Posts Tagged ‘reeds’

An Inexpensive Cane Scoring Tool

Scoring is the process of cutting a number of parallel vertical lines in the bark a piece of gouged, shaped, and profiled cane. These cuts make it easier to form the cane into a cylindrical tube and help prevent cracking during the forming process. Different reed makers have various theories of scoring, involving different numbers, spacing, length, and depth of score marks. There is also quite a variety of tools one can choose from to actually perform the scoring, ranging from a $4 utility knife to Rieger's €946 scoring machine. The tool I have used for years is close to the inexpensive end of this spectrum. It is simply a tap (a tool for cutting screw threads) mounted in a file handle.

Parts and Assembly

Left: file handle and tap. Right: assembled scoring tool.

I certainly can't claim to have invented this - I saw Professor James Lotz at Tennessee Tech University demonstrate such a tool when I was a budding reed maker in high school. Miller Marketing also sells a scoring tool that looks to be basically the same thing, made by 2XReed. I don't remember what the original tap and handle cost (I've been using the same scoring tool for about 15 years). But I recently made a second one to keep in my office, and the parts came to a whopping $8. Here are a tap and handle similar to the ones that I recently purchased. If you're lucky, the tap will just fit snugly in the handle - my first tool went together that way with a simple friction fit. If you're unlucky (as I was with my recent parts), you'll have to glue the tap into the handle to keep it in place. No big deal. There are probably higher quality file handles out there with more consistent construction, but this is what my local hardware store had.

Tap Close-up

Detail of the tap

The specific size of the tap isn't critical - you just need something with cutting teeth (close up at right) with the spacing you want to achieve in your scoring lines. I use a tap for cutting 10-24 threads; the 2XReed tap looks bigger. If you actually buy your tap at a hardware store rather than online, you can just looks at all the different choices and pick one that looks right to you.

To use the tool, first put your piece of cane on an easel. Then, hold the tool perpendicular to the cane at the point you want to start your score lines - I like to start just above the second wire. Make sure that you have the edge of one set of cutting teeth lined up to dig into the cane, apply a bit of pressure, and draw the tool straight down your cane. I like to plant my thumb on the back end of the easel and use a sort of closing-the-hand motion to help keep my lines straight. One pass with the tool with score about half the width of the cane. To score the other side, just repeat the action on the other side. You can put one tooth of the scoring tool the last existing line to keep the proper spacing and direction of your score marks. I've thrown together a quick animation of the scoring process:

Scoring Animation

Click to see an animation of the scoring process

Finished Cane

Cane after a couple of passes with the tool

And there you have it: eight or nine perfectly parallel score marks in a matter of a few seconds. Above right you can see a piece of cane after a couple of passes with the scoring tool. I went a little too high on the left side of this piece of cane, but it's not a big deal. It does take a little practice to align the cutting teeth properly, and also to make the first cut perfectly straight. But getting the hang of it doesn't take very long, and pretty quickly you'll be getting very consistent results. The one drawback of this method is that it doesn't quite cut as deeply as I'd like; I like my scoring to go all the way through the cane at the back end. So, I typically deepen the marks with a utility knife - another pretty quick operation.

The $3 Bassoon Reed Case

Case With Reeds

The $3 Reed Case

I have a num­ber of nice reed cas­es: a leather-covered three-reed case that came with my bas­soon, a nine-reed wood­en case by Wise­man, and a cou­ple of beau­ti­ful maple cas­es by Roger Gar­rett. But I always seem to need more lit­tle box­es for trans­port­ing reeds for stu­dents, stash­ing French or peri­od bas­soon reeds, or just to hold over­flow from my oth­er cas­es. My go-to for this sort of thing is the tried-and-true Altoids tin. But Altoids tins are just slight­ly the wrong dimen­sions to be a tru­ly space-efficient reed case, and as a result I’ve always got my eye out for oth­er lit­tle tins or box­es. Ver­mints tins are a marked improve­ment (they’re a bit wider and shal­low­er than Altoids tins). But I recent­ly stum­bled across some lit­tle hinged plas­tic box­es at the Con­tain­er Store that are near­ly per­fect.

