The following is a step-by-step description of how I make my own reeds. All supplies mentioned are available from WWDR.
Womble/Williams profiled bassoon cane can give you excellent results with a minimum of effort if you follow the following directions. The wire placement and cutoff length is critical, so please use the dimensions indicated below.
Soak the cane in warm water for a minimum of 30 minutes. This will make the cane easier to form and also raise the grain on the inside of the cane.
Sand the inside of the cane to smooth out the grain of the wood using 40 Micron 3M Micro-finishing paper followed by 20 micro-finishing paper. Immerse the cane and sandpaper in warm water and put the paper over a round plastic dowel. After sanding each piece of cane, rinse the paper so that the cutting action will not be impeded by the paste created from the sanding action.
Score the cane on the outside from where the second wire will be to the back of the cane on both sides using a scoring tool. If you don't have a scoring tool, center the cane on a wooden easel and make three scores on the reed, one in the center of the reed starting where the second wire will be placed, and one on each side starting in the same place, then fill in the space between the original scores with three scores on each side.
Fold the reed in half; make sure the collar lines up on both sides of the reed. The profile should fold in half easily in the center of the profile. If it is slightly off center, be sure to manipulate the cane so that the collars of both sides line up. If the collar does not line up the strength of the two sides of the reed will be different, and it will be very difficult to make a workable reed.
Place the first wire on the reed 26 mm from the butt side. Measure from the bottom of the wire, not from the center.
Place the second wire 8 mm below the first. This is also measured from the sides of the two wires, not from the center.
Tightly wrap the blank with string from the bottom of the reed to just above the first wire. I usually make three wraps in front of the first wire and then overwrap these so that the first wire does not get in the way while forming the reed.
Heat the mandrel using low heat, such as from an alcohol lamp. Insert a forming mandrel into the reed and be consistent with the depth that the mandrel is inserted. My forming mandrels have a ledge that I push my reeds to so that the throat of the reed will be consistent from reed to reed. Crush the cane behind the second wire to the back to round the blank, remove the string, and place the third wire on the bottom of the reed, 3 mm from the butt end.
Let the blank dry a minimum of one day, and then retighten all wires. I like to feel the wire stretch slightly when I pull on the wire with my pliers to tighten it. Wrap the reed with hot glue using the machine provided. Use the following method.
Make sure all wires are tight and will not rotate on the blank. Shorten the third wire (the one closest to the bottom of the reed) to around an eighth of an inch and fold the wire over towards the top of the reed.
I try to make the blank look like a string-wrapped reed by first putting enough hot glue on the rotating machine to make the ball at the end of the reed over the third wire and enough glue behind the second wire to seal the reed. I re-heat the hot glue with an alcohol lamp while the cane is rotating on the machine and then use a flat-headed screwdriver to spread the glue below the second wire and in front of the ball. Once the reed looks like you want it, take it off the mandrel and immerse it in cold water to set the hot glue.
Reaming the Blank
While the blank is dry, ream the reed blank so that the reed will go on to your bocal the recommended distance, usually around 1/4 inch (7 mm). It is possible to ream a wet reed with a diamond reamer if necessary.
Cutting Reed to Length
Soak the reed for a few minutes in water. Remember that the cane is much less likely to crack when wet, and all work done on the reed, with the exception of reaming, should be done with the reed moist. The first thing you need to do to a reed blank that has been formed is to cut the tip of the reed off to length. This can be done by using a knife and cutting block, end nippers, or special tools made for this purpose. I start my tip at 31mm from the first wire. My usual playing length is 29.5 mm. Try to cut the tip as perpendicular to the length of the reed and straight as possible.
First Blowing on a New Reed
Try playing on the new reed. You may be surprised, and the reed may play at this point. This is not very likely, but possible. If the reed at this point is hard to blow on and seems sharp, you will need to flatten the wires or trim the cane from it. If the reed plays flat and the E natural and C sharp in the staff drop in pitch, you will need to strengthen the reed by reaming, rounding/tightening the wires, shortening by cutting the tip, or narrowing the shape of the reed.
