Building Your Set of Bassoon Reed Tools
Does proper maintenance of the bassoon reed leave you concerned?
This post is aimed at young (perhaps second year) bassoon students, their parents, and those who have not yet learned to make bassoon reeds. The following list of tools includes those I always carry to rehearsals and when teaching private students, just in case of a reed emergency. All of these items are relatively easy to find and come in handy for maintaining your reeds. They will also be used in making your own reeds. I’ll describe the uses briefly here. I am including links to the product category from the Hodge Products website so that you can explore what the items look like and consider any variations or choices that might be available. Look for upcoming posts for further insights into how to use these tools as they relate to making or maintaining reeds.
Items I always have in my tool bag or bassoon case include the following:
- stub mandrel
- cutting block
- clear fingernail polish
- cork grease or beeswax
- 22 gauge brass wire
The mandrel holds the reed while keeping your fingers out of the way of other tools. There are different types of mandrels, some for forming reeds (called forming or long mandrels), which are not what you want at this time. For working on finished reeds, look for a stub mandrel. (Other names include short mandrel, holding mandrel, or working mandrel. They are usually all the same basic tool.) It should have a rounded tip or a dull point. Brand names I like include Rieger and Fox, though there are also unnamed brands that are good quality.
The knife is used for scraping wood off the profile of the reed blades. Look for a knife that is specified for right- or left-handed use. Bassoonists often use double-hollow ground knives for reed blade work, though there are other knife blade designs, like the beveled knife which also works well, but is not suited for the fine detail work at the reed tip. Brands of knives to look for include Landwell, Jende, Rigotti, Pisoni, Chang, and MusEcho, among others. All of these brands can be found at most on-line double reed shops. For purposes of adjusting reeds, a knife and files are substitutes. It is not necessary at this point to have both.
Files are for smoothing the surface of the reed’s blades or the inside of the tube. I like rat-tail or needle nose files (some companies label them by a measurement), rather than the bigger files used by carpenters and woodworkers. These can be found at hardware stores if need be. I prefer diamond files over those with tines or teeth (grooves), but they can be difficult to find in a hardware store. Files with tines will do fine, though you may also want a steel brush to clean the debris every so often. Hardware stores will often sell them in sets of files with different shapes, but they can be ordered from double reed shops individually and possibly in sets. I use three files: round, rectangle, and triangle, but I recommend only the rectangular file for beginners. For purposes of adjusting reeds, files and a knife can be substitutes for each other. While nice to have, both are not necessary yet.
There are specialty reed-making pliers with an oval or hole cut into them which help with forming the tube of a reed. While very useful, they are not strictly necessary. For tightening and loosening the wires, any set of pliers with grooves or teeth for gripping will be fine. I prefer pliers that are smaller than those often used for auto or workshop use, though some players use big pliers just fine. These can often be found at hardware stores or general stores such as Wal-Mart. Consult with your teacher or a professional to determine if you need specialty double reed pliers. Search for needle nose pliers if you try to find them locally. You’ll need to check an on-line double reed shop for the specialty reed-making pliers. Also look for pliers that have a flat edge for wire cutting.
The plaque is placed between the lightly soaked blades of the reed, before knife, file, or sandpaper work is done to the blades. Plaques can be made of wood, metal, or plastic, and have a triangular or arrowhead shape. Any material will be fine, but I like the plastic contrabassoon plaque because it is cost-effective and can be used for most bassoon reeds as well as contrabassoon reeds. I also like the plastic plaque because it is easier on the blade of my knife, allowing it to last longer before the knife needs to be sharpened. Double reed shops usually carry a variety of plaques.
Sandpaper is used for making a fine, smooth finish on the blades, usually after knife or file work. I like grits in the 300 and 400 range, but 240 grit is also usable. Often considered fine-grit sandpaper, wet-and-dry sandpaper is the preference if there is a choice, as it can be used on reeds that are wet or dry, as well as dipping the sandpaper into water (which often makes a smoother finish) before use. Available at Wal-Mart and most hardware stores.
The cutting block is a round piece of wood with a bit of curve on top, used to clip the tip of your reed. It comes in different sizes, sometimes different types of wood and is used with a knife or a razor blade. There are also other clipping options. Consult with your teacher or a professional before trying this to determine when or if clipping your reed might be a good decision.
Other Tools For Your Case or Bag
The following items are not for adjusting reeds, but having them in your tool bag is a good idea. A good teacher will likely have these items or something similar at your weekly lesson, so a purchase may not be important yet.
Cork grease or Beeswax
Cork grease is for the corks on your bassoon’s tenons or your bocal, when they’re too tight. Beeswax does the same thing for thread-wrapped tenons. Tenons are the part of a joint or bocal that gets inserted into the next piece.
Clear fingernail polish
Fingernail polish serves two purposes: to waterproof the thread from the outside, and to reglue the thread to the tube if it comes loose. Apply clear fingernail polish to the tube under the thread on your reed if it comes totally loose, to glue it in place. If only a little bit of thread comes loose, apply it to that area of the thread. Apply it to the outside of dry thread to seal it against water. In all cases, apply the nail polish very liberally. This extends the life and usefulness of the thread to handle repeated soakings before playing. Colored nail polish will also work, but it will cover up the color of your thread. Allow a few minutes for it to dry. Available at Wal-Mart, beauty supply, and discount stores.
22 gauge brass wire
22 gauge brass wire can be used to replace a wire on your reed if a wire breaks. It can be found in spools of different weights or sometimes lengths. For carrying in your case or tool bag, cut 3-3.5 inch lengths from a spool, and keep a few pieces with your tools.
Though optional, you or your student may prefer not to have tools loose in your bassoon case. To more easily manage them, there are a number of containment options. One gallon ziploc bags are cheap and easily replaceable if a tool creates a hole. Harder plastic containers, such as Sterilite or Rubbermaid food containers, and pencil or marker boxes are also cost effective choices. Plastic school supply sleeves, such as might fit in a 3-ring binder, may also serve your needs. Vinyl or leather toiletry bags are convenient, somewhat organizable, and a bit flexible, and they often have a handle. Double reed websites also carry roll-up tool pouches, often made of canvas, and wallets made of nylon or leather. These fancy cases offer a high level of tool organization. Almost all of these choices will easily fit into a backpack, but some will even fit inside the bassoon case.
One last point to keep in mind is security and safety at your school. If you or your student must walk through metal detectors, some of these tools will be a problem and could be confiscated. In this situation, keep them at home, and take them to your private lessons. Your private teacher can help you or your student learn to use them. But most importantly, let the band teacher know that using these tools is an important part of playing the bassoon. The teacher may be able to make arrangements for the allowance of your tools on school property. It is always best to be honest about having them and why you should be permitted to keep them. Because both a knife and files could be considered as threatening, an alternative to both is the Reed Geek (see the picture above). Intended to function like a knife, and at this level like files also, the advantage to a Reed Geek is that it is considered airplane-safe because it lacks a blade. This detail makes it an excellent choice to carry to school instead of files and a knife as well as for travelling. Though not cheap, the advantages here might more than make up for the extra cost. There are a few options regarding the Reed Geek, so please explore the link included below. And don't forget to check back for upcoming posts, including videos, on how to use your new tools to maintain your reeds!