Reed Case Tools and Materials

Reed Case Tools and Mate­ri­als

Best of all, they’re only $2 a pop. Add a ~$1 sheet of foam from a craft store and some tools you almost cer­tain­ly already have lying around, and you’ve got a seven-reed case for about $3. Here’s all you’ll need to make one:



  • Duco cement
  • X-acto or util­i­ty knife
  • ruler

You can buy specially-made strips of reed foam from Reeds ‘n Stuff. I’ve used them, and they work well. But the foam hold­ers in my Wise­man case hold reeds in a more com­pact fash­ion, so I decid­ed to basi­cal­ly copy that design for this case. The Wise­man foam isn’t a purpose-made strip but is actu­al­ly made up of mul­ti­ple lit­tle pieces glued togeth­er: tall pieces to go between reeds, short pieces to go under them, and long strips at the top and bot­tom to hold it all togeth­er. Using that method I can fit sev­en reeds in this 94mm-wide plas­tic case; the Reeds ‘n Stuff strip would only fit five in the same space.

Foam Pieces

Emp­ty Box and Foam Pieces

The first step is to cut lit­tle pieces out of the foam sheet. The pre­cise dimen­sions will depend on the thick­ness of your foam — mine is 5mm thick. I decid­ed to make the top and bot­tom strips 6mm wide and the entire cen­ter assem­bly 15mm wide. The cen­ter assem­bly is made up of eight 12mm x 15mm blocks (placed ver­ti­cal­ly) and sev­en 7mm x 15mm blocks (placed hor­i­zon­tal­ly). I neglect­ed to get a good pic­ture of the foam assem­bly itself, but you should be able to fig­ure out how it’s put togeth­er from the fin­ished case pic­tures.

After I cut out all the foam bits, I did a dry fit in the plas­tic box. I hadn’t account­ed for the box’s beveled edges, so I had to trim a bit of foam off the cor­ners of the end pieces. After a lit­tle tri­al and error, I had every­thing fit­ting snug­ly. I made sure the foam assem­bly was squared up to the edges of the box, and then I used my knife to light­ly score the box’s bot­tom to mark the foam’s posi­tion. I removed the foam, and then used some sand­pa­per to rough up the plas­tic where the foam would be glued in. The box’s sur­face is very smooth, so rough­ing it up a bit pro­vides the glue with a bet­ter sur­face to which to adhere.

Then, it’s just a mat­ter of apply­ing glue to the box and to the appro­pri­ate areas of each piece of foam (where they’ll con­tact the box or oth­er foam), and assem­bling it all. I put in the upper nar­row strip first, then built the cen­ter assem­bly from left to right, then applied the bot­tom nar­row strip to square it all up. I cut some more bits of foam in basi­cal­ly a reverse pat­tern so that clos­ing the case clamped it all togeth­er while the glue dried. I picked Duco because that’s some­thing we bas­soon­ists tend to have lying around, but cyano­acry­late (super glue) may actu­al­ly be a bet­ter choice for this sort of plas­tic. Time will tell if I need to re-glue any­thing.

Since I’m plan­ning to use this as an aux­il­iary reed case, I didn’t both­er punch­ing any holes in it. But if you plan to use one of these on a day-to-day basis and antic­i­pate putting your reeds away wet, you should pro­vide it with some form of ven­ti­la­tion. I bet a sol­der­ing iron could melt nice lit­tle air holes in this plas­tic — don’t breathe in the fumes, though.

Two Views of the Finished Case

Two Views of the Fin­ished Case

One note about using this case: the reeds are so close togeth­er that you have to tilt them slight­ly to fit them all in (you can see the tilt­ing and over­lap in the pho­to above). I’ve done this for years with my Wise­man case, but it might seem a lit­tle strange if you’ve nev­er done it before. There’s plen­ty of ver­ti­cal clear­ance on both sides for the reeds to sit safe­ly this way, and if you treat both reeds and case with the prop­er care, this con­fig­u­ra­tion shouldn’t cause any prob­lems.

My Daily Tool Kit

In a previous post, I set out the basic tools and materials that I like my students to have. These are all necessary for my method and style of reed making, but I don't need all of them every day. I keep a streamlined set of tools in my bassoon case for the daily business of finishing and adjusting reeds. I've spent a good deal of time figuring out what I truly need to carry with me, and have acquired alternate versions of some tools to keep my kit as compact as possible. My kit also contains a couple of items for quick instrument fixes. I gave sources for some of these in my post on basic reed tools, so I'll only provide links for the new items.

