Douglas Monroe


TERMS Arundo Donax-The genus and species of the cane used to make reeds. Back-The curved part of the reed with bark still attached. Bark-The ³skin´ on the outside of the tube/back of the reed. Blank-The section of cane used to make a reed before the cut has been made. Bottom-The flat side of the reed. Butt-The opposite end of the reed from the tip. Cut-The portion of the back of the reed where there is no longer bark. Cutting-The process of using a knife to remove cane from the reed in large portions. Heart-The middle section of the reed below the tip where the cane becomes denser and thicker. Hill-A mistake in the cutting process which results in higher areas rather than a continuous smooth vamp. One can detect the larger hills by feel. For smaller hills, one needs to hold the reed up to a light to see the shadows created by the elevated surface. Knife Check-The knife check (figure 1) is the most important measurement to the reed making process. Turn the knife upside down and place the non-beveled side against the reed¶s vamp. Hold it up to the light to see the shape of the vamp between the knife and the reed. This will show the point of maximum curvature and the shape of the vamp.


Figure 1 Point of Maximum Curvature-The point at which the cut stops descending at a dramatic rate and becomes straighter all the way to the tip. Rails-The sides of the reed. Scraping-The process of using a knife to remove cane in a scraping motion to take less cane off of the reed than with a cut. Tip-The thinnest and most sensitive portion of the reed at the end of the cut. Vamp-The entire cut of the reed extending from the initial cut to the tip. Xylem/Phloem-The parts of the arundo donax that take and store nutrition up and down the plant. These are shaped like veins and extend the entire length of the reed. These are the portions of the reed that will expand and contract based upon the presence or absence of moisture in the reed. This process of saturation and drying in the xylems and phloems is what causes reeds to warp.



Figure 2

INTRODUCTION As a clarinet student, my biggest frustration was the poor overall quality of commercially made reeds. By the time I started playing in the United States Army Field Band in 1989, I could play on only two out of a box of ten. These two reeds would typically last me one or two weeks and rarely satisfied my demands for sound and articulation and would close down on the tip of the mouthpiece with very little embouchure pressure. One of my high school clarinet teachers made reeds and often said that they lasted longer and played better. I decided to take the time to learn the process for making reeds so that I could take control of reed quality. I read single reed making books by Kalmen Opperman and Ben Armato and attended reed making master classes given by Stanley Hasty, Frank Kowalsky, and Michael Webster. I then spent four months experimenting and developing a method for making reeds that suited my needs. Since 1990, I have not played on a commercially made reed.


ADVANTAGES The primary advantages for making clarinet reeds are that one can create a reed tailored to their own personal tastes for resistance, sound, and articulation. My method also ensures longer life with a curing process that makes the xylems and phloems of the plant structure nearly impervious to moisture. When playing three to four hours daily, my reeds typically last four to six months if I alternate between two. REED KNIVES Too many knives on the market today are poorly made. One needs a sharp knife made of high-quality steel. It must be able to make smooth, long cuts in the cane. One must be able to control it to make the specific cuts desired. I made the best reed knife I¶ve ever owned by beveling an edge into an old bastard file. There are a few brands on the market today that can do the job correctly, but most cannot. The first time I tried to make reeds in 1981, I had to give up because I could not cut the reed blank smoothly. The reason for this was poor knife quality. If a knife does not cut well, it will leave indentations or other imperfections in the surface of the reed, causing various problems with the sound. CREATING REED BLANKS FROM TUBES Clarinetists have two options available if they want to make their own reeds. They can buy reed blanks or they can make their own blanks from tubes. I prefer to make blanks from the tube since it gives me more control over the measurements and is less than half the cost of a commercially made blank. When selecting the tube, ensure that the wall is between five and six millimeters thick. The inside of the wall (the area closest to the center of the tube) is the softest material on the cane and the outer layer is the hardest. My experience shows that smaller walls yield


overly harsh sounding reeds while thicker walls yield reeds which collapse on the mouthpiece more easily and create a dull, unfocused sound. Step One: Split the tube into four crescent shaped sticks. Dried arundo donax, is easy to split with any reed knife. Stand up the tube, place the blade on top of the tube dividing the tube exactly in half (figure 3), and hit the side of the knife that has no blade. Once the knife is into the tube, push the knife all the way down the tube to complete the split (figure 4). Then split each half in the same fashion (figures 5 and 6).

