Working with Tube Cane from a Bassoonist's Perspective
Posted by K.C. Chai, DMA on Oct 25th 2019
I've been working through samples of the various brands of bassoon tube cane that we sell here at Hodge Products. I wanted to have some conscious and recent experiences with the various canes so that I could better answer questions that you, as customers, may have. I'll be focusing on the ease of working with the cane, processing and how smoothly that goes, as well as finished reeds. Do the reeds respond as I need them to? Is the sound of the reeds acceptable for my needs? Are there other details you might want to know? My task was to make an assessment by making two reeds from each brand of cane. Only two. So this is not conclusive evidence of the final characteristics of each brand of cane, but to help you become more informed of any major differences between the brands, and perhaps to be more selective based on the relative hardness.
For some background information, I own and use Rieger processing machines: guillotine, gouger, profiler, and tip profiler. My pre-gouger is, I believe, from RDG, but it is the most basic design and it was the cheapest I could find available at the time I bought it. I have historically preferred my Rieger 1A shaper, but I have recently switched to a Rieger 1 shape: it's the same overall shape but a little bit narrower. I also own and use occasionally Fox 1, 2, and 3, the number 2 being quite similar to Rieger's 1A. I have always preferred the way the straight shapers by Fox felt in my hand, but I like my results from the Rieger shaper better. The difference is that the Rieger design requires that you fold the cane over the shaper tip. I split tubes with an old, dull knife, but there are cane splitters available commercially.
In processing cane, the order matters based on the shaper you choose. With a fold-over shaper, you must profile the cane from its gouged state before shaping. With straight shapers, you can gouge, then shape, and then profile. This will keep your profiler's blade sharper for longer because you're profiling and removing less wood. I'm telling you all of this in case you're new to making reeds, or you're curious about the process. At any rate, after reading this you'll understand and appreciate the work that goes into buying consistent GSP (gouged, shaped, and profiled) bassoon cane.
I recently have had the chance to use some Reeds 'n Stuff reed-making machines by Udo Heng. Right now I am dreaming of machines with sharper blades. For more information, please see my blog post on Reeds 'n Stuff Machines. Because of what I wrote in that post, I'm not going to explain all the details of how to process at each step. But after introducing to you the brands that I'm using, I do hope to discuss my experience of working with the cane. Keep in mind some of my experiences may be due to brands of cane or the brand of my equipment.
Overall, I want to share my observations on cane hardness, ease of use, and effort it takes to reach a reed I like.
We sell several different brands of cane, and at three different levels of processing. We offer GSP (as noted above, that's gouged, shaped, and profiled) cane, so that you can make reeds just with hand tools. We also sell gouged cane, which has been split, pre-gouged, and gouged. For the record, pre-gouging as a step is not strictly necessary, as your gouger would remove all that cane too, but it will do so at the expense of the blade, which is not cheap to resharpen or replace. A pre-gouger is essentially a workhorse blade, and it's designed to remove quite a bit of cane with one step. And we also sell tube cane. Buying tube cane allows you to control each step as much as possible short of harvesting the cane yourself.
One change we are trying to make is to carry tube cane we source from the farm that grows it. This information is not always readily available. The processed bassoon cane we carry is cane we are not processing in house. In some cases it is processed at the farm that names the brand, but in other cases businesses gather cane from various sources (farms) and process it. I will try to note where cane is grown at their farm or if it is bought for the business's own processing.
Brands of Cane
So what brands of tube cane are available at Hodge Products? At present our brands are Alliaud, Danzi, Glotin, Gonzalez, Lavoro, Marca, and Pisoni in alphabetical order. I have had access to a couple of samples of Güner cane also (more on that a bit later).
Look at the picture above. The first thing to notice about Alliaud cane is the thickness of the walls of the tube. This can be slightly problematic as it was too thick to fit readily in my Rieger guillotine. In fact, I had to take a blade and sort of pre-gouge the cane before I used my guillotine to cut it to length. The good news is that some of the tubes are long enough to get two standard length pieces of cane, so long as you can split it in half without causing any breakage. I will say that pre-gouging by hand and knife (away from an actual pre-gouger) was potentially a bit dangerous and haphazard and not natural in how it felt to me. The extra-thick walls of the tube did require some extra effort to cut it to length on my guillotine. It also requires some extra time to soak before pre-gouging, to make sure that the cane is saturated. (Some of these difficulties may have been moot with different equipment and sharp blades.) Alliaud cane comes from a small, private farm.