Raily Reed Tools

  1. Utility Knife - My big Stanley knife is pain to haul around, so I carry this svelte Gerber EAB folding knife instead.
    Source: Amazon
  2. Pliers - Forming pliers aren't necessary for daily adjustments, so I carry this small pair of Craftsman needle nose pliers instead.
    Source: Sears
  3. Reed Knife - I like this folding Fox knife for its small size.
    Source: Midwest Musical Imports
  4. Honing Steel - Regular use of this Victorinox steel (made for pocket knives and remounted in a file handle by me) lets me sharpen my knife a little less frequently.
    Source: Smoky Mountain Knife Works (or find one on eBay)
  5. Emery Board - Half of a wide coarse board fits here nicely.
  6. Cutting Block - I prefer trimming reeds with my Reeds 'n Stuff guillotine, but this and a utility knife will do in a pinch.
  7. Screwdrivers - These two jeweler's-style flathead screwdrivers came with my Püchner, but can be easily obtained elsewhere.
  8. Files - Just round and flat for daily use.
  9. Plaque - Big, plastic, and red. Easy to see if you drop it onstage or in a dark pit. Large enough to use for contra reeds, too.
  10. Short (Holding) Mandrel - Fox: simple and compact.
  11. Toothbrush Head - For quickly cleaning shavings out of the reamer.
    Source: any drug store
  12. Reamer - My trusty Rieger.
  13. Sandpaper - A stack of small rectangles (cut from a larger sheet) of 320 grit wet/dry lasts a while.
  14. Caliper - great for making repeated measurements on different reeds.
    Source: Sears
  15. Ruler - Although I mostly use the small caliper above, this small six-inch ruler takes up almost no space and comes in handy from time to time as well.
    Source: Office Depot
  16. Spring Hook - I made this out of a big paper clip years ago, and haven't yet felt the need to upgrade to the real thing.
    Source: your desk drawer

All together, these tools cover about 99% of what I'll ever have to do during a rehearsal or practice session. I wish I could carry my guillotine with me, but it's just too big. As you can see below, all the tools I've listed above fit comfortably into my leather tool wallet, which itself fits very nicely into the accessory pouch of my Marcus Bonna Gentleman's case. No cramming necessary!

Daily Reed Tools in Case

Basic Reed Tools

Basic Reed ToolsOver the past cou­ple of weeks, I’ve been cor­re­spond­ing with one of my incom­ing fresh­men about what reed tools and mate­ri­als he’ll need when he arrives at school in the fall. This has inspired me to assem­ble a real list of the equip­ment that I want a begin­ning reed mak­er to have. I’ve combed the three dou­ble reed spe­cial­ty shops that I typ­i­cal­ly do busi­ness with (For­rests Music, Mid­west Musi­cal Imports, and Miller Mar­ket­ing) along with a few nation­al chains (Ace Hard­ware, Home Depot, and Wal­greens) for the best prices on my rec­om­mend­ed items. There are a cou­ple of things that I rec­om­mend get­ting from Bar­rick Stees and Christlieb Prod­ucts, as well. For most items I’ve also list­ed oth­er options, in case you’d like to buy a bet­ter knife, or save on ship­ping by order­ing from few­er mer­chants. I won’t go through exact­ly how I use all of these now — that’s a top­ic for anoth­er post.


Form­ing pli­ers (with a smooth hole in the jaws for shap­ing the tube of the reed) are a spe­cial­ty item, and there aren’t too many choic­es in brands. I pre­fer the orange han­dled Knipex/Rieger ver­sion. These have larg­er han­dles than some of the oth­ers, and are very well made. They also hap­pen to be the least expen­sive of the bunch.

Best Price: $45, Miller Mar­ket­ing (RBPLRS)
Oth­er Sources: For­rests Music (#E-29), Mid­west Musi­cal Imports

Reed Knife

I own a a few dif­fer­ent knives, and each one has things I like and things I don’t. I think all that real­ly mat­ters is that you find some­thing that fits your hand com­fort­ably and that you can keep sharp rel­a­tive­ly eas­i­ly.

Best Price: $24, Mid­west Musi­cal Imports (Rig­ot­ti straight knife)
Oth­er Knives: Mid­west Musi­cal Imports, For­rests Music, Miller Mar­ket­ing

Utility Knife

Any basic util­i­ty knife will do. I like the kind that take the stan­dard trape­zoidal blades, rather than the ones with sec­tioned snap-off blades. These (along with extra blades) should be easy to find at any hard­ware store. My stan­dard knife is a beefy-handled retractable Stan­ley that holds extra blades inside.

Best Price: $4.48, Home Depot
Oth­er Sources: Ace Hard­ware

Short (Holding) Mandrel

I have a cou­ple of these, one by Fox and one by Rig­ot­ti. There are many oth­er brands to choose from, too — all that real­ly mat­ters is that you find one that’s con­fort­able in your hand.

