"This article reprinted with the kind permission of the Instrumentalist magazine (Evanston, Illinois) and the authors. "
Reed players must continually strive to maintain the proper amount of moisture in their reeds --a most important factor in correct response. The conditions under which a reed is stored when not in use have a considerable effect on the ease with which it may be restored to a playable condition when needed.
Performers are taught that reeds should never be put in sealed containers while wet, since mildew forms rapidly under those conditions. But the storage of reeds under dry conditions is also harmful. Winter especially, with its low relative humidity, is a time when wires on bassoon reeds loosen, bindings break loose from the tube, the sides of oboe reeds open while the tips close, and long soakings are necessary to restore the well-playing reed of yesterday even to a playable state today. Particularly noticeable is the apparent deterioration of reeds which are made under conditions of relatively high humidity and later stored at low humidity. An obvious solution to this problem is to make and store reeds under the same atmospheric conditions.
Relative humidity is the ratio of the actual content of water vapor in the air to the maximum amount of water vapor which the air can hold. When pure water is placed in a closed container the relative humidity rises to 100% and will remain at that level as long as some liquid is present. Storage of reeds at 100% relative humidity leads quickly to mildew formation--and there is more than enough water on a properly soaked double reed to raise the relative humidity of the typical reed case to 100% and keep it there for some time; hence, reed cases should allow free communication with the air in order to prevent mildew formation.
We have found that a relative humidity of about 75% is nearly ideal for reed storage. In such an environment reeds do not mildew and, yet, do not become so dry that a 1 or 2 minute moistening will not restore them to playing condition. Devices for maintaining constant relative humidity are available commercially -- unfortunately, they are quite expensive. However, there is a simple and inexpensive means of maintaining constant relative humidity in a container suitable for reed storage.
It has been known for some time that the relative humidity above a saturated solution of non-iodized common salt (sodium chloride) remains very close to a value of 75% at all temperatures between 32°ree; and 132°ree;F (0 to 50°ree;C). [A. Wexler and S. Hasegawa, Journal of Research, National Bureau of Standards, Volume 53, p. 19 (1954)] Thus, if we maintain a saturated solution of salt in a closed container, we can confidently expect the relative humidity in that container to remain most favorable for reed storage.
Containers for this purpose should be made from plastic or glass, [Editor's Note: A good container, which is readily available, is the plastic sealed-lid bread storage box made by Tupperware and a few other makers.] not from metals, since salt solutions are very corrosive. The ideal container has a small volume, but allows a large surface area of salt solution to be exposed in order to speed up the equalization of humidity between the reeds and the air in the container. A plastic shoe box, vegetable storage box, or similar container provided with a tight fitting top, will work. Weather stripping can be used to improve the seal. The bottom inch or so of the box is filled with a saturated salt solution. This can be prepared by mixing about 3/4 pound of non-iodized salt in a quart of boiling water. Continue to add salt until no more will dissolve. After pouring the solution into the box, add two or three tablespoonfuls more salt to the solution. The solution level is then marked on the side of the container and maintained there by the addition of water-- always making sure that some crystals of undissolved salt are present at the bottom. A shelf provided with perforations is placed above the solution, and the reeds--in open boxes or reed cases - are placed on the shelf. The cover is closed
(see drawing). It is also desirable to apply a thin layer of vaseline around the inside of the box just above the level of the solution, to prevent the salt from "creeping" up the walls.
If the reeds are initially too dry, some pure water evaporates from the salt solution and is absorbed by the reeds. If reeds are too moist, water evaporates from them and eventually dissolves some of the excess salt present at the bottom of the container. In this way, the relative humidity of the air in the container remains constant, and the reeds stay in good shape for months.
Dried-out reeds placed in the container will be restored in about 24 hours, and will remain that way as long as they are there. No salt can be transferred to the reeds as long as they are not in actual physical contact with the solution.
Through the use of this simple device, much of the grief associated with the storage of reeds is avoided, and it becomes a relatively simple matter to maintain the playing condition of acceptable reeds, so that one can always have a playable reed on hand.