So you want to make a great reed. It all starts with a perfectly tied blank. Sure, you need a good piece of gouged and shaped cane, not to mention a mandrel and staples that fit together exactly so, but you also need to get that piece of cane onto the staple. Many, many oboists find tying a reed blank to be a big challenge. Even professionals who have made hundreds of reeds will occasionally find they have a blank with some defect in tying. For beginning reedmakers it is the first challenge they face; the first hurdle in making a reed. The simple truth is, your reed will only be as good as your blank. In other words, it will be next to impossible to scrape a good or even great reed if you have mis-tied the blank in some way. This article will discuss what it takes to tie a "perfect reed blank". While it will refer only to oboe blanks, the same concepts apply to English horn or oboe d'amour blanks.
Before you read any further, I strongly urge you to reed the other articles in this forum about selecting a mandrel ("The Right Mandrel for You") and oboe staples ("Staples? Yeah, you've got that.") which will help eliminate some of the problems in tying a reed blank.
Other than a mandrel, a staple and a piece of gouged and shaped cane, to tie a blank, you will also need thread and beeswax. While some oboists will use silk thread or cotton thread, many find nylon thread to be best suited to tying a reed. Nylon thread in the FF thickness has just the right combination of elasticity and strength to get the job done. If you use your reeds for a long time, the repeated soaking in water will rot cotton thread. Silk thread in sufficient thickness does not have the same elasticity as nylon and can get expensive. If you ever came across polyester thread and considered using it to tie reeds, forget about it. While it is cheaper or comparable in price to nylon and other thread, it has virtually no elasticity which makes it useless for tying reeds. Double F (FF) is the predominant thickness of thread used by reedmakers, but it is certainly possible to use a thinner gauge of thread like EE. Aside from a finer wrap around the cane, there seems to be little advantage in using a thinner thread, especially when it will break more readily under the tension of wrapping and tying reeds.
One of the goals of tying a reed is to have it seal from top to bottom; no leaks. Applying beeswax or nail polish or some other sealant to the thread will eliminate the chance of air escaping between the wrappings. Nail polish will certainly offer a superior protection for the thread itself, but the application requires more time and attention. Getting any on the cane itself is detrimental to the vibrations of the reed. Beeswax is inexpensive, easy to apply and quite effective against leaks through the thread. Simply tie the end of the thread to a stable object (like a desk) and, while holding the thread taut, rub some beeswax back and forth a couple times to the top and bottom of it. Voila! your thread is ready to tie.
The most important concept in tying a reed is to keep tension in the thread at all times. Doing so will make manipulating the thread and cane during the tying process possible if not eminently easier. It takes some practice as each hand is constantly changing what it is doing in terms of tension and function. If you make keeping the thread taut your goal, everything else involved in tying a blank will go much smoother.
Ok, your thread is already tied to your desk or another stable object and coated lightly with beeswax. Take a staple and place it onto the end of your mandrel, making sure it is fully seated. You will be wrapping the reed with the spool of thread in your dominant hand (i.e in your right hand if you are right-handed, left if you are left-handed) and your mandrel in your other hand. In your mandrel hand, take and position a piece of gouged and shaped cane onto the end of the staple with the widest part of the staple above the cork, flat against the gouged concave inside surface of the cane. Align the line of the fold at the top of the piece of cane with your mandrel handle to make sure the cane is not rotated out of true.
The overall length of the tied blank (as measured from the bottom of the staple to the fold of the cane) is determined, naturally, by the amount of cane tied onto the staple. The optimal tying length is dependent on the shape of the cane as determined by the shaper-tip and the shape and size of the staples. There are charts available which indicate the suggested tie-off length for various shaper-tips, but if you don’t know what shaper-tip was used to shape your cane or you are not satisfied with the openings you have gotten on previously tied blanks, you will have to experiment to find which tie-length works best for you. We recommend 72-73 mm as your starting point for your tie-off length.
