How To Make Great Oboe Reeds In Less Time

  • by Kathy Sheinhouse

Oboe Reed Making is a daunting process for most beginner reed makers. This is because it is an expensive endeavor with uncertain outcomes. Some mistakes can be fixed, others cannot. Sometimes anxiety about it all is the hardest thing to overcome. Rest assured, once you start getting the hang of it, it will become more natural. Here are some strategies that have worked for me.

1) Use great cane.   Make sure it is the right strength and diameter for your needs. Avoid cane sources that do not specify diameter.  If you process your own cane, sort by strength and diameter.  Use softer cane samples during summer and harder cane during winter.

2) Make sure your knife is sharp, but not so sharp that you are likely to make nicks in the cane or take off corners. Remember you can always reduce thickness, but you cannot replace lost thickness except through reconstruction of the reed- which is difficult at best.

3) Manage your pipeline of oboe-reed-blanks and lightly profiled reeds so they are always on hand, and you never have to rush through the finish. For a serious player requiring 12  or more reeds per month, this means that you must invest in at least 30 slips of gouged or gouged and shaped slips of cane at a time, and have 10 staples on the ready. Staples are reusable and can last years so worry about the start-up costs.

4) When you tie a blank, thin the tip, clip and off-set (if your teacher tells you to).  This seals the sides and reduces leaks.

5) Plan for two finishing cycles, except in an emergency. Cane needs to settle, and if you finish without a rest period, you are missing an opportunity to see how it will behave with just one cycle.  For players with gougers, never go from to gouge to finish in one session- this is a recipe for disaster every time.

6) Be mindful of dimensions. Stick to your tie length and clip length to ensure consistency. Try to make the clip length close to your finished length so you don't have to keep thinning a clipping the tip (I learned this lesson the hard way at Oberlin- and it took two hours to make a reed that I ended up wrecking in the end because my clipped length was too long). 

7) Take 8-10 good strokes off each quadrant. Measure with dial micrometer to ensure consistency. Try not to take anything off the spine. If you avoid the spine, then you are probably going to take the right amount off the rails. Taking cane off the rails will help the reed settle, respond better and be warmer. If you have a micrometer, general practice is that the middle of the heart should be .50 mm in thickness, and the right and the left of this spine should be around .40.

8)Thin the tip some more. Some people talk about laddering the tip. The important thing is that it is not the same thickness through and through. The corners of the tip should be thinnest. The heart and the tip should be blended to the extent that it is thicker than the tip. Some people insist on a thick spot at the top of the inverted V which adds darkness and stability. Make sure to take out enough at the bottom corners of the inverted V. This will close the reed.

9) Try to get a crow. If it didn't seal, you didn't overlap right, you didn't wax the thread, or you should consider thicker thread like Omega that is more forgiving than FF, but not as precise in measurement.

10) Do not over scrape. You will need to bring the sides of the heart to @40 (r/l of spine but not shoulders). If you go thinner it will not work. Try to keep all quadrants symmetrical.

11) Aperture management- If the aperture is too small, take cane out of the middle of the base of the heart and the middle of the tip. If the aperture is to open, you can work your way from the sides to the base of the heart with a hybrid inverted V/U. Also consider taking more out the the rails.

12) You want your nearly finished reed a little sharp so it won't go flat as you finish it. Thin the tip, work the back. Each a little at a time, and then test. If you clip the reed once and the pitch does not go up try again. If it never goes up in pitch, dismantle the reed-it will never work. A little flat is ok if the pitch went up because the pitch will rise some when broken in.

13) Think about what you are trying to accomplish in the time you have allotted for reed making. If you don't have a lot of time to make the reed, you are better off preparing it in steps for the next reed making session.

These are things I think about as a professional reed maker. I have learned certain efficiencies, and have certain muscle memory to produce a good reed faster than most. But make no mistake, I ruin my share too- everybody does- so don't feel bad. 

This is not an all inclusive list, but hopefully, it will give you something to think about and try for yourself to see if it improves your results. Happy reed making.

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