Make oboe reeds, a step by step overview


 Learn how to make oboe reeds step by step.

There are many steps  while making oboe reeds, I will outline the process but it can take years to learn to make oboe reeds from start to finish. Certain steps in themselves take years to learn and master. This is not meant to discourage anyone from learning to make oboe reeds, but as a sort of disclaimer that it is not possible to learn to make reeds by simply reading about the process. This is  also meant as a bit of encouragement to those learning how to make oboe reeds who may feel they are not making headway. It takes time, practice and patience to develop the skills needed to make oboe reeds just as with playing the oboe. Each section presented below is a topic to be discussed on its own, but this is a very broad overview of oboe reed making.

Step 1: Choose the Cane

Oboe cane can be purchased in different stages from tube cane up to gouged shaped and folded. Tube cane is sold by weight, either grams, pounds or kilograms and is sorted by diameter. Most American reed makers use cane with a diameter of 10.0mm to 11.0mm. The smaller diameter will create a reed with a larger opening, a larger diameter will create a reed with a smaller diameter.

The opening size is related to the curve of the outside of the cane, so larger diameter oboe cane will  have slightly less curvature which corresponds to smaller opening when the two blades meet. I think that the wider the shaper tip selected, the larger the diameter that the tube cane should be. Small diameter cane used with a wide shaper will result in reeds that are too open, and large diameter cane used with a narrow shaper will result in reeds that are too closed. I would suggest using oboe tube cane that is around 10.5mm when you are first learning to make oboe reeds. The internal dimension of the oboe reed is going to affect”The Big Three” (oboe reed intonation, response and resistance) to varying degrees.

There are several other factors besides the diameter of the cane that will determine the opening, so you may use  as small diameter cane and still get reeds that are too closed due to gouge,  staples, or other variables. One must balance all variables to find something that works for the individual’s style of playing and setup. That is a common theme you will hear from me in this website. I have played on a lot of different reeds made by some fine oboists and they all play a bit differently.

Step 2: Split the tube cane

The tube cane is first split into thirds using a cane splitter. Some people use a razor blade to split the tubes, I would not suggest that unless you are more advanced at making oboe reeds.

Step 3: Cut the cane segments to length

The three sections are then examined for straightness and curvature. The most promising section of oboe cane will be cut to length by a device called a guillotine. Cane that is not straight or has a curve should be discarded. I suggest being picky with the oboe cane you choose to use at every step to not waste time or energy, a curved piece of cane will cause leaky oboe reeds once it is gouged, shaped and tied onto the staple.

You may feel you need to get as many reeds as possible out of a batch of cane due to the high prices involved. I would advise not trying to save money over your time. Every piece of cane that is pushed through a piece of machinery is ultimately a cost of time fidgeting with sub-par reeds, and time and financial cost of  maintanance on the machines.  The young reed maker may need to gain experience with picking usable cane, so they may decide to split every piece of tube cane to gain a better understanding of the process and what to discard.

Step 4: Pre-gouge the oboe cane

excess cane must be removed with a pre-gouging machine or planing board and planer. The more cane that can be removed at this point the less gouging that will need to be done in the next step. More pre-gouging means less gouging, words of wisdom to remember when making oboe reeds. This will save your gouger blade, and maintenance on your gouging machine over time. I use both a planing board and Reeds n Stuff pre-gouger before I gouge oboe cane, this allows me to use my gouger for only a few passes on the cane. The planing board narrows the oboe cane to the dimension I desire, and the pre-gouger scoops out the center of the cane to .75mm as I have it set up so less time and energy is spent sharpening and setting up my gouging machines.

The pre-gouging process has the potential to change the gouge of the oboe reeds. A piece of cane that is not pregouged properly will change the gouge dimensions of the cane. Let me try to explain this; lets say we use the same gouging machine consistently and it is set up to have a certain center and side thickness and curve. If you do not use cane that is consistently pregouged to have a certain width it may change the dimensions of the gouge depending on the gouging machine involved. I find this to be most important on double radius machines. This is due to the side of the blade  catching the cane at a slightly different angle related to the cane width.  You may want to ask what the gouging machine technician or  maker suggests for pre -gouging if you are not able to maintain your own machines.

