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!

Getting rid of grollies


When oboists or bassoonists use the term ‘grollies’, they are referring to the unhygienic spitty build-up that inevitably comes to reside inside each and every double reed. Even if you do manage to clean your teeth every time before playing, there will still be microscopic flecks of your lunch forming a small but growing community on the blades.

Now, you can slow the rate of grolly-growth by flushing out your oboe reeds on a regular basis, as follows: simply fill your mouth with boiled (not boiling!) water and blow it through the cork-end of the staple so the water squirts out through the tip of the reed. You might also try adding a dash of mouthwash to the water before flushing, but it must be a mouthwash that lists alcohol as one of its ingredients. Alcohol is very useful for cleaning things, and in fact, I always soak my reeds in a solution of three-quarters water and one-quarter Listerine (the original, none of your fancy new flavours). And if memory serves, Double Reed News featured an article fairly recently in which a bassoonist describes how he soaks – and I think even stores – his reeds in neat vodka.

(As a point of interest, I learned recently that neat vodka is used to scrub dirt and sweat from theatrical costumes that can’t be washed or dry-cleaned because they’re covered in meltable sequins or suchlike, so there you are – if you really don’t want to drink that nasty budget vodka you bought when you were on your uppers, you can use it to clean the cooker or something.)

Grolly build-up will eventually cause problems for you once the reed gets a bit older: suddenly you’ll find that you’re playing a bit on the sharp side. There is a way you can prolong the life of the reed and restore the pitch, but I should add that this is a ‘make or break’ solution, and there is a chance that you may destroy the reed entirely. It’s worth a try, though. Unless you have only one reed (which you really shouldn’t!), in which case – don’t.

You’ll need to get hold of some hydrogen peroxide solution. You can buy this from most chemists because it has many uses as a mouthwash, gargle, antiseptic, etc. (If you are going to use this stuff as a mouthwash, please please don’t forget to dilute it first, because it is essentially bleach: I flushed out some reeds with it and felt unwell for hours afterwards. It was yucky.) Okay, so dilute the hydrogen peroxide solution with boiled water (four-fifths water, one-fifth hydrogen peroxide solution) and then soak the grollied-up reed for no more than one minute. When the minute’s up, remove the reed from the solution and flush it through thoroughly with boiled water. If you leave any hydrogen peroxide solution inside the reed, the cane will just disintegrate.

If this works – and it will depend very much on how old the reed is and how close it is to its reedy death – then your favourite reed will be revitalised for perhaps just one more concert. Good luck!


(PS. While we’re on the subject of hygiene and cleanliness, it’s good practice to wet the brass part of the staple before tying-on, and then dry it with a clean cloth. This will remove any lurking dust deposits.)