How to make oboe reeds

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

A three-part node:

A standard disclaimer:

The practice of making oboe reeds is steeped in tradition, superstition, personal preference, and luck. Any so-called "how-to" will necessarily overlook some of the finer variations of technique that are possible. Where I know of such, I will mention them; but I cannot node what I do not know. End.

<Martha Stewart>

A short list of what you'll need:


NB. Some (if not all) of these items have alternative names depending on where you're at and who showed you the ropes. Where I know of alternate names, I will specify them.

</Martha Stewart>

Right. So now to the nitty-gritty:

The making of an oboe reed can be split into several different stages, marked by the major action taken upon a single piece of cane:

Gouging --> Shaping --> Tying --> Blank --> Final Reed


Gouging is that stage where a piece of tube cane is rendered into the rough material of reed-making proper. The most important element of this step is selecting cane. With the proper tools, very little skill is required.

An unspecified amount of cane

If you've been reading your hardlinks carefully, you've gathered by now that I am referring to Arundo donax when I refer to cane. For the reader's sake, I won't go into the biology of Arundo donax, why we use it for reeds, etc., but some description of the plant's appearance should prove helpful.

Generally, I find that saying "it looks like bamboo" will satisfy most people, but few oboists encounter it this way. In other words, you cannot build furniture nor can you feed pandas with this stuff. When the cane is processed to be sent out to fidgety oboists everywhere, the original plant itself (which can grow to several meters) is cut just above and below each of the knots formed by the plant's growth, and those units might themselves be cut again, so that the end result is lots of small tubes, maybe six-ten inches in length.

These tubes are generally yellow to deep-gold in color on the exterior, pale yellow to dark yellow on the interior, often with brown specks on the outside. Depending on the way the cane was aged (most cane is aged some years before being sent to oboists, who often choose to age the cane even more), there might also be signs of mildew, leaf decay and "cane bugs." Sometimes cane will be found that has slightly purple markings; I consider such cane to be "lucky."

The tubes of cane are just that: hollow cylinders, the walls of the cane usually a couple of millimeters thick, leaving the interior free except for some fibers and the occasional pebble. This plant's extraordinary ability to grow just about anywhere means that you can, indeed, grow it in your backyard, although you probably shouldn't. Most oboe players get their cane from one of a narrow variety of regions. Among them is the Var region of France and California.

Cane cultivated for the purpose of reed-making is generally grown on plantations, which are themselves not infrequently family-owned and operated (my old professor, for example, refers to "Madame Lorée," who is responsible for sending him the "Lorée" brand of cane). While it is possible to attain such cane directly from the growers, doing so when you don't speak the owner's language is prohibitively difficult. Fortunately for monolingual United Statesians, many vendors of imports order and provide the same cane (well, after the natives take the good stuff) themselves.

Some brand names I've with which I've had experience: Lorée, Alliaud, Ghys, Rigotti, Pisoni.

Generally speaking, personal preferences rule the selection of a brand. The Lorée, for example, is medium-to-high quality (and what that means will be explained) and generally consistent, but expensive; the Rigotti, in contrast, is inconsistent and probably the cheapest of the bunch. The Alliaud, Pisoni, and Ghys might all suit oboists other than myself, and similarly, the Lorée might be totally useless for other oboists.

Cane is usually ordered by the pound or half-pound, and by the diameter of the tubes of the cane, measured from the outside walls. For making oboe reeds, a tube with diameter somewhere between 10-11 millimeters is generally required, but most vendors offer finer distinctions, allowing one to narrow the range to the half-millimeter or quarter-millimeter. Personal preference again rules. I generally prefer 10-10.5 mm cane. A pound of cane will generally last me a month, but this is an unusual amount of cane to consume; most oboists I know consume about a pound of cane every three-six months. Prices can range from about sixty dollars a pound to just over a hundred. The nature of imports and of the crops makes prices highly variable.

But that is all what cane is. Now we must address how to find the good stuff!

The first indication a person has to a cane's quality is its outside appearance and texture. Silica is present in the outermost layers of the cane, so the surface will be shiny and hard. Generally, the smoother the better. Ideally, cane selected for reed use will have no apparent grain in the outside surface; a fingernail run perpendicular to the length of the cane should glide smoothly. A few ridges are acceptable; a rough or soft texture is not. Brown spots are usually fine, but dark lines emphasizing the grain (even while not being apparent to the touch) usually indicate a softer and less reliable cane. Cane not satisfying these first requirements should be discarded.

A radius gauge

The second step in identifying quality cane involves using our first tool, the radius gauge. While radius gauges specifically made for cane selection exist, the half-moon style gauges you can find at hardware stores (for the sorting of pipe) are usually sufficient.

The purpose of this tool is to help locate those pieces of cane where the curvature is most consistent. Since cane is, naturally, organic, having a tube with a diameter between 10-10.5 mm does not guarantee that any segment of it will exhibit an arc appropriate for that diameter. Using a half-moon radius gauge, it is possible to locate which side of the cane has an ideal curve, ideal being defined by how flush the cane is to the gauge and how symmetrical the curve is. Sometimes no such curve will be found on a tube of cane. Such cane should not be discarded, but set aside.

A cane-splitter

Once the ideal (or closest possible to ideal) curve is found, the tube of cane is split into three pieces with a cane-splitter. The cane-splitter is aimed so as to preserve the one ideal side; hopefully the other two will have an acceptable curve, which can now be measured again against the radius gauge.

The most common cane-splitters are of the "arrowhead" variety. This style of cane-splitter features three sharp edges attached around one end of a long, narrow rod, with a large bulbous handle on the opposite end. The cane-splitter is used by fixing the tube of cane against a hard surface and placing the tip of the cane splitter in the hollow interior of the end of the tube not against the surface. The cane-splitter is then run along the length of the tube, splitting it into three parts. This is usually done by standing the tube on a table or desk and pushing the cane-splitter down with both hands; attempting to do this sideways can easily result in a quick gash to one's hand.

