To the un-initiated, oboe reeds are mysterious, tiny, delicate pieces of wood that squeak when blown through. To the oboist, they are fickle tools which sometimes don’t cooperate and sometimes make the most beautiful music.
Let’s break down the main parts of a reed, starting with the materials we use to make them!
1. Arundo Donax aka “cane”
Arundo Donax, or cane is the woody material used to make the mouthpiece part of a reed. It’s a type of grass which grows in the wild all over the world, and used for all woodwind instrument reeds (clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, oboe). Cane is cultivated commercially in France, China, the US, Argentina, Spain, and probably other places too.
In order to use this big grass for a reed, we go through an extensive selection and finishing process until the cane has been cut down to size, made thinner, folded in half and shaped appropriately.
2. Staples aka Tubes aka Corks
Staples come in different metals, with different openings, different cork material, and different lengths. Oboists typically have one or two brands which they are loyal to. I’ve used a bunch of different ones based on the recommendations of different teachers or colleagues. Whether it’s brass or silver, natural or synthetic cork, we pick one particular brand of staple in the hopes that if we are consistent with a few variables things will go well more often.
3. Nylon or silk thread
I prefer to use nylon thread because it breaks less easily and it doesn’t slip as much as silk when you work with it. This isn’t your average nylon thread either, this is specialty stuff with a strong twist and thin diameter.
Beeswax is an integral part of learning how to make an oboe reed as a beginner. Without it, your cane slides all over the place and you come up with a reed that’s too long or too short. Beginners, take my advice and save yourself a headache: always wax your thread!
5. Specialized tools
There are many different tools that we use for making reeds, here are my most frequently used tools: