Saxgourmet Kangaroo Leather Pads
Saxgourmet pads, designed by Steve Goodson,
are available at www.musicmedic.com…..they
are a 100% made in USA product……sets are
available to fit any saxophone…..here’s what
you need to know about pads
During my lifelong quest to improve the saxophone, one of the primary frustrations I often encountered was having to deal with vendors who manufactured components the same way they had for many years, and who refused to consider new, better options. The saxophone pads available before the late 1990’s were a prime example. They were actually the root cause of many common saxophone problems, lacked durability, and were extremely inconsistent with regard to sizing.
Saxophone pads have been made from sheepskin wrapped around wool felt and a cardboard back for many many years, and I’m very sorry to have to report to you that this is still the case with most pads made today. There is a huge variation in the type and quality of the felt used, and the quality of the leather used is very honestly all over the place. The vast majority of pad manufacturers use ordinary cardboard for the backs. Certainly the worst sin committed by modern pad manufacturers is the use of generous amounts of silicone in an attempt to seal the pores of the leather and to make it waterproof.
I think we can all agree that most modern saxophone pads are very noisy (that annoying slapping sound!); tear easily; exhibit significant shrinkage and loose their flatness over time; and worst of all, they stick to the tops of the tone holes, invariably at the worst possible musical time!
A lot of these problems can be directly attributed to a simple lack of creativity on the part of pad manufacturers and a lack of demand that the problems by fixed on the part of the saxophone manufacturers and the repair industry. Fixing these problems is not “rocket science”, but the pad makers (who have always been well aware of the problems) simply chose to ignore them! Lets take a look at some of the problems, and see how to fix them.
FIRST, CHOOSE THE RIGHT LEATHER!
Since the very early days, saxophone pads have generally used sheepskin for their outer covering. It was readily available, somewhat inexpensive, could be easily “skived” (cutting the skin to the
necessary thickness), and was generally smooth and had small pores. It could be easily sealed (making it air and water tight) through the application of various treatments, and was fairly easy to work with.
Unfortunately, sheepskin fell short in several areas: it tended to dry out and become brittle unless kept nourished with proper oils (mink oil is great for this purpose, although somewhat expensive); the pads become quite noisy with age; the leather tears very easily and is often cut by the tone holes (the real reason for the invention of rolled tone holes was to reduce the sharpness of the tone hole chimneys); and it became quite dimensionally unstable with age.
An attempt was made to remedy some of these problems by substituting goatskin, but this leather, although extremely durable, exhibited numerous shortcomings: the leather had a significant grainy texture which required a large amount of ironing to remove; it was difficult to consistently skive the leather to the requisite thickness (.3mm); it became extremely hard with age; it was very porous and allowed significant moisture to reach the underlying felt; and it lacked the necessary “drape” to allow it to be smoothly wrapped around the felt and backing.
Other leathers were tried, including pigskin and deer skin, but they offered no improvement, and there was no synthetic alternative available. So the pad manufacturing industry chose to make sheepskin the leather of choice, in spite of its shortcomings. They failed to ask the crucial question: what do all of these leathers that don’t work too well have in common?
The answer to this key question is, of course, that all of these leathers came from mammals. The collagen fiber bundles in mammal hides are arranged in a complex weaving pattern. The fibers are often at angles as much as 90 degrees to the skin surface. Mammal hides also contains sweat glands, erector pili muscles and a distinct gradation in elastin levels, concentrated in the upper part of the skin. Mammal skin is very complex in cross section. Hence in whole section it has many more weak points from which tears can start when placed under tension. In addition when sliced into splits the collagen fibers running
at significant angles to the skin surface will be cut. These then become weak points in the structural strength. The root of the problem is that the cellular structure of mammals is all wrong for the intended application, and nobody was willing to “think outside the box”.
If mammal hides didn’t work, then what would? In the 1950’s, somebody finally raised their hand and said “marsupial”, and after a few false starts, a solution was found!
Kangaroo leather works perfectly for saxophone pads, and although somewhat expensive, is readily available. The main reason that kangaroo leather works so very well is the cell structure of marsupials. Kangaroo hide has a highly uniform orientation of fiber bundles in parallel with the skin surface. It does not contain sweat glands or erector pili muscles and elastin is evenly distributed throughout the skin thickness. This structural uniformity explains both the greater tensile strength of the whole leather and the greater retention of strength in splits. When split into thinner substances kangaroo retains considerably more of the original tensile strength of the unsplit leather than does the hide of any mammal. When split to 20% of original thickness kangaroo retains between 30 and 60% of the tensile strength of the unsplit hide. Most mammal hides, on the other hand, split to 20% of original thickness retains only 1-4% of original strength. Kangaroo leather is also lighter and stronger than the hide of a mammal. It has 10 times the tensile strength of calfskin or sheep skin, and is 50% stronger than goatskin.
I think we can all agree that stronger and lighter is good, but there’s much more to the story. Kangaroo leather is also extremely soft, allowing the use of firmer felt while significantly reducing key impact noise. The tight, small pores of kangaroo leather are also arranged in a regular lattice, and this reduces the amount of moisture which passes through the leather to the felt. This waterproof characteristic eliminates the need for silicone based pad treatments, and makes pad sticking virtually impossible.
