Stencil Horns: Then & Now

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Maraphone tenor # 34889. A Keilwerth-made stencil of their famous The New King. Source: 1357alfred on eBay.com

It used to be that what a stencil horn was, was clearly identifiable.

Vintage stencil horns: what were they?

Very simply put, a stencil saxophone is a horn that was made by one of the major manufacturers for another company or perhaps a music store. The ordering company would then have their name engraved, or “stencilled”, on the saxophone, and then the horn was sold without any reference to the actual manufacturer.

Oftentimes the major manufacturers would alter their main line of instruments slightly for their stencil productions, depending on what the ordering company wanted. American and European saxophone manufacturers were for the most part, all involved in manufacturing stencil horns for others.

For a complete discussion of vintage stencil horns, please see the stencil saxes page on my website.

Saxophone production today: How we got here

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Phil Dwyer Edition, SeaWind tenor saxophone.

Today however, the definition of a stencil horn is not so clear. Over the last few years, there are fewer and fewer companies making their own saxophones. And with the fairly recent influx of saxophones from the East, it’s harder to tell the players without a program.

Factories in Taiwan and China make horns with a multitude of brand names, but how many make saxophones under their own names? (For example, we know Jinbao does.) How many factories only make stencil horns?

These are very good questions, but ones difficult to find the answers to. Jinbao—the makers of the French-style bass—do make a few with their own name engraved on it, but for the most part their horns are sold with names such as: Oleg, Hunter, International Woodwinds, Tuyama, Levante, Swing, and Wessex.

So with all these factories all over Taiwan and China producing their saxophones for other companies, music stores, and even individuals, it strikes me that many (most?) of the new saxophones sold today are stencil horns.

Think I’m wrong? Think about this for a moment: How many big name saxophone companies are left now? Selmer Paris. Keilwerth. (They are still around, aren’t they?) Yamaha. Yanagisawa. As well as a few smaller and boutique companies like: Borgani, Eppelsheim, and Inderbinen.

Now think about all the companies and individuals that have their saxophones made by the factories in Taiwan and China: Trevor James, Cannonball, P. Mauriat, Theo Wanne, Steve Goodson, Kenny G, SeaWind, etc, etc, etc. These are just some of the higher-end, name-brand, new stencil horns from the Far East.

Now think of all the cheap stencil horns that are found by the thousands all over eBay and online stores. Do you think that the combined sales of horns from the Far East out-sell Selmer, Yamaha, JK, and Yani significantly?

The answer is yes, which is why we’ve seen a major new product announcement from Selmer Paris as they try to compete with their new SeleS saxophone, and why Yamaha no longer produces its student horns in Japan. Established saxophone companies are having to shift their way of doing business in an effort to compete with the new kids on block… But it isn’t so rosy for all these new kids either.

I was recently told by a person in the know, that there used to be approximately 50 factories in Taiwan making saxes. Now there are only 5.

Why this remarkable reduction in saxophone factories? In part because they are getting squeezed out by cheaper labour in China. Does this sound familiar?

When Japan began manufacturing saxophones, this was the directly responsible for many European companies being forced out of saxophone production since they could no longer compete with the cheap Japanese products. It took a few decades, but a few years ago we already noticed that Japan was being beaten at its own game.

Cheaper labour costs in Taiwan were undercutting the prices of Japanese saxophones to the point where the Japanese companies could not compete with Taiwanese-made horns. Now we see the cycle being repeated yet again, as China aims to fill the world’s need for cheap consumer goods.

All this leaves me wondering: What country can beat China for cheap labour? Why are we as a society so obsessed with cheap consumer goods? What’s wrong with buying a quality item, and keeping it for our lifetime? (Aside from the fact that we are of course being bombarded by ads 24/7 telling us to buy product X or Y, to fill a supposed need we have in our life.)

So what is a stencil horn today then?

Given the plethora of factories cranking out saxophones with names, many of which no one has ever hear of before, I would argue that in today’s world almost all saxophones are stencil horns. Only saxophones coming from, and bearing the names of established manufacturers like Selmer Paris, JK, Yamaha, Yani, Borgani, Eppelsheim, et al, are not stencil horns.

Some companies like Selmer Paris don’t make stencil horns. Other companies like Yani and JK have made them in the past. That said, the economic situation today is such that very few, if any, companies are going to established saxophone manufacturers for their stencil horns. Instead company X is turning to factory Y in Taiwan, or more likely China, to have their new stencil horn made.