Best Price: $15, Miller Mar­ket­ing (2X Reed Man­drel)
Oth­er Man­drels: For­rests Music, Mid­west Musi­cal Imports


I hate the sound a knife makes when it scrapes on a met­al plaque, so I stick to plas­tic ones. Again, I have a few of these, but my favorite is a big red one that also works for con­tra reeds and is easy to spot when (not if) you drop it in a dark pit.

Best Price: $2, For­rests Music (#G-21)
Oth­er Sources: Mid­west Musi­cal Imports


Good ream­ers are sharp, have mul­ti­ple flut­ed spi­ral blades, and are pre­cise­ly made to match the taper of a bocal. As a result, they aren’t cheap. Ream­ers get infre­quent enough use that a new stu­dent can sub­sist for awhile by bor­row­ing those of his or her stu­dio­mates. But any­one doing seri­ous reed mak­ing will need one even­tu­al­ly. I like my Rieger ream­er, but there are good ream­ers for a lit­tle less mon­ey, too.

Best Price: $79, Miller Mar­ket­ing (Miller Mar­ket­ing Pro Spi­ral Ream­er) or $80, Bar­rick Stees
Oth­er Ream­ers: Mid­west Musi­cal Imports, For­rests Music (#E-31)

Handheld Torch

I like to heat my form­ing man­drels before using them (to make the cane more pli­able dur­ing form­ing), and have found a small hand­held butane torch to be the best heat source. These come in a vari­ety of shapes, sizes, and prices. Mine is an inex­pen­sive hard­ware store mod­el that sim­ply takes butane lighters as car­tridges. This is anoth­er item that can be bor­rowed from stu­dio­mates ini­tial­ly, if nec­es­sary.

Best Price: $20, Home Depot
Oth­er Torch­es: Home Depot, Ace Hard­ware 1, Ace Hard­ware 2

Forming Mandrels/Drying Rack

I like to form reeds on long man­drels, then allow them to dry before remov­ing them. My pins, which I love, were made by Accu­rate. Sad­ly, they’ve now gone out of busi­ness, but you can buy sim­i­lar racks/pins from oth­ers.

Best Price: $75, Christlieb Prod­ucts (6D Chucked Han­dle -and- 7A1 Dry­ing Board w/Brass Form­ing Man­drel Tips)
Anoth­er Option: Miller Mar­ket­ing (2XMS Reed Form­ing Man­drel Set)


My easel is just a six-inch sec­tion of tool han­dle that my under­grad­u­ate teacher, Dr. Jef­frey Lyman, cut for me. A 1.25″ dow­el will work too, but I pre­fer the higher-density tool han­dle wood. You can get very nice purpose-made easels too, but I’ve nev­er seen the need to shell out for one.

Best Price: $1.50, Home Depot ($12 tool han­dle, can be cut into at least 8 easels)
Oth­er Options: Ace Hard­ware (anoth­er tool han­dle), Mid­west Musi­cal Imports, For­rests Music

Measuring Device

The cheap­est and eas­i­est to find is a sim­ple six-inch ruler — just make sure that it has mil­lime­ter mark­ings.

Best Price: $2, Home Depot
Oth­er Sources: Mid­west Musi­cal Imports, For­rests Music (#R-05)


Some peo­ple make exten­sive use of files in their reed mak­ing; I don’t. I use a round file most often, and occa­sion­al­ly pick up my flat and tri­an­gu­lar files, too. You can buy very nice dia­mond files indi­vid­u­al­ly, or get a six-pack of assort­ed files from most hard­ware stores. A word of warn­ing — be sure to wash your files before use. They often have resid­ual machin­ing oils that will make your reeds taste awful.

Best Price: $9.40, For­rests Music (#E-26)
Oth­er Sources: Mid­west Musi­cal Imports, Miller Mar­ket­ing, Ace Hard­ware, Home Depot


One pack­age of 320 grit wet/dry sand­pa­per (usu­al­ly black or dark grey) will last quite awhile.

Best Price: $6, Home Depot

Emery Boards

Coarse emery boards work like sand­ing blocks (pro­vid­ing a rigid sand­ing sur­face), but are less expen­sive, eas­i­er to man­age, and more com­pact.

Best Price: $2, Wal­greens

Cutting Block

A sur­face to use when trim­ming the tips of reeds. A block with a diam­e­ter greater than 1 inch is best for bas­soon reeds.

Best Price: $11, Mid­west Musi­cal Imports
Oth­er Blocks: For­rests Music, Mid­west Musi­cal Imports

Cotton String

Anoth­er hard­ware store item — I use thick cot­ton string to wrap cane dur­ing the form­ing process.

