Toasting and preservation of Aulos reeds

Idioglot double reeds (tubular reeds) have a natural tendency to return to their open, round condition when wet, making them harder to play. I find that ‘toasting’ the reed helps to maintain a closed tip. This is done as a matter of course with Duduk and Mey reeds, various bagpipe reeds, and even clarinet reeds in some cultures, especially Albania and Turkey.

First, put a clamp on the reed when it is completely dry, covering the top third or half of the blades. Then dab oil (olive, canola, almond…) on the exposed part of the blades. The oil will lightly penetrate the cane, and when heated will form a protective layer acting as a preservative to a small degree. Heat the entire exposed surface of the  blades, not neglecting the sides, until it begins to show signs of browning. You can also include the tube below the waist, especially if the rind has been stripped away, being very careful not to burn the binding. I prefer natural fibres over synthetics for the binding. They are less prone to damage during toasting, and in general seem to have a better chance of maintaining the proper tension. If the binding does burn, quickly rebind the waist while the reed is still hot, taking advantage of its temporary plastic state. While still hot, compress the back of the reed firmly for a minute or so between your fingers and thumbs to fix the reed blades close together (in the video above, I abbreviate this step). It will cool within a few minutes and be ready to finish scraping.

I use a Bernzomatic micro torch (http://www.bernzomatic.com/products/hand-torches/) with the heating tip in place. I have come to prefer this to an open flame as it is much more controllable. A gas hob works fine, as does charcoal, an alcohol lamp or industrial heat gun, the only issue is focusing the heat in the proper area, and using a clean heat source which will not leave residue in its wake. I’ve tried toasting the entire reed and not had much luck. I have found though, that it is possible to bake a reed which is too light. A low heat (about 250 Fahrenheit or 120 Celsius) for half an hour or so will give it some more stiffness. Radical, but it does work.

I generally toast before the final scraping, so that if it comes out overly hard one can compensate. Toasted cane will still be somewhat malleable when wet, and if the form needs some touchup, reheating while the reed is wet will be more successful than retoasting, as there is a limit, a point at which the reed chars rather than toasts, and begins to lose its elasticity. One can also harden soft reeds using the same method, being quite delicate when approaching the tip area.

The inside of the reed may be wiped with canola (rapeseed or ‘vegetable’) oil – initially when first dried and occasionally throughout its lifespan. A heavier oil will impair the reed’s vibration, but a very light oil will lengthen the reed’s useful life. I have found that alcohol has no preservative effect on reeds, but many people disinfect a reed in either alcohol, mouthwash, or H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide). These, however, will dissolve any oil previously applied, so the two methods may be considered mutually exclusive. H2O2 is actually much more effective for cleaning and disinfecting reeds than any sort of solvent, and has fewer harmful effects on the cane. Alcohol eventually depletes the cane of some of its natural sugars, which are essential to its elastic properties.

About Robin Howell

Early double reed specialist (bassoon, oboe, etc), instrument maker, researcher.
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2 Responses to Toasting and preservation of Aulos reeds

  1. Huge thanks for sharing such precious knowledge. For those of us struggling to make reeds that give higher value for effort, this one of the most useful posts on this blog so far. Thank you!!!

    Inspired by your video, I made 2 pairs of reeds for my Ur silver pipes and got them going last night. Not having a micro torch (yet), I used a tea light and found, as you warned, that it is difficult to focus the heat in the proper area. The first two reeds came out slightly on the charred side, but they work fine.

    Do you use a feather to oil the inside of a reed? I’m looking out for a tit tail feather to oil the inside of my miniature Ur pipe reeds…

    Why do you use your fingers and thumbs to fix the reed blades close together after toasting, rather than a clamp shaped to the desired form?

    • robin howell says:

      A feather is just fine for oiling a reed, and in fact the only source that explains this explicitly, Karl Almenraeder’s basson method in the 1820s (AD!), citing a long standing tradition, recommends a feather for the purpose. He is quite specific about the oil as well, Rappenöl, (canola, as we know it).
      I use my fingers to compress the back of the reed for a couple of reasons. It is the sides of the back of the reed blade that I am compressing, not straight down the center. Besides bringing this portion of the reed closer together, it will increase the flexibility of this crucial hinge, rendering the reed to be much more free blowing, and further ensuring that the reeds’ ‘normal’ position will be completely closed. Fingers are much more sensitive than any sort of mechanical former, and one can readily feel the degree of compression which a particular piece of cane needs to accomplish the task. Being an organic material there is a great deal of variation from piece to piece, thus each piece of cane has its own specific requirements. I do not use formers for any part of the reed making process, except for the essential clamp for the first, ‘tip’ portion of the reed.
      Notice that in every piece of iconographical evidence concerning aulos reeds, there is a bulge above the waist as well as in the tube below. This is achieved by truly flattening the first third or so of the blades, allowing the back to remain roundish at first. It will still retain a semblance of this form after toasting and compressing, but having brought the sides closer together releases some of the excess tension in the reed blades without visually disturbing the reed’s ‘profile’ to any great extent.
      My own reeds return to a completely closed tip when dry, even without reclamping, and in most cases need to be gently ‘popped’ open before playing by light lateral compression of the tip portion. There will be an audible ‘pop’ when it opens. I do not soak reeds for any length of time, but rather dip them in water a few times for no more than 10 seconds or so, and letting them sit and absorb moisture for a few minutes. This gives adequate flexibility that will not change too radically during extended playing.
      When scraping, BE SURE TO INCLUDE THE SIDES AND EDGES OF THE REED. If these areas are too thick it will greatly impair the reeds’ vibration, and accentuate their tendency to return to their natural roundness, especially if over soaked.
      I will explain my own method of making these reeds in a future post, though it has much in common with Callum’s brilliant method.

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