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!

Crossed blades

One of the most persistent problems I experience when making reeds is the blades crossing a week or two after the reed is finished. This is because I’m still not very good at tying-on. The reed will still play if the blades are slightly misaligned, but the cane won’t vibrate as freely and this leaves the player struggling to produce a good, solid sound.

I bought these little doodads from Howarth’s in the hope that they would help solve the problem:

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But, while they do help, they’re incredibly fiddly to use and the success rate is not sufficiently good to justify the extra hassle. The width of the cane I use is such that these little oval rings won’t fit over the top so they have to be fitted from the bottom up:

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This means you can’t actually take the ring off again until the cane is completely dry – when it’s wet, it’s too swollen for the ring to fit over the top – so you’ll have to soak the cane a second time before you can scrape it. I don’t like to introduce this extra level of stress for the cane, especially at this stage of proceedings when it’s still so vulnerable to cracking.

More importantly, it’s almost impossibly fiddly trying to insert the staple for tying-on into an aperture only this big:

very small opening

So, on the whole, it’s probably wiser to look for another solution.

I attended a reed-adjusting session at The Big Double Reed Day in 2013, and the tutor came up with a possible solution which involves far less mucking about. Okay, so I tie on at about 74mm, which gives me 2mm of leeway: eventually the tip will be cut so the entire reed measures 72mm. I measure this out before I start tying on and make a pencil mark where the staple ends, like so:

pencil mark at top of staple

I start tying on about five thread-turns beneath this pencil mark:

Tying on five turns below

Now, the advice given to me about how to avoid crossed blades later on was as follows:

If the sides of the reed close before you reach the pencil mark: stop, pull the cane out a little, and then continue.

This is still a little bit fiddly, of course – having to unwind the thread and then wind it again is not that much fun and of course, you always have to be mindful that you don’t crack the cane, but it’s still much easier than trying to use those little hoops. Here’s that reed, now fully tied on:

Tied on 29

And I was quite pleased with how well the sides matched up:

Tight sides

Hope that helps. If I’ve not made any of this clear, please do let me know – you can submit a question via the form on the Contact tab. I’ve done my best with the photos, but I’m only using the little camera on my phone and it’s not very good. I’ve already put in a request for a sooper-dooper camera for my birthday, so things will improve, I promise.

Have fun!

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