Reed Making: how I do it, part 1.

Thought I’d do a pictorial on how I make bassoon reeds. Here’s part one, which entails the part I do when the cane is wet the first time. The next post will be after the cane is dried the first time. These two steps are my method of forming the tube and how I bevel, wire, and wrap the reed. Working on the blade is a more complicated bit, and I use equipment that most people don’t have. Anyway, that’ll be in another post. We start with Gouged, Shaped, and Profiled cane.

Since there’s really only one way to effectively use any given kind of gouger, shaper, and profiler, it’s silly for me to go through that process. Plus, I don’t do it anyway. I buy cane that’s been processed up to that point by the manufacturer. There are pros and cons to doing it this way. For me, I’d rather pay a little more to not have to do that work, although I wouldn’t mind having more control over the shape. Since I use a tip profiler I don’t care to have control over the profile at all, so that step is irrelevant to me.

So, step one:

The very first thing I do is sand the inside of a piece of cane with 800 or 1000 grit sandpaper. It’s not so important in the tube area, but with the blades I want the inside to be as smooth as possible, without any topographical imperfections. I won’t bother taking pictures of this step.

Soak the cane. A lot. I soak the cane until it sinks, then let it dry completely. I do this several times over the course of a couple weeks. I do this because like a wool or cotton sweater, the can will shrink slightly every time you do this. Better to get it out of the way before you start doing any mission critical things to the cane, like forming the tube, scraping the blade.

So, after the cane has been stabilized, we get it totally saturated with water. I’d say soak it for  24 hours. This is controversial, as some people say this makes the cane brittle and prone to cracking. Personally I don’t like to use cane that will be prone to cracking if it’s saturated with water. I use Argendonax (Gonzalez) cane for bassoon these days, and in about 100 reeds haven’t had any crack severely enough the reed wasn’t usable, and  I have a low tolerance from cracks. At any rate, I feel like cane is either soaked or it’s not, and we want it saturated with water so that it has the same buoyancy as water (or sinks). If this takes 6 hours or 24 is more up to the density of the cane fibers. So, moving forward with the soaked cane:

We need to score the tube so we can make it round, and score the center for easier folding if this hasn’t already been done.

For this task I use a metal scribe and an exacto-knife. I have two easels: one, shown above, is just a plain dowel rod I got at a hardware store. The other, below, is a Grenadilla easel that has a bed that is exactly 120mm and a guide for scoring the center line. First we score the center line with an exacto-knife. I’m just barely scratching the surface here, just so that the cane has a line to follow when I fold it.

Next, we score the tube. I first lightly “draw” 7 scores, one down the center and three on either side, with the metal scribe. I do this step very lightly so I don’t slip and can keep the lines straight down the grain of the cane. I then make two passes with the metal scribe (which makes a significant wide mark) and a final single pass with the exacto. The idea is to create V shaped wedges in the cane that will evenly distribute the rounding procedure. I don’t particularly measure how long my scores are, but they’re about 20mm from the end. You don’t need the scoring to go all the way up the tube, and the way I do it, you can’t really see the scores after you wrap the reed, so the tube looks cleaner in the finished product.

Here is the final look:

Now, we have to get HOT water to warm up the cane to make it more pliable for forming. I use water out of my tap at the hottest it gets. I haven’t measured, but it’s probably 160 degrees (scalding).

Fold the cane at the center score and break out some packing twine or butcher’s twine. It should be cotton or hemp and considerably thicker than what you would use for wrapping the tube. I got a huge roll of it somewhere on the dirt cheap. Using dry twine, start at the collar area and wrap quite tightly all the way down the tube, then tie it off.

Once it’s wrapped all the way down, give it a warming bath in your hot water. You want the twine to get soaked at this point, which tightens around the tube to help prevent cracking. The hot water will also relax the cane making it more pliable and less likely to crack as well.

Once the cane is hot, get your forming mandrel out (I HIGHLY recommend Rieger tools for anything related to the tube) and your pliers. Make the end of the tube open up slightly if needed, with your pliers:

Now insert the mandrel until you encounter some resistance. It’s usually around here:

Not very far up the tube. At this point you can grip the cane from the sides using pliers to push the cane farther down. At some point you can squeeze from the side around where the first wire will go to open up the throat area to make inserting the mandrel all the way easier.

On the Rieger forming mandrel you to all the way up to the line that’s already marked on the mandrel.

Now we let it dry. For a long time. You can leave it on the mandrel if you aren’t using it for anything else, or put it on drying pins that match your mandrel. It’s important that they match, as you’re conditioning the cane to form into the shape you want it to be internally. This is why I recommend Rieger equipment, even the Rieger drying board. The pins all match up and open the tube and throat the same way. So slip the reed off the mandrel (using pliers if necessary) and immediately put it on the drying rack.

Here is our reed with some of its fellows in their resting place for at least the next two weeks. You want them to not only completely dry out, but also be stabilized into the new shape of being round.

Next post will be after this two week period is over.

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  1. My Four Favorite Bassoon Sites | All Things Bassoon
  2. Reed Making: How I do it 2.0 | Trent Jacobs, bassoonist

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