It was surprising to find that the Alliaud cane had knots that were not cut out/off when the cane was harvested. I trimmed them off as best I could. (It is possible to slide the cane under the blade on the guillotine from the blade end until you get to the knot and then chop it off.) Due to just hand trimming, some of my pieces simply did not lay flat in the bed of the gouger or on the barrel of the profiler so I couldn't use it. Any potential loss of a piece of cane to this is made up in the fact that you can get extra pieces out of the extra long tubes. The cuts were not as smooth as expected under my profiler blade which needed sharpening. But I was able to get some usable pieces out of the tubes.
The difficulties continued to arise as I was processing the Alliaud cane. It proved extra resistant to want to pre-gouge. I have an older, push-style pre gouger, so I put my weight behind the plastic push rod. I had to work to put enough weight behind the push to get the cane to go beneath the pre-gouger blade. A crank-style pre-gouger would have been really helpful here. The cane did not want to gouge easily or evenly either. I found my pieces to not be as straight as "average" tubes (for whatever that really means), so they did not want to stay nicely in the gouger bed. When it was time to profile, I removed wood until no more came off, but the center fold score did not go deep enough. (Perhaps a sharper blade would have fixed this problem, also.) The result was not really discovered until after I began shaping and building the blank. The cane did not fold evenly. The fold had a prominent smile when looking at it, and the blade areas had a slope that was not even and thickness issues. When I score, I actually cut from the butt end of the tube straight into the cane. The tube of the reed did not want to form into round easily. Even as it sits on my drying rack, it looks like my profiler did not remove cane material evenly, and it seems I will do extra work trying to make playable reeds out of this cane. Everything about this tube cane requires extra effort, and it has not been pleasant to work with it. But perhaps the resulting reeds will be worth it.
I had the chance to also profile two pieces of Alliaud cane on a Reeds 'n Stuff profiling machine. They profiled much easier and smoother than those on my Rieger profiler. But only making reeds out of it will tell me if the machines used had an impact on how easy it is to use Alliaud cane.
The Alliaud Reed
After making reeds from the Alliaud cane, I can tell you that the cane fibers are more dense than many brands I've tried. Though not exactly the same thing, this made reeds that were hard, much harder than I prefer. After getting my knife sharpened, working with this cane went much faster and smoother. With a dull knife this cane is likely to prove a challenge. But after thinning the tip for response, I can say this cane makes reeds with a powerful sound! The fibers are still stiff, but with some careful and controlled flexing, I was able to comfortably articulate and bend the pitch on reeds that had good sounds. The reeds were able to play a scale well in tune. Reeds had a big, vibrant sound. I look forward to continued work with these reeds.
Danzi cane, from tube to processed GSP, has long been well-regarded as producing good reeds with desirable dynamic control and enviable tonal colors. This reputation led me to easily recommend the tube cane for availability at Hodge Products. We were already selling their finished reeds and processed cane, so this was a natural choice. However we have decided to discontinue carrying the Danzi tube cane. As best we can determine Danzi sources their tubes from a very large farm in the Var region of France and simply processes them. We do, and will continue to, carry their processed cane.
I made reeds from Danzi tubes and from Danzi-processed cane. At that time we only had one piece of Danzi GSP cane to try. I found the cane to be a bit on the hard side for my liking, so I thinned the blades a bit. After that, I found the response and sound to be surprisingly good, but pitch was just a bit on the low side. This reed I shaped on my Rieger 1A shape, which I had since determined is too wide overall for my current set up and playing needs. All of my recent reeds on this shape have been too low, and I end up narrowing the shape. This is why I moved to the Rieger 1 shape. The reed was easy to manipulate to do what I needed. Allowing it to age and now coming back to it, the cane seems like the fibers are dense enough to have a nice long playing life, and yet it's still responsive.
The Danzi Reed
With the reeds I made from tube cane, everything I noticed from the GSP cane seems to hold true but to also be better for me. Thoughts on processing the cane are in the next paragraph. The cane smooths out with sandpaper to a very nice level. The reeds adapt well to my adjustments. I am able to get a good sound and fast response even as I thin the blades to my liking.
All the Danzi cane processes went as expected. For me, the Danzi cane was harder than others, more medium hard than medium. This simply means that I put more energy into gouging and profiling it, but the cane did as I wanted. I gouged nice ribbons. Profiling went smoothly. The fibers seemed straight, they cut evenly, and the blades of my reeds sanded to my desired smoothness without feeling like I was fighting it. All in all, I have no problem with Danzi cane, and I enjoyed working with it.