Best Price: $3, Home Depot

22 Gauge Brass Wire

Some­times you can find this in a hard­ware store — make sure it’s 22 gauge, though! Larg­er spools can be ordered from pret­ty much any dou­ble reed sup­pli­er.

Price: $8–30, depend­ing on how large a spool you buy
Sources: For­rests Music (#G-05), Mid­west Musi­cal Imports, Miller Mar­ket­ing

Reed Tying Thread

I pre­fer nylon size FF thread. This also is avail­able from most dou­ble reed shops — in lots of col­ors!

Price: $6.50–10, depend­ing on brand
Sources: Miller Mar­ket­ing, For­rests Music, Mid­west Musi­cal Imports

Duco Cement

The old stand­by reed adhe­sive. Duco is avail­able in both met­al tubes and plas­tic bot­tles — which you buy is a mat­ter of per­son­al pref­er­ence and what your store stocks.

Best Price: $3, Miller Mar­ket­ing
Oth­er Sources: For­rests Music, Ace Hard­ware

Now, a few caveats about this list:

  1. These are the items that I con­sid­er essen­tial for my own style of reed mak­ing. Oth­er play­ers and teach­ers will like­ly have some­what dif­fer­ent lists.
  2. In list­ing the best prices for these items, I have tried to find tools that are suf­fi­cient for a begin­ning reed mak­er. They cer­tain­ly aren’t the only options, nor are they all the spe­cif­ic mod­els that I use on a dai­ly basis.
  3. If you buy all of the “Best Price” items on this list, it comes to about $320, not includ­ing tax or ship­ping charges. This may seem like a lot, but con­sid­er that with com­mer­cial reeds at $15–20 a pop, mak­ing your own reeds will recov­er the cost of tools in rel­a­tive­ly short order. If you real­ly want to, you can wait on the ream­er and torch, bring­ing the total down to about $220.
  4. There are tools I use fre­quent­ly that I haven’t includ­ed on this list, because there are ways of accom­plish­ing the same tasks with those I have list­ed.
  5. You will, of course, need some­thing to put all of these tools in. For­rests, Mid­west, and Miller all car­ry nice tool pouch­es, but you can also just use some­thing you’ve already got or even the ship­ping box your tools arrive in.
  6. There is one addi­tion­al item with­out which all of this is use­less: cane! But that’s a sub­ject for anoth­er day.

Although I’ve made this list pri­mar­i­ly for my own stu­dents, I hope that it will prove to be use­ful for oth­ers, as well. Hap­py reed mak­ing!

Harvesting Cane


The day before the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition and Bassoon Symposium started (see previous post), Stockton Symphony contrabassoonist Larry Rhodes (shown at right with San Francisco Symphony contrabassoonist Steve Braunstein) led a small group of us on a cane harvesting expedition. Giant cane (Arundo donax), which we bassoonists use to make our reeds, is classified as an invasive pest in California. It tends to grow in streams or marshy areas, and is primarily propagated by pieces floating along waterways and taking root in new locations. The area surrounding Stockton, most of which is part of the San Joaquin River Delta, is host to many stands of cane.

Larry found a particularly promising looking cane stand via Google Earth, then went in person to scope it out and obtain permission from the farmer on whose land it sits. Two carfuls of us drove out to the spot, about 25 minutes west of Stockton, where we met Larry and Steve. Larry showed us some of the cane he'd already cut, using it to demonstrate what we should be looking for in terms of diameter, growth patterns, and color. In short: for bassoon reeds you want green cane, about an inch in diameter, that has branches growing fairly low to the ground. He then set us loose in the cane patch. Armed with the small saws we'd brought, we spread out and started clambering in amongst the cane.

It became obvious very quickly that very different ages of cane grow all together. It took careful searching to find stalks of the proper size and age amongst lots of too-small, too-young, and dead stalks. We all started out slowly, cutting one stalk at a time and taking it to Larry for inspection. But, pretty soon we got the hang of just what it was we were looking for. The one thing we hadn't thought about was how we'd transport the cane back to Stockton (or back home, for those who'd flown in just for MQVC). Larry tied 80-something stalks to the roof of his station wagon, but our hauls were much smaller.

I ended up with about eight stalks, although I had to cut them in half to fit them in my car. After stripping the branches and discarding broken or too-small pieces, I now have just over a dozen five-to-six-foot sections of cane. They're now stuck up in the rafters of our garage, where they'll sit drying for the next six months or so. After that, I'll prop them upright in the sun for about two weeks months to complete the curing process. Then, I can cut 'em up, split the tubes, and get going on turning my harvest into reeds!

More photos from the expedition: