How I Make My Reeds

This page explains the steps I use, the reasoning behind the steps, and some things I specifically look out for at different stages when making my reeds. The point of explaining my steps is not to give a definitive guide, start my own school of reed making, nor convert current reed makers to my style or way of thinking, it's simply to be informational. By seeing what I do and why I do it, you may find some different approaches to problems in your own reed style, a different way of thinking about why you take certain steps, or an alternative step to try as an experiment. Having another source of information will help your understanding of the process and how to get what you want out of it, which is the point of spending so much time making reeds.

 

Cane Processing Cane processing from dry gouged to soaked GSP

I start with gouged cane. I don't own a gouger so at least for the moment gouging my own isn't an option. I understand the usefulness of being able to control the gouge yourself, but buying gouged saves a bit of time, though it's also more expensive. I use Rigotti cane and have for years, the main reason being that it's cheap. For the price of five pieces of most brands, I can get 8-10 reeds. Rigotti is by no means the most consistent or even the best cane I've used, but I've been using it long enough that I know generally how much it varies and what to do to compensate for that. For those who don't know, Rigotti is 120mm long pieces with an eccentric gouge.

The gouged cane is soaked for about six hours. I shape first, using a straight shaper requires this, on a Fox 2 shaper. Then I profile using a Maxwell profiler set to two in the front and 13 in the back with a slightly increased chip size over what it arrived set to. You can see some damage in the area which will be the reed tip in the pictures, and this is caused (I think) by the curvature of the cane on the barrel and the relatively pronounced spine this profiler makes. This area is clipped off when you clip the blank, but before then it looks ragged and can catch on sandpaper or other things which can ruin the piece. I've tried some profiler settings and different methods, but haven't been able to keep this from happening on this equipment getting the right reed thickness on the far side. The reasoning behind the six hour soak versus the indefinite/overnight soak I used to do is twofold: less soaking keeps the cane from curving too much (which reduces the damage to the edges), and longer soaked cane will profile to be thinner in the end, though I haven't had problems related to thickness on cane that accidentally soaked for too long.

After profiling, I stack the cane up and let it dry for at least 24 hours, enough to be completely dry. I usually work five pieces at a shot because it makes for about hour long chunks of time working each of the main steps and it's half of a bundle of gouged cane. When I'm ready for forming, the cane is soaked again for at least three hours. I haven't noticed any significant side effects to over-soaking at this stage, so the occasional 24+ hour soak has been known to happen.

 

Forming Forming steps from soaked GSP to fully formed

The soaked, processed cane starts the forming step with sanding what will be the inside of the reed with 400 grit sand paper. I sand until it feels smooth on all parts and the idea is that by reducing the bumps on the inside of the reed, you make it more reflective for sound and the blades more even in thickness. Following the sandpaper is scoring against the easel, I make five scores with the center one about 4mm back from the collar and the others up to where the first wire will be. Then I fold the cane over and put on the first wire, tightening it down reasonably far, using the pliers to keep the wire close to the cane instead of bent away from it, keeping it tighter for forming. If your first wire is tight, you reduce the risk of cracking down the spine into the blade significantly (if it's a problem for you, cutting the collar before forming can also help). I am careful to line up the blades in this step, specifically between the first wire and the place where the second wire will go, to ensure that one side is slightly overlapping the other on alternate sides - a slight side slip. It doesn't really matter if the slip looks different towards the butt of the reed, but this slip is something that will be repeatedly checked and can be altered several times in the process. With the wire on, the reed then gets wrapped up in cotton twine, reasonably tightly, and put in water hot enough to scald, but not boiling.

 
Fresh from the hot water to wires applied

After a couple minutes in hot water, the reed comes out and is immediately jammed on my forming mandrel. The string then comes off and the first thing I do is again check the slip and curvature of the cane at the first wire. You can adjust them by using your pliers lightly, I find that typically one blade will curve more than the other, so I will often adjust the roundness of the wire on the less curved side or flex the cane of the flatter side more to overlap better behind the first wire. Once I'm satisfied with the curvature and slip up front, I put on the second wire, with it sticking out of the opposite side of the first, then comes the third wire again on the same side as the first. I crush the cane of the butt with my pliers against the mandrel below the third wire, being careful not to crush the very end of the reed, to better seal against the bocal when the blank is finished. Once the cane at the end is crushed, I put on a fourth wire on the same side as the second. The fourth and third wires are tightened to be firm, the second and first wires will be somewhat looser, but firm enough to keep from moving around. The reed then goes immediately onto the drying rack peg and is finished for the day. I don't typically measure my placement of my wires, but have adjusted them as I've noticed problems over the years and am fairly consistent with my placement. Measuring one normal looking blank from the collar to the center of each wire, I get 1mm, 8mm, 19mm, 22.5mm with a tube length of 27mm.

