Making Clarinet Reeds
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REED MAKING METHODby Douglas Monroe
TERMS Arundo Donax-The genus and species of the cane used to make reeds. Back-The curved part of the reed with bark still attached. Bark-The skin on the outside of the tube/back of the reed. Blank-The section of cane used to make a reed before the cut has been made. Bottom-The flat side of the reed. Butt-The opposite end of the reed from the tip. Cut-The portion of the back of the reed where there is no longer bark. Cutting-The process of using a knife to remove cane from the reed in large portions. Heart-The middle section of the reed below the tip where the cane becomes denser and thicker. Hill-A mistake in the cutting process which results in higher areas rather than a continuous smooth vamp. One can detect the larger hills by feel. For smaller hills, one needs to hold the reed up to a light to see the shadows created by the elevated surface. Knife Check-The knife check (figure 1) is the most important measurement to the reed making process. Turn the knife upside down and place the non-beveled side against the reeds vamp. Hold it up to the light to see the shape of the vamp between the knife and the reed. This will show the point of maximum curvature and the shape of the vamp.
Point of Maximum Curvature-The point at which the cut stops descending at a dramatic rate and becomes straighter all the way to the tip. Rails-The sides of the reed. Scraping-The process of using a knife to remove cane in a scraping motion to take less cane off of the reed than with a cut. Tip-The thinnest and most sensitive portion of the reed at the end of the cut. Vamp-The entire cut of the reed extending from the initial cut to the tip. Xylem/Phloem-The parts of the arundo donax that take and store nutrition up and down the plant. These are shaped like veins and extend the entire length of the reed. These are the portions of the reed that will expand and contract based upon the presence or absence of moisture in the reed. This process of saturation and drying in the xylems and phloems is what causes reeds to warp.
DIAGRAM OF VARIOUS PARTS OF THE REED
INTRODUCTION As a clarinet student, my biggest frustration was the poor overall quality of commercially made reeds. By the time I started playing in the United States Army Field Band in 1989, I could play on only two out of a box of ten. These two reeds would typically last me one or two weeks and rarely satisfied my demands for sound and articulation and would close down on the tip of the mouthpiece with very little embouchure pressure. One of my high school clarinet teachers made reeds and often said that they lasted longer and played better. I decided to take the time to learn the process for making reeds so that I could take control of reed quality. I read single reed making books by Kalmen Opperman and Ben Armato and attended reed making master classes given by Stanley Hasty, Frank Kowalsky, and Michael Webster. I then spent four months experimenting
and developing a method for making reeds that suited my needs. Since 1990, I have not played on a commercially made reed. ADVANTAGES The primary advantages for making clarinet reeds are that one can create a reed tailored to their own personal tastes for resistance, sound, and articulation. My method also ensures longer life with a curing process that makes the xylems and phloems of the plant structure nearly impervious to moisture. When playing three to four hours daily, my reeds typically last four to six months if I alternate between two. REED KNIVES Too many knives on the market today are poorly made. One needs a sharp knife made of high-quality steel. It must be able to make smooth, long cuts in the cane. One must be able to control it to make the specific cuts desired. I made the best reed knife Ive ever owned by beveling an edge into an old bastard file. There are a few brands on the market today that can do the job correctly, but most cannot. The first time I tried to make reeds in 1981, I had to give up because I could not cut the reed blank smoothly. The reason for this was poor knife quality. If a knife does not cut well, it will leave indentations or other imperfections in the surface of the reed, causing various problems with the sound. CREATING REED BLANKS FROM TUBES Clarinetists have two options available if they want to make their own reeds. They can buy reed blanks or they can make their own blanks from tubes. I prefer to make blanks from the tube since it gives me more control over the measurements and is less than half the cost of a commercially made blank.
