Knives etc.

Knife Safety:
Perhaps I should say a few words about reed knives and safety. Firstly, you often hear it said that a sharp knife is safer than a blunt one. I have to say that I think this is complete rubbish. A sharp knife is very dangerous and can cause severe injuries. The general rule about cutting away from yourself is only part of the story. The most important thing is always to have complete control over the blade and the thing being cut or scraped. This can be achieved by making some kind of contact between your two hands. Your forearms can rest on the edge of a table or your knees; or, when scraping a reed, use the thumb of the hand that’s holding the reed to steady the back of the blade; when using a shape, try using the thumb of the knife hand as a brace against the shape. Everything should feel firm. If it feels unsafe, it probably is. These rules apply to both scraping and cutting knives – both fixed and replaceable blades. There are some useful photos illustrating these points at One further point: if you do any teaching in schools, be particularly careful not to leave knives hanging around. Most schools these days have very strict rules about knives on school premises.

How to Sharpen a Reed Scraping Knife:
When scraping a reed, it is essential that you have an extremely sharp knife. A blunt knife crushes fibres at the surface of the reed thus making the reed, if anything, harder which is exactly the opposite if what you want. It is astonishing how quickly a knife-edge is made dull be that innocent-looking bit of cane. The reason for this is that Arundo Donax has, within its structure, tiny pieces of silica (i.e. glass!). A ‘Stanley’ knife with a new replaceable blade, although not really as rigid as it needs to be, is, in my opinion, better than a proper scraping knife that has become blunt. I know some woodwind shops provide a knife sharpening service, but I’ve often thought that they could give lessons in this technique to woodwind students at music colleges. So, in the meantime, for reed players who don’t use knives with replaceable blades, I would like to steer them towards the following websites showing sharpening techniques that I have found:
Nielsen Woodwind in the US have produced this YouTube video – Good clear advice here. – A couple of short video clips to watch here.
There is a very comprehensive booklet by Daryl Caswell who makes Landwell Knives covering most points ( He’s also made a video (
I use a knife made by Gregson Knives ( and I would strongly recommend them.
I keep it sharp with a Japanese water stone. Not only are these slightly less messy to use than an oil stone, but they are much faster because they are a ‘soft’ stone. If that sounds rather contradictory, let me explain: it is not the abrasive (silicone carbide, which is the fourth hardest substance known to Man) that is soft but the material that sticks the abrasive particles together. Therefore a fresh and sharp layer of grit is always being exposed making it sharpen your knife faster. Mine is 1000/6000 grit from Axminster Tools(

Get a Dial Indicator:
The next stages in finishing off your reed are traditionally done by holding the reed up to a light (an ‘Anglepoise’ is ideal) but I rely heavily on my dial indicator. This is a device which very accurately (i.e. to within 1 or 2 hundredths of a millimetre) measures thickness of the blade at different places. John Schroder made mine many years back but sadly has stopped making them ( I have 2 (one on a brass stand and another to be hand held which can be carried around in a bassoon case which I prefer to use all the time). There are many other sources (e.g. Howarths, Myatts, Reiger, Reeds’n’stuff etc.). The ‘tongue’ that is inserted between the blades will have notches on it (probably every tenth of an inch) but they can be difficult to see so what I’ve done is to paint the whole tongue with light grey metal primer and then paint coloured nail varnish in each alternate space. Make sure when you use a dial indicator that the reed is thoroughly wet or you might damage the tip. Once a reed has been broken in, I try not to use the dial indicator again because the smooth coating which develops on the inside gets disturbed and you can get that frying bacon sound in ppp‘s. If you have an exceptional reed, take measurements from it and keep a record so that you can try to copy it in the future.