The Conn Loomis 10M Saxophone Restoration

The Conn Loomis 10M Saxophone Restoration

Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Josh Creekmore, a woodwind repair technician employed by Saxquest in St. Louis, Missouri. In my first year at Saxquest, I witnessed a now former technician, Chris Watrous, perform some incredibly detailed and high-quality restorations of vintage and experimental saxes for the museum. Since then, it has been a personal and a career goal of mine to get to that same place: restoring and preserving saxophones of historic interest for current and future generations to enjoy. I’m thrilled to be involved in this important work that the National Saxophone Museum is taking on to preserve and bring to light unusual, rare, historic, and experimental saxophones.

The first experimental horn that I ever saw in person was a Conn 10M prototype restored by Mr. Watrous. The fully restored instrument can now be viewed in the National Saxophone Museum galleries. This tenor sax, with serial number 247803, is one of three consecutive examples known to have been produced in that particular configuration. A weird and wonderful instrument, but a topic for a later date. NSM now has in its collection several other Conn prototype saxophones on loan from Saxquest that were salvaged from the infamous C.G. Conn experimental and development laboratory. The topical instrument of this article is the first of many from a recent major acquisition that will be restored in the coming years.

Before we progress, I’d like to take a moment to clarify nomenclature. The “10M” was Conn’s model number for their low-pitched tenor saxes dating back to at least the first “New Wonder” series of instruments. In the 21st century, the common nomenclature for Conn’s tenor saxes is “NW1/NWI” for the first series of New Wonder horns, “NW2/NWII” or “Chu” for the second series, and “10M” for the Artist series horns made from the mid-1930s until the 1970s. Effectively, “10M” was a model number used for over six decades. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to the topical saxophone as a 10M because it is correct in more ways than one. This instrument is a 10M by model number, but it is also a “10M” in that it represents an experimental departure from the standard-production New Wonder 2 from which it was derived.


Differences Between the Loomis 10M and Contemporary Conn Production Saxophones


Saxophone Neck Comparisons Between New Wonder 2 Neck, Loomis 10M Tenor Neck, and Artist Series 10M Tenor Saxophone Neck
Left: NW II Neck, Center: Loomis 10M Neck, RIght: Artist Series 10M Neck
Third Octave Key Linkage to Tenor Saxophone Neck
Third Octave Key to Palm D Linkage

The topic of this article is an experimental 10M tenor saxophone with serial number 201183 that features the “double resonance” neck as well as other design modifications and experimentations. The novel neck concept was first invented and patented by Conn’s chief engineer, Allen Loomis, before his time with Conn while employed as an engineer at the Packard Motor Car Company. It’s similar in design to the neck on his “double resonance” alto saxophone, of which only eight known examples exist, two of which are in the NSM’s collection. Again, more on those instruments in a future article.

To our knowledge, this is the only surviving Conn tenor with such a neck. This saxophone’s neck seems to be the same taper as the NW2, but it is noticeably shorter. This system is devised in such a manner that the saxophone has not the standard two octave vents, but three total octave vents: two on the neck and one on the body. The octave vent on the body is in the same place as a standard NW2 but the vents on the neck are relocated from the standard position with one being closer to the top of the neck’s arch and the other closer to the mouthpiece end. To accommodate this change in octave placement, Mr. Loomis concocted a brilliant, yet simple mechanism. Normally, when the saxophone’s octave key is pressed, the neck’s octave key is opened. If the G key is added, the neck’s octave key closes and the body octave key is opened. In Mr. Loomis’ mechanism, the above is true but the addition of the second octave key on the neck means an addition of a way to actuate it. If the octave key lever is depressed by the thumb, the lower octave key on the neck opens. This means that from scale degrees A2-C#3, the lower neck octave vent is utilized. When one reaches scale degree D3 via depressing the palm D key, the third, higher octave key is opened via a lever actuated by the palm D key. This third octave key simultaneously closes the lower neck octave key. It’s a bit much to take in in print, but the accompanying video showcases the elegant simplicity. The neck octave keys and the palm D-neck octave lever are purpose-made parts.