I trim my reeds by using three check notes to see how the reed performs on the bassoon. The first of these is E flat in the staff fingered only with the whisper key and the first and third fingers of the left hand. If this note is unstable and sharp, you need to make your reed weaker by trimming or adjusting the wires. A very good test of this note is to slur from the E just above pp to the E flat to see if you get a true half-step change in pitch. Another way to check this note is to play the E flat with this simple fingering pp and then add the second finger's right hand and B flat key to see if the added fingers flatten the note to its true pitch. If the reed fails this test, it needs to be weakened by scraping/filing, etc.
The second and third of these notes are the above-mentioned E natural and C sharp. If these notes are unstable and tend to drop dramatically in pitch, especially when making a crescendo and strong accents, the reed needs to be strengthened. This can be accomplished by doing some or all of the following. Cutting a small amount off the tip of the reed, narrowing the sides of the reed, rounding and or tightening the wires, and checking that the reed is reamed so that it goes on to the bocal the normal distance.
Evening Out the Collar
If the collar on the two sides of the reed does not line up, the strength of the two sides will probably not be equal. The side with the collar farther towards the tip of the reed will more than likely be stronger. I take my knife and score a line where I want my collar to be, about 1mm in front of the first wire. I then place my knife flat on the lay of the reed and cut back towards the score marks, trying not to cut down into the cane, keeping the front back taper on the opposite side. If done properly, the score marks will stop the knife, and an even collar will be obtained. An equaling file can be used to take the cane off the strong side of the reed in the back at this point to try to even up the sides.
The placement of the collar is up to the individual player. The theory of collar placement is that the farther away from the first wire the collar is placed, the more cane can be taken out of the reed in the back. Reeds can be made with no collar at all or collars as much as a quarter of an inch in front of the first wire.
Trimming the Reed To Weaken and Flatten Its Pitch
The easiest way to flatten the pitch in a reed is to flatten the first two wires of the reed, top to bottom, with your fingers or reed pliers. This may be enough to get a reed to play if it was close to playing before. The main advantage of this is that you are not taking the cane off the reed, and you can restore the reed back to its previous condition by rounding back the wires if necessary.
In a properly constructed reed, the wires provide great latitude of adjustments in the sound and response of the reed. The first wire can be closed down by squeezing top to bottom, with pliers or your fingers, if the reed seems hard to attack. If it is too closed, opening the first wire from the sides will help the reed vibrate more, have a more dynamic contrast, and play louder. I like my tip opening to be around an inch or 1.5 mm.
The second wire adjustments are opposite the first wire, and I find these usually more advantageous than the first wire adjustments. Opening the tip of the reed by squeezing the second wire from top to bottom accomplishes two things. The reed will play flatter in pitch and gain resonance. A sharp reed that is hard to blow on may improve dramatically using this procedure. Squeezing the second wire from the sides will raise the pitch of the reed and make it darker in sound by damping its vibrations. A bright flat reed can be improved using this procedure.
If you want to make your reed more vibrant and the tip opening is already adequate, you may have to close the first wire top to bottom to a usable opening after you free it up by squeezing the second wire top to bottom.
Scraping the Reed
I try to scrape the reed using the following approach. The reed has two tapers from back to front and from center to side. Hopefully, the reed blank will start out being symmetrical and of equal strength on both sides. Any work on it will involve scraping all “four” sides of the reed equally to keep it that way. You should make the same number of scrapes with your knife or file on each of the sides when scraping. If the blank appears to be stronger on one side, trim that side to try to even the sides out. Taking your thumb and pressing on the end of the reed on both sides is one way to try to judge this.
Always have a plaque inserted into the reed when scraping, filing, or sanding. This helps prevent the cane from breaking from the inside out and also gives you a curved surface on which to scrape on.
Beginning reed makers tend to scrape the sides of the reed, especially at the tip, excessively. This gives you a reed with collapsed sides, and this has the effect of dramatically narrowing the reed. The reed ends up with a heavy center and becomes a reed that tends to play sharp and ugly, if it plays at all.
