Replacing Pearls with 5 Minute Epoxy

By Rich Zimmerman

Back to articles

As an instrument is played the mother of pearl key touches wear down and eventually need replacement. Changing a key pearl is necessary when the pearl is worn and approaching the level of the sharp metal rim of the pearl holder. Waiting for the pearl to wear down past the metal rim of the pearl holder will speed the wear on the rim and compromise the stability of the replacement pearl. If left too long, the more timely repair of replacing the holder will be necessary. In the shop, pearls are removed during the tear down process of an overhaul. They are replaced after the mechanical work is complete and after the pads are installed. When replacing single pearls, it may be possible to replace the pearl without removing the pad in the key cup. If any pearls are replaced during an overhaul it is best to replace them all. This will result in an even keyboard. Uneven or mismatched pearls can interfere with good playing technique. Of course if all of the pearls are fairly new and one falls off, it is not necessary to replace all of the key pearls. 

Pearls are held in place with adhesive, friction fitting or both. Most pearls sit in brass pearl holders that are similar to pad cups with much thinner side walls. Some pearls are simply glued to a flat or contoured surface and are not held on the sides by the pearl holder. These pearls are more likely to fall off during an impact. A quick look will determine if the pearl is held in a pearl holder or if it is adhered to a flat surface with some adhesive. 

Pearl Holder Closing Dies are easy to use and good for newer instruments where the pearl holder has not been shrunk down. There is no quick fix for opening a pearl holder after it has been shrunk, this can cause problems when installing pearls on vintage instruments.

Removing a Pearl

If the previous pearl has been secured poorly to the holder, say with contact cement, the pearl can be easily popped off with a screwdriver. In general friction fit pearls are removed using two methods: Vintage instruments such as Buescher and Conn have pearl holders that contain a small hole in the center of the holder, which can be used to help remove the pearl.


To remove a pearl from a vintage instrument containing the hole in the center of the pearl holder, turn the key you are working on over to expose the underside of the pearl holder. Place the pearl face down on a bench anvil. Insert the largest possible metal punch, or short steel rod, through the hole and very gently tap the punch with a hammer until cracks appear in the pearl. You will be able to hear it when the pearl cracks.

Be careful not to use too much force with the hammer as it will punch a hole straight through the pearl making removal much more time consuming. 

After the pearl has been initially cracked place the pearl holder face down on a towel or rag and repeat the first step, this time letting the punch go all the way through the pearl. This should remove enough of the pearl to allow easy removal of the remaining portion with a screwdriver. If the pearl is held in place with both an adhesive and friction fit to the pearl holder, it may be necessary to add heat to the pearl to soften the adhesive. 

For newer instruments that do not have a center hole on the back of the pearl holder you will need to remove the pearl with a burring attachment and some type of Dremel tool. 

Warning: Use caution when using a burring attachment on a Dremel as it can easily mar the pearl holder or the instrument if it is not held securely in your hands. Always wear protective eye wear and a mask when removing pearls with this tool. Do this work outside if you do not have access to a dust hood. 

Holding the instrument and Dremel tool securely, ground out a center hole in the pearl:

Be careful not to go too far into the pearl and mar the pearl holder or its edges. 

Working out from the center hole, cut a cross into the pearl large enough to fit a large flat head screwdriver in it. 

Using the screwdriver and a little ingenuity remove the remaining portions of the pearl. If the pearls are friction fit on the instrument, removing enough of the pearl to allow it to spin around in the holder will let the rest be removed with ease.

Selecting the shape of the replacement pearl

Saxophone key pearls come in three different styles; convex, concave, and the Selmer style concave.

When replacing a pearl, note which key it will be placed on and consider its function. Some areas of the key work can use a slightly higher pearl like the bis key, using a large convex pearl here will make the key more comfortable and easier to play. Generally the three main pearl holders for each hand will use a concave or Selmer style concave pearl. You may want to experiment and find out if the player would enjoy a different shape or color. For instance, many vintage instruments have concave pearls in the Bis and front F keys, however, when replacing these pearls it is common to replace them with convex pearls. To give a custom look to any saxophone, you may choose to use Abalone pearls.

Sizing and Securing

Choose a pearl that fits snug into the pearl holder, if a choice between a slightly larger or smaller pearl must be made pick the larger pearl. You can always sand this down and you will be sure that it fits well. A pearl that is too small for the holder will be unsightly and may not feel comfortable to the player. To secure the pearl make sure the back of the pearl and holder are clean, then sand or score the back of the pearl with a razor blade to allow the 5 minute epoxy to adhere more readily to the pearl. Mix the 5 minute epoxy and apply it to the pearl and pearl holder. Before the epoxy begins to set snap the pearl into place with a set of parallel pliers or brass jawed parallel pliers as pictured.

Whether you are changing one or all of the pearls on an instrument know that the player you are working for will enjoy the feel of new pearls on their instrument. Not only will this improve the look and feel of the instrument in the hands, using epoxy to secure the pearl will ensure a long lasting improvement to the instrument.


Copyright © 2000-2012 
All Rights Reserved