pad are slim, so the method we're about to explain should only be employed if you have nothing else to lose.
Some experts posit that when the leather hardens, it's a signal that the felt on the inside has already gotten harder- Hence, any attempt at restoring the pad to its original shape is rendered moot. That makes sense since, as explained before, hardened pads are often the consequence of mineral deposits, particularly if you play the saxophone frequently.
Several saxophone enthusiasts online have claimed that Old English Lemon Oil helps soften the pad to a significant degree. While this may be true to an extent, some people have advised against using this product – or any other type of oil, for that matter – because it creates a chronic sticky pad issue.
In general, you should be wary of applying just about anything on your pad, for even the mildest oils are capable of causing the annoying “sticky pads” glitch.
Most oils and waxes, unfortunately, only soak the pad's surface, and the ones that do soak in can potentially warp the cardboard base. Not only that, but they will also collect grime and other impurities. You should also definitely avoid WD-40 or any other type of penetrating oil.
Sticky pads signal the opposite problem to the one described at the beginning. In this case, the pad is filled with viscous material that sticks to the tone hole, producing either a delay in the action or a downright lack of responsiveness.
Nevertheless, pads do need some level of moisture in order to operate and remain flexible. If a pad is extremely dry, the fibres turn brittle, and you could end up with a cracked pad. Cracked pads should be discarded whenever they lead to tonal problems.
With all this said, if you're witnessing that the leather in your pad is dry, this could be the best way to proceed:
- If the leather looks too dry, you could fill a small spray bottle with distilled water (don't use tap water, as it contains minerals that could build up in the pad and cause further stiffness in the future). Then, spray just a small amount of it on the pad's surface.
- Wipe the excess water from the pad and its surroundings with a piece of cloth or a small brush and wait until the leather has absorbed the moisture.
- Apply a leather conditioner and let it soak in for a while before you use the saxophone. You could also use a foam pad conditioner or a pad softener for your saxophone pads.
Be careful not to pour too much water or conditioner, for that could result in the “sticky pad” problem mentioned before. Try to remove as much excess water and conditioner as possible. You may also use pad savers (which go between the pad and the tone hole to prevent them from closing entirely) so that the product can dry up more easily.
With the procedure outlined above, the pad should regain some flexibility. However, I should reiterate that it would only restore a pad with a hardened leather cover. Theoretically, It could also function as a temporary workaround for pads with a hardened felt, but it will not completely solve that problem. The best course of action, in that case, is to replace the pad completely.
Replacing a pad is costly and time-consuming. If you're not savvy in pad replacement, you ought to take your saxophone to a competent technician, who will possibly charge a sizable amount of money for the job. This should remind the reader that the importance of treating pads promptly cannot be understated.
What Are The Consequences Of Having Hardened Saxophone Pads?
Aside from the susceptibility of the pads to crack or tear, a dried-up or hardened pad could also be detrimental to your saxophone's tone.
The problem with hardened pads is that, as they lose elasticity, they will conceivably also forfeit their capacity to adjust to the edges of the tone hole. As they become prone to warping, the edges turn irregular and incapable of filling the gaps properly, leading to leaking tone holes.
It bears stressing that leaking tone holes will cause intonation issues, and you'll also be forced to blow more air on the instrument to get audible notes out.