When selecting the tube, ensure that the wall is between five and six millimeters thick. The inside of the wall (the area closest to the center of the tube) is the softest material on the cane and the outer layer is the hardest. My experience shows that smaller walls yield overly harsh sounding reeds while thicker walls yield reeds which collapse on the mouthpiece more easily and create a dull, unfocused sound. Step One: Split the tube into four crescent shaped sticks. Dried arundo donax, is easy to split with any reed knife. Stand up the tube, place the blade on top of the tube dividing the tube exactly in half (figure 3), and hit the side of the knife that has no blade. Once the knife is into the tube, push the knife all the way down the tube to complete the split (figure 4). Then split each half in the same fashion (figures 5 and 6).
Step Two: Saw these four long tube sections into seventy millimeter segments with a thin coping saw. A typical tube yields eight of these segments, depending on the length of the tube. At this stage, the segments are two millimeters longer than I like my reeds. I design the extra length into them so that I have some extra material with which to work in case I make a mistake at the tip of the reed later in the process. The bottom of these segments form a crescent shape (figure 7).
Step Three: To get the bottom flat, one must remove the spike shaped hills. This can be done with a knife, but is time consuming and physically painful. After spending many years flattening the backs of these segments with a knife, I had a tool and die shop build a rectangular shaped metal piece which has a well dug into it in the shape of a reed blank which is slightly too thick (figure 8). I place the reed segments into the well upside down and level them with a block plane (figure 9).
When this is done, the segment is fairly flat. To get it completely flat, I sand it on 320grit silicon carbide sandpaper. My past experiences with other types of sandpaper yielded uneven work and created burns on the reeds. Once the reed is flat and between 3 and 3.5 millimeters thick, I sand it briefly; first on 400- and then on 600-grit sandpaper to get the bottom smoother and less grainy. Step Four: To turn this cane segment into a reed blank, I sand both edges to create rails. At this point, the segment is roughly the same length across on the tip and butt ends. A proper reed blank should measure thirteen millimeters across the butt and fifteen millimeters across the tip. To attain these measurements, I sand the segment on 220-grit sandpaper by holding the segment on its edge one third of the way from the butt to the tip (figure 10).
Figure 10 8
By holding it in this position, I remove more cane from the butt end of the reed than from the tip end. If this method takes too much off either side of the segment, I simply adjust the pressure point while sanding. If too much material comes off of the butt end, I move my hand position so that it is closer to the tip. If too much material comes off of the tip end, I move my hand position so that it is closer to the butt. When this process is done, the reed blank is finished. COMMERCIAL REED BLANKS From 1991-1999, I used only commercially made reed blanks because I had one hundred blanks that were very high quality. When I select blanks I look for three quality indicators. If I have to ask the vendor to select them, I make sure they use the same indicators. First, the rails must be even. By holding the reed up and looking at the butt, one can clearly see if the rails are the same height. Check the sides also to see that the rails maintain equal height from butt to tip. Next, look at the bottom to ensure that the lines (xylems and phloems) run straight up and down. If the lines angle at all, this blank will never make a balanced reed. Finally, check the color on the bottom. Optimally, it should be an even, buttery, light-blonde color. Generally, the further Ive gotten away from this coloring, the less acceptable I find the finished reed. I avoid blotchy or dark colored reeds as this often indicates rot (figure 11).
Figure 11 (blotchy discolored reed on left; even buttery colored reed on right) CURING THE REED BLANK Curing the reed blank is the most important part of my process. These steps ensure long life from the reed. The goal in preparing the blank is to make it as impervious as possible to moisture and warping. The primary reason reeds die so quickly is that they absorb moisture in the xylems and phloems. I seal the xylems and phloems in a process by which I saturate and dry them alternately and then polish the back. Step One: Alternately soak (saturate the reed with water and/or saliva) and completely dry the blank with the bottom facing up so it dries evenly. Soak and dry the blank for several days. The object is to allow the blank to warp as much as possible, causing the xylems and phloems to absorb moisture and dry in a new position. Do this as much as possible before making the first cut. Warping on commercial reeds occurs so drastically because the reeds