Once you have positioned the piece of cane onto the staple so as to achieve the desired tie-off length, inspect the sides of the cane and adjust so the amount of space between the blades at the top of the staple is equal on each side. Place the thread about 3-4 winds below the top of the staple and loosely wind around both cane and staple up to but not beyond the top of the staple. Gradually pull on the thread to slowly tighten and close the gap between the edges of the cane. Be sure both sides of the cane close evenly, that is, at the same time. When both sides of the cane are closed, in one movement, use your thumb and index finger to shift the blades of the cane and pull the thread tight. If you are holding the blank parallel to the floor, the blades should move in the OPPOSITE direction to that of the tension in the thread of the spool hand. In other words, when the spool hand is winding over the top of the blank, it is pulling in one direction and when the spool hand is winding under the bottom of the blank it is pulling in the other. Shift the top blade in the opposite direction the thread is being pulled when on top, and shift the bottom blade in the opposite direction the thread is being pulled when on the bottom. So, if your spool hand is pulling away from you when winding over the top of the blank, push the top blade towards you and the bottom blade away from you. The purpose of shifting the blades is to lock them into one position which will not change during playing, maintaining a constant reed opening. This adds tonal stability to your finished reed.
After the shift is complete, cross the thread over the middle of the topmost winding and begin tightly winding the thread down the cane and staple. After 3-4 winds, look down the top of the blank to see if the fold of the top of the cane is aligned correctly with the mandrel and staple. If the cane is rotated out of true, gently give it a small twist to correct. Continue winding down the tube. When you wind past the bottom of the cane and are on the bare metal of the staple, it is time to make several knots. With your index finger of your mandrel hand, press the thread against the staple to maintain the tightness of your windings. With your spool hand, make a loop with the thread and slide it over and down the blank and pull tight. Make at least 3-4 of these loop-knots.
When your knots are made, cut the thread away from the desk or other anchor point, leaving 3-4 inches of thread still attached to the blank. Take this end of the thread make a “U” over top the cork with one side of the “U” leading up next to the side of the blank. With your spool hand, wind firmly over top the “U” 2-3 times. Holding these last windings tight against the staple with your mandrel hand’s index finger, cut the thread away from the spool, leaving 2-3 inches of thread attached to the blank. Take this end of the thread, pass it through the “U”, then pull up on the “U” end of the thread, pulling the other end up underneath the last 2-3 windings. This completes the “locking knot”.
Now that your blank is tied, take your ruler and measure the distance between the bottom of the cork to the top winding. To get an accurate measurement, be sure to put the ruler on top of the cork and thread instead of holding it next to the blank. Holding it next to the blank forces your eye to extrapolate a line to the thread and allow an error. The measurement must not be greater than the length of the staple; often 47mm. An “over-tied” blank will experience difficulties in reed opening and tone constriction. If the thread is tied slightly longer than the staple, sometimes you can take your ruler and push the thread down the staple. It is not necessary to do anything if the thread is tied slightly shorter than the overall length of the staple.
It is useful to measure the over length of the tied blank to be sure the finished length is what you had intended. Furthermore, take the time to hold your ruler alongside your blank to determine the cane was tied straight onto the staple. If the cane is tied on crooked, you will save yourself time and frustration to destroy the blank now rather than try to make a reed out of it.
Take a knife and scrape the top 2-3mm of the blank on both sides until it is thin enough to clip open. On your cutting block, clip the blank open and reinforce the shift of the blades slightly. Hold a finger over the bottom of the staple and test the seal of the blades by first, sucking and then blowing into the blank. If there is significant air loss when blowing or very poor suction when sucking, the blank does not seal and should be destroyed. If, when looking up through the bottom of the staple you notice the blades of the cane are not correctly aligned with the oval of the staple, you should destroy the blank, again to save yourself time and frustration. If everything checks out, set the blank aside to dry eight hours or more before scraping. This drying period allows the cane to adjust to its new shape on the staple.
Tying oboe reed blanks is one of the most basic but also trickiest parts of making oboe reeds. It takes patience, coordination, attention to detail and proper tools and materials. Mastering this skill will avoid many difficulties when scraping blanks into reeds. Good luck!