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

Step Two: Saw these four long tube sections into seventy millimeter segments with a thin coping saw. A typical tube yields eight of these segments, depending on the length of the tube. At this stage, the segments are two millimeters longer than I like my reeds. I design the extra length into them so that I have some extra material with which to work in


case I make a mistake at the tip of the reed later in the process. The bottom of these segments form a crescent shape (figure 7).

Figure 7 Step Three: To get the bottom flat, one must remove the spike shaped hills. This can be done with a knife, but is time consuming and physically painful. After spending many years flattening the backs of these segments with a knife, I had a tool and die shop build a rectangular shaped metal piece which has a well dug into it in the shape of a reed blank which is slightly too thick (figure 8). I place the reed segments into the well upside down and level them with a block plane (figure 9).

Figure 8

Figure 9

When this is done, the segment is fairly flat. To get it completely flat, I sand it on 320grit silicon carbide sandpaper. My past experiences with other types of sandpaper yielded uneven work and created burns on the reeds. Once the reed is flat and between 3


and 3.5 millimeters thick, I sand it briefly; first on 400- and then on 600-grit sandpaper to get the bottom smoother and less grainy. Step Four: To turn this cane segment into a reed blank, I sand both edges to create rails. At this point, the segment is roughly the same length across on the tip and butt ends. A proper reed blank should measure thirteen millimeters across the butt and fifteen millimeters across the tip. To attain these measurements, I sand the segment on

220-grit sandpaper by holding the segment on its edge one third of the way from the butt to the tip (figure 10).

Figure 10 By holding it in this position, I remove more cane from the butt end of the reed than from the tip end. If this method takes too much off either side of the segment, I simply adjust the pressure point while sanding. If too much material comes off of the butt end, I move my hand position so that it is closer to the tip. If too much material comes off of the tip end, I move my hand position so that it is closer to the butt. When this process is done, the reed blank is finished. COMMERCIAL REED BLANKS


From 1991-1999, I used only commercially made reed blanks because I had one hundred blanks that were very high quality. When I select blanks I look for three quality indicators. If I have to ask the vendor to select them, I make sure they use the same indicators. First, the rails must be even. By holding the reed up and looking at the butt, one can clearly see if the rails are the same height. Check the sides also to see that the rails maintain equal height from butt to tip. Next, look at the bottom to ensure that the lines (xylems and phloems) run straight up and down. If the lines angle at all, this blank will never make a balanced reed. Finally, check the color on the bottom. Optimally, it should be an even, buttery, light-blonde color. Generally, the further I¶ve gotten away from this coloring, the less acceptable I find the finished reed. I avoid blotchy or dark colored reeds as this often indicates rot (figure 11).

Figure 11 (blotchy discolored reed on left; even buttery colored reed on right) CURING THE REED BLANK Curing the reed blank is the most important part of my process. These steps ensure long life from the reed. The goal in preparing the blank is to make it as impervious as possible to moisture and warping. The primary reason reeds ³die´ so quickly is that they


absorb moisture in the xylems and phloems. I seal the xylems and phloems in a process by which I saturate and dry them alternately and then polish the back. Step One: Alternately soak (saturate the reed with water and/or saliva) and completely dry the blank with the bottom facing up so it dries evenly. Soak and dry the blank for several days. The object is to allow the blank to warp as much as possible, causing the xylems and phloems to absorb moisture and dry in a new position. Do this as much as possible before making the first cut. Warping on commercial reeds occurs so drastically because the reed¶s xylems and phloems have not been conditioned to take in and let out moisture. With the blank, one is trying to shock the reed¶s system before the first cut. Do not soak the blank again until after it has completely dried from its previous soaking. I dry my blanks in direct sunlight to dry it completely. I soak my blanks alternately in water and saliva. I use water because it is not as dense as saliva and will get into every xylem and phloem. I use saliva because I want the blank to be accustomed to the chemicals in saliva. Step Two: After several days of soaking and drying, sand the bottom of the blank with 320-grit sandpaper. Hold the bottom up to light. If there are any dull spots, the surface is not even; there is still warp in the blank. One must sand more until it appears smooth and shiny when one holds it up to light. Step Three: Sand the bottom with 400-grit sandpaper. As long as step two was done properly, there should not be any warp in the bottom of the reed. If there are still dull spots, go back to step two.


