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Flat as a…

This installment on cane processing will help ensure that your next bonfire is bigger than ever! How many times have you heard that a good reed comes from cane that is flat and straight? What does that really mean? How flat is flat enough? Is any amount of curve or bend acceptable?

For those of us with limited resources, the answer to the latter is yes. Inevitably, a lot of cane will be thrown away, but only using perfect pieces of cane is prohibitively expensive for budding musicians. It is okay to test the boundaries of what you can functionally use and what your gouger can still process. Some gougers will take care of the problem for you, but there are some machines on the market that will gouge anything, and that requires more discipline and discerning from the reed-maker.

Did you like our last case study? Well, hopefully you did since we have another informal assessment.

When a tube of cane is split, it is almost always longer than a piece of cane should be, so it is shortened with a guillotine. The great thing about using a guillotine is that you can basically choose what part of the cane you want to keep. You can chop a little off of both sides if the piece of cane is slightly bowed on both sides, or if one end of the piece of split cane is acceptable and the other is not, you can cut the excess off of one end of the piece of split cane and leave the other alone.

With this in mind, we have some examples of split pieces of cane that need to be guillotined:

Case No. 1

After years of practice, you can probably just look at a piece of split cane and decide what part to keep, but the rest of us need to put the cane on a flat surface so we can discern the structure of the cane. You can use the base of your guillotine, the back of a radius gauge, or you can use your desk. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as it is flat and you can get eye level with the cane. The process is similar to measuring liquids. You can’t look at the cup from above and tell if you really have 1 and 1/3 cups of milk. You need to be at eye level with the measuring cup to know for sure.

We are in luck with our first piece of cane! It has a slight curl at one end, but most of the piece is flush with the desk.

Case No. 2
This piece has one major flaw, but the bowing only occurs at the right side of the piece of cane. The left side might be usable. A closer look at the left side reveals a slight bowing. There is a little daylight between the cane and the flat side of the radius gauge. This is one of those gray areas that we mentioned earlier. The left side of this piece isn’t horrible, but it isn’t the best piece of cane ever. Again, there is no steadfast rule. Practice and preference are your litmus test in this situation.

Case No. 3
This piece of cane has two things working against it. Almost 75% of this piece is bowed, but it is also twisting. Twisted cane can be an indication of a bad piece of cane, but it can also be a sign that your splitter is dull. Splitters need to be sharpened or replaced just like razor blades and reed knives. They will not stay extremely sharp your entire career. It would be to your advantage to discard this piece and add it to your bonfire collection.

Case No. 4

This piece is an example of a piece that could end up being a good reed, a good practice reed, or a great reed for a student. The significant bowing is limited to a small portion on the right side. Without something to compare it to, this piece might appear flat, but the left side of this piece is not completely flush with the radius gauge. This is another gray area decision for some people, but I have probably already made a reed out of this piece.

Now you have seen the good, bad, and the ugly as far as cane is concerned. Hopefully, you can use the information to make informed judgments in your own cane processing adventures.

More Thoughts on CANe Selection

Before cane processing can begin, careful and discriminatory cane selection must take place. There are a few areas in life where “discrimination” carries a less derogatory connotation. It’s okay to be prejudicial in terms of cane selection. In fact, it is important! The more you can discern between different pieces of cane, the more consistent your reeds will be.

How many oboists have exclaimed, “I love playing the oboe, but I hate making reeds!” Cane selection is one way to reduce the frustration of reed-making.

Good reeds don’t magically happen because you have sharp knives, a particular brand of staples, or the latest and greatest shaper tip. The foundation of a great reed is a good piece of cane.

There are a several reasons to practice cane discrimination:

  • Inconsistent reeds and possibly inconsistent performance (This should be reason enough!)
  • Frustration with the reed-making process
  • Self-confidence issues: Inconsistent reeds will make you call in to question your materials, your technique, or your potential as an oboist.
  • Time!!! Cane processing takes too much time to waste it on cane that won’t become a good reed. Why spend more time at the reed desk than you have to?

The most important reason is that cane discrimination will allow you more opportunities for success and will decrease your chances for failure.

One of the most important tools necessary for cane selection is a radius gauge.

I have three radius gauges. I only use one of them to do any actual measuring. Another is the tool I’ve adopted to determine how flat a piece of cane is, and I don’t use the third at all. It’s just taking up space on my shelf.

The two shown in the picture below are the two that I use regularly. I like the Covey gauge because the curves are shallow and actually reflect the portion of the cane that I’m going to gouge. I also prefer the Covey gauge because it has increments of .25, and the one below only shows increments of .5.

I use the silver radius gauge as a flat edge to see where the cane bows or bends and that’s the only time I use it!

That’s enough radius gauge nerdiness for now! I’ve randomly selected a handful of tube cane from my bag. You can already see how different each tube is! Some are circular, some are shaped more like an oval, and there are a few with asymmetrical/pointed sides. More importantly, some of these tubes are much thicker than others, therefore, the cane is much more dense. When the veins are more compact, you are more likely to get better results. When the cane is gouged, the blade will remove cane from the inner curve. The thicker the piece of cane is, the more dense the cane will be as you approach the bark with the gouger.
The picture below shows two pieces of cane from the same bag, and there are distinct differences between the two. While neither piece is “wrong,” one of the two could be slightly more advantageous. Don’t judge the tube on the left by the gunk in the middle. The pregouger or the first few passes with the gouger will take care of the “extra” material, also known as the pulp. Notice, however, how much of a difference there is between the thickness of the two tubes. If you are good with your knives, you could probably make a decent reed from either piece of cane, but the thicker tube might give you a warmer and more focused sound because of the difference in how the veins are packed and organized.
If you want to track different pieces of cane based on their thickness, try marking the edge with a colored marker or Sharpie after you split and guillotine the cane. Mark the thicker pieces with the same color so you can objectively see whether or not there is a difference in how the reed vibrates. That’s what it ‘s all about anyway: Organizing and focusing the vibrations!

