We all have those days, weeks, months when we are in a 'reed rut' and cannot make a good reed. In this post, I will share a few strategies to help you avoid these truly dismal times!

Don't fall for any reed making myths...

There are always going to be reed making magic tricks that are supposed to help make that perfect reed. Maybe you have heard that taking off the rails (the bark on the sides of the reed) will somehow help the response, or maybe if you use the newest brand of staples then all your problems will be solved, or maybe if you soak your cane in tea it will give the reed antioxidants to play better. None of these are entirely accurate, and while some might help fine-tune a few aspects of your reed making (except for the tea idea, I just made that one up), if you are really in a reed rut, you need to look at the important things first.

To make a usable reed, we need a few things:

  1. Consistent Cane Selection
  2. An Accurate Gouge
  3. A Sharp Knife

The scraping, tying, shaping will all need to work together to make the reed function, but if you have good cane, a consistent gouge, and a sharp knife, then the scraping, tying, and shaping will fall into place much more easily. Maybe you've heard the phrase, "if you have third act problems, then you have first act problems," and for us oboists, that basically means if you can't finish a reed, look to how you are setting the reed up. Whenever I am in a severe reed rut (meaning more than 3 reeds in a row are unusable), then I always reexamine my cane selection, gouge measurements, and knife.

Oboe Cane Selection:

The first thing that helps me most with my gouge is to select cane that is as straight and as even as possible. That means 1. The grains run straight up and down, 2. The cane is not warped, 3. The tube cane is not shaped like a telescope, and 4. the diameter is exactly within my preferable range for my gouging machine (which for me is between 10-10.5). For more information on selecting cane, members can check out this Cane Selection post. For the most part, I do not worry about the cane color. Sometimes you will notice patterns within a specific batch of cane; for example I once had a pound of cane where the really pale looking pieces of tube cane worked amazing, but that is not always going to be true.

Oboe cane with three different colors.
I would personally use all three of these blanks to make a reed. Some oboists do not like using purple-colored cane, and some oboists avoid too many spots on the cane (like the one on the left).


Oboe Gouge:

Next, while an accurate dial indicator is essential, it is also important to have a model piece of gouged cane. I have a model piece of cane from when I first bought my Opus 1 gouger that has supposedly "ideal" gouge measurements. This piece of cane reminds me precisely what the center and side measurements should be, and while you can change those measurements based on climate and altitude, they 'shouldn't vary more than 2 or 3 micrometers on the sides or center under normal playing conditions.

Piece of gouged oboe cane
This piece of cane was gouged when I first bought my Driscoll gouging machine. Just in case my dial indicator reads a micrometer or two off, then I can compare my cane to this piece.
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Avoid becoming dogmatic about what the exact measurements should read. 

I have heard people say 0.60 and 0.48 are the ideal center and side measurements, but dial indicators are measuring to .01 of a millimeter, and some people measure cane when soaked, some when dry, and sometimes people have faulty dial indicators. So 0.60mm to one person might not be the same 0.60mm to you.  Also, keep in mind dial indicators are measuring a curved surface that has grains which can account for some inconsistencies in measurement. This is why I like to have one piece of cane lying around that I know was gouged when the gouging machine was at its best so that I can compare my newest gouged pieces of cane next to that model piece of cane. Some people will say you should gouge at 0.60mm on the center and 0.48mm on the sides, and while that is a good guideline, there are too many other factors that go into measuring these pieces of gouged cane that can lead you astray by following particular numbers.

I know I like to take measurements of my reeds more than most people, but keep in mind that you should be looking for a range of measurements. Most of the time, I gouge my cane so that when it is dry, the center is 0.58 mm and the sides are 0.46. This is a bit thinner than many people, but it should only serve as a guideline. If you want more reed measurements, check out this post with my reed making guide.

Center measurement of oboe canedial indicator to measure other side measurement of gouged cane Dial indicator measuring the sides of the gouge

Knife Sharpening:

Lastly, a sharp knife is very important. It has been said a million times by oboe teachers and will be said a million more times. If your knife needs regrinding then check out this Knife Sharpening post, but in the meantime, you might need to buy a new knife or examine your sharpening techniques. Try not to allow yourself to scrape a reed with a dull knife. I highly recommend the Landwell book on sharpening knives because it lays out an effective process. For a while, I just did exactly what the book said and had success with its process. Now, I vary the knife sharpening process up just slightly based on how the knife feels, but following the steps laid out in the website's knife sharpening post or the steps laid out in the Landwell book will help. A well-sharpened knife will also make your reeds darker in tone and will improve the response. Sharp knife, happy life!

Lastly, when my reeds are not working, I like to take a step back and measure the thickness of the heart and windows, to make sure that I am in the ballpark. You do not want to copy these measurements exactly, but sometimes you can quickly see if you are very off. Sometimes it's as simple as too much cane has been scraped off the heart, or maybe more cane needs to be scraped in the windows. Check out this oboe reed measurement guide for more information. In addition to measurements, it also offers a lot of general principals to scraping a reed.

When you are in a reed rut, try to take a step back and look at the basics of reed making. Little tricks won't change much, so try to focus on the important variables of reed making such as cane selection, gouge, and knife sharpening.