Harry A. Vas Dias

Editor's note: Harry Vas Dias is a distinguished maker of authentic copies of 18th century oboes. This article first appeared in the journal TIBIA. We are grateful to its editors and to Mr. Vas Dias for permitting us to reprint the article here.


This work will be a simple, but I hope explicit, set of practical instructions on all aspects of reed making for baroque oboe reeds and particularly reeds for those copies of the oboe by Jacob Denner which I make.

It is my intention to give those methods only, which in my opinion are the most practical and easiest to execute without having to buy expensive machinery, in an effort to maintain simplicity throughout, making this work accessible not only to experienced oboists but to beginners and students alike.

Baroque oboe reeds as discovered from historical sources.

Unfortunately, no definitely identifiable baroque oboe reeds have survived to the present time. Save for some broken fragments, possibly of later reeds, and a questionable oboe d'amore reed we have no definitive examples.

There are, however, a number of pictures which have turned up in the last years, discovered by myself and others, which show oboes with their reeds dating back to the early years of the oboe. These illustrations have proved extremely useful in reconstructing reeds for baroque oboes. We have been able to verify the results of trial and error experimentation on exact copies of baroque oboes, later to be confirmed by playing them on the originals.

Oboe reeds during the early years of the oboe (c. 1660-1750) were, as nearly all available evidence indicates, either continuous wedge shaped or large, wide reeds, also often wedge shaped, tied on short staples. [1]

By the middle of the 18th century evidence appears showing shorter reeds with long staples. [2] Many of the early period oboes do not play well with these reeds.

Taking into consideration J. C. Denner's inclination toward invention, and the fact that the Denner oboes play very well with these reeds, gives us reason to suppose that the Denner oboes may have been among the first to be played upon with them.

1. Preparation of Cane:

Obtain cane of species ARUNDO DONAX at about 15 mm in diameter, and cut into pieces 95 mm long with a fine saw. Split it crosswise into four equal pieces. Soak the cane in water for two to three hours, and then cut flat with a knife.

2. Gouging cane:

Place the wet piece of cane in the bed and gouge with the gouging knife, drawing it towards you while running your finger and thumb along the side and top of the bed, using these as a guide while holding the gouging knife. (See Figs. 2 and 3.) In this manner you will cut off fine slivers of cane evenly out of the inside of the cane until it is about I mm thick. With a little practice most can master this technique easily.

Then take your round scraper and scrape the inside of the cane down to about .65 to .70 mm in the center of the cane and .45 mm or so on the sides of the cane.

Some prefer heavier sides.

Then, with a piece of 320 or 360 grit size, wet or dry silicon carbide abrasive paper wrapped around a 15 mm dia. round stick or dowel (or piece of cane) (Fig. 5) finish the inside of the cane, rubbing the wet cane up and down on the abrasive paper. Take care not to cut yourself on the sharp side edge of the cane.

3. Shaping the Cane:

Soak the gouged cane well then score in the center and fold over a knife edge. (Fig. 6) Cut the sides down to 10 mm width and then cut sides in this manner: (See Fig. 7) With a sharp knife, finish with a file or emery board and continue to file to a curve as in Figs. 8, 9 and 10.

4. Binding the Cane:

Put your staple on a mandrel. Fasten a hook to your work bench or table and tic on it the loose end of some strong nylon thread wound on a small spool. (Fig. 11)

Then, fold your well soaked cane over the tip of the staple so that fold of the cane is in line with wide axis of the oval tip of the staple, and placed far enough down on the staple so that the sides of the reed will close evenly with an airtight seal when tied with thread. This may take a little experimentation, but with experience becomes easier.

Holding your mandrel in the left hand, use your thumb and forefinger to hold the cane in place upon the staple. Take the spool of thread in your right hand and loop the thread one turn around the bottom of your cane at a point 2 or 3 mm from the tip of your staple, holding the thread tightly enough to keep the cane in place.

(Fig. 12) Adjust the cane on the staple so that the gap on either side of the cane is the same. Three-four turns of the thread should close the gap and come to the end of the staple. Never bind beyond the end of the staple, this tends to choke off vibration. A turn below the end is permissible.

Then, looping back over the cane already bound continue binding on down for 2 cm or so tightly, (Fig. 13) tying your last loop with a slip knot. Take care to pinch the thread with the fingers of the left hand to prevent it from unravelling while tying this knot. Cut the thread and then seal your binding with clear nail polish and allow to dry. When the nail polish is dry tie a double loop of .35-.4 mm brass wire about 4-5 mm from the binding around the neck of the reed just tightly enough to keep the blades firmly in place. This will allow you to control the opening of the reed during its final adjustment.

