School of The Rock


What is a Stencil Saxophone?

by Paul D. Race

This article applies mostly to vintage saxphones (usually silverplated) made between1914 and 1935, though a few “stencils” appear later.

Between 1900 and 1930s, there was an explosion of interest in the saxophone, especially the C Melody, which made playing saxophone in the home easier for many people.  The major saxophone manufacturers (especially Martin, Buescher, and Conn) redesigned their horns between 1914 and 1918 to play in “low pitch” (the key we use for band, orchestra and piano nowadays). They added other features in the process, so they were ready to churn out high-quality horns, while keeping the prices reasonable by maintaining economies of scale.

By 1920, the saxophone became what the electric guitar was to the 1950s and 1960s - everybody “cool” had to have one.

The Rise of the Stencils:

Three US-based companies sold most of the saxophones sold in the U.S. - Conn, Martin, and Buescher.  But many of the horns they made did not have those names on the bell.  For various reasons, those companies also made “second-tier” horns with other brand names.  These were called “stencils” (because of the engravers often swapped out the stencils they used between one horn and the next).  Stencil horns served three main purposes:

  • Stencils Made Under Contract To Legitimate Musical Instrument Companies - Several legitimate musical instrument companies like Wurlitzer, Lyon and Healy, and Selmer did not have the resources to establish and maintain saxophone factories in the US, so they contracted with companies like Conn, Martin, and Buescher to make horns with their names on them.
  • Stencils Made Under Contract To Retailers - A few large music stores wanted to offer their own brand names, so they would pay for a batch of horns with their name on the bell.  Sears & Roebuck also paid to have horns made under their store name and under the brand name Silvertone. In both cases, the work often went to the lowest bidder, so you can’t assume that, say, all Silvertone saxophones were made by Buescher, even though the only Silvertones that have been reported so far are Buescher stencils.
  • “In-House” Stencils - Unlike most stencils, which were produced under contract for other companies, “in-house” stencils were produced to provide a low-cost alternative to name-brand horns and to allow sales to second-tier music stores in “protected territories.”*  The following are five common “in-house” stencils we know about. 
    • Pan-American: As I understand it, this was a separate company that was purchased by Conn and continued to make horns for Conn under the Pan-American label.  Though it was presumably influenced by Conn, it had several tooling differences from the Conn line.  For example, it didn’t have Conn’s signature “rolled tone holes.” 
    • Cavalier: The growing concensus seems to be that this was another Conn brand without rolled tone holes, and often without a front F key (a common “characteristic” of c1920 horns, especially lower lines).  Both Pan-American and Cavalier have been criticized by “brand bigots” for not being as good as the same era Conns, but many repair people today point out that, properly restored, they have a sweet tone and play well, and they’re still made better than the average modern Asian horn.
    • Martin executives started the "Indiana Band Instrument" company in 1928  as a lower cost alternative to Martin's premium line.  Though the  Indiana line did not have all of the latest improvements of the  constantly evolving Martin line, it did have certain distinctive Martin  features such as beveled tone holes.
    • The King Cleveland was made in the old Cleveland factory after King's owners (H.N.White) bought them out.  Though it has a decent reputation, it is more similar to the earlier Clevelands than to King horns of the same era.
    • The Buescher Elkhart was based on the 1914 Buescher True-Tone Design, with a few Buescher Aristocrat-style ergonomic improvements.  This way they could maintain a student line after Buescher introduced the Aristocrat and 400.  (I started out on a 1962 version, by the way.)

 In all cases, stencils helped the manufacturers keep their factory lines busy when orders for the “name brand” horns were slow, helping them maintain economies of scale.

Why Shop for Stencils?

Although millions of saxophones were sold between 1915 and 1925, many modern collectors and players who are interested in vintage horns have tended to focus on later “upgrade” models that were made in smaller quantities.  This has driven up the price of horns like the Conn New Wonder II and the Conn 10m and 30m “Naked Lady,” the King Super 20, the Buescher Aristocrat and 400, and the Selmer Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action, and Mark VI. 

It has even driven up the price of name-brand first-generation low-pitch horns like the Buescher True-Tone and Conn New Wonder (I).  But many first-generation low pitch horns made by Buescher, Conn, and Martin are overlooked because they’re branded for Wurlitzer, Lyon & Healy or some other company that never made their own horns. 

As our Stencil Saxophone List shows, at least three European companies contributed stencils to the North American market between 1918 and 1932, but the vast majority of stencils sold here were made by Conn, Martin, and Buescher.

