Monday, 26 January 2015

My Kingdom for a Sharp Knife

Reedmaking is a means to and end. I would much rather be playing my instrument. That being said, if ever I am having trouble with my reeds or have taken some time off (even a weekend seems to affect those small motor skills that are so important to both playing and reedmaking), the first thing I check is my knife – is it sharp?

I quote John Mack (he was my teacher's guru - from his article Effective Guidance for the Young Oboist):

Just a word about knives; I like a very sharp knife myself. I start all my students off by giving them two reed secrets for free 1) an extremely sharp knife, I mean extremely sharp - even if you ruin a batch of reeds until you learn to use the knife, because a sharp knife will do things for you that another knife can't do. With a dull knife, you have to press too hard - if you press too hard you flatten the cane. You can't take a narrow swathe with a dull knife. You can't do the necessary things with the tip - the sides of the tip - with a dull knife. The corners of the tip must be very thin - you can't do that with a dull knife.”

I’ve heard Richard Killmer (he's the best reed maker I know) maintain that his knife was not as “sharp” as some people obsess about – but that it was sharp enough to do the job he wanted it to do. If you’ve ever had a knife that chattered (because the blade was sharp, but too thin at the edge), you will understand what he means – it is no fun to use. We need to sharpen our knives, so that they scrape well, taking out cane exactly where we want, not touching areas where we want to leave the cane intact.

There are so many great knives from the historically well-made Herder (I’m still using mine, after 40 years of use! – unfortunately you can’t get Herders any more) to the modestly priced (and somewhat inconsistent) Vitry & Rigotti (that's what I usually buy) to the very expensive Jende (my next purchase!) and Landwell knives. I’ve tried and still own many reed knives, and at some point I’ve had trouble sharpening them all – which has led me to try many different knife sharpening stones and systems. I am starting my discussion about knife sharpening with the system I am using currently. I will get to others (using carborundum, Arkansas, diamond and water stones for example) later.

Herder                             Landwell
Vitry                                 Rigotti

How to sharpen a double hollow ground knife with an India stone & crock sticks

This is how I was taught. It’s simple and it works. Two provisos though:
1. sharpening a knife on a coarse stone is a sure way to go through a knife quickly (sharpening uses up the metal and a coarse stone will go through metal quickly).
2. unless you are meticulous about holding your knife perpendicular, crock sticks can put a bow in the knife that is hard to remove. Periodically inspect your knife to see if sharpening is affecting the straight edge it was manufactured with.

As James Ryon (Professor of Oboe, University of North Texas) notes in his article, A brief reed-making guide.
“The edge of the knife should be straight when made and should be kept straight in the sharpening process. Only a straight edge can be kept consistently and uniformly sharp the entire length of the knife.”

The India stone has two sides – one coarse (grey in colour) and one finer (brown in colour). Usually, I sharpen with just the brown side, but if the knife really needs sharpening, I start with the coarse side (using Norton sharpening stone oil to lubricate if necessary).

1. 3 swipes only, knife flat to the stone, both sides (first pushing the blade away – 3 times, then pulling the blade towards – 3 times). Usually I hold the knife flat to the surface with my free hand. Starting at the handle end of the blade (heel), I pull or push the blade drawing it to the tip. (see illustration) I always finish pushing the blade away.

2. Then, I switch to the finer side of the India stone (again I use oil to lubricate the stone if needed).
1. same as above, only more times. I will pull and push the blade, flat to the stone (one side then the other) until I’m satisfied it has a burr. The final push away is done at an angle of approx. 20 degrees.

3. Then, I switch to the crock sticks (no lubrication needed, but I regularly clean the sticks with a powder cleanser that I make into a paste to scrub with).
Holding the knife perpendicular to the surface of my desk, I draw the knife down the stick (heel to tip, as with the stone) trying to keep the knife as still as possible (i.e. not tipping forward, backward or side to side). I start with the right stick and then alternate, periodically checking for sharpness (it may take one, it may take several passes), always ending with the left stick.

Once the knife is sharp, it will only need honing on the crock sticks for a period of time. As mentioned above, when I feel the need to use the India stone, I usually just use the brown (finer) side (the grey, coarse side, I tried for the first time in many years when writing this article - although it helped to get a burr on a very dull knife, I would have concerns about how long my knife would last, if I used it frequently).

I made two movies - one sharpening on the India stone, the second sharpening with crock sticks. Here are the links:  and 


Mack, John. “Effective Guidance for the Young Oboist.” Journal of the International Double Reed Society 2 (1974): 25.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Cold weather blues

Cold weather blues?
Keep calm and humidify.

            It seems everywhere in North America is experiencing cold temperatures this week. The temperature at the dog park this morning in Thunder Bay was a balmy -20 degrees (much better than the real feel of -40 earlier in the week!) and there is no end in sight. This is winter in Thunder Bay. There are lots of things I love about this place, but wind chill never seems to make my top ten.

             Some winter’s are worse than others, but January is a challenge here– reed-wise that is. At very low temperatures, there is no moisture in the air and I can feel a reed drying out while it’s still in my mouth and I’m playing! In a reed case, you can find a reed that played perfectly fine one day (at higher temperatures), sadly lacking vibration the next (as the temperature dips to a low of minus whatever) or the opening so warped that it looks like it’s been in an accident. My solution to this problem has been to:
1. find a good gouge – one that keeps a good opening, whether the reed is wet or dry
When I bought my Ross gouge (the one that I am currently using), I found the problem I was having, keeping an opening after the reed has dried out, greatly improved.
2. humidify the room where I make reeds (usually from November til the end of April) and
3. try to keep a consistent humidity while the reed is drying (thereby eliminating the warping problem)

#3 has led me to investigate some kind of storage facility or “reed house” for my reeds. My research started with an article from the Instrumentalist that described a reed house for clarinet reeds involving a container, sponge and salt water (here is a link to the article, which was reprinted in the IDRS journal: . I’m sure this is considered very “old school” now, because there are clarinet reed humidifiers on the market. But at the time, I gave the reed house as described as try. Unfortunately, I found it too humid – I want the reeds to dry, so as not to start growing mold. So what I use now is simply a Tupperware-type container. I store the reeds in it after I finish with them (so they start out soaked and slowly dry in the container) and even use it to transport reeds to rehearsals or concerts when the temperatures start getting in the minuses.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

"It's all in the tip" and other sage advice

“It’s all in the tip” and other sage advice

My first oboe teacher, Frank Morphy, taught me how to make reeds about 40 years ago. I should say, he began to teach me, because my learning since then has never stopped. For many years, I looked to make the perfect reed, but have come to know that what I really want is a reed that allows my embouchure to work. It needs to be stable, in-tune and have good response. The definition of good can change depending on the style of music or even the challenges of a particular piece on a program. Recently, my search has been for tests that help to identify a reed as good and tips that help to make reed making more successful. My first reed teacher told me that John DeLancie had a sign over his desk, "It's all in the tip" - a reminder not to take too much cane out of the heart or the back before the reed is finished. As I begin this blog, I also hope that it's all in the tip (and test), and plan to assemble a collection that will grow and be refined as I share with others.