Kangaroo leather has wonderful “drape” qualities, so it wraps around the felt and pad back smoothly and evenly, much more so than any mammal sourced leather. It also skives very evenly and accurately, and the suede (texture on the back of the leather after skiving) tends to be a little thicker than the suede found on mammal sourced leathers, giving kangaroo leather pads a very soft touch to the player.
With, all of these wonderful attributes, why has kangaroo leather not become the most commonly used leather in the pad industry? First, there’s the issue of cost. Not only is suitable kangaroo leather (about 10% of all kangaroo leather) in short supply, it is also located in Australia, far away from the main markets. Since all of the kangaroo harvest is sourced from the wild (there is no such thing as kangaroo farming) and the amount of the annual harvest is very tightly regulated, increasing supply significantly is extremely unlikely. I think it is significant to point out that the kangaroo population has actually significantly increased as farming and ranching have spread throughout Australia because agriculture has made food and water significantly more accessible than in the past. Perhaps the most significant factor in the lack of acceptance of kangaroo leather is what I call the “cute” factor, whereby kangaroos are perceived as adorable, overgrown bunny rabbits. A conversation with any native of Australia will quickly teach you that the locals consider them to be a significant pest. Many Australians will also quickly add that “those ‘roos are also very good eating!”.
YOU’VE GOT TO TREAT ‘EM RIGHT!
Of course, the choice of leather is far from the complete story. To review, there are three primary layers to a saxophone pad: the exterior leather, the felt, and the back. Because all leather are somewhat porous, we must take steps to prevent moisture from reaching the felt and causing distortion, and to a lesser degree, be certain that no air flows through the leather, causing a reduction in the seal created by a closed pad. This is where most pad manufacturers commit the fatal error!
The solution far too many pad manufacturers use to this porosity problem is to apply a “treatment” to the leather, generally one that is
silicone based in the hopes of making the pad actually shed moisture. Unfortunately, silicone pad treatments are the number one cause of sticking pads! The use of silicone has been around for a very long time, and it didn’t work very well the first time it was tried, and it still doesn’t work very well. In the perfect world, the exposed pad leather should be left untreated and un-waterproofed (you do dry off your pads every time you play, don’t you) to avoid sticking, but only one pad manufacturer that I know of does this. A good solution is to avoid sticky silicone treatments and use an ultra thin polyurethane treatment to seal and waterproof the pad.
A far better solution, which allows the surface leather to remain untreated, is to insert an impermeable layer of material between the leather and felt. Over the years, many options have been explored, including brass foil, mylar, and spraying the back side of the leather with flexible plastic. All of these work to a degree, but the mylar tended to break down with time, the brass foil gave the pads a hard feel upon impact and made them noisy, and the spray plastic dried out and cracked. Recently, pads have become available which offer what appears to me to be the perfect solution: insert an additional layer of pad leather which has been sealed with polyurethane between the leather and felt. This not only provides an excellent seal against moisture and makes the pad air tight, but has the substantial additional benefit of making the impact of the the pad upon the tone hole extremely quiet, and the additional layer allows the use of firmer felt with superior shape stability.
THE CHANGE IS FINALLY FELT!
Since the use of sawdust filled “purse pads” was abandoned in the late 1800’s, almost all saxophone pads have had a layer of wool felt between the exterior leather and the backing. This felt serves multiple purposes: it absorbs impact, but more importantly, it can be “set” to retain a specific shape, hopefully keeping the horn leak free.
The wool felt comes in two basic forms: pressed (the fibers are in a random pattern and are forced together under great pressure), and woven (the fibers are literally woven together like cloth). Pressed felt is much less expensive, and epoxy is often added to increase the
firmness and stability. Woven felt is stronger, and the edges can be cut more precisely. It is also significantly more expensive.
The problem with the use of wool felt is that it is made from wool. When wool is exposed to moisture or the heat from adjusting pads, it distorts and shrinks. A wonderful synthetic material has very recently been introduced which has all of the impact absorbing properties of wool felt, but is impervious to water and absolutely stable at temperatures of up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. This marvelous material is currently available only in the MusicMedic Extreme Pad. Trust me, it is well worth the price of admission!
ALWAYS BACK IT UP!
Virtually all saxophone pads use some variety of cardboard as the backing. It is inexpensive, easy to work with, and holds shellac well. If pad makers would merely upgrade the cardboard used to a slightly thicker and slightly more rigid grade, then the back could assist in keeping the pad dimensionally stable over its lifetime.
It is essential that the pad back retain a slight degree of flexibility in order to conform to the shape of the pad cup which is almost never perfectly flat. I think it goes without saying that the pad should not only be perfectly round, but should retain its shape perfectly over its service life.
YES, SIZE DOES MATTER!
As a final thought, a few words about pad thickness are in order. I am forever amazed by repair technicians who knowingly choose to avoid using the correct thickness pad. Once the key cups are properly aligned with tone holes which have been perfectly leveled, if a pad that is too thick is used, it will hit on the back before it seals on the front; if a pad which is too thin is used, it will hit on the front before the back completely seals. It is also essential to remember that not all of the pads in a set should be the same thickness. The bis, G#, and sometimes other pads are usually specified by the manufacturer to be thicker than the other pads, a crucial point many technicians conveniently (for them, not the player!) choose to ignore. Occasionally, a manufacturer will elect to use thicker pads for the low B and low Bb.
Like so many aspects of saxophone design and construction, advances in pads have been hampered by companies which were afraid to try something new. Fortunately for saxophonists, that is slowly changing!