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Some wind instruments' keys feature bumpers at the bottom to protect material from scraping against material (and for a few other reasons). The ones on my saxophone are made from something resembling felt, while the ones on my flute are corkwood. As I have recently discovered, bumpers on saxophones can be corkwood as well (all horns I've seen so far had felt bumpers, so this came to me as a surprise).

I was wondering if there is a difference in material choice. It's obvious to me that felt would not work on flute, but seeing the state of the bumpers on my saxophone (let's just say a lot of them are no longer symmetrical) makes me wonder if I should buy a piece of cork and replace them.

With my limited knowledge, I can surmise that corkwood would better stand the test of time and deform at a much slower pace. Because of the material's elasticity (compared to felt), it would also provide a lot more resistance when playing.

Without going into subjectivity, I would like to know if one of the materials is "better" than the other and what the reasons are between choosing them (at least on saxophones), because so far I have only seen corkwood bumpers on cheap, non-professional horns.

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    On the flute I have to hand, it seems like it's not cork, or felt. A sort of white plastic-like material. Difficult to actually get at it. – Tim Feb 27 at 8:58
  • @Tim, is it a student/intermediate model? It's definitely cork on my Trevor James flute. – Pyromonk Feb 27 at 11:24
  • If there is a store near you that sells, rents, and does repairs on instruments there will be someone there that can help you. They would also be able to sell you the parts and do the work. – b3ko Feb 27 at 12:19
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In the case of clarinets, at least, the use of cork is preferable (yeah, I know, opinion; but this is the view of all my teachers and most colleagues) because not only is it easily adjusted (sand it down if too high) but it provides a nice solid stop. Felt or equivalent can make the keys have a "squishy" feel -- and of course is not applicable where the cork might be more than a few mm thick.

To some extent, the large "throw" (travel distance) of saxophone keys compared with clarinets and flutes means the relative effect of a soft vs hard landing is a lot smaller.

BTW the "up stops" on the lower sax covers, which prevent clanging against the protective cages, are usually shaped plastic. I don't recall seeing felt or cork there, but it's been a while...

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  • Thank you! That's exactly my line of thinking as well... Cork seems like a much better choice, and it's strange to see felt on a professional instrument. Are you sure about the travel distance though? Besides the left-hand little finger keys, it's 5mm or less on my instrument. The "up stops" on my horn seem to be made of something that resembles the demon child of felt and styrofoam... – Pyromonk Feb 27 at 23:02
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    @Pyromonk the travel distance on a tenor or bari sax is significantly more than on a clarinet. I agree it's still not a huge distance. – Carl Witthoft Feb 28 at 15:01
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Felt bumpers are often quieter than cork, but other than that there is no reason you can't use cork (or any other material with similar properties e.g. foam rubber). You don't have to buy cork: you can use the cork from a wine bottle.
You don't need to replace the felts just because they look bad.

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  • That's a very good point about action quietness! I forgot to think of that. Foam rubber is a very interesting idea... I am not sure how I would cut pieces out of a wine cork (and most wines, at least here, have plastic or metal caps these days), similarly to how I am not sure how I would cut them out of a sheet of corkwood. Are there any implements for that? Flute corks seem to have a very specific shape too, I am not sure if I would be able to replicate it. – Pyromonk Feb 27 at 23:05
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    @Pyromonk For cutting cork, standard snap-off disposable-blade craft knives are easy to work with. – PiedPiper Feb 27 at 23:12
  • Even for cutting out circular shapes? The corks on flute seem to have even more complex shapes. – Pyromonk Feb 28 at 23:34
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    @Pyromonk I agree it's not easy to cut a perfect circle with a knife and you can buy cork pre-cut to circular shapes. Instrument manufacturers probably have machines to cut the corks/felts, but an instrument repairer will sculpt even complicated shapes with a knife (or a razor blade) and finish off with sandpaper. For a non-specialist I wouldn't recommend using razor blades. – PiedPiper Feb 29 at 9:04
  • Thank you! You've been extremely helpful on a lot of woodwind questions. I am grateful to you for all the information I have learnt from you (not in this question alone). I wish I could select 2 "correct" answers to the question. – Pyromonk Feb 29 at 13:57

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