Step 5: Gouge the cane

The pre-gouged oboe cane is now ready to be gouged using a gouging machine. The gouge is very important when making reeds, one of, if not the most important step in reed making (though every step affects the next so they are all important). A gouging machine is basically a curved blade which moves along a guide. The blade scoops out the center section of the cane thinning it at a specific curve and to specific dimensions. Different machines will have different curves to the blade, and provide more or less control to the finished dimensions of the cane. This is another topic altogether, though, one worthy of its own discussion. Any oboist that wants to be self-sufficient as a reed maker must learn the basics of gouging machine set-up, only then will they ever truly learn how to make oboe reeds.

The piece of pre-gouged oboe cane is placed into the machine and the blade is moved back and forth in a smooth motion. Shavings are progressively taken away from the cane until no more can be removed (assuming the gouger is set up properly). Learning how to make oboe reeds with a gouging machine that is not working proper will cause many frustrations.

A gouging machine must be properly set-up to produce a piece of oboe cane with a center thickness of .57mm-.62mm and a side thickness of .45mm-.50mm for the American “long scrape” reed . There are likely oboists out there that will have success with a gouge outside of these dimensions, these numbers are a good place to start. These measurements are referring to the measurement of the curving part of the cane (the half moon) .60mm in the center and .47mm on the sides. The oboe reeds will lack depth and pitch stability if the center gouge is too thin. They will be “mushy” and dull if the gouge is too thick because too much cane will need to be scraped off later in the process. If the sides are too thin the tied reed will have loose sides, and sound brittle and be flat, if it is too thick the reed will sound tubby and be overly resistant unless over-scrapped.

These are general observations and can change with factors such as the shape of the finished oboe reed, the hardness of the cane and cellular structure of the cane ( thickness of  each layer of cane). Each piece of oboe  cane should be measured with a micrometer to ensure consistency. Cane can be gouged slightly differently depending on factors such as the shaper tip that will be used as mentioned earlier.

Gouge related to shape

A wider shape should have slightly thicker sides in relation to the center in my opinion. When I use a wide shape such as the Westwind Delancie shape I gouge cane with a center of .59 and a side measurement of .49. I feel this helps the pitch to be high enough without too much resistance. I suggest going with something standard and finding a shape that works well with the gouge unless you are comfortable adjusting machines and already competent at making oboe reeds. Learning to balance gouge to shape is an advanced topic in oboe reed making. That is again a topic for an oboe reed making book in itself.

Step 6: Shape the cane.

The Gouged oboe cane is now ready to be shaped. A piece of gouged cane is either scored using a easel and blade then folded, or it can be folded over a blade or folded free hand between the fingers. I suggest using an easel and knife for those just starting their journey of making oboe reeds. The folded oboe  cane is now placed over a shaper tip and clamped onto the shaper handle. A razor blade is used to take the cane off the sides until it has the same curve as the shaper tip.

There are a lot of different shaper tips/templates available to try. The wider a shape the easier it will be to articulate in the lower register, the more air it can take without being overblown, the more low overtones that can be produced within the sound, but also the flatter the reed will play, and the more difficult it will be to play in the higher registers.

wide vs narrow oboe reed shape

A wide reed can promote biting if too little air and support is used, some people like to bite, I do not encourage it. A narrow shape will provide an oboe reed that has more pitch stability throughout the entire range. It will promote a loose embouchure but will lack some depth in the lower partials of the sound (for me at least). As I personally become more advanced as an oboist and reed maker I tend to move toward a more narrow shape. Perhaps this is due to developing a greater understanding of support related to air volume, and striving for efficiency in my own playing.  This information is based on my own observations, so a reed maker/oboist with a different physical build and set-up may have a deep rich sound using a very narrow shape. The oboist will learn to make oboe reeds to suit their specific needs with time.

