I never thought it would work: The Reed That Just Won't Die

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESLadies and gentlemen, this is a miraculous reed. Let me tell you why.

It’s not one I made originally – it’s actually one of those nice Dragon Graduate reeds that Howarth sell – and it has been an absolutely lovely reed. Just recently though, it’s been showing its age. It hasn’t been as responsive as it used to be, and the blades would flatten and close up after only a few minutes’ playing, leaving a tiny aperture for me to blow through.

So, first of all, I flushed out the reed to remove the grollies, and then I ‘dusted’ it with the reed knife, sweeping lightly all over and removing only the tiniest fragments of cane. Now that the reed was nicely tidied up, I set about re-wiring it: the original wire was slightly loose and a new wire would potentially solve the problem of the reed closing up. But – O horror, horror, horror! – as I was fiddling with the wire, all the binding came loose! Now, I usually varnish the binding with clear nail varnish so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen, but looking at my other Dragon reeds, varnishing doesn’t seem to be the practice of this particular reedmaker…which is fine until all the binding comes away in your hands.

I tried for a little while to salvage what was left of the binding, but it quickly became clear that it was going to be easier to either a) throw the whole lot away, or b) attempt to re-tie the reed. I went for option b) because, as I mentioned previously, I really liked this reed. I took the two loose blades – one of which had an enormous crack which had been hidden underneath the binding – and tied them back onto the staple, thinking all the while ‘This is never going to work’. And, the first time, it didn’t: my tieing-on was rather messy and the whole reed was too short – 71mm instead of 72. So I took the binding off for a second time, measured a little more carefully, and tied the blades on again, fully expecting the cracked blade to disintegrate in my hands.

But it didn’t. The reed looked okay once it was all reassembled. It was the correct length. It was air-tight. That nasty crack hadn’t travelled up the blade and was securely fastened beneath another set of binding. The tips of the two blades were meeting where they should. I gave the reed an experimental peep, and when that was successful, an enormous crow.

It worked. It was miraculous.

The next bit was relatively easy: I varnished the binding, and when that was dry, re-wired the reed. For this I use picture wire, which you can buy from Hobbycraft. Picture wire is wound in strands, and all you have to do is cut off the required length with a pair of pliers, separate the strands and voilà! It’s a bit thicker and stronger than the usual product sold for this purpose, so it won’t cut into the reed as much; instead, it will grip and support it more firmly. But I’ll go into more detail about wiring reeds another time.

The final touch was to add a small strip of plumber’s tape to replace the goldbeater’s skin that I’d had to remove earlier. (Goldbeater’s skin is far superior to plumber’s tape, but it is much more expensive and plumber’s tape is cheap, easily obtainable and sort of does the job.) The skin hadn’t really survived the process of being removed so I had to bin it and add the white tape you can see in the picture, which looks a bit like a bandage. The reed didn’t need this additional seal, if I’m honest – it was air-tight, as I mentioned earlier – but I was still fretting about that crack, and I thought with the wire and the tape together, I might just prolong the life of the reed a smidgeon more.

By now it was getting on for 11pm, so I couldn’t test the reed by having a quick tootle, not without having the neighbours hammering on the walls. I had to wait until today to try it out. It’s amazing. The reed works. The damn thing is even in tune. It’s actually slightly better than it was before, even after all that trauma. And I don’t think this is because I am a reedmaker extraordinaire, or anything like that – au contraire, I am a mere rank amateur – no, no, this is quite simply a miraculous reed.

The lesson here, my lovely oboe chummies, is that anything is possible. Don’t give up on that reed! It may survive yet!

  2 comments for “I never thought it would work: The Reed That Just Won't Die

  1. February 4, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    Hello Aunty Muriel,
    I am writing from Eastern Ontario, Canada and came across your your blog a few months back. I am a senior (old guy) novice student of the oboe and reading music and I wish that I had started decades ago when my brain and fingers were more agile.
    I am about to commence making my own reeds. I realize that the reeds “over there” are different than the reeds that we use “over here”.
    Why is it considered taboo to have wire on an American scrape reed?
    Thank you.


    • February 4, 2015 at 8:22 pm

      Hello Paul, lovely to ‘meet’ you!

      I know that ‘over here’ there used to be two very distinct schools of thought regarding the wiring of reeds: those who thought that reeds should always be wired, and those who thought that wiring was completely unnecessary. Things have calmed down a little now, and the current way of thinking (to my knowledge) is that if a reed needs wiring, then wire it – which seems sensible to me. The way I see it, you’re dealing with a natural material – bamboo cane – and it seems daft to have a prescriptive set of rules when the reality is that every reed will be different. Even if you’re using a profiler and thus effectively working to a template, no two pieces of cane are going to be the same. If a reed is too open, you can wire it shut – if it’s too closed, you can wire it open.

      I’m afraid I can’t comment specifically on the American scrape reed, but I will certainly ask my teacher about this the next time I see him.

      Best of luck with the reedmaking and I hope you enjoy it! It’s time-consuming and occasionally frustrating, but it’s also something of a welcome mental holiday and we all of us need a break from the modern world from time to time. My advice would be not to spend too much money on equipment – unless you plan to make reeds for a living, think about what you really need solely to meet your needs and stick to that. It’s possible to spend thousands on reedmaking equipment, but if you’re only making reeds for yourself, it’s not worth shelling out that amount of money. I’ll write some more posts when I find the time to do so about the kind of equipment I chose to buy: I only make reeds for myself, because a) I don’t have time to make enough reeds for a commercial market, and b) my success rate is still only about 20% (rubbish). I would definitely recommend getting a good reed knife, though – a cheaper option is bound to cause you grief in the long run.

      Thank you for visiting the blog! Let me know how you get on with the reedmaking, and if you’d like to contribute a blog post, you’d be more than welcome.

      Gaenor (Aunty Muriel) x


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