The hidden costs of used/vintage "estate sale" bass clarinets

The hidden costs of used/vintage "estate sale" bass clarinets


I get emails from folks all the time sharing they’ve found a hidden needle/gem in the haystack of bass clarinets on eBay (or in an attic, or in a rummage sale) and asking for my opinion on it. Here’s a recent example:

I got a text message from my local woodwind tech at a music shop. He was at an estate sale last night, and got A LOT of old clarinets (and saxophones). I primarily play Bb clarinet, but play in a few local community musical theatre pit orchestras, and end up borrowing a bass. I'd love to get a Bass Clarinet.

So - from the estate sale - there is just one bass clarinet. I don't have a ton of details, but it is Selmer, wood and has a serial number of B6xxx. I'm wondering if you can offer any tips of things to look for. I know you play on Selmer now, but this is obviously older. Best I can tell searching online, probably from about 1980/81. Any experience? Good instrument? Gotchas to look for? I'll obviously go play it and check it out. The local tech did a full restoration on my 1925 Conn Alto Sax, so I'm sure can help get it into playing shape if needed, but obviously that is only worth it if it "has good bones".

My response to this specific question was this:

It’s hard to know from the serial number, but if the horn is from the early 1980s, it’s a Selmer 31 (or 33 if it’s a low C bass). I had one of those back in the 80s, and it’s an excellent horn. Obviously, look out for cracks; everything else can be worked on. Just be ready to drop some serious coin fixing it up.

My blog post opinion from 10 years ago still stands: vintage bass clarinets suck. That said, some old horns like the Selmer model 33—which was my first horn back in 1985—can be excellent, if you can get them at a good price (under $4,000). So you may be staring at a hidden gem. The issue is, you don’t really know if it’s a gem until you buy it and fix it up—and that’s where the cost starts to really add up.

Here’s what you might be looking at when fixing up that old horn:

Cracks: Examine the instrument very, very, very closely for cracks. People typically look in the obvious places: the top joint near the neck, and along the side where you can actually see the wood without keys in the way. But you need to look ev-ery-where. Look by posts to see if there are any hairline splits in the wood. Look inside tone holes (bring a flashlight—you’ll need it). Look inside the tenon sockets. Shine a light down the inside of the bore. Look for anything that seems like it may be “wide grain” to make sure it’s not a crack (note: wide grains do not always mean there’s a crack in there, or that a crack will form in there). If you see a crack through a tone hole, take a hard pass. You don’t want that horn. If you see a crack elsewhere, take a picture of it and send it to your favorite clarinet tech, asking if it’s game-over for that horn. Crack repairs can run you between $300 and $500 each depending on where the crack is.

Intonation: Put simply, old horns are not as in tune as new horns. And it’s not because they’re old, it’s because the bass clarinet has been in active development over the past 50 years. Engineers and acousticians have been refining tone hole placement, size, and shape during that time, and huge advances have been made. There are things you can do to fix bad intonation: undercutting tone holes, for one. But you need a technician who specializes in the bass clarinet in order to do this job properly. Plan on that person charging you $500-800 for tone hole work.

Pads and Corks: Most people buying an old bass clarinet are prepared for this expense. Leather and cork dry out over time, and you’ll need to replace all of it on the horn. Pads have recently increased in price, and a full set of pads for bass clarinet now cost well over $150 — just for the raw materials! Then your technician will need to remove all of the old pads and corks, and the glue/shellac that is left in the key cups, place and seat each pad so it covers the tone hole perfectly (sometimes this requires bending metal to do so). A full overhaul of pads and corks will run you about $1,000-1,500.

Keys: Tarnish is one thing, loss of plating is another. Before the early- to mid-1990s, most bass clarinets were nickel plated. Nickel reacts to sweat, and will eventually get eaten away, revealing the base metal underneath. If the horn has plating loss, and aesthetics matter to you, move along. Plating a horn will cost you well north of $3,000 once you factor in the work required to take the keys off, remove the pads/corks, pay for the plating, get new pads and corks, and have the instrument overhauled.

You should also know that older instruments do not have adjustment screws like new instruments do. That means, when a linkage mechanism does not function properly (for example one key closing another in the low register), metal is going to need to get bent. And because these bass clarinets go out of adjustment often, you will be bending metal often. So what would take 5 minutes in a repair shop with an adjustment screw (i.e., on a new instrument) will take up to an hour on an old instrument, because the technician will need to bend metal. Bench rates in the US are about $80-100/hour nowadays, so you can do the math.

Neck: Does the neck have an angle you like? Does it have a tuning slide in the neck or will you have to pull out the neck from the body of the horn to tune it? (If I had my choice I would pick a tuning-slide in the neck 100% of the time.) If you don’t like the neck, it’s very difficult to get another one. Yes, you can buy an aftermarket neck like the Blashaus neck, but it does not work with most old neck mechanisms. Plus it’s another $2,000 out of pocket.

Mouthpiece: You may get lucky and find a good mouthpiece in there, but most of the time you won’t. Plan to spend an additional $150-300 on a new mouthpiece.

Case: Buy a new case — the old ones really, really, really stink. And not just that musty smell you may find as you open it for the first time in 40 years. They also stink because old cases do not protect the horn well. Most are velvet-covered molded plastic or (gasp) styrofoam. Those do not hold the instrument firmly in place when you’re carrying it. And when an instrument jiggles in the case, your instrument goes out of adjustment. Plan to spend $400-500 on a good case.

So adding it all up, that 1972 gem of a horn, fixed up properly, is going to run you an additional $2,000-$4,000 (or more) depending on its current state. Will it be better than a plastic horn after you’re done? Almost certainly. Will it be as good as a new horn? Not even close.

My opinion: after you factor in the cost of the instrument plus the cost of bringing it back to top playing condition, if you are up to $5,000-6,000, don’t buy it. Spend the extra thousand or two and buy a Royal Polaris or Royal Firebird!


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