The 10M also differs from the NW2 in its lower bow. The U-shaped tube at the bottom of the horn is a wider arc than either the NW2 or the Artist Series 10M. Effectively, this moves the bell further away from the body of the sax. While the effect of wide bow spacing upon the playing characteristics of a saxophone are perhaps a topic for a different article, it definitely seems that the response and timber of the lowest notes of this saxophone are different from other NW2 and Artist series horns that I’ve played. The main body of the saxophone as well as the bulk of its keywork are off-the-line parts. The bow, however, is something wholly unique to this saxophone. While the body of the horn has Conn’s famous rolled tonehole sockets, the bow has soldered-on tonehole sockets more reminiscent of Martin saxophones and other pre-1920 saxophones from other makers. To me, this indicates that it wasn’t produced on any of the standard tooling and that the laboratory was experimenting with bow spacing’s effect on playing characteristics, haphazardly assembling what they needed to do so.

The third way that this 10M deviates from a standard NW2 is that it has left-side bell keys. Conn’s standard at the time was to have the low B key on the left side of the bell and the low Bb on the right. This instrument with serial number 201,183 from the year 1927, predates all other instances of left-side bell keys on a Conn tenor that we at Saxquest and the NSM have encountered. Conn’s production tenors retained the split bell key configuration into the mid-1930s. In fact, the previously mentioned 10M prototype featuring left-side bell keys that was restored by Mr. Watrous is in the 247k range, dating it to 1931. All that to say that the bell keys are not off-the-line parts. Due to the wider bow spacing, the bell toneholes are further away from the anchoring points. To accommodate this bell placement, standard C# and B keys were modified by un-brazing the keycup from the arm, scooting it further along the key arm and re-brazing it in place. The low Bb key is done similarly but is a custom-fabricated part since the Bb tonehole is opposite its production counterpart.

Left Side Bell Keys - Pre-Restoration

Left Side Bell Keys

Restoring the Conn Loomis 10M Tenor

When the Museum acquired this instrument, it was in utterly unplayable condition. The body was heavily oxidized. The blued-steel springs were rusty and brittle. The original Res-O-Pads from 1927 were rotted and falling apart, exposing their lead-foil lining. The corks and felts, what were left of them, were rotting, over compressed, and falling off. The rollers on the C and Eb keys were hard rubber instead of Conn’s standard pearloid and the rollers for the low C#, B, and Bb keys were flat-out missing. In spite of the wider bow spacing, a custom bell-to-body brace was not made. Instead, the production brace’s bell flange was bent down at the corners and lightly tack-soldered into place. This made for an unstable bell bracing situation. The bell had at some point, taken a knock hard enough to put a large dent into it and to severely shift it out of place past the point where gentle bell alignment techniques were effective.

Bell Dent Before Saxophone Restoration

Dented Bell and Factory Identification Markings (Pre-Restoration)

There are differing philosophies regarding the preservation or restoration of musical instruments. Some advocate for not altering an instrument at all, leaving it in a rotting or decrepit state in which it may only be admired visually. Others believe that an instrument must be restored using as many parts, materials, and techniques as possible to return the instrument to a period-appropriate state. To paraphrase the NSM’s President Dr. Mark Overton’s philosophy regarding restorations for the NSM, the goal is to preserve the instruments in a way that is long-lasting in terms of protecting the structural and historical integrity of the instruments while simultaneously restoring their playability. A goal of the Museum is to allow musicians to experience how the collection plays and sounds. This means the careful application of modern repair techniques, materials, and occasional, careful modification to achieve these goals.

In the process of restoring this Loomis 10M, I took the NSM’s preservation philosophy into careful consideration. Removing dents and aligning bells is part and parcel in the saxophone repair trade. The barely-attached bell brace flange means that the bell is likely to shift again easily, even just from gentle handling. Minimizing the chance of this instrument’s bell being inadvertently moved could be achieved in a variety of ways - primarily “Don’t let people touch it.” However, that clashes with NSM’s philosophy. I could have removed the bell brace and custom-made a replacement; but that would remove an original, non-disposable part of the instrument. Ultimately what I settled upon, with Dr. Overton’s blessing, was to contour a piece of rectangular brass stock to match the curvature of the bell. This piece of brass was then soft-soldered in the gap between the center of the bell-brace flange and the bell. It’s a minimally invasive, reversible procedure that has made for a bell connection that is far more stable than it was before.

Reversible Bell Brace Reinforcement

Bell Brace Reinforcement

The mechanism was barely played and therefore the rebuilding of the mechanism only required light swedging and careful refitting to the body. Though all original rods and pivot screws were present and reused, the instrument actually had two different types of headless pivot screws. The NW2 style screws have a straight shaft that goes into the key while the Artist series introduced a tapered shaft. Starting with the NW2, Conn used headless pivot screws that were secured into their respective posts via a locking screw that went into the post head perpendicularly to the pivot screw. In the absence of that locking screw, Conn’s pivots tend to back out of their posts with use. This leads to screws sometimes falling out, to a mechanism with a sloppy feel, or to uneven, premature wear to the mechanism. The lever running from palm D to the neck octave key is mounted on pivot screws. However, the holes for the locking screws were never drilled and tapped at the lab. Therefore, the pivot screws couldn’t be locked in place. After consulting Dr. Overton about the above concerns, I was allowed to drill and tap the posts so that locking screws could be installed, therefore prolonging the longevity of the mechanism.

