My first aulos reeds

3 reeds made in Barnaby's kitchen, 17-18 December 2014

Barnaby Brown invited me to join the aulos revival when we performed together in London last month. These notes build on what Barnaby learned from Stefan Hagel at reed-making workshops held earlier this year in London and Tarquinia.

1. Cut and mark pairs of tubes (45mm for Louvre aulos, 40mm for Berlin aulos)

  • Barnaby fitted a Wolfcraft precision cutter with an adjustable end-stop and filed a semi-circular cradle to facilitate the neat cutting of identical-length tubes.
  • We used cane of diameter 11.5-12mm supplied by Medir.
  • Next time, we would mark the distal ends of each pair with a unique sign, located to record the position of the bud, just in case this turned out to be relevant. Use permanent ink on the end-grain because anything on the bark rubs off and ink on the proximal end can look like a split.

2. Remove bark and fibre band from proximal ends

  • Leave bark under the waist: only remove the cane’s natural outer protection from the end that will be flattened.
  • Carefully remove the bark and the golden substratum, just revealing the whiter layer of cane below. Cane is made up of three layers: a waxy bark, a thin fibre band, and the ‘pith’ (see

See Part 3 for photos

3. Thin proximal ends by filing inside

  • Let the cane tubes soak in water and file them wet.
  • Thin the whole part that will be squeezed above the waist, keeping the file in contact with the internal surface of the tube. If the blades become too thin at the tips, they will split when flattened: an even thickness of the pith (not the fibre layer) must remain to provide lateral strength and elasticity.
  • File as evenly as possible, laterally and longitudinally, frequently checking the wall thickness by eye. Observe the translucency by holding the tube up to a strong light.

4. Boil and form waists

  • Wind a few turns of waxed linen thread around both ends of each tube to prevent splitting.
  • Simmer the tubes for at least 2 minutes.
  • Prepare waxed linen thread with a loop made from two half hitches.
  • Remove one tube from the boiling water and immediately constrict its waist using bicycle gear cable tied between something solid and your belt. This allows you to have both hands free, which is vital (see Part 3 for photos).
  • We inserted a 4mm rod periodically to gauge progress, but next time might try constricting the waists to an internal diameter of 3.5 or 3mm. We found no advantage in keeping a metal rod inserted while constricting the waist; in fact, the rod was a hazard, increasing the likelihood of splitting.
  • Once the rod is tight, constrict the waist a little further before passing over the two half hitches and tying tight. This allows for slight enlargement of the waist when you slacken the cable.

5. Boil and form blades

I was taught by Francis Wood how to heat and squeeze a plastic drinking straw to form a reed (he makes a ‘disposable’ bagpipe). The result looks quite similar to the drawing of the lost Berlin aulos reed, so, instead of pushing the cane into a metal former, or clamping it in a screw press, I thought I would try squeezing the blades by hand, using the feel of my fingers.

I used four fingers (thumb and index of each hand) to find where the sides would come together most comfortably, rotating the cane while repeatedly squeezing and relaxing it. If any area seemed stiff and likely to cause a split, I thinned that area using a file.

Once I had decided on the orientation of the mouth, I brought the lips closer together by squeezing the corners between my fingers and thumbs: this avoids putting pressure on the central area.

When I felt the cane had cooled and was stiffening, I dropped the reed back into the boiling water. Each time it went back in, the mouth returned to a near-circular shape, but the next pressing was easier. I didn’t need to mark the corners of the mouth: they were relocated by feel and by eye. I repeated this two or three times, until the mouth closed sufficiently to fit comfortably inside my forming block.

Once partially in the forming block, I dropped it back into the boiling water in the block. Every half minute or so, I picked it out, removed it from block and massaged it with my fingers to encourage it to form a symmetrical aperture. I then pushed it a fraction further into the block and dropped it back into the water. If the lips were not coming together evenly, then I filed the relevant area from the inside to improve their symmetry.

On the second or third inspection, depending on how well the mouth was closing, I made two incisions from the corners of the mouth towards the waist, following the grain. These were not deep enough to cut through the cane, but served to encourage any splitting to occur  along the edges of the fold, rather than on the flat surfaces.

I found 5-6 little pushes were sufficient to close the lips. I then removed the block and continued squeezing the blades with my fingers.

Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4 coming soon…

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3 Responses to My first aulos reeds

  1. Stefan Hagel says:

    Beautiful reeds, well done! I’m very pleased to see such great results! How do they play?
    By the way, for the Berlin aulos I’d rather recommend 8.5-9mm cane, for Louvre perhaps 9.5-10mm, though this may be a matter of taste. Do you manage to get those reeds in tune on both?

    • Hi Stefan,
      Thank you. I have indeed managed to get them to balance. The only problem I appear to have concerns the air efficiency of the reeds. Do you have any suggestions on how to make the reeds consume less air?
      11-12mm cane was simply what we had, ordered by Barnaby and left over from the Workshop of Dionysus 2nd meeting. We have 8.5-10mm cane on order…

  2. Pingback: More thoughts on reed making | The Workshop of Dionysus

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