Step Four: Sand the bottom with 600-grit sandpaper. Hold the bottom of the blank up to light. The entire bottom should be smooth and shiny like a sheet of glass with no dull spots. Step Five: Turn the 600-grit sandpaper over so its non-abrasive side faces up. Wet the bottom of the blank with saliva or water very quickly; just enough to moisten and not saturate the xylems and phloems. Polish the bottom on the non-abrasive side of the sandpaper until it is glassy smooth. Soak the blank briefly in saliva and let it dry with the bottom facing up so that it dries evenly. When the blank is dry again, it will no longer be smooth like glass because the moisture causes minor movement in the blank¶s structure. Repeat this process many times until the bottom of the blank is smooth like glass after it dries. With commercial reeds, one can polish the bottom with the non-abrasive side of sandpaper with some positive results (a slightly longer lasting reed), but one cannot sand the bottom. It has already been cut and to sand the bottom would severely damage the tip. CUTTING THE REED When I first began making reeds, I worked the cuts in seven distinct stages. As I have become more experienced, the stages have tended to flow together. I find the stages very useful for evaluating my work on a reed and for teaching my method to students. Removing the ³Bark´: Hold the blank against the clarinet mouthpiece so that the tip of the blank is even with the uppermost curve of the mouthpiece tip. Then move the blank up very slightly. Mark the spot in the bark at the point which is even with the lowermost opening in the mouthpiece. Put the mouthpiece away. With the knife, dig a line into the


bark across the width of the back of the reed at the point of the mark. Peel the bark off in long even strokes, being careful not to take anything besides the bark. Stage One-Tip Cut (figure 12): Make a straight cut one third of an inch from the tip to the tip making the end of the cut very thin. Make sure that all cuts are even and leave no indentations or unevenness.

Figure 12 Stage Two-Straight Cut (figure 13): Make a straight cut from the beginning of the vamp (the location on the back where the bark is first cut) to the tip. Scrape high spots away with the reed knife. If necessary, use 320-grit sandpaper. From this point on in the process, I use a plexiglass plaque (1.5 x 8 centimeters) to do my tip and thin-area work. It is very easy at this point to break the thin, fragile areas of the reed. I lay the reed on top of the plaque so that I have a hard surface to brace the reed against while I remove cane. Check this cut by doing a ³knife check´, a method of measurement I value over any other. Simply place the non-beveled side of the knife against the vamp and check the contact between the vamp and the knife (figure 1). At this stage, there should be no light shining through on the knife check, only a straight line of contact.

Figure 13


Stage Three-Straight Cut the Rails (figure 14): Make a straight cut down each rail from the beginning of the vamp to the tip. Judge accuracy by sight.

Figure 14 Stage Four-Maximum Curvature Cut (figure 15): Scrape and cut so that the point of maximum curvature (the point at which the steep cut changes direction into a more gradual decline towards the tip) occurs one third of the way from the beginning of the vamp to the tip. Use 320- and 400-grit sandpaper to smooth the vamp. This will take some time since one must take cane from the point of maximum curvature all the way to the tip. Finish by smoothing with 600-grit sandpaper. When I began making reeds, I experimented with this point of maximum curvature. I placed this point at all possible places between the beginning of the vamp to halfway to the tip. No reed ever worked to my satisfaction unless I placed it approximately one third of the way from the beginning of the vamp to the tip. Interestingly, most all commercial reeds I¶ve looked at have their point of maximum curvature at this same point. Test this stage with another knife check. Figure 1 shows a well crafted point of maximum curvature through the light between the knife and vamp.