I like to do the bulk of my scraping in the channels of the reed, the areas between the center of the reed and the sides. Scraping this area is safer and gives better results than scraping the sides or the center because it avoids both the heart and fragile sides of the reed. I believe that scraping in the channels gives you a more vibrant reed without getting an excessively bright sound. Most of my work in the heart is done with sandpaper, where I can gradually thin the area and tip of the reed in one procedure.
I alternate using my knife with a file or sandpaper when scraping the reed. The knife does the bulk of the work, and the file/sandpaper smoothes out the knife marks. The knife allows you to take the cane out of specific areas. The file/sandpaper is less discriminatory and will take cane out of a larger area.
I use a diamond triangle file for taking the cane out of the back of the reed. Try to avoid making the back of the reed thinner than the area in front.
When thinning the tip of the reed with a knife, always scrape towards the middle of the reed. This will help keep the cane from tearing at the tip. A fairly safe way to thin the very tip of the reed is to use a sapphire fingernail file, cutting straight up and down with the grain right on the tip of the reed. You must remove the plaque from your reed to perform this procedure.
I use the “wet file” technique that involves dipping the file into the water before cutting on the reed. This helps keep the cutting surface of the file from being clogged with sawdust and is a much more efficient way to cut a cane using a file.
A Few More Thoughts on Trimming!
Consistency is the thing that we all strive for when working on reeds. The most consistent way for making reeds is to use a cane of the same grower, gouge, shape, and profile, formed on the same mandrel, etc. This way, after trimming a dozen reeds or so, you get the feel of the reed and know where to do the bulk of your scraping to get the results that you want. The cane will be the inconsistent part of the process because all cane is different. When you use a cane from different sources, the gouge and profile may be quite different, and it takes time again to figure out what to do to get your reeds to work. Try to stay with a consistent cane when starting out. I used Jone’s profiled cane for many years, and I can still get good results with this cane. Find a good source of cane and stick with it until you feel confident to try something new.
The top half of the reed controls the “sound” of the reed. The sound of the reed will darken as the sides are thinned in relation to the center. A bright-sounding reed will have thicker sides in relation to the center.
You can get a good idea if your reed is on the right track by observing the tip opening for symmetry and how the sides of the reed close as the reed is squeezed top to bottom. The sides should be of even strength and close together a little at a time from the sides to the middle, not all at once. If it closes all at once, scrape the channels and sides.
The back half of the reed controls the blowing qualities of the reed. If a reed balks on attacks and is hard to control in soft dynamics, scraping the back half will help. The more you take out of the back of the reed, the better the lower notes will respond. However, you will lose the upper register at the same time. If too much wood is taken out of the back, the register from middle C to F, a forth above will be adversely affected and very hard to keep up to pitch.
Work slowly and try not to get frustrated. It takes a long time to learn this undertaking. Try to copy reeds from your teacher or other sources that work, keeping the tapers and tip thickness similar. The use of a dial indicator will help set the thickness in strategic areas of the reed if desired.
The tip is the most fragile area of the reed. Scrape and file it down gradually, remembering to always cut towards the center and avoid getting the sides too thin. Scraping the channels straight down to the tip is another “safe” way of thinning the tip. Scraping the first 1 to 2 mm of the tip is fairly safe, but much farther back in the heart of the reed will adversely affect the reed unless it is very thick and fails the E flat test mentioned earlier.
Here Are a Few Reed Basics To Remember!
A reed that plays flat needs to be made harder by shortening the tip, narrowing the shape, rounding the wires, and reaming or tightening the wires. The critical notes for checking a flat reed are E and C# in the staff.
You Cannot Make a Flat Reed Harder by Scraping the Cane!
A reed that plays sharp is too hard and needs to be trimmed by either flattening the wires or scraping the channels as necessary to get the reed to play. The critical note for checking a sharp reed is simple Eb in the staff.
If you have problems playing sharp, go to a wider shape or longer reed.
A good reed must play in tune, respond, and lastly, have a good sound in that order!
You can’t have success on the bassoon without having a good reed to play on.
Good luck, go out and make great reeds!