Glotin cane is another well-known brand of bassoon cane. It has long been loved and made great reeds. So far it has also been easy to work with, and blanks show great promise. I have heard grumblings that Glotin cane is softer than it used to be. It has proven to be fibrous, and difficult to get the blades really smooth (though smooth enough), but it was easy to work with at all stages. For me it still has a big sound with a good spectrum of overtones.
From a processing perspective, the Glotin cane split into pieces that were quite straight. Too much side to side curvature means that the cane will not lie in the pre-gouger bed or the gouger bed. This would make it extra difficult to process. It will also come back again when profiling as it will not line up with the guide marks on the barrel. A piece of cane with too much curvature will simply not work well to process, so it will not produce a reliable reed. Again, my Glotin split nice and straight. After soaking, it pre-gouged and gouged easily. The gouger did not consistently produce nice ribbons over the entire length of the piece, but did for most of the length. Profiling and shaping went as expected.
The Glotin Reed
With reeds made from both tube cane and GSP processed by Glotin, all of the reeds have great crows. The reeds have all been easy to achieve the results intended. The GSP cane is shaped differently than even my old preference of Rieger 1A. Part of this processing included producing blades that have a very prominent spine, which I filed down. I prefer a subtle spine in my reeds. All of these reeds need to be really broken in, but all of them continue to show great potential.
Gonzalez cane is one of the more unique brands of cane available. Most of our cane comes from the Var region of France, which is along the Mediterranean Sea, and a bit comes from other countries with Mediterranean coastline. Gonzalez, however, is grown on a private farm in Argentina. And their reputation is growing. One of the Gonzalez claims to fame is that it is grown organically, meaning no pesticides and chemicals are used in the farming of the cane. For those players who are extra concerned about such things, or who have noticeable sensitivities, this can be an important consideration.
Though in recent years Gonzalez cane has been quite popular, I never found a preference for myself in any brand, and I neither liked nor disliked my Gonzalez. I liked it as well as I liked other canes. But it has been a few years since I worked with it, before I came back to it for this project. I know more about making reeds and processing my cane now, and I find the Gonzalez cane to be easy to work with from tube form and to produce reeds that I really like. I found this to be a pleasant surprise! I also found their cane to be more consistent tube to tube and piece to piece than others. We carry processed cane from Gonzalez also.
The Gonzalez Reed
The reeds I made from this cane were different. I was not able to determine the shape they use, but it is wider than my preference. I can change the shape with a plaque and sandpaper, but then I impose my own processes to the reeds. One detail to note is that I found Gonzalez to be using a profiling machine that removes just the bark and not too much else. In quite a few pieces in stock you can see hints of the bark in the already profiled blade area of the cane. Bark is at the outer surface, and thus that wood is harder than the wood found a little deeper. To be typical thickness, they thus use a deeper gouge, meaning more wood from inside is removed. Overall, this setup produces cane that is quite hard. So the reeds I made from their GSP cane were also very hard. The hardness is much more than I like and could easily use. I had to do some major modification to make reeds that I could play on. However, one advantage of this cane is that you can build reeds that really rock on the extreme high notes. Downsides are that low notes are likely to be sluggish and the overall pitch of the reed may tend toward sharpness. I gravitate toward softer reeds due to some TMJ/nerve issues in my jaw and face. I prefer to process cane myself from tubes for this reason. If you like harder reeds, you may well like our Gonzalez cane processed at their farm. Once I made some changes (thinning the blades, narrowing the shape) to the reeds I made from their cane, I liked them quite a bit. This tells me I like the cane, but I'm not a huge fan of their processing.
Gonzalez cane seems to be medium hard in hardness. The cane is compliant overall: it does what I want it to do, and it is not hard to manage. To get a really smooth blade it does require sanding or filing (so it is a bit pithy), but this is not uncommon. Of note, the reeds have yet to get really smooth, but they are acceptably smooth. One of my reeds (made from tube cane) was and is just a bit buzzy; it may just need further attention and refinement. The second, however, has a great crow, balanced in the highs, lows, and medium pitches, and really shows a lot of potential.
Güner cane is relatively new to the market. Grown on the Güner family farm in Turkey, it has only been available for perhaps a year or so. The cane seems to be of medium hardness and medium density, making it feel easy to work with and a bit delicate. This cane is fibrous. No matter how much I seem to sand the blades smooth, I can always feel the fibers of the cane when I run my thumbnail against the fibers. I can get this pithy aspect to a reasonable level, where it does not bother me.