Not all stencils were exactly like the manufacturer’s A-line horns. But some were.  As examples, I’ve seen “Wurlitzer” C melodies that were identical to the same year’s Martin horns in every detail but the engraving.   I’ve also seen “Wurlitzer” C Melodies that were identical to the same year’s Buescher, including the man-in-the-moon neck brace which which Buescher usually left off of stencils.  In both cases, I would consider the stencil as an equivalent to the manufacturer’s own horns. On the other hand, there are many reputed Conn stencils that do not have Conn’s trademark rolled tone holes and lack other features.  Some of them are still very nice horns, but when the vendor says they’re “just like” the Conn, especially a desirable horn, he or she is really attempting to con you.  How do you sort truth from fiction?  You educate yourself.  Learn the distinctive features of Conn, Martin, and Buescher horns of those eras for starters.  We have a few tips on our “Stencil Saxophone List” page.  Here’s an irony - when I was researching our article on Saxophone Ergonomics, I learned enough about certain key shapes that I can often identify certain makes and models by the shape of left pinky key cluster - that’s one of my fallbacks when the more obvious signs give conflicting indications.  That is one reason many clear, in-focus photos are critical to buying online.

Here are some things to think about.

  • Conn stencils lack rolled tone holes, so they’re not “just like” Conn saxes.  But they’re still solid and capable of good music.  Once restored, they should easily last another century, generations longer than the off-brand discount horns coming out of China today.
  • Martin stencils keep a unique Martin feature - beveled tone holes - which tend to help the pads to seat and seal better.  In fact, I’ve seen at least one Martin stencil that was identical in every detail to the equivalent Martin.  That’s not always the case, but when the Martin horn is going for $600 and the equivalent stencil is going for $200, that’s something to think about.
  • I have a soft spot in my heart for Buescher, perhaps because I learned on a 1962 Buescher stencil based on their 1918 True-Tone design, and I still play a 1968 Buescher-designed Selmer Signet.  Buescher stencils may lack certain features of their name-brand horns, such as trill keys or high F or F# keys.  And they almost all lack the trademark “Man in the Moon” neck brace.  But mechanically, some Buescher stencils, including my Selmer New York C melody and many Lyon & Healy horns, are very close to the Buescher equivalent.

That said, many folks selling vintage saxophones on the Internet like to claim a relationship that doesn’t exist. Not every off-brand sax produced between 1914 and 1935 was a stencil. Some were just junk, period.  And a few stencils were so defeaturized as to make them undesirable to today’s players.  Not to mention that the Internet has spread its share of urban legends about stencil horns as well. 

Note:  Most stencils were produced during the “golden age” of home saxophone playing, say 1915-1932.  So there is a relatively high proportion of C Melody horns - the ultimate home saxophones.  But in addition, note that all but a handful of stencils are based on first-generation Low Pitch saxophones, such as the Buescher True-Tone. If you’re looking for a vintage pro or semi-pro American-built horn, such as a Buescher Aristocrat or 400 or Martin Imperial, or Conn New Wonder II or “Naked Lady,” you will not find a stencil equivalent.  That said, Ragtime, Dixieland, and Swing were invented on the first-generation Buescher TrueTones and the Conns, Martins, and Kings of the same generation.  So those horns and many of their stencil equivalents still have a lot to offer a player looking for a solid, good-sounding horn.

So if you’re considering a horn that’s advertised as a stencil, you should verify that it really is a stencil of the brand being claimed (as often as not, it isn’t).  Or at least that it’s a stencil of a legitimate brand.  Our Stencil Saxophone List includes reported stencil names and the manufacturer(s) that at least one collector assumed had made them.  But some of those reports are like Sasquatch sightings - difficult to confirm or deny. When it comes down to it, you have to get your hands on the horn, if possible, or on photos from every angle, if not, and compare to photos of the equivalent name brand horns.  Check first to see if it’s truly a stencil of that brand, second to see if the horn seems mechanically sound, and third to see if the stencil is missing any features you have come to depend on, such as a trill key or front F key or ???

For more information on evaluating the mechanical condition, check out our article Evaluating Vintage Saxophones.  If you’re looking specifically for a C melody horn, check out our article Shopping for C Melody Saxes.


Other Resources

Rick Rajca, a woodwind guru, formerly of Greenwich Village, put together a page on stencil horns.  It includes links to closeup photos of several features that might help you identify Conn, Martin, Buescher, or King Stencils.

Articles you may find helpful include:

Another resource, the Horns in My Life articles describe various saxophones (and one flute) with which I’ve made a personal connection over the last 45 years.  Some folks who’ve had similar horns will find it a helpful resource.  Others will just like to reminisce along with me.  On the other hand, if you come across one of these horns while you’re shopping for a saxophone and want to know more about it, you may find one or more of the articles helpful.

The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.

* Musical Instrument manufacturers would attempt to negotiate an agreement with the largest music store in each city that offered them exclusive rights to sell their name brand horns in a particular area - a “protected territory.”  That way if the store advertised Conn or Martin saxophones in the newspaper, their advertising expense wouldn’t actually be benefitting competitors.  But what if the second or third largest store in each city also had thousands of customers?  How do you prevent some other brand, especially some upstart brand sneaking into the territory through those other stores?  Easy, offer a “discount line” like Conn’s Pan American or Martin’s Indiana.  You’re honoring your contract to the big store, without neglecting smaller stores and their customers.



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