I find that I get along quite well with cane that is gouged to a thickness of 1.25 mm or 1.3 (12 cm long). If you use soaked cane on your gouger, it seems to put less strain on the machine. But, at the moment, I usually do it with dry cane.
Next, I inspect it very carefully. I am quite ruthless at discarding pieces of cane that do not pass my rather strict criteria: Colour: not too green or yellow and not too brown. Nice golden straw colour is fine. Dark blotches on the bark are fine, but silvery grey mouldy looking patches are not unless very small. Grain: nice close grain is good. Uneven closeness of grain – discard. Warping of the cane into a bowed shape (side to side or up and down) – discard. Twisting of the cane – discard. Any unevenness in the gouge (end to end or side to side) – discard. If you put the cane on a flat surface, gouged side down, the two long edges should each lie perfectly flat. Discarded pieces don’t get thrown away because they can be used for setting up profilers etc.
At this stage I will measure the density and the hardness of the cane. Both these measurements tend to correlate quite well but making sure that they are both within the parameters you set for yourself will be the biggest factor in making sure that the proportion of finished reeds ending up as duds is kept to a minimum.
When playing on a new reed, I hate that ‘frying bacon’ sound you get sometimes when playing quietly. I think it is caused by moisture inside the reed but never seems to be a problem when a reed is fully blown in although it can recur on an old reed if a plaque is inserted when you scrape it. I’ve tried many things over the years but can never guarantee that it will be eliminated. What seems to help most is repeated soaking and drying to raise the grain (say 3 or 4 times), sanding with wet and dry sand paper each time. The sanding is only to remove the raised grain – not to make the gouge thinner. I use 400 grade sand paper until the final sanding for which I use 600 grade. For this stage as well as later stages, I cut large sheets into pieces about 4 inches by 1 inch. Before using each piece, if necessary, I pull it over the edge of a table to make it easier to form a gentle curve to wrap round a finger-tip.
Shaping the cane:
Since I have spent most of my career as a Second Bassoon in an opera orchestra where I often have to play unbelievably quietly at the bottom of the instrument, the reeds I make for myself are designed for maximum stability, flexibility and control and they are, therefore, quite wide – not only at the tip but, at least as importantly, at the throat. These reeds are not for playing Bolero or Carmina Burana or for playing with colleagues who tend to be a bit sharp. I use a rather lovely but rather expensive shaping machine made by Reeds’n’Stuff to the same dimensions as a Prestini No 3 straight shape. This shape gives all the stability and safety I look for in a reed.
Straight shapes and shaping machines are to be used before the cane is profiled whilst fold-over shapes require the profiling to be done first. They are probably as good as each other. Before I got my shaping machine, I used a flat shape. This shape takes cane that is 120mm long. If it’s longer, it won’t fit in but, if it’s a bit shorter, you must make sure it’s exactly centered end to end. It must also be centered side to side. Use a Stanley ‘slim knife’ with a straight blade (No 5901) and shave off thin slivers going deeper each time till, with the final cut, the blade (which is slightly bendy) is pressed flat against the shape. The cane must end up flush with the metal; but try not to gouge scratches into the metal with the knife. Each blade will only do a few pieces of cane before it gets blunt or gets nicks in it and I then would throw it away. Somewhere near where the first wire will end up, the shape will be at its narrowest. Cut towards this point from the middle and from the end so that no cane splits away that shouldn’t. Then on to the next piece of cane. Time taken: up to 5 minutes. But if you’re just starting, don’t be surprised if it takes you as much as 15-20 minutes.
If you’ve been buying ready shaped cane and are happy with it, try to find a shape that matches it as closely as possible. Try and get some different shapes on ‘sale or return’ from your supplier, but don’t expect anyone to accept as a return a shape that you have left scratch marks on from the knife. You’ll have to place your pre-shaped cane in the shape, align it very carefully, and just see/feel if it is too wide, too thin or just right. The legendary German reed maker Ludwig used to shape his cane by hand without a shape, judging it just by eye. Incredible! But I don’t recommend this for us mortals.