Contrabassoon Overhaul

In October 2015 I was honoured to be asked to present a seminar on oboe repair at the second regional NAPBIRT conference in Australia. (That’s the National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians – just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it!) The conference was a great success, and the other double reed seminar was delivered by walking bassoon encyclopaedia and maker of Fox contra bassoons, Chip Owen. Unfortunately I couldn’t see Chip’s seminar because we were on at the same time, but following the conference he came and stayed at my place in Adelaide for three days, partly to see Adelaide and partly to help me with my first full contra bassoon overhaul.

This instrument was made by Chip well over twenty years ago and belongs to the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Having Chip there to guide me through the process of dismantling joints that had not seen the light of day since they left the factory was invaluable. A lot of the joints are sealed at the factory with silicone, so it takes a lot of muscle to get them apart. Here’s a pictorial guide through the process:


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Worn out corks and pads, stripped threads in the wood, bent keys. This is a very well used instrument!


IMG_1882Dismantling under the watchful eye of the master craftsman!



Here’s all the joints dismantled, cleaned and polished. All the tone holes have been refaced and varnished. Bores have been lightly sanded, polished and oiled. There was a small amount of water damage in the wing joint which could have led to major problems if left too much longer. There was also a nasty dent in the metal bell – thanks to Brett Gustafson at Gustafson Custom Horns for helping me fix that.



Most of the pads were fitted while the joints were dismantled for ease of handling. Only the keys that reach across different joints were padded after assembly.


Winding the tenons with waxed thread.




Gradually coming back together. The joints in the main column are sealed up with thread and silicone. The wood u-bend and bell are sealed with melted beeswax.

Refitting the keys and applying beeswax on the last tenon. Almost finished!


All finished and ready to ship back to the Opera Centre in Sydney. Thanks to Jackie Hanson, contra bassoonist with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, for testing it for me before I sent it.


This was a challenging but rewarding job. Looking back through these photos, it all looks straightforward, but with any big job like this, there’s always going to be a few nasty surprises. When I finished the wing joint for example, I gave it the suck test, expecting it to of course be totally airtight, only to discover it leaked like a sieve. I had to submerge it in water and blow air into it to find that it was leaking through the wood where one of the pillars was screwed in, and around the E flat tone hole insert. Once this was sealed up, the wing joint was fine.

Here’s some feedback from Anna Bennett at the AOBO.

Gill (Hansen) got the contra out on Friday and had a blow and is delighted with the result of the overhaul – she said it’s like a new instrument!  So that’s really great, thanks again for the sterling work on it.”

And from Chip Owen:

BRAVO!!  Now you’re an expert.  Having gone through the entire process of a repad/reseal overhaul you now know more about repairing them than anyone else in your quarter of the world; possibly even in your half of the world.  You can expect a line of contrabassoonists at your door in your future.  These instruments suffer from a lot of neglect.  Keeping them properly maintained makes them far more playable.

Well, I’ve done the job once, so I’m not calling myself an expert just yet, but certainly going through the process with Chip has given me the confidence to take on any contra bassoon job and I look forward to the next one – bring it on!





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