Making Wavelengths: CNC Machined Saxophone Mouthpieces and Ligatures

Mechanical engineer/entrepeneur, Joel Harrison founded the CNC model shop Protoquick in the early 1990’s. Starting out making disk drive prototype parts, Protoquick became a pioneer in the use of PC-based software for making 3D prototype parts such as plastic bezels, castings, and other cosmetics parts with CNC methodologies. “At its peak, Protoquick had five huge FADAL CNC machines in the shop and up to 15 employees over the six years that I owned Protoquick. My former colleague, Carl Anderson, restarted Protoquick several years ago and it’s back in business today,” Harrison said.

Harrison recalled, “I started playing the saxophone as a way to relax from the tensions of my day job and I quickly became very interested in the mechanical engineering aspects of the saxophone. At a jazz workshop I connected with John Purcell who is a professional sax player based in New York City. We quickly identified our complimentary skills and started SAXWORKS in the early 1990s.”

Together, Harrison and Purcell developed and produced a mouthpiece for American alto saxophonist David Sanborn. "We reverse-engineered several of David Sanborn’s mouthpieces and it was a tedious process. The tools weren’t as cheap and convenient as they are today, but we were able to do it. Our marketing advantage was to make a high-quality product using CNC machining rather than investment casting. Our mouthpieces were very consistent and we established a good brand name using this manufacturing process. We produced almost 1,000 mouthpieces in the 1990’s.”

He continued, “Eventually new opportunities drew us away from SAXWORKS and we closed up shop.” Fast forward to 2009, and Harrison found himself coming back to his passion—saxophones. “I went back and found the SAXWORKS mouthpieces on eBay for three times the original selling price, and since I had several dozen mouthpieces left, I did some test marketing. When I found that people will pay real money for them, I re-started SAXWORKS and spent the first year trying to make products on less expensive equipment.”

Without committing the investment capital to open another half-million dollar machine shop, Harrison started with a mini-mill with a CNC conversion kit.

“That hobby solution almost got me there,” he said, “but it was too finicky and not precise enough to produce a consistent product. I actually had a Tormach Tooling System on that mini mill, which I really liked. But I wasn’t going to achieve my goals with that approach. So in June 2011 I bought a fully loaded Tormach PCNC 770 largely because of the 10,000 RPM high-speed spindle, the Tormach Tooling System, and the Automatic Tool Changer.”

He continued, “Today, I do everything on the Tormach PCNC 770 now, including the lathe work. I was originally doing my lathe work on a manual lathe and it was very tedious and unrepeatable. I ended up making an expanding mandrel tool holder to put my mouthpiece in the Tormach which essentially converted the Tormach mill into a vertical lathe. And because I have the tool changer, I can have up to ten mandrels ready to go at any given time. I finally perfected the process where I can routinely make mouthpieces on the Tormach PCNC 770 and get a high yield which gives me the opportunity to expand into other mouthpieces.”

“I’m producing the same high quality mouthpieces in my small shop that I did in the 90s with my full Protoquick team and large shop,” Harrison said. “I really like my Tormach. For the price of one of my previous machines, I could have five Tormach mills and be much more productive and have the same quality.”

For more information on the original David Sanborn mouthpiece, visit the Mouthpiece Museum and SAXWORKS online.