The gouge of the oboe cane must also be considered when speaking of tone and pitch, so shape alone determines only tendencies, not absolutes. Like  with other aspects of learning how to make  oboe reeds, it is a rather complicated balancing game. I suggest starting with a shape that is not too wide or too narrow, and balance the shape to the gouge when starting and not gouge to shape. I spent a lot of time early in my studies playing with different gouges and shapes and ultimately came to the conclusion that there is a reason that certain things are considered “standard”, it is because it works well. I was stubborn and needed to learn to make oboe reeds in my own way, even while my teacher was shaking his head.

Step 7: Tie the oboe reed blank

The shaped cane is now ready to be tied onto the staple (tube). The standard oboe staple is 47mm long and come in a variety of styles and materials. Longer staples will make flatter reeds, shorter staples will make flatter oboe reeds. Staples can be used to compensate/balance the qualities of shape and gouge. A wide shape may be tied onto a short staple to compensate for the lower pitch of the wide shaped oboe reed, though I again suggest to start with the standards and become proficient in that. Learn to make oboe reeds that work well in all registers before feeling you need to look for the perfect tone.

The oboe staple is placed on a mandrel for the tying process so the metal does not become deformed due to the string tension around it. The mandrel should come just to the edge of the oboe staple.

The shaped oboe cane is placed onto the staple and thread is wrapped around the cane and staple until it is knotted at the end several times. Great care must be taken to ensure the sides of the cane do not leak, that the oboe reed is not over-wrapped past the end of the staple (47mm), that the cane is straight and not tilted to one side or the other, and that the thread tension is tight throughout the entire tying process to ensure the wrap is tight and does not become unraveled. The tied oboe reed at this point is called a “blank”. Some oboe reed makers will sell reed blanks that are ready to be scraped. I suggest students learning to make oboe reeds tie their own reeds and not buy blanks. Every step is important to learn, especially learning to tie the oboe reed.

oboe reed tie on length

The length of the oboe reed  blank will be 71mm–74mm dependent on the shaper dimensions. A Wider shape will usually be tied on longer than a more narrow shape, though this is not universally true. The length of an oboe reed blank will be determined by the personal preference of the oboist, the gouge of the cane, the thickness, and shape of the staple as well as the shape of the cane.

I suggest trying to tie the oboe reed as long as possible so the cane just closes at the edge of the oboe staple. This will usually be a little shorter on a thick wall staple and a little longer on a thin wall staple ,though I have come across staples that do not follow that logic due to the opening dimensions of the staples. A staple with a narrow opening may allow a reed to be tied on slightly longer, where a staple with a larger opening will require more cane be tied onto the staple.

Step 8: Scrape the oboe reed.

The  oboe reed blank is ready to have the ears removed. The ears are the small protrusions at the tip of the blank that were left from the shaping process. I suggest these be removed with a sharp beveled knife with great care to remove them in their entirety. Ears that are not removed properly will cause the tip of the reed to leak. If the reed does leak a little at the tip it can often be fixed by rubbing fine grit sand paper along the sides of the tip of the reed. I use 2000 grit sand paper found in the automotive body work section of a store.The shiny bark of the cane is now removed, and cane is progressively removed to make the oboe reed vibrate properly. I remove cane over  a period of several days of soaking and drying periods to provide greater stability in the finished oboe reed. The following is not a rule for how oboe reeds must be made, but it is my own method and may provide some insight.

The shiny bark of the cane is now removed, and cane is progressively removed to make the oboe reed vibrate properly. I remove cane over  a period of several days of soaking and drying periods to provide greater stability in the finished oboe reed. The following is not a rule for how oboe reeds must be made, but it is my own method and may provide some insight.

Oboe reed making schedule

This breakdown is by no means the rule, but it may provide students with a framework for learning how to make oboe reeds. I make  reeds in batches, so I may be doing each step to 20-40 reeds at a time and have 5-10 batches of reeds moving through the process at any given time.  Sometimes some reeds will be finished earlier than others even though I am doing roughly the same thing to each reed.  That just goes to further show that every reed is slightly different.