Figure 15 Stage Five-Maximum Curvature Cut the Rails (figure 16): Scrape and cut the rails so they agree with the point of maximum curvature on the vamp. Use 320- and 400-grit sandpaper to smooth the rails. Finish with 600-grit sandpaper. This is the most difficult cutting on the reed because it is very easy to get the knife blade caught in the rails, creating unwanted cuts and gouges. I¶ve learned over the years to do much more scraping with the knife than cutting to successfully navigate this stage.

Figure 16 As the reed gets closer to its final shape, smooth the vamp with 400- or 600-grit sandpaper, making sure the vamp is smooth from the beginning of the cut to the tip. A common mistake is to leave too much cane in the tip and heart areas. Stage Six-Thinning the Tip: Scrape and use sandpaper (using the appropriate grit for the amount to remove; use a heavier grit to take more cane and a lighter grit to take less cane) to make the tip flexible to the touch. Ensure there is an equal amount of flex all the way across the tip. I make sure there is gradually more cane the further back on the vamp I go from the tip.


Stage Seven-Curving the Tip: Up to this point, the tip is still shaped as a straight line from side to side. The reed will work best if the tip is curved to match the tip of the mouthpiece. Once the tip feels fairly flexible, take a long narrow piece of 400-grit sandpaper. Fold it half length wise. Use the deepest portion of the sandpaper fold to sand the tip, shaping it to the curve of the mouthpiece (figure 17).

Figure 17 This process allows for shaping the tip to the exact shape of the mouthpiece. I¶ve never had good success with reed clippers; they tend to create a more harsh sound for the reed. reed. This process of cutting, scraping, and sanding stops when the reed makes a very hard sound on the ³throat G´. Put the reed away at this point. If the reed is too soft, go back to stage seven and curve the tip further down on the reed until the reed produces a very hard ³throat G´ sound. Over half the time I make a reed, I end up going back to stage seven at this point because of my impatience in wanting to make the finishing touches on the reed. I have found it important to make sure that the reed is still too hard at this stage. PERFECTING THE REED Perhaps this is due to the incredible shock of the cut to the thinnest portion of the


Generally, different areas of the reed effect different registers of the clarinet. Judge which areas of the reed need attention based on these areas. If the altissimo register is too hard to sound, take cane from the tip area. If the clarion register is too hard, take cane from the heart and middle areas. If the chalumeau register is too hard, take cane from the back side of the cut close to where the cut begins. If the reed is too soft, shorten the tip. Always remember, though, that the different sections of the reed work together. The vamp must be one continuous smooth cut. I am intensely conservative in how slowly I perfect the reed. If I perfect it too fast, I tend to get too much moisture in the xylems and phloems, causing the reed to die quicker. I take several days to get it to sound the way I want. Take a little off the reed with 400or 600-grit sandpaper, play it without wetting it (again minimizing moisture in the xylems and phloems), and put it away. The next time, take a little more off in the appropriate areas, play it without wetting it, and put it away. Continue this process for as long as it takes to perfect the reed. My advice to students is take away cane only once in a twenty four hour period. Once the reed gets close, make sure and leave it slightly hard as it will always settle in a bit softer once it¶s fully broken in. When satisfied with the quality of the reed¶s sound, one should polish the vamp like the bottom from the curing stage. This will seal the xylems and phloems on the vamp. Wet the vamp with water or saliva, place the reed on a plaque, and polish the vamp with the reverse side of a small piece of sandpaper. Continue doing this until the vamp is as smooth as glass after it dries. This will take several repetitions over a few days. Once this is accomplished, one can play for longer periods on the reed.