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

Sax Case Made Of A Reclaimed Suitcase

Have you got horns that need a new case? Do you have an old piece of hard-sided luggage? Well if you do, then you’re on your way to having a new, perhaps funky sax case made of a reclaimed suitcase.

All you need for this project is a saxophone like this that has no case…

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A hard-sided suitcase like this….

Pair-of-Vintage-Suitcases, vintage luggage, tweed suitcase, vintage suitcase
Source: Liv n Let Livija on eBay.com

Some foam like this…

egg crate foam, acoustic foam, black foam
Source: eBay.ca

And some more that looks like this…

polyethylene foam, hard foam, grey foam
Source: dafa-as.com

Then all that’s left is the bit of time that’s necessary to put together your very own sax case made of a reclaimed suitcase.

Disclaimer: I haven’t done this for a tenor or alto saxophone, although I have made a similar case for my curved soprano using a metal brief case. As you can see, I covered the foam in purple velvet just to give it that slightly more vintage look and feel. I also didn’t use grey acoustic foam. Instead I used an old mattress topper. It worked just as well in this case.

I would never have thought to use an old suitcase for an alto, tenor, or even a straight soprano case, had it not been for this Buescher tenor that I saw on eBay a few days ago.

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Source: bradburiedtreasure on eBay.com

It’s kind of an interesting idea. Admittedly saxophone cases are a bit more compact, and perhaps a bit easier to handle. However, if you have these items around your house—which many of us do—then making use of these things could free up some space, and if you’re environmentally conscious, make you feel better about your environmental footprint.

There’s also issues of protection. This long-running, 1970s TV commercial from American Tourister should make you feel good about using a sax case made of a reclaimed suitcase… That is If you use an American Tourister of course. ;)

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

SeaWind Prototype Baritone Sax

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Countries of origin: Parts manufactured in Taiwan; assembled by hand in Canada.

Price: TBD, but likely around $5,499 Cdn.

Date of manufacturing: 2014

Date of review: 2015

A few months ago SeaWind saxophones started advertising on the Woodwind Forum. As one of the WF’s admins, as well as a saxophone content expert, I was asked if I would be interested in play-testing one or two of these horns to see what they were all about.

I asked the fine folks at SeaWind if they would allow me an extended play-test, and provide me with an instrument to use for my (then) upcoming show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. They said yes, and provided me with a production model tenor—which I will review separately—as well as this SeaWind prototype baritone sax.

As a vintage saxophone player I didn’t know what to expect. The only new horn I have is my B&S Medusa bari, and really it is nothing more than a B&S blue label with fancy engraving.

Throwing caution to the wind, I wholeheartedly embraced my six weeks of new horn possession, and forged ahead to get acquainted with these wonderful saxophones that come from Vancouver Island.

Tone

This SeaWind prototype baritone sax has an incredible tone. Depending on what mouthpiece I used on it, I could alter its sound quite a lot. When played with my hard rubber Berg or my Graftonite, this horn sounded very much like my Selmer Mark VI.

Put my Metalite on it however, this SeaWind would sound almost like a cross between my Mark VI and my Martin Committee III. Yes, I know that sounds like a strange combo, but the SeaWind baritone has the ability to project the characteristics of both—depending on how the player manipulates the volume and/or column of air.

If I had to pick a single word to describe this horn, I’d call it ballsy. As a bari player, I know how hard it can be to be heard above the other noise at times. This horn has both the projection, and the stability to get its sound through that noise without intonation fluctuations, or tonal cracking. (The latter sometimes aided by mouthpieces. Bergs are especially prone to this.)

The low end whispers beautifully just like a baritone should, but when you punch it this horn has the ability to go into overdrive, which causes it, you, and the various bits of metal in the room with you, to vibrate. It’s a lot of fun.

As much fun as the low end of a baritone is, experienced bari players will tell you that there is no prettier sound on their horn than the upper octaves. This SeaWind prototype baritone sax doesn’t disappoint there. The hauntingly beautiful sounds of the palm keys sound clean and clear, and have the ability to sound simply beautiful.

Response

The SeaWind prototype baritone sax is very even across the entire range. It is extremely consistent, and pretty much exactly what one would expect from a pro model horn.

Being a low A baritone, the SeaWind does require more air than a low Bb horn. Being used to my Medusa bari however, I didn’t find this unusual.

Feel

The SeaWind prototype baritone sax is extremely well set up, and its key action superb. In large part this is because of the way the saxophones are manufactured.