I mentioned earlier that the gouger removes cane from the inside out. Processing cane (splitting, guillotining, pre-gouging, gouging, etc.) does not change the outer curve, or the curve of the bark, so it is imperative to consider the the shape of the outer curve during the selection process. The outer curve determines how the cane will fit in the bed of the gouger. An ill-fitting piece of cane is going to leave you at the mercy of some very interesting reeds.

There are two issues to consider here:
The size of the curve of a piece of cane relative to the to the size of the bed of the gouger.
The shape of the curve of a piece of cane relative to the shape of the bed of the gouger.

A piece of cane can’t be judged based on one criteria or the other. It has to pass both tests. A beautiful curve that is too large for the bed of the gouger is going to result in a piece of cane that is too thin, and the resulting reed is predisposed to being unstable and vibrating too much. (Yes, there is such a thing as too much vibration!!!)

After identifying some potential pieces of cane with a radius gauge, the tube has to be measured and split into pieces so you can get to the optimal part of the cane. We will cover measuring and judging tubes in another installment of our cane sorting series. There’s no “correct” way to do this. Some people use a razor blade so they can be very specific in their selection, but I usually end up stabbing myself with sharp pieces of cane. Another option is shown below: a cane splitter!
A cane splitter is a fancy form of a hunting broad head on a dowel with some safety precautions, but don’t go steal the arrow out of your dad’s deer hunting equipment. That’s not sanitary, and he won’t thank you!

Oboists have put a plastic cap over the broad head to avoid injury. Insert the broad head so that the portion of the cane you want to gouge falls in between the blades.
We’ve discussed separating and storing cane in previous blog posts. This is the point where things get rough: not every piece of cane will work and not every tube will suit your needs. Most of the bag of cane will only be good for firewood. It will either be warped or end up being the wrong shape.

Check back for more thoughts on cane selection including what a good piece of cane looks like according to the radius gauge.

Julie C

 Cane Sorting, Part One: Inspecting And Splitting Your Tube Cane

Do you sort your cane? Well, you should! Learning to sort cane effectively will save you time, energy, and money.  This blog series will show you how to classify your cane assortment, separating out the pieces that are most likely to produce vibrant, quality reeds.

In my earlier reedmaking days, I rebelled against cane sorting, believing that I could “make every piece work”. Let’s face it: I was cheap. It astounded me to see people throwing away almost 50% (and sometimes much more!) of a batch of cane that they had just received. Had I paid more attention, I would have realized that these same people spent much less time struggling to make quality reeds than I did. While every reed you make isn’t going to turn out, it’s nice to know that the reason isn’t because the cane is warped, dead, or bug-infested J

The bottom line: time is money.  If you find yourself sitting at your reed desk for hours upon hours making reeds that don’t seem “quite” right (maybe they don’t seal, are a funny color or have extremely closed or open tip openings), then you could definitely benefit from being more selective with your cane.

This blog series will start at the very beginning, when cane is in tube form.

Things you will need:

-tube cane

-radius gauge (we like the one listed here, because it measures in increments of .25:


-cane splitter or razorblades (we like this one): http://www.rdgwoodwinds.com/cane-splitter-oboe-oboe-damour-p-135.html

-several Ziploc freezer sized storage bags

1. Initial inspection of cane.

When you first get your cane, dump it all out on your workspace and examine the pieces: look at the coloring, length and general diameter of the tubes. You won’t typically be throwing anything out at this point, unless it is excessively black or green and no part of the tube can be salvaged (this has personally never happened to me). Some people begin to measure the tubes right away with their radius gauge, however I would caution against doing so at this point, as the radius of the cane can change once the cane is split.

2. Splitting your cane

Select a piece of cane and examine the outside. Does it have any markings? (some brown marks are ok and natural. Anything black or grey means the cane has died and should be cut off). Next, examine the ends: anything that is not in the shape of an “O” should be discarded (sometimes your will see “knots” in cane- this is where a shoot has started to grow off of the plant- these can be ok as long as they can be cut off after splitting).  If any of the “bad” cane parts are in the same area, position your  splitter so that you can cut them all off in one piece.

3. After splitting your cane, you need to determine which pieces are straight enough to keep. Get a VERY flat surface (I like to use the edge of my radius gauge) and place your split cane on it. If you can see any light underneath it, this means the cane is warped and should not be used. BE CAREFUL HERE: Many pieces of cane have ends that can be guillotined off in order to use a straight inner section of the cane. It is more obvious with some pieces than others. When in doubt, err on the side of being picky. It is not unusual to get rid of half of your cane in this stage.

4. Once you have guillotined your cane, you can measure it with the radius gauge. Take every piece and classify it by radius. If you want to be very specific, you can write the radius on each piece of cane—however, I find it easier to group them by range (common groupings are 10-10.5, 10.5-11, etc, although you could narrow them down to 10-10.25, 10.25-10.5, etc).

5. This is a good stopping place after all of your work! When you have sorted the cane by diameter, place it in plastic baggies and label them.