Another cane-splitter style exists, where the three blades of the arrowhead are contained within a hollow metal tube large enough to surround the entire tube of cane. A hand holds the metal tube and pushes downward, thus preventing the hand from meeting with a piece of wayward cane, which often happens with the arrowhead variety.

The use of cane-splitters is actually a relatively modern development; method books from the 19th century seem to indicate knives were used to split the cane into parts. It is thus reasonable to suspect some oboists might currently use the same technique to this day.

A plane or pre-gouger and A guillotine

Now, the pieces of cane you'll have at this point will be generally too thick to make reeds. While the walls of tube cane are generally a two or three millimeters thick, for the purpose of reed-making, we only need the outermost 0.5 millimeters or so. Pre-gouging and gouging removes most of the interior of the cane.

It is also at this step where we eliminate a larger portion of the original tube cane. At this point we will have two considerations: the appearance of the interior walls of cane and the straightness of the cane.

Depending on how long it's been aged and how quickly it grew, the inside wall of a particular piece of cane might be smooth or highly ridged, soft and pliable or very hard. The ideal to look for here is as smooth an interior as possible, very rigid, which typically means it will have a very dark yellow color. Cane not satisfying these requirements is usually set aside to age a few years.

We're also looking for cane that has as straight a grain as possible, and is not warped. A given piece of cane might warp along its length, meaning that it cannot be laid down. It might also twist or bend to the left or right. Most cane will do this, actually; the thing to look for is a length within the piece's six to ten-inch length which is straight and suitably long for reed-making (which is about four inches).

Once such a length is found on a piece of cane that has an appropriate interior appearance, the guillotine is used to remove the excess and unwanted lengths. Guillotines often come equipped with gougers; they can also be purchased separately. It is usually ideal to get a gouger with its own guillotine, because then the guillotine will cut the cane to about the same length as the gouger's bed, which minimizes slipping. A guillotine typically consists of a steel plate; a block of steel containing the cutting mechanism and a hole through which the cane can be inserted; the cutting mechanism consists of a v-shaped or u-shaped blade and is operated by a long handle, thus maximizing leverage and cutting through the rigid cane easily.

Once you have a four-inch length of cane, a plane can be used to remove a large amount of the excess cane from the interior of the piece. If a plane is used, a specially-designed base is needed. This base will have a bed which will hold a guillotined piece of cane steady while the plane is passed over until the cane is flush with the bed itself. This will remove a good amount of cane and prepare the piece for gouging.

There also exist specially-designed pre-gougers which perform the same task. One popular (and cheap) design involves pushing the cane through a brass half-cylinder which guides the cane underneath a razor. More expensive mechanisms (on the order of four hundred dollars or more) do the same thing but are operated with levers and remove more cane. The most popular version of such a mechanism is usually referred to as the "Parks" pre-gouger.

A gouger and A micrometer

Some cane will inevitably be lost in the previous stage due to warping and twisting in the grain which was undetectable to the eye. Whatever cane remains is ready to be gouged. Before gouging, though, it is best to soak the cane. Cane soaked in hot water (or coffee, as an old professor of mine would do) will be ready for gouging after a half hour or so. Cane soaked in cold water should be soaked at least an hour and a half.

The purpose of soaking is to make the cane supple and easier on the gouger blade, which is expensive and difficult to sharpen and replace. But some care should be taken not to over-soak, since soaking the cane will inevitably break down its cellular structure, especially when it is soaked in hot water. Over-soaked cane will form brittle reeds and will often be warped.

Gougers generally consist of: A large steel plate; two blocks of steel connected by a lubricated steel rod, which carries the gouging mechanism; another block of steel, containing the cane bed, often with a spring-loaded lock mechanism on either end; the gouging mechanism itself consists a block of steel with a hollow wherein the blade is placed and excess cane is removed, the blade itself, an adjustment knob, and a handle.

The cane is placed in the cane bed, and the gouging mechanism is pressed down on the cane and run back and forth along its length. Curls of cane are removed with each pass. When cane ceases to be removed, the piece of cane is removed from the bed and measured with the micrometer to check for an appropriate thickness.

The specific procedure here depends on the gouger. There are as many different styles of gougers as there are oboists (well, almost). Gougers with which I have had experience are the Graf, Gilbert, and Ross gougers. American gougers tend to fall into one of two categories:

Double-radius gougers are the more traditional and common types of gougers. On these gougers, the blade is off-set slightly in the gouging mechanism so that the lowest part of the blade does not run along the middle of the cane in the bed. This creates a gouge on the interior of the cane that is assymmetrical; the piece thus must be reversed in the cane bed so that the other side can also be gouged. This creates a kind of "W" shape on the interior side of the cane, which has its advantages for certain reed-styles. The Graf and Gilbert both use this technique.

Single-radius gougers center the blade over the cane, so that the cane does not need to be reversed in order to complete the gouging procedure, although one may wish to do so anyway to make sure that the gouge is even along the cane's length. The Ross gouger makes up for its loss of extra thickness down the center by leaving more cane evenly along the width of the cane. This also has its advantages for certain reed-styles.

The ideal thickness, determined by the micrometer, depends on the gouger. The Ross gouge usually should be about .58-.60 mm thick; the Gilbert slightly more, the Graf slightly less. The thickness is measured at several points to ensure consistency along the length of the cane. If it is not thin enough, more gouging is required. Once it has reached an appropriate thickness, the cane is set aside to dry before the next stage:

Shaping and tying

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