Although the parts were manufactured in Taiwan (see below), the instruments come here in pieces. They are then assembled in Qualicum Beach, on Vancouver Island, by Claudio Fantinato. Claudio and Phil Dwyer are business partners in SeaWind Musical Instruments Inc. Claudio makes sure that each saxophone is perfectly set up before it is packed in its case and sent off to wherever it’s going.

Since this is a prototype, this bari has been handled by a number of different people, and play-tested by lots of players. Apparently Phil had done some recording with it as well. I didn’t know until Claudio came to pick up the horn last week that he has done nothing to the sax since assembling it. That’s really remarkable. I would have expected a bari to go out of adjustment given all of this handling. This speaks to both the quality of his work, but also to the quality of the instrument.

Being a low A baritone, this SeaWind prototype baritone sax is heavier than what I like to  hang around my neck. That said, regardless if I used my Vandoren universal saxophone harness, or my regular Neotech neck strap, the bari’s balance was great. It hung perfectly, and was easy to swing back and forth.

The key layout on the SeaWind bari is great. The keys are relatively close together, so you don’t need to have large hands to play this sax. This makes switching between a tenor and this bari quite simple, since there isn’t much difference in the way the keys are spaced.

I really like the way the left pinkie keys are easy to reach, and the left pinkie cluster is easy to navigate.

SeaWind prototype baritone sax specs

The following are the specs for the SeaWind bari. Since this is not a production model, the specs cannot be found on the SeaWind website. These were provided to me by Claudio Fantinato.

  • Triple annealed body, bow and bell
  • Hand-hammered bell
  • Reinforced double armed low C, B, Bb, and A keys
  • Additional bell to body brace for stability
  • Vintage honey gold finish
  • Customized hand engraving on bell and bow
  • High quality black or pads with stainless steel domed pesos
  • Genuine white pearl key touches
  • Adjusting screws on upper and lower stacks
  • High quality blue steel springs
  • Imported high quality brass from Japan

The pix

SeaWind Saxophones: the backstory

Over a decade ago, when Phil Dwyer and Claudio Fantinato first decided to get into the saxophone business, they spent a considerable amount of time doing research. Using Phil’s beloved Balanced Action as a starting point, they came up with designs of what their ideal saxophones would look/act/function like.

When they went factory shopping, it took them a long time to check out all the various possible factories that could manufacture their horn for them. What they saw in many of the factories was quite surprising, and not very encouraging. Then they toured a factory that would give them exactly what they wanted, including: strict quality control standards and a willingness to work collaboratively on the new horns’ designs.

The parts for SeaWind saxophones may be manufactured in Taiwan, but these parts are shipped to Canada. It is in his shop on Vancouver Island where Claudio carefully and painstakingly assembles each horn. Then he play-tests each horn before it is shipped out to its final destination. (A job previously done by Phil before he began attending law school in New Brunswick.) Phil’s and Claudio’s goal is to make each horn as consistent as the one that came before it. This would allow players, regardless of where they are, to play-test a horn that comes properly setup, and playing like a saxophone ought to.

Each part of the saxophone—like the springs, pads, and resos—has been carefully selected by Claudio and Phil. The same is true for all the parts on the cases, like the latches (which happen to be the same ones as on my BAM Hightech bari case). In short, no corners have been cut, and no expense spared when it comes to manufacturing SeaWind saxophones. Not many modern saxophone companies can make that claim. There are also very few saxophones that you can play straight out of the box.

SeaWind baritone saxophone production possible

Claudio and I have spoken at length of the possibility of SeaWind beginning baritone production. It is something the company is seriously considering, but they need a certain number of pre-orders.

At present they are taking pre-orders from both the music stores that sell their horns, as well as individuals. And before someone asks me, no, I will not be pre-ordering a SeaWind bari.

As much as I loved the SeaWind prototype baritone sax that I had on loan, I can’t see myself with another shiny new horn. I have one those: my Medusa. It also happens to be a low A horn, so on those rare occasions when my low A extension doesn’t cut it, I already have a horn to cover me.

I have let Claudio know however, that should the company ever decide to part with its prototype—which it more than likely won’t—I would certainly like to have a chance at it.

If you are interested in finding out more about SeaWind saxophones check out their website. There you’ll find a contact page if you have any questions you’d like answered.

If you’d like to find out more about the SeaWind baritone saxophone, send them an email. They’ll be more than happy to discuss it with you.

In conclusion then…

If I had had the opportunity in 2004 to play-test the SeaWind prototype baritone sax and compare it to the Medusa, I know which horn I would have picked. There would be one less German sax in my horn stable ATM. (Or course I am ignoring the fact that Asian horn production 11 years ago wasn’t where it’s at today, but you get my point.)

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!