A Good Fit

U nlike auto mechanics who run computer diagnostics, or surgeons who operate while watching a monitor, Tim Moran is practicing a craft that’s hardly changed in 200 years. His work bench holds tins of tiny screws and bottles of glue and cans stuffed with scissors and screwdrivers and brushes. Hanging above is a range of rubber-handled pliers and tweezers from sharp-nosed to blunt. A quartet of cases with tiny plastic drawers holds pads and corks and silver keys.

They’re flute keys, and at Tim Moran Woodwinds, they fit right in—or at least they will, after Mr. Moran is through with them. Located in the Spring Glen section of Hamden, it’s the go-to shop for many of the region’s flautists, clarinetists, saxophonists, oboists and bassoonists, from schoolchildren to pros. You can buy or rent a woodwind from Moran—the first month’s rental for the kids is free because you never know how they’ll take to it—but his masterwork is in the repairs.

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As a kid himself, he used to take instruments apart for fun. Later, as a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an accomplished saxophonist, he sat down for a cup of coffee with the guy who repaired his sax and learned that he was looking for someone to join the business. “We’re hanging out, talking, and he just kind of sounded me out. He said, ‘You know anybody who might want to learn this trade?’ and I went, ‘Me! Pick me!’”

Moran took up an old-fashioned apprenticeship. The first day, he swept the floor. But shortly thereafter came a tougher test: His employer dumped a box of saxophone keys on a bench and asked him where the C key was. Moran knew where it was on his put-together instrument, of course. But there on the bench? Not so simple, and thus began his education in repair.

The basic tenet, Moran says, is “cover the holes.” In addition to an instrument’s open holes, which its player covers with the pads of their fingers, some holes are covered by pads glued or screwed to the keys, and the coverage must be complete to produce the desired tones. “It sounds simple,” he says, “but it’s the hardest thing to do, to make the pad cover the hole all the way around.”

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That’s one thing all woodwinds have in common. Another is the fact that the padded keys are interlocked in a system invented by Theobald Boehm in the first half of the 19th century. All woodwinds—except for bassoons, which Moran says are still Medieval in design—use the Boehm system.

From a repair perspective, however, the instruments can differ greatly. Pads may be held by glue or, in the case of the flute, by screws or grommets. How one “seats” the pad differs, too. Beyond the shared Boehm system, every woodwind has its own unique mechanisms. And the materials differ: silver or brass, wood or plastic.

“There’s something about the intricacy of this work, and really understanding it,” Moran says. As a musician himself, he understands both the art and the craft of these instruments on “a deep level,” he says, tapping his temple. He solves the quirkiest of problems by watching clients play and puzzling it out.

Moran is now passing his craft to others. His technician, Julia Friend, went to repair school before continuing her education with Moran. A third bench in the shop has been used during the past two summers by a technician from Cuba, who has visited twice on temporary visas. Every child in Cuba learns to play a musical instrument, but there’s a great need for repairs, so Moran visits Cuba every year with a non-profit that sends technicians like him to fix instruments and teach others the craft.

Moran’s own bench in the shop is closest to the street, where he can greet customers coming in the door—often he knows them by name—and stop to chat. The space at 1652 Whitney is long and narrow. A row of saxophones on the wall gleams in sunlight shining through the plate glass windows. Moran moved the business here four years ago from the basement of his home, where, he says, it was exciting if a squirrel appeared outside the tiny, high window.

He’s happier here on the sidewalk, where it’s easier for people, not squirrels, to find him. Recently, a boy wandered in to peruse the saxophones on display. He picked one out on the wall, and Moran told him he’d made a good choice. “He went, ‘Okay, see ya!’ and just walked out,” Moran says, laughing, thrilled that somewhere nearby someone is even thinking of picking up the saxophone.

Tim Moran Woodwinds
1652 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Mon noon-5pm, Tues-Fri 9am-5pm; appointments preferred but not required.
(203) 288-1757 | [email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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