How To Finish Oboe Reeds

These videos turned into a five part series where I took out five roughly-scraped reeds from my case and demonstrated how to finish scraping each oboe reed. You can see my Day 1 scraping process here, and premium members can see a more detailed version of that here, but these five videos each show how I finished a particular reed.

These five reeds were for the most part very similar to each other, so a good portion of each video is identical. After my Day 1 scraping, the heart and back were very close to being completely scraped out, and most of the work I had to do was just on the tip. After working on each reed on Day 2, they were basically ready to be played on in front of people. If I were to take those reeds out and fuss with them some more over the next few days, most of my work would be in refining the tip and clipping. There were a few examples where that was different, but only to a small degree. If you want to download a PDF of my reed measurements, check out this post here.

Examples

Reed #4 didn't come out great, but I left it in as a teaching example. Basically, in my Day 1 scraping, I made the windows too high up, which makes the heart shorter. What happened is that the reed became too open and flat. A reed that is flat and too open is not really going to be fixable, unless the opening closes up on its own. Some people like to draw a quick pencil marking on their blanks to mark where the tip will start and where the heart will start, and maybe that could have helped me on this one!

Oboe reed with pencil marks.
A lot of reed makers quickly draw in pencil marks where the tip and windows will be. The pencil marks get scraped off by the end.

Reed #2 was also a bit of a teaching example. On this reed, I made the reed to basically work at 71mm long. Most of my reeds (when I'm using a Mack+ shaper tip) finish between 69–70mm long (though when I use a Gilbert 1 shaper tip though, my reeds finish between 71–72mm long). Anyway, I had the reed balanced and almost finished, but because it was too long, something didn't feel quite right about the response. I clipped off about 1mm off the tip and basically had to rebalance the tip (since I had clipped so much off at once, the top of the tip was too thick). The reed turned out fine, but I did create more work for myself. If you're not sure how long your reeds usually are, you might want to check all your best reeds to see if they are a particular length. Maybe you'll notice some variation, but try to pin point a normal range. Yes, I've made good reeds with my Mack+ shaper tip at 70.5 or 68.5 mm, but it's rare. If the overall length of a reed is too long or short, it will mess with the response, but also the intonation in the extreme lower and upper register. For example, what I've noticed on my reeds is that a reed that is 71mm long might play high F, F#, and G well in tune, but will be flat on a low Db, C, and B, and vice versa for a reed that is 68mm long.

Main Takeaways

I think what is important to notice in this video is how sharp the knife is and how cleanly it removes cane. I was only using the weight of the knife to press down on the reed. My scraping wrist, hand, and elbow (left hand for me) were all very loose and relaxed which makes reed making more comfortable. But, I think a sharp knife leads to a much better (possibly darker and smoother) tone quality. The audio quality doesn't really show much of a difference in the final timbre of each reed, but I think what is noticeable is the smoothness, control, and restraint in the attack of each note. Actually, maybe "attack" isn't the right word, but rather the "release" of each note (maybe there are times in Stravinsky where we "attack" a note, but that isn't so often the case in Mozart). It's easy to obsess over a bright and dark tone, but having a smooth "release" of a note that is a little restrained (but still responsive) will give the listener a much better impression of your tone quality. I think a smooth "release" of a note comes from a using a sharp knife, scraping the top of the tip thin enough, and a smooth transition from the tip to the heart.

Most oboists say that you should fix response in your reeds before tone, but I'm suggesting to think about response as your tone. If a reed has a blatty and harsh attack, that might mean you have a very responsive reed, but maybe too responsive in some ways. Even if that initial attack is just the first 0.1 second of the note you're playing, people will perceive that as a bad tone, even if you're holding the note for a full quarter note. On the other hand, if your note "attacks/releases" are smooth, controlled, and have some restraint, then people will perceive that as a better tone, even if that initial "attack" only lasts for a millisecond. This is something that can be adjusted in both in your reed making and in your playing/practicing.

Ok, the other main thing to notice is the importance of consistency and eliminating variables. First off, when we play and something doesn't sound right (for example, a note is badly out of tune), it could be the instrument, the reed, or ourselves. At the end of the day, it is up to us to fix the out of tune note, but if the oboe is badly out of tune on one note, you can look to get the instrument fixed. If the note that is badly out of tune is a high A, then you can look to clip the reed shorter to get the upper notes in tune. Similarly with reeds, if something is wrong with the reed, it's not always easy to tell whether the problem is with the tip, heart, back, gouge, cane, length, shape, weather, etc.

If you have a reed that is almost finished, it's too late to change the gouge or the cane, so you are left with adjusting the cane thickness or length. This is why I like to scrape the heart and back of my reed almost down to their final thickness early in the process. Then I know if the reed has a problem, it is in the tip. This helps to eliminate unknown variables; not completely eliminate unknown variables, but it gets us closer. Some people scrape the tip all the way down to its final thickness first, then the heart, then the back. For me though, I think I end up with a more balanced reed if I scrape the tip thin enough to at least start vibrating, then scrape the heart and back (almost) completely, and then go back and finish the tip. I think this gives me a more balanced reed throughout the entire process.

Video

Anyway, those are just some things to think about. Maybe you'll want to change the order of the process or try the exact opposite, which might work great for you! The entire video is below. It is also broken up into five parts: Reed 1, Reed 2, Reed 3, Reed 4, Reed 5.

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