The Güner Reed
After allowing the reeds to sit for a few weeks, the Güner reeds seem to have stabilized. Coming back to them with knife, file, and sandpaper, I found them to be much easier to smooth out, though still not perfectly smooth. Perhaps this cane holds onto moisture from the soaking process a bit longer, producing pithiness. I found that I could leave this cane a bit thicker for color and still have good response. This was especially true in the back 1/3 of the reed, which affects low note response and pitch. The blade tip thinned easily enough for good articulation. The reeds I made from this cane also had a mellow quality to the sound that I like that is sometimes elusive in other brands. This quality, for me, makes it a good candidate for playing second bassoon lines, where lower pitch can be critical and playing just a bit softer than the principle is desirable.
Lavoro cane was new to me. We were sent some samples of it some time ago, before there was a bassoonist in the business, so we decided I should evaluate it.
For me, Lavoro cane was an immediate hit! It is paler in color than most other canes, but I wanted to look past that detail. Some people might think the pale color means the cane is too "green" to be useful. My thinking is that if the company was confident enough in their product to send us samples unasked-for, I should give it a fair shake. My thoughts on the hardness of this cane is that it is medium to medium-hard, and the fibers are medium density. This yields a cane that is sturdy but pliable, and easy to work with. Everything about this cane was nice: the tubes split easily, my pieces were mostly straight. Pre-gouging and gouging the cane was easy, and did not give me extra concern that anything might be "trouble." The profiling produced nice ribbons of consistent thickness without holes or tearing in odd sizes and shapes. This tells me that worms in the cane is not much of a concern. It took my scoring and beveling well, and I found it nice to form tubes and make blanks.
The Lavoro Reed
The true test of cane is the sound produced from reeds. One of the two reeds I made from this cane was good but would clearly require some additional attention to finish it. The other reed became a favorite the first time I blew it to begin the break-in process! It only needed a bit of thinning at the tip for articulation speed. It had the sound, the response (though it needed further refinement), and the pitch was good, basically from clipping the tip. This kind of "miracle" or "magical" reed, being essentially finished from the clip, is not the norm. I'll need to make more reeds from it before I would expect anything like that. In fine tuning the first reed, that one has proven to be much like the second one (which became the first one in preference), but it just needed a bit more attention. This cane gave me two satisfactory reeds without a lot of fuss in the refining process. Based on these two reeds, I may have just found a brand of cane that I love!
Marca cane is relatively new to the double reed market, at least the American market. As a company they have marketed highly to the single reed instruments, for which they have a fine reputation. Some major European double reed players have been recommending it. Marca cane is grown on their farm in the Var region of France. Hodge Products took a chance and ordered some cane, both for bassoon and oboe.
To my experience with it, Marca cane seems to also be in the medium to medium-hard range. It split nicely, giving me pieces that were straight enough to find the right length easily. Pre-gouging and gouging the pieces was just fine. Profiling and shaping the cane went just as expected. The blanks both looked promising!
The Marca Reed
Of the two reeds I made from this cane, one took some serious damage in the blade area after it was finished, and it was too far gone to be useful. So I only really have one reed to discuss here. Initial comments were that this reed had a big, dark sound, but that it didn’t sound as controlled as would be necessary. After some rest, just letting the reed age, it seems to have stabilized. It plays nicely. It was neither the easiest nor the hardest reed to produce. I think the cane shows plenty of potential based on one reed.
If you’ve made it this far, you know my favorite brand of cane seems to be Lavoro. But understand that due to some TMJ issues, which affect my jaw, facial/cranial nerves, and can lead to headaches, I prefer a reed that is more medium than even medium-hard. So I prefer cane that is not soft, but definitely not hard. I find that I can make a reed out of any brand of cane, so long as the pieces are straight.
As I look at the cane, from a consistency standpoint, I like Lavoro, Danzi, and Gonzalez. Again, cane processed by Gonzalez has not proven to be a good fit for me, but if you like a hard reed, and do not build reeds from tubes, then it could be great for you! If you’re careful and thoughtful, you should be able to make satisfactory reeds from any brand of cane, and probably from any already-processed cane.
But all that being said, we are trying to get cane supplies that are as consistent as possible so that you get as many usable reeds out of it as possible. Please reach out to us if you have further, or specific, questions regarding our cane, or if you need any ideas or helps based on concerns you may have. We are happy to help!