The body and keys of the instrument were heavily oxidized, corroded in places, and had sloppy solder all over. The instrument was unfinished in more ways than one. Not only were there the mechanical and structural integrity concerns addressed earlier, but the solder was never cleaned up, the keys were never buffed, file marks and tool marks can be found all over the instrument, and the whole apparatus never received a lacquer or plated protective coating. The decision was made to preserve the unfinished, bare brass look of the instrument, sloppy, gloopy solder and all. However, the oxidization and corrosion had to go. To this end, the horn was thoroughly cleaned with a mild degreaser then a chemical called Slime Away to remove the grit grime and corrosion. Instead of taking the horn to the buffing wheel for a high-polish shine as would have been done in the factory finishing process, I polished the entire horn by hand using a minimally abrasive polishing paste. To slow oxidization, introduce a moisture-resistant barrier, and preserve the surface of the brass, Renaissance Wax, a microcrystalline wax developed for and used in museum preservation of art, machines, clothing, etc., was then applied to the instrument buy hand. Though the majority of this 10M is bare brass, that custom, wide bow is gold plated! Note the different coloration in the before pictures as well as the extra lustrous shine in the after photos.

Hand Polished
Hand Polished Bare Brass with Gold-Plated Bow
Left Hand Table Keys Missing Rollers
Left-Hand Table Keys with Reproduction Rollers

With regards to the consumable/disposable materials, Conn used their Res-o-Pads, with pressed felt and natural cork for key feet, linkages, bumpers, and bearing surfaces, and blued-steel needle springs and flat springs. Res-o-Pads were constructed by stretching a very thin, untreated leather over a metal ring with felt inside. Modern reproductions use thicker leather that has a waterproof coating that tends to get sticky against toneholes. Since the metal ring inside of a Res-o-Pad snaps into the keycup, floating with shellac is not possible to correct for small leaks. This means that to do a padjob with Res-o-Pads, the keycups are bent and/or hammered out of shape to take up gaps between the pad surface and the tonehole. That is not the padding method that we use in the Saxquest repair shop. To achieve a quality, long-lasting pad seal with an excellent, quiet, firm feel under the fingers, we mechanically level toneholes and padcups then adjust the angle of the padcups to match the plane of the toneholes when there are pads in the cups, floating the pads on shellac only to take up the gaps caused by the inconsistent nature of using organic materials for pads like leather and felt. This is the method I used for the 10M. Instead of the commercially available Res-o-Pad reproductions, which again are a treated leather that is thicker than the original Conn pads, I used Valentino Premium untreated pads. They feel “right” under the fingers, firm, snappy, quiet. The Valentinos are long-lasting and less prone to sticking against the Conn’s rolled toneholes than are treated leather pads. I elected to install flat disc resonators in the instrument. I’m unsure at what point Conn started using flat disc resonators on their Res-o-Pads, but it was certainly by the early 1930s and I’ve seen many New Wonder 2 instruments with flat disc resonators over the years.

Natural cork and pressed felt are the adjusting and silencing materials that were available at the time. In the 21st century, technicians have a wider variety of materials at our disposal that accomplish the tasks of holding regulations, silencing the mechanism, and providing low-friction bearing surfaces more effectively than natural cork and pressed felt. In order to achieve the above goals, I used a combination of Tech Cork, synthetic woven felt, microsuede, PTFE sheet, natural cork, and sorbothane foam. I replaced the faulty springs with currently available blued-steel springs. The existing rubber rollers were not salvageable, so I made reproduction pearloid rollers to match what would have been on production instruments at the time.

It was an honor and a pleasure to be allowed to restore and preserve this piece of saxophone development history. It’s hard to convey the sense of satisfaction that comes from taking an instrument that has languished away, rotting, and unplayed since the 1920s and restoring it to a condition that is as good as, if not mechanically better than, new. This Loomis-modified 10M is no longer lost to time and may be seen, enjoyed, and heard by generations to come! Please enjoy this video of Ben Reece demonstrating the horn!