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How I Gouge Oboe Cane For Best Oboe Reed Outcomes

  • by Kathy Sheinhouse
Techniques Of Oboe Cane Gouging:
This post offers thoughts and techniques on how to gouge oboe cane for best oboe reed outcomes. This post applies to users of traditional single radius gougers, but has information applicable to players using a variety of equipment. I will assume you started with oboe tube cane, and completed processing to the pre-gouged level. 
1) About Soaking. The length of time one soaks cane in preparation for gouging is dependent on many factors. Some gougers (Innoledy, Kunibert) are designed gouge dry, so this section does not apply to players with this set-up.  The temperature of the water influences the speed at which the cane absorbs water. Higher temperatures accelerate full hydration and this strategy is an acceptable time saving strategy as long as "true" hot water is not used. Otherwise, luke warm water is recommended for as long as it takes the cane to sink. Players will find that timetables for sinking are variable because the density of the cane also impacts absorption. Generally, higher density cane requires more soaking time than lower density cane to get to all the fibers.  Harder cane also needs longer soaking because it has to be softened enough to avoid cracking. Density and hardness are not the same.
As a professional reed maker, nothing is cookie-cutter. I draw on different batches of cane to process to achieve specific results (I also color code these blanks to help me use the right cane for the right order). I always multitask while cane is soaking to keep an eye on response. I try to work with no more than 20-25 segments at a time to prevent over-soaking. Personal reed makers generally make less blanks at a time, so this is less of an issue. However, there are always subtle variations in cane density within a batch and cane should be drawn from the tub for gouging with this in mind. 
Another factor is how you set your gouger. My goal is to manage gouge thickness when dry, but also when soaked and ready for mount. As I have written, soaking expands and soften the fibers. Discipline management of this stage of cane processing will reduce irregularities in the final gouge, because most people have a fixed gouge applied to a floating thickness of fully soaked cane. Cane will shrink when dried, and not always how you think. Both gouge and diameter will change. This is something to think about when gouging a lot of cane at once. In the case of high volume gouging, cane needs to be soaked in intervals of smaller batches.
Finally, it depends on whether the pre-gouge is flat or partially gouged with a crank pre-gouger that can bring the thickness down to .75-.90 depending on preference. Clearly, the flat pre-gouged slip will require more time. I have seen articles that cut-to-length cane needs to be soaked at least 1-2 hours in warm water. This is too long for me.
For me, cane should be placed in a bowl with the outer side down. Typically, when it sinks, it is ready to work with. If you are gouging a lot of cane at once, be careful and plan so that they all don't sink at once because some may over soak. The longer you soak (without over soaking) the less likely you are to avoid cracking the cane. However, when you over soak the cane, it can distort the gouge because the fibers expand past their natural state when they are actually being played. You will likely end up with a thinner gouge than you expected when the cane dries, and a reed that doesn't perform to expectations. While imprecise, if you have over soaked your cane, consider a thicker gouge to compensate.
One of the reasons certain modern gouging machines are popular is because the cane can be gouged dry, streamlining the process and making the initial gouge more precise. However, cane of different densities absorbs water (saliva) differently. Cane that is soaked will better resemble its state in the mouth. I tend to gouge more cane at a time than most, but have to be mindful not to do too much at once, lest the cane get over soaked.
2) About Pre-gouging
Push or machine- your choice, but in my opinion, machine pre-gougers are really only suitable for professional reed makers. I have noticed a greater number of gouging irregularities from machine pre-gouging.  I discussed this with a respected professional who suggested that machine pre-gougers take too much out of the center too early.  It does save the gouger blade. I don't use my machine pre-gouger very much because of this, but when I do, I pre-gouge thicker (.90), not thinner ( .75 which is still in the acceptable range).
I take notice of how the cane travels through the device. It will give you information about quality and hardness. Cane that successfully travels through a pre-gouger is not necessarily suitable for gouging because of aberrations in conformation.  If you are not sure, put the cane aside for when you have more time to test it. 
3) About Gouging With A Single Radius Gouger (I can't speak to double radius because I don't use them)
  • Sorry about the fonts- glitch in the coding.
  • Bed needs to be bigger than the largest diameter you work with. Every slip needs to be measured before placement in the gouger. If it is larger than your bed, put it aside, because the gouge will be completely distorted, and can be thinner by up to 4-5 mm.
  •  If the cane is flared at one end, it will have an uneven gouge from end to end. If that is a deal breaker for you, put it aside for students.
  •  Be careful placing the cane in the bed so that it is perfectly centered.
  •  Know how to maintain your machine and keep the blade sharp. A sharp blade gives more freedom to glide the carriage across the cane, as opposed to pressing down. I have been told that if a light touch doesn't do the job, then the blade is not sharp enough. Pressing down will compress the cane and distort the gouge. It can actually create an inconsistent gouge across the length of the slip.
  • Some people suggest that cane should not be gouged on one's lap because it promotes excessive pressure. I gouge both ways, but try to be extra careful on my lap. As a rule, calibrating the gouger for thinner ribbons lead to a more precise gouge than thicker ones.

5) About Positioning The Slip In The Gouger 

  • Be sure to position the slip straight and and never off center.  The blade creates a certain thickness in the center and a particular slope to the sides.  If it is out of position, all of these relationships can be altered to your disadvantage.

6) About Hand Pressure Through The Stroke

  • My first strokes are firm enough to extract a decent ribbon off the slip.  After that, it is important not to put too much pressure on the handle.  It impacts how a slip sits on the bed, and no cane produces slips that exactly one diameter.  It can also create pressure points along the path that can lead to deviations in gouge along the length of the slip.

7)  About Unexpected Deviations In The Gouge

  • I was always puzzled by the fact that I found variability in gouge within a batch.  I always thought that a gouger that was set to .60/.45 would generate that result, or near that result.  I thought it was the gouger- well it is a little.  But it is really the cane.  If you gouge cane between diameters of 10-11+, there are going to be certain deviations by size given the use of one gouger.  The rule of thumb is to buy a gouger with a bed, and a blade designed for cane for the widest diameter you use.  For me, my gouger has an 11 bed.  It does not work for 11.25, because the cane does not sit properly in the bed, and it gouges thin.  Narrow diameter cane, may gouge a little thicker.  It is best to sort cane by diameter, and gouge by diameter so that the gouger can be adjusted as needed to get a consistent result.  Professionals who need different diameter cane to accommodate concerts in different venues sometimes have more than one gouger for this reason, and choose their bed sizes accordingly.
4) Final Remarks.
  • Pre-gouged canes are fine for long-term storage when kept dry.  Rigotti recommends it should also be exposed to air.  Personal reed makers (except the most elite) typically have smaller inventories that they go through in 6 months to a year. It should be sorted by size and strength to accommodate seasonal changes to get best results. As a professional reed maker with a big stash of cane, I am happy to age it both ways.  Good cane gets better with age.  Mine is between 3 and 6 years old.  I hope to have plenty of this cane for use over the next 5 years.  Note: Gouged Cane almost always has a diameter that is larger than it measured on the tube/ split or pre-gouged, so plan for this. 
  • This is my take on gouging, and there are serious players out there that may have different opinions, so check them out too.  Also, this is by no means an exhaustive tutorial on cane processing, but hopefully, most people will learn something new. Subscribe to my site to receive new post announcements.  
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