BREAKING IN THE REED When breaking in a reed, one can begin wetting it before playing on it. With a handmade reed, do not soak it like one would a commercial reed. Just a second or two in the mouth will be more than enough moisture. Limit the reed¶s exposure to moisture to the greatest extent possible. In breaking in my reeds, I play them for less than a minute the first few days. After these first few days, I¶ll gradually increase the time. Usually, it takes a week or so until I¶m ready to play the reed full time. (I will also often make minor adjustments to the vamp with sandpaper during the breaking in procedure.) When I break in a reed this way, it will last for months. The longest I¶ve played a reed has been two years. I discard them when the sound starts to become brittle and I cannot articulate easily at fast tempi any longer. OVERRIDING PRINCIPLES 1. Carving a proper point of maximum curvature is the most important aspect to getting the reed to sound, articulate, and feel right. 2. I take my time perfecting the reed in the week or so following the seven stages of cutting the reed. When I¶ve worked at perfecting the reed too quickly, I¶ve made irreversible mistakes. Taking cane off a reed is a shock to the system of the cane. My experience also has showed me that working too fast reduces the lifespan of a reed. 3. Mistakes further back from the tip of the reed are much more forgiving than mistakes at the middle to tip area. I¶ve played many reeds with defects in craftsmanship in the back area of the reed. I¶ve never played a reed successfully with problems in the middle or tip.


4. When I make a mistake taking too much cane in the middle to tip area, I don¶t necessarily discard the reed. I will often shorten the reed by sanding down the tip. This process can make the former mistake the appropriate thickness at its new spot on the geography of the reed. The obvious problem at this point is to take off the right amount of cane from the rest of the reed to get it to sound right. This kind of correction only works for me if I¶ve made a moderate to minor mistake. 5. The reed should be completely smooth with no ³hills´ or ³valleys´ in the cut. These cause fuzziness in various registers of the clarinet. 6. I¶ve had the most success when I¶ve made the majority of smooth cuts with the knife rather than relying on sandpaper to smooth the reed. One must use sandpaper, but limiting its use to a degree will help avoid friction burns to the cane. 7. The shape of the heart in a hand-made reed is less pronounced than in a commercially made reed. In a commercially made reed, the heart is usually shaped like an inverted ³V´. In a hand-made reed, the heart is usually shaped like an inverted ³U´. 8. When I¶m close to the final product, I make sure the reed is a little too hard. Handmade reeds always seem to settle during the break-in process and end up a little softer. USING THE ³REEDUAL´ After I developed my process for making reeds, I bought a ³Reedual´, a machine which operates on the same principle as a key machine in a hardware store. One places a model reed on one side and a reed blank on the other side. The reed blank is sanded by a rotary at a high speed which works with the model reed to create roughly the same dimensions in the reed blank. It was always more difficult for me to make good reeds with this machine. Dr. Charles West, Professor of Clarinet at Virginia Commonwealth


University, recommends that one adjust the settings so that the new reed finishes a bit too hard. I employed this method and enjoyed moderate success adjusting the reed softer by removing cane from the appropriate places on the reed. When I would make an exact duplicate of the reed, it would die faster or finish too soft. A possible explanation for my relative lack of success is the difference in cane density from blank to blank. I believe the Reedual is an excellent tool, but I¶ve had greater success doing the work by hand. The greatest advantage to the Reedual is the speed with which one can make their reed. Not including the curing or breaking in processes, it takes less than five minutes to make a reed this way. By hand, the same process takes me thirty minutes. TRACKING MEASUREMENTS When I began making reeds, I used a micrometer to measure to the thousandth of an inch the various degrees of thickness in commercial reeds I liked and the reeds I was attempting to make. I tracked every reed in a catalogue, measuring them in forty key locations on the vamp. I learned a great deal from this time consuming analysis which taught me about the effects on the sound, articulation, and feel of the reed when made to certain degrees of thickness. As I matured in the process, I stopped using the micrometer. Today, I judge measurements by sight and touch.



BLANKS Edmund Nielsen Woodwinds 61 East Park Blvd. Villa Park, IL 60181 (630) 833-5676 RDG Woodwinds (Robert Gilbert) 589 Larchmont, 2nd Floor Los Angeles, CA 90004 (323) 463-4930

TUBES Mme Marcelle Ghys Le Roseau du Var Avenue Jules Grec 06600 Antibes FRANCE Glotin 70, ru de la Gare / B.P. 51 95460 Ezanville FRANCE RDG Woodwinds (Robert Gilbert) (above) Jack Spratt Woodwind Shop 11 Park Ave; P.O. Box 277 Old Greenwich, CT 06870 (800) 626-9277


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