Day 1-

The bark is removed from the tip and heart of oboe reed starting at the tip and moving back to the heart always moving through the tip. I try to get the reed vibrating freely with a harsh crow, with no concern for overall pitch or the pitches within the rattle.

Day 2-

I remove the bark from the window area and continue to thin the tip of the reed and integrate the tip into the heart. The oboe  reed will be crowing with less rattle though usually flat and long. I start to define the “V” tip slightly, removing cane frome the sides of the reed and staying away from the center.

Day 3-

I clip the tip of the oboe reed until it is crowing around a “C”, usually a little flat. I continue to define the tip and integrate the tip to the heart. I may scrape more from the windows and balance the overall  reed of it feels tight (tip vibrating without the back). I clip and thin the tip so the reed is stable and not overly resistant. The oboe  reed could be played at this point but will lack certain tonal qualities that I desire and be flat without biting.

Day 4-

I clip the oboe reed to crow a flat C (10-20 cents flat).  I define the windows and then balance the tip and heart to the change from taking out the window cane. Sometimes the oboe reed will go a little sharper from this adjustment, sometimes a little flatter. I attribute this inconsistency to the fact that as cane is removed the pitch goes down, but as the internal dimensions get smaller the pitch will go up. When cane is removed from the back the oboe reed has a tendency to close up slightly due to the change in the skeleton keeping the reed rigid. Be careful to leave a spine so the oboe reed does not collapse in the center. The spine does not need to be overly thick, but it should be present to provide enough structural integrity for the oboe  reed to stay open and have a long life. I will usually crow the oboe  reed at this point and scrape the back and clip the tip to hear 2–3 octave “Cs”. Scraping behind the heart will usually bring out the 2nd “C” and scraping a few Millimeters  (5–8) above the thread often brings out the 3rd “C”. This is once again not a universal but is common in my own experience when reed making.

Day 5-

I balance the oboe  reed from tip to back and clip the reed to crow at my desired pitch (a slightly flat C natural 5-10 cents).  At this point I decide if the reed is ready to be sold, or be adjusted one more time for some reason or another. I try to leave the reeds I sell ever so slightly flat for my crow  so the idividual has some flexibility in their playing. The individual can either squeeze the back of the reed slightly to make the pitch sit up, or they can use slightly more  embouchure pressure. I personally want to open my embouchure with very little pressure on the reed, play right on the tip of the reed , and  use a lot of support to create a very high pressure stream of air.  Read Adjusting oboe reed pitch without any tools, and the internal dimensions of the double reed,  for more information on these topics.

Days 6-365

 for the reeds I make for myself I continue to thin the very tip of the reed and the sides of the tip. oboe reed making does not stop at the reed desk. I continue to thin directly behind the heart and balance to that adjustment by clipping the tip and again thinning the sides of the tip. I may balance the reed this way  several more times before I consider the reed finished and stable. These are very small adjustments where very little cane comes off each time.

I have been called “the Anti-oboist” because I tend to be pretty laid back and relaxed by nature, but internally I consider myself a long-term perfectionist. I am a perfectionist about processes and making them as efficient as possible. I see reed making and oboe playing as a process that can always be improved upon. When it comes to reeds I have no problem working on a reed for several hours only to throw it away or give it to a student. I am willing to settle less and less for somthing that is not just right for a given situation as I improve my skills. I wish you the same good fortune in your reed making.

I hope to provide a lot more information to students that want to learn how to make oboe reeds . My goal is to let this blog become a resource for my own oboe students and oboe reed making students. I also want to share my knowledge with everyone interested in making oboe reeds.

Please feel free to comment with your insights into learning how to make oboe reeds, I love talking shop with other oboe reed makers. I am also happy to answer the questions of those oboe students just learning how to make oboe reeds.  Happy obo(e)ing

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Make oboe reeds, a step by step overview
Learn how to make an oboe reed from start to finish. This is an overview of the oboe reed making process created by oboist Aaron Lakota. You can expect to have a rough idea of how to make an oboe reed after reading this article.
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