Forming the Reed

Forming the reed:
There are many ways of transforming a piece of gouged, shaped and profiled cane into a reed and each method is fine if the end result is a reed that is air-tight, round at the base, evenly elliptical at the throat, with the edges of the blades meeting exactly with or without a slight sideways overlap (or ‘slip’) and with no cracks or splits in the blade or the stock. What follows is a description of the method that I use .

1) Soaking the cane. When we come to form a reed from a piece of cane we will be doing something deeply traumatic to it. It will be forced into a shape that nature never intended for it and so it should be made as pliable as possible. Stephen Maxim used to leave wet cane in a jam jar with a loose-fitting lid in a cool oven for 24 hours but some just make do with a couple of hours in lukewarm water or perhaps overnight. If the cane has not sunk, it will not be wet enough. If it takes more than a few hours to sink, it will generally be soft cane and won’t produce a good reed. If you let it soak for more than a day or so, various chemicals in the structure of the cane start to leach out which some think is a good thing and others not good (it possibly makes the reed last less long).

2) Folding the cane. Take a blunt knife and place the centre line of the cane along its edge and then press with your thumb against it so that a neat fold is made. Then fold this flat. If you’ve done everything right, the two sides should be in exactly the same length. 

3) Wrapping in string. Take a length of fairly thick cotton string, and start wrapping it snugly around the reed, starting near where the the first wire will be, moving down the stock to the end that will go on the crook then returning so that you have a double thickness of string. Continue past the first wire and make four or five more turns at the base of the blade.

4) Opening up the stock. Insert the tip of a long forming mandrel (Fox make an excellent one that is reasonable reasonably priced  ( or you can use a thin centre punch from a tool shop)  for about a quarter of an inch and move it around so as to break up the cane where it was scored to relieve pressure in the centre and reduce the likelihood of a split of occurring and also to help the opening to end up absolutely round. Hold the reed gently from the sides through the string just near the first wire with a pair of pliers or finger and thumb. Ease the mandrel gently up into the reed whilst helping its progress by gently squeezing the sides through the string. When it’s in far enough to have made the end circular, knead the end with the pliers. Then, out with the long forming mandrel and in with the ordinary mandrel. Again ease this in by opening the throat gently with the pliers. Insert it just past the mark on it that the finished reed will reach. Now knead the cane very firmly against the mandrel with the pliers again through the string. At this point, leave the reed to dry out completely on a mandrel or a drying board. Take the drying board into your bedroom and listen to the clicking sound your newly formed reeds make when they’re drying while you fall asleep. If you’ve got a batch of a couple of dozen reeds it can really be quite noisy.

5) Drying and bevelling.  I like to leave this ‘cocoon’ for a couple of weeks. As it dries out, you might have to push it down a bit further to keep everything nice and round.
When it is completely dry, take it off the mandrel, undo the string, unhinge the reed and bevel the edges with wet and dry sandpaper as described earlier. 

6) Putting on the wires. Put the reed back on the mandrel slightly beyond the mark where it will end up and put the third wire in place to hold it there. Two turns is OK but I now make three turns. Put the first and second wires in place with the first wire right next to the shoulder. I have a gap between the first and second wires of 8 mm which happens to be the width of the pair of pliers I use to tighten the wires. Move the reed off the mandrel until it reaches its correct mark and then re-tighten the third wire. Place the reed firmly back on a drying board. If you make your reeds one at a time, you can get away with drying your newly formed reeds on a mandrel, but, if you make batches of half a dozen or more, you’ll need a drying board which can be bought from various sources. These are a bit pricey for what they are but you can use a plastic cotton reel box with pegs that happen to be just the right size. You can get one  from somewhere like HobbyShop in the UK or search on line for ‘Super Satchel Thread Box’. For less than £20, you get a reed drying capacity of 108 reeds! You’ll need to take about half an inch off the end of each peg with some wire cutters or something similar. You’re then left of course with the daunting task of filling it up. Once your ‘blank’ is formed, leave it alone! Let it settle down for at least a week. A month or two is ideal and it won’t come to any harm if left for a year. Don’t leave it near a radiator or on a sunny windowsill.

Barrick Stees is the Associate Principle Bassoon in the Cleveland Orchestra and he teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He obviously takes his teaching very seriously and expects his students to reciprocate. On his web site (, he goes through the various stages of reed-making very clearly and in great detail and I would recommend all reed makers to read it.