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How to make oboe reeds

Or, how to whittle your sanity away in five short years

A three-part node:


Shaping

A shaper tip with handle and An easel

Once you've allowed the gouged cane to dry completely, it is ready to be re-soaked to be shaped.

Since there is less cane to deal with in each piece, the cane doesn't need to be soaked as long as it did for gouging; a half-hour in hot water or an hour in cold should be sufficient. Soaking here is done to ensure that the cane doesn't crack in the following steps, which it will do if the fibers of the cane aren't sufficiently pliable.

The first step is to take each piece and to place it on an easel. Easels are generally short, cylindrical blocks of wood with a line carved halfway along its length. Using this line and a razor blade, the outside surface of the cane is scored about halfway along its length. The cane is then folded against the razor blade where it is scored; the scoring weakens the outer surface of the cane, allowing it to break and the inner layers to fold and/or bend.

After it has been folded, the razor blade is used to trim the sides (how much depends on the shaper tip and the gouge). The piece of cane is then placed on the shaper tip for shaping.

Shaper tips are very small pieces of specially-processed steel which come in a mind-boggling variety. They are typically named after famous oboists (after whose reeds they are designed) or famous oboe technicians (who make the tips themselves). The shaper tip is used to take the cane (which at this point roughly resembles a rectangle curved around a cylinder) and to taper it along its length, so that it is suitable to be tied.

To illustrate what I mean, I will provide a table of shaper tip measurements as a function where the tip's type and a length along the tip returns the tip's width at that length, lifted from Forrests's (a large and popular double-reed supplier) 2001-2002 catalog:

(All measurements in mm; total tip length, 36; "+" = an
indeterminate amount, ranging from a quarter to a half of a 
millimeter)

    Length along tip->  2     10      12     24     32  
Shaper tip
     |
    -1N                3.2    4.8     5.8    6.5    6.9
     G                 3.2    4.7     5.9    6.5    7.0
    -1                 3.3    4.9     5.9    6.6    7.0
     1                 3.3    5.0     6.0    6.7    7.0
     XN                3.3    5.0     6.1    6.8    7.0
     R                 3.4    4.9     6.0    6.8    7.4
    -2                 3.4    5.1     6.2    6.9    7.3
     2                 3.5    5.2     6.4    7.0    7.5
    MACK+              3.2+   4.7+    5.8+   6.5+   6.9
    MACK               3.2    4.7     5.8    6.5    6.8+
    MACK++             3.3    4.7++   5.8++  6.5++  6.9++

While some of the distinctions may seem small, to an oboist, the differences between these tips can be profound and easily apparent. Which tip a single oboist uses depends on their tastes, the type of playing they do, their gouge, and their reed-style.

Since shaper tips are so precise and are specially-treated, they generally go for at least a hundred dollars. The Mack tips, above, are currently near two hundred. All of it for something hardly as large as a pair of nail clippers.

Shaper tips are usually used by fixing them in shaper handles, which will have adjustable jaws to hold the cane and a minor adjustment screw to hold the tip in place. They are usually designed to hold most shaper tips, so shaper tips can be exchanged and used with the same handle.

When a piece of cane is place on a shaper tip, it is folded along its length and either end of the cane is held in place against opposite sides of the tip by the jaws of the handle. A razor blade is then run along the length of the cane, removing cane evenly and symmetrically along the cane's length, until the sides are flush with the shaper tip itself. The handle is then turned over and the same is done with the other side. Once both sides have been shaped, the cane is removed and allowed to dry.

Tying

After the cane has dried, we are ready to actually begin making something that closely resembles an actual reed. Again, soaking is necessary, although since the cane undergoes less stress in this stage, a half-hour soak in cold water is usually sufficient.

A mandrel and An unspecificied number of staples

A staple (also called a "tube") is a small length of metal tubing with cork along its length on one end. The cork is inserted into the oboe; the bare metal tubing on the other end is where the reed is placed. Staples can be made of brass, silver, or gold, though whether the different metals make any difference is subject to debate. They are usually supplied by oboe-supply vendors and are distinguished by a variety of brand names, Lorée being one, and the one I prefer.

They are sold in varying lengths, from 46 mm to 48 mm. I prefer 47 mm tubes, but different oboists will use different lengths for their own purposes.

Staples are one of the more important parts of the reed because they constitute the beginning of the oboe's bore; consequently its shape has an effect on the reed's final sound. Part of the reason I choose to use Lorée staples is because I play a Lorée brand oboe, and I believe that the staples and oboe are suited to one another.

The mandrel is a tool used to hold the staple steady while a piece of cane is tied to it and to prevent bending the staple's shape. It generally consists of a long, conical metal rod attached to a wooden handle. The staple is placed on the rod while the handle is held in the lower portion of the palm.

An unspecified length and color of Nylon FF-gauge thread and A table leg

The cane is secured to the staple usually using thread of some sort. Some people prefer silk thread -- other people have experimented with plumber's tape and other materials -- but most people prefer Nylon thread, because it is durable and doesn't stretch much, which means it will hold the reed indefinitely and stably. FF-gauge is used because its thickness is esthetically pleasing and prevents leaks where the cane meets the staple.

In order to tie the cane to the staple -- to tie a reed -- the thread is usually tied around a stable object, often a table or desk leg. Hooks can be drilled into desks for this purpose, and it is not uncommon to see this, but tables are just about everywhere, so this stage of reedmaking can occur just about anywhere.

Once the thread is tied around a table leg and a staple is placed on the mandrel, tying can begin.

The shaped piece of cane is folded and the loose ends are placed on the metal end of the staple, where they are held in place by the same hand that is holding the mandrel. The cane is adjusted until it sits at an appropriate spot.

Appropriate here means it is symmetrically placed on the staple, and is at length, which varies depending on the shaper tip used and personal preference. Personally, with a -1 Gilbert shaper tip, I tie at 73 or 74 mm.

Once the cane is placed, the hand not holding the mandrel retrieves the spool which holds the thread and, holding it taut, wraps it once around the cane and the staple, about a millimeter below the end of the staple. It is pulled tight, and the cane is watched to see how it closes. If the sides come together more quickly on one side than the other, this indicates that the cane is not yet centered, and must be adjusted so that both sides close evenly and at the same time.

Once both sides are closing evenly, the thread is wrapped around the cane two or three more times, to the end of the staple. The thread is then "jumped" back toward the cork end of the staple, and the staple is wrapped with the thread, this time proceeding toward the cork end and away from the cane.

Once all the metal of the staple has been covered by thread, a knot is made and the thread is cut twice, once between the reed and the spool, once between the reed and the table. We now have a "blank." The blank is removed from the mandrel.

A razor blade may be used to trim excess portions left by the shaper tip, and a reed knife may be used at this time to scrape the bark off the tip of the reed. Reedmaking proper does not usually begin until the blank has been allowed to dry thoroughly, which usually takes about six hours.

Finishing the reed

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