Note that this is really not a "how to" -- Making bassoon reeds that work is extremely difficult and subject to the vagaries of luck. 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 the center.


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 soaked overnight.


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 desired:
|               |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 (often aluminum) press that accepts the curved reed blank and has screws 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 razor blade is good for this; after shaping, the reed looks sort of like this:
|                          |                           |
|_____________             |             ______________|
               getting.. thinnest.. getting
               thinner              thicker
The widest parts of the blade are the thinnest, and the narrowest parts still have the hard shiny cane surface visible.


The reed blank is folded in half along the center score.

Forming the tube

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 screws 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 vibrates 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 it inside.


Is it a fine reed, that is easy to play and plays in tune? If it is, you are very lucky.

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