Note that this is really not a "how to" -- Making bassoon reed
that work is extremely difficult and subject to the vagaries of
. This writeup is instead intended merely to explain to
those of you who might be curious
what is involved in the process.
First of all, you can't really go down to the corner music store and
buy decent bassoon reeds; yet, to a player, having a good reed is a crucial necessity.
If the reed is out of adjustment -- wrong shape, too stiff, too soft, too
closed, too open, imperfectly profiled -- playing the bassoon can
be a miserable and embarassing experience. Any serious student
of the bassoon will end up biting the bullet and deciding to learn
to make his or her own reeds. At the very least, a player will have
to learn how to fine-tune reeds they obtain from their teacher or
from one of the few mail-order craftsmen that sell handmade reeds.
Cane for bassoon reeds (and also reeds for oboe
and english horn
comes from Arundo donax
, which is a grasslike plant that
grows up to six or eight feet tall in moist areas. Arundo donax grows
all over Europe
and the US
, but cane for making
reeds comes entirely from southern France
. A good piece of cane is about
an inch in diameter, from a shoot that is in its second year. The cane has
a very hard, shiny outer layer, and becomes progressively softer towards
A piece of cane, about 4-3/4 inches long, that has been allowed to dry and cure is split
three ways. Each piece will make one bassoon reed.
Most performers in the US work with gouged cane, which is cane that has
had some of the soft interior surface removed.
While working with a piece of cane, it should be wet
. This allows
us to manipulate it quite a bit without having it crack. Before
starting the profiling step, a piece of cane is usually soak
If profiling is done by hand, it's done before shaping, but there
are tools available that work better when used to profile cane that
has already been shaped. I'll talk about hand-profiling here.
The aim of profiling is to begin to form the thin blades that will
be the vibrating tip of the reed. For this step, the reed blank
is placed on a length of 1" dowel, which supports the reed blank
while we are working with it. With a knife, mark the center of the reed, and
then mark one inch away from the center towards each end
1" center 1"
| | | | |
| | | | |
| | | | |
It's OK to score fairly deeply with the knife, especially in the
center, because we are going to thin that area out. Now, using
a small sharp knife
, begin to roughly contour
the part of the
reed between the marks. Throughout this area, we need to remove
the hard, shiny surface layer of the cane. This is the sort of contour that is
| |XXIII....|....IIIXX| |
| |XXXXIIII.|.IIIIXXXX| |
| |XXIII....|....IIIXX| |
X represents the thickest part, I is a little thinner, and . is the
thinnest. Pocket knives, fingernail files, even wood rasps can be used
to get the reed into an approximation
of this contour. The part that
we have thinned will form the blades of the reed, and the two areas
at the ends which still have their hard, shiny surface layer intact
will be formed into the tube.
A typical shaping tool is like a small metal
press that accepts the curved reed blank and has screw
s that can be
tightened to hold the blank firmly in place. The edges of the
blank that stick out on the sides need to be trimmed off. A single-endged
is good for this; after shaping, the reed looks sort of like this:
| | |
|_____________ | ______________|
getting.. thinnest.. getting
st parts of the blade are the thinnest, and the narrow
still have the hard shiny cane surface visible.
The reed blank is folded in half along the center score.
Forming the tube
of the reed must be formed out of the thickest part of the
cane. In order to make this easier, it helps to use a tap
, which is a
tool used to carve threads for machine screw
s into metal. Just scrape
the thick part of the cane lengthwise, scoring the hard surface, which will
allow it to bend more easily into a tube.
To form the tube, a tool called a mandrel is used. This tool is similar to
an awl in that it has a long, tapering conical shape.
22 guage brass wire is used to hold bassoon reeds together. The first wire
is placed before forming the tube, at 1-1/16 inch from the bottom of the folded
reed blank. It is wrapped twice around, and twisted to secure it. Then,
wrap the base with wet cotton string, and heat up the forming mandrel in
an alcohol lamp. Force the hot mandrel into the base. Steam helps
soften the cane. Use pliers to squeeze and mash the cane around the forming
mandrel, shaping it into a tube.
Placing the other wires
Before placing the rest of the wires, the reed blank is transferred to a holding mandrel.
The middle wire is placed 5/16" below
the top wire. The bottom wire goes 3/16" from the end of the tube. The wires are
tightened loosely, and the blank is allowed to dry at least overnight
, but it could be
left like this for months.
Wrapping the tube
First, the bottom and middle wires are tightened all the way, and then "F" guage nylon
string is used to wrap the tube of the reed. A "turban
"is wrapped around the bottom wire,
completely concealing it, and then one even layer of string is wrapped up to the middle
wire. Once wrapped, the string is coated with Duco cement
and left to dry.
Trimming the tip
The length of the reed is important in determining its overall pitch
. A too-short reed
will play sharp
, and one too long will be flat
. After soaking the blank in warm
water for a few minutes, The folded tip of the reed should be cut off
either with end-nippers
or with a special tool, 1-5/32" from the top wire.
Once the tip is cut, the two blades of the reed are now separate pieces, and the opening
at the tip is spindle-shaped, and only about 1/16" wide at the widest. At this point the
reed should crow -- that is, placed in the mouth and blown as if you were playing the
bassoon, the reed should make a throaty noise.
You are now at least halfway through making a usable reed, in terms of time and effort. What's
left is the fine adjustment stage, and this can take almost as much time as you've spent so far!
Typically, to fine-tune a reed, cane needs to be removed at the tip and on the sides, until
the reed vibrate
s freely when crowed. Once a good crow is established, all fine-tuning
should be done while testing the reed on your instrument
. Check for air leaks, by closing
off the bottom opening with your finger
and sucking the air out. The reed should
momentarily hold suction, then pop open with a satisfying sound. If this doesn't happen,
leaks in the tube can be sealed by melting a little beeswax
on a mandrel and slipping
Is it a fine reed, that is easy
to play and plays in tune
? If it is, you are very