5. Scraping the Reed:

After soaking the reed for 10-15 minutes, scrape the bark off the end of the reed about 15 mm down (Fig. 14) and then cut off the tip (Fig. 15) at a point 1/2 mm more than the finished length of the reed. That should be 26 1/2 mm for the reed I make for the Denner oboe.

Insert the plaque between the blades of the reed (Fig. 16) and continue scraping the cane thinner at the end of the reed until it begins to respond when you blow on it pressed between the lips. You continue to scrape the reed further back to 17-18 mm and at the tip, testing it every so often for response until it plays freely in the manner desired. Finally, cut the very edge of the tip making the blades even, and finish the tip.

I usually scrape the reed in the manner shown in Fig. 17: the tip thinner in a curve, the lay U shaped, with a backbone and the sides a little thinner toward the tip. For me, this style of reed produces the best tone and response.

There are, however, many different ways of scraping a reed, many of them good. A knowledegeable teacher can be of great help, but do not be afraid to experiment on your own. The experience gained can help be very rewarding.

The way any one person's reeds are finished is greatly influenced by their "embouchure" and manner of blowing on the oboe, and varies to a certain extent, Blowing on baroque oboe should be much less forceful than on modern oboe.

Good reed making, and especially the finishing stages, can best be learned by experiencing the changes in response that occur as one gradually scrapes the reed to its final dimensions.

Tools for Reed Making* -- See Fig. 1

* These tools are available from Volker Kernbach, Teichmuhlenstr. 21, 3100 Celle

Knives : For splitting the tubes of cane, carving the top flat and shaping the cane, a flat knife, or wedge shaped knife with flat sides is best.
For scraping cane a heavy knife with a bevel is preferable.
Keep your knives sharp by sharpening them on an abrasive stone. Always sharpen toward the cutting edge of the blade.

Mandrel: For holding the staple when binding the reed. One can convert a modern oboe mandrel by jamming on it a modern staple very tightly and stripping the cork off it. If it has a protruding rim at the bottom file this off first.

Plaque:Modern oboists of the French school use a metal plaque. The Viennese use a wooden contoured plaque. I find that a dark colored plastic, heavy guitar pick works quite well for baroque oboe reeds. If it is too large you can always file the sides down to suit your taste.

Cutting block:An ebony circular block with slightly rounded top.

Supplies for Reed Making

Cane: 15 mm tubes
Nylon thread: FF size
Brass wire: .35 mm dia.

Tools for Gouging Cane

Gouging knife: A knife with its blade curved in an arc of about 16 mm dia. with the sharp edge cutting towards you. (Fig. 3)

Scraper: A flat piece of steel with each end circular one 15 mm dia. on 16 mm dia. sharpened for scraping. (Fig. 4)

Gouging bed: A block of hardwood with a 15 mm dia. groove running down 7/8 of its length, mounted on a flat board.

Wet or dry silicon carbide paper, 320 grit size. (Fig. 3)


[1] See Figs. A and B from Diderot's Encyclopedia and from "The Compleat Flute Master."

There are many more illustrations of such reeds:

The title page of Marin Marais' "Pieces en Trio."

Wateau's sketch of a street musician.

The anonymous painting of an oboist in the Staatliches Institut fur Musikforschung in Berlin which appears on the cover of the Double Reed October, 1981.

Mural by Rafael Sanzio in the Vatican, Rome.

Sketch by Roger North in Margin of essaye on "Sound", c 1705-1710

Painting by F. X. Verbeeck 1685-1755.

These last three were discovered by Nora Post who is soon to publish a definitive work on early oboe reeds.

The title page of John Milton's "11 Paradiso Perduto" pub. in Verona 1742.

Painting on a Flentrop organ.

Painting by Gerard De Lairesse 1682.

Most of the above material was given in a paper I read at the 1975 annual meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society in support of my postulation that continuous wedge-shaped reeds were played until c. 1750.

Since then Nora Post has pointed out new evidence to me that there were indeed also short stapled reeds during that time.


[2] See Fig. C from the "Dictionaire" by Garsault published: 1761. [return]

[*]These tools are available from Volker Kernbach, Teichmuhlenstr. 21, 3100 Celle

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