Fabrication of Prosthetic Key
Appliances for Woodwind Instruments
Paul Coats and John Conrath
John Conrath contacted me this past year obviously in distress over a recent
accident and his inability to continue playing saxophone and flute. He
described his problem, loss of part of his left hand ring finger, and at my
request, sent photos of his injured hand.
Some players would have just given up and
quit playing—or switched instruments, picked up harmonica or drums—but not
John was hesitant about soldering any type
of extensions to the keys of his instruments. He was worried that if he
found he could not play again, the modifications would greatly diminish
their value from making and removing these modifications.
After looking at photos John had sent me,
I was sure we could solve this problem. I sent John pictures of key
modifications I had done for other players, and of extensions my old friend,
the late Santy Runyon, had done on his own instruments. Santy was missing a
portion of his left little finger “from when (he) was a kid, (his) sister
slammed the car door on it.” I figured for John it would be easy… the left
hand ring finger has to work only one key!
Such modifications would usually need to
be done on a “cut and try” basis, with the player in my workshop. When I
described to John the materials and methods I would use, he was certain he
could do this himself… and that certainly proved to be the best solution in
Rather than fabricating and soldering on
brass extensions to the G key touches of his tenor sax and flute, I
suggested he use plexiglass, cut to shape, with the edges rounded and
smoothed, and polished to a nice transparent finish. Further, I suggested
an industrial craft glue, E6000, for attaching these key appliances.
I have made wedges for octave key touches,
low C and low Bb spatulas, and on one instrument, built up over the oval
pearl of the chromatic F# key using shaped plexiglass pieces. Shaping is
done by first rough cutting the basic shape with a jigsaw. Use a slow
cutting speed, otherwise the plexiglass will melt on the blade. After
cutting to shape, the piece may be further shaped with a cylindrical mill
bit on a Dremel Tool ®.
Once the desired shape is achieved—and
through trial and error, it may require making several pieces before
obtaining the desired result—the key appliance may be polished to make it
completely transparent. This is done by first removing the scratches from
cutting and shaping.
Begin the polishing process by hand
sanding, first with 400 grit silicon carbide paper, then 600, then 800, and
finally 1000 grit. Now polish using a 1” cloth buffing wheel with the
Dremel Tool ® and a suitable polishing compound. I have successfully used
Kit Scratch Out (a plastic polish from automotive stores), Flitz Metal
Polish, and even Colgate white toothpaste. With the toothpaste it helps to
wet the cloth buffing wheel and to add a few drops of water every so often.
Go slowly, use the slowest speed and very light pressure, otherwise the
plexiglass will melt. Finish by hand buffing with a soft cloth. By now the
key appliance should be perfectly clear.
The glue mentioned earlier, E6000, is
described by the manufacturer as a “SBR Adhesive”. SBR, it was explained,
stands for Styrene Butadyene Rubber. This glue is quite thick, thicker than
epoxy, and glass clear. The clear glue and plexiglass will allow the color
of the key’s pearl, or the lacquered brass or plated finish to show
through. From a few feet away, these key appliances are all but invisible.
And even better, they may be removed, the glue scraped away with a
fingernail, and there will be no damage to the instrument’s finish. The
process is entirely reversible.
The adhesive is applied to both surfaces
to be glued, and then waiting a few minutes. This lets excess solvents
escape from the glue. Now press the two pieces together. At this time do
not worry about any excess glue oozing from between the pieces. Let it dry
for a few hours. The excess may then be scraped away with a fingernail. I
suggest waiting at least overnight before using the instrument.
This type of glue is very slightly
flexible, but not soft and squishy like silicone rubber. This flexibility
allows good long-term adhesion of dissimilar materials, metal to plastic for
Another similar SBR adhesive is Alene’s
7800, a slightly thinner material. E6000 and Alene’s 7800 are available in
the craft department at Walmart stores and in many craft, hobby, and
John was able to successfully fit key
appliances to his saxophone and flute. I further suggested to John that he
could obtain (on special order from G. Leblanc Corp,
www.gleblanc.com), a Noblet wood clarinet body fitted with Vito “plateau
model” keys, and he could then use this same method for fitting the clarinet
to his hand.
Now, I turn this article over to John
~Paul R. Coats
I'm John Conrath
from Newark, OH. I've been playing the saxophone since the age of 9, and
gigging professionally since the age of 13.
I had a lawnmower accident last year. I
was devastated... I sold all of my horns and flute because I felt that I
could never play again.
In the last few months, I felt I had
regained enough dexterity and strength in my injured hand to try playing
again. I bought a new horn and flute...a Guardala 500BN Tenor Saxophone and
a Yamaha YFL-421 Flute.
After several failed attempts using a
synthetic prosthetic, I contacted Paul Coats. He gave me some great ideas
and I ran with them. I am back playing again, with little notice of the loss
of my finger! I hope some of you will find the following gallery helpful. If
you have any questions, don't hesitate to email me.