 

Gluing

After at least 24 hours drying time, I move the reed to my mandrel and tighten the wires, the fourth and third to be quite tight - not moving at all, the first and second tight enough to keep them from falling off. The tightness of the third and fourth wire can be adjusted to get the tube size right; leaving them looser will make the tube larger when jammed on the mandrel, tightening it will shrink the tube and keep it from going as far. It's worth watching for gaps along the seams at this stage, if they are there, then you can tighten the back wires to keep the mandrel from going as far in and close the gap. Once the wires are tightened appropriately, I bend down the third and fourth wire to face the other and jam the reed back on the drying pin. Then comes a coat of flexible glue – I've been using Goop recently, but have used Duco in the past. This glue will keep the wires in place in extreme dry, but also seals any little gaps in the cane. The glue covers the third and fourth wire, stops before the end of the reed, and extends most of the way to the second wire – similar coverage to where the turban would go. Then the glue is left to dry again on the rack.

 

Becoming a blank A dry formed blank, a glued blank, and a blank ready for clipping

When the glue is dry, after at least 12 hours or so, they are ready to become blanks. Many people let their reeds age for a long time on a drying rack before they will play on them, but I'm not one of them. My reeds typically spend ten days or so on the drying rack after gluing, but it can vary between one and two weeks. I generally start a reed every other day and make them in batches of five, so that the drying rack holds between five and ten blanks or 10-20 days worth of reeds. Letting reeds age on the drying rack certainly does not hurt them, but I don't have the rack capacity or the desire to age them for months, so I don't.

I use 3/8" heat shrink tubing to finish my reeds, I've used thread quite a bit before and have switched back to try it a few times, but there are a few things I don't like about the traditional turban wrap. Compared to heat shrink, it takes a long time – even though you can wrap and seal a turban in five minutes or so, you can apply heat shrink in just a few seconds seconds. I've also found that while a turban will strengthen your reed, it will slightly dampen the sound. If you build your reeds to be brighter or slightly thinner to counteract this, you can still get great results, but my style has gravitated to something that heat shrink, which essentially does nothing to the structure or sound of the reed, suits. The heat shrink tubing cleans up the look of the reed and can be done in different colors to differentiate between reeds or just to be colorful. I also number my reeds from 0-99 to keep track of their age relative to others in my box. Numbering them also gives you a good idea of your production speed. I use an alcohol burner to apply the heat shrink as it produces very little soot. It's also good for repair work because of this.

With the heat shrink on I measure the reed (should be 60mm overall) and clip it to 54mm. The clipper I use is a large wire cutter (that has not cut wire in its lifetime), so I will lightly sand the tip to remove some of the roughness it can make. Since my profile measurements stay the same, I know that a 54mm overall length will give me a 27mm blade, measuring it before you clip ensures that misalignment or different length cane doesn't throw this off. Once clipped, I put it on my mandrel and tighten the wires if they feel loose enough to slide around, then I bend down the ends and the reed is ready for its first soak.

The blank is finished!

 

Breaking in the new blank

Each new blank spends four days played only as part of my warm up, two days in each section. The second part of the warm up is where the newest reed goes, and I play Herzberg scale patterns. After two days on the scale patterns, the reed moves to the first part of the warm up (and a new reed takes its place in the Herzberg patterns) playing chromatic scales, Van Hoesen long tones on low D, and vibrato exercises. After four days of playing and tweaking to meet the needs of the exercises, the reed is generally ready to be played on as part of normal practicing. While it will still need finishing, it should at least be stable and articulate enough to be usable in challenging passages.

In that four day break in process, I have worked out a set of checks and commonly needed work, but ultimately I will do whatever work the reed seems to demand. I avoid tightening the wires after it is soaked on the first day because of a habit of over-tightening them, especially in the winter, which can doom a reed from fairly early on. I avoid defining the collar on the first day because that will often make the reed too flat for the warm up exercises and lead me to do work on the reed that shouldn't be necessary and which doesn't ultimately help. I keep a careful eye on the slip of the blades and the curvature of the cane at the first wire to try to keep them even and keep one side from becoming dominant – I sometimes go as far as to remove the first wire, push the plaque all the way to the first wire, and slide the blades on it to reset the slip if required. I prioritize scraping work at the tip of the reed over farther back, especially in the first few days. What has come with experience and the consistency of my warm up is a good understanding of what qualities in a new reed lead to good things as a finished reed, a good understanding of when a given problem must be addressed, and a sense of how much work I can do to reach a specific goal before I should just wait for the reed to break in further or work on a different issue – it's important to not overwork a reed when it's new, because you can scrape it to a good place before it has settled, the settled place won't be one that you were hoping for.

My box of reeds

 

 

I hope this page has shed some light on my process and thinking, and I hope that helps you consider and improve upon your own methods. There is no substitute for a good teacher working with you and there is no substitute for your own experience, but having more information, ideas, and examples can enrich your understanding and improve your own methods. The style I have arrived at blends that of my major teachers, masterclass instructors, and colleagues with my own spin and quirks. Though this description is current at the time of writing, it will keep evolving as I find new problems to overcome, new qualities that I want to emphasize, and new strategies get what I want out of my cane.

 

 

March 27, 2014

 

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