Scraping in the Bassoon Reed: An Approach for (almost) any Reed Style

Even though I’ve been using a tip profiler for years—first a Rieger, now the Andante e Rondo—I still like to scrape a tip in by hand every now and then. It keeps me in touch with the core scraping skills and allows me evaluate the cane in a way that’s not possible when machines do 90% of the finishing in one step.

The method below is the one I teach my students when they learn to finish reeds. It is a process-oriented approach, rather than one that is tied to specific measurements on a dial indicator. This makes it exceptionally flexible. I first learned many elements of this method when I was studying with Frank Morelli, and I have also used it to scrape in Van Hoesen reeds, Herzberg reeds, as well as my current Italian-style reeds. It is the quickest and most consistent way I have found to get a blank into a playing state.

The photos and measurements will refer to my current reed measurements, but try this method on whatever kind of reed you make. Depending on your style and cane profile, you may have to do more or less of any one step, but the process will still guide you on your way from blank to reed.

Click here for a simplified scraping recipe

Step 1: Replace the first wire

All the wires on the reed should conform to the contours of the cane. After drying, it’s almost impossible to achieve this with without over-tightening the first wire, so the best option is to replace it. This is also a good time to check the second wire, which must always be snug.

 1st wire removed and ready for replacement

1st wire removed and ready for replacement

Step 2: Prepare the blade

Sand the blade lightly with fine sandpaper to prepare the surface and remove any irregularities.  Cut a strip of sandpaper that you can comfortably wrap around your finger and use your finger to apply pressure and guide the sandpaper.  Think of sanding with your finger—not the sandpaper.

 Sanding the blade

Sanding the blade

Step 3: Cut the tip

I recommend using a tip cutter—whether a guillotine or straight clipper type—to make this step as quick, accurate, and painless as possible.

 The initial length will vary depending on reed style, bocal length, and cane density. I always begin at the longest that my reeds would normally be, and then cut the tip back as necessary to achieve a stable one-finger E.  For my reed style this is 29 mm from the top of the first wire, but my reeds usually end up at 28 mm or even a bit shorter than that. Use whatever the normal measurement is for your reed style. Don’t be afraid to cut the tip back if the reed is flat or unstable!  Each piece of cane is unique, and there is no magic “correct” length.

Step 4: Taper the rails

If the profile of the cane is thick at the rails (as it is off of my Rieger profiler), use a sapphire nail file to taper the rails from the back toward the tip.

 Rails after tapering

Rails after tapering

 The position of the file on the rails is key. The file should be angled so it rests flat across the channels with the tip of the file extending beyond the rails. The goal is to increase the center-to-side taper of the profile, not to round off the rails. Think about filing the 2-3 mm strip of cane from the rails into the blade of the reed, rather than filing the rails themselves.

 Positioning the file flat against the blade

Positioning the file flat against the blade

Step 5: Sand in the tip

This sets the initial tip thickness. Place a piece of sandpaper on a flat surface, then press the tip of the reed onto the sandpaper so the entire tip of the bottom blade is resting on the sandpaper  The reed should be angled up slightly so that only the final 1-2 mm of the blade is in contact with the sandpaper.

 Sanding the tip at a shallow angle

Sanding the tip at a shallow angle

Begin sanding back and forth, rocking the reed from side to side so that the corners of the tip are sanded an equal amount (if not a bit more) as the center. 

 Sanding the right quadrant of the tip

Sanding the right quadrant of the tip

 Sanding the left quadrant of the tip

Sanding the left quadrant of the tip

Press lightly at first until you learn how much pressure is needed.  Keep sanding until your tip is the desired thickness, and stop to check the tip frequently.  This may be a slow process in the beginning, but once you learn how much pressure to use, it will go quickly.

 Checking the thickness of the tip of the top blade after sanding

Checking the thickness of the tip of the top blade after sanding

Step 6: Blend the tip

The previous sanding step creates a short, steep taper at the tip of the reed.  The next step is to blend that taper into the blade.

 Sanding line visible across tip

Sanding line visible across tip

There will be a sanding line visible across the width of the tip.  Starting from the center and working outwards toward each corner, scrape straight across that line, focusing on the area where the line meets the unsanded portion of the blade.  Using the tip of the knife (or the curved portion if your knife has a rounded tip) can help with precision.  Repeat this process until the sanding line disappears and the taper to the tip is gradual and even.

 Blending the tip in the right quadrant

Blending the tip in the right quadrant

 After blending: sanding line is no longer visible in the right quadrant

After blending: sanding line is no longer visible in the right quadrant

 Blending the tip in the left quadrant

Blending the tip in the left quadrant

 Blending complete: sanding line is no longer visible

Blending complete: sanding line is no longer visible

Step 7: Scrape in the hinges

Next we’ll create flexibility in the front third of the reed so that the corners will close when we play.  We’ll be scraping across the grain of the cane, using what’s called a “lateral scrape.”  The lateral scrape is focused on shaping the contour of the cane, rather than its thickness, to encourage the reed to close the way we want it to.

 Start by imagining a triangle formed by drawing a diagonal line from the center of the tip to a point on the rails about 1/3 of the way from the tip to the collar.  Place your knife along this line.  (You can draw the line with pencil to help visualize the placement.)

 Drawing lines to visualize the hinges

Drawing lines to visualize the hinges

 Positioning knife along the line

Positioning knife along the line

Scrape across this line, rotating the knife back toward the heart and out toward the corner in a circular motion led by the wrist.  The line should be the center point of the scrape.  You don’t need to go all the way out to the corner—stop a few mm short of it.  Focus on scraping across the line until you see the quadrant of the tip you’re working on start to curve down when you look at the tip head on.  This may take a little scraping or a lot, depending on the thickness of your profile.

 Upper left quadrant beginning to curve

Upper left quadrant beginning to curve

I call this area the “hinges” of the reed, because creating flexibility in this area allows the whole tip to start closing from the sides in toward the center, like the hinge of a door.

If your corners are persistently staying open, bring the lateral scrape farther back into the channels in the middle third of the blade. You’ll be scraping even more aggressively across the grain of the cane.

 Scraping farther back in channels

Scraping farther back in channels

Step 8: Blend in the wings/rails in the front third

Because we’ve been focusing on creating flexibility in the hinge area, the wings and rails in the front of the reed may now be slightly thicker than the channel areas just inside them.  Using the same sapphire file that you used to taper the rails, use the same flat filing motion here, working from halfway between the collar and the tip all the way up to the corner.  Check both the thickness of the taper and the shape of the tip as it closes at the corners frequently. A plaque may be useful for this step.

 Filing the rails in the wings

Filing the rails in the wings

Step 9: Test your reed

It’s time to test the reed!  Check the crow, but don’t judge the reed until you’ve played it on the bassoon.  Is the reed flat and/or unstable on E?  Clip the tip back half a millimeter at a time until the pitch stabilizes, then repeat the steps 5-8 as needed.

Steps 10-Infinity: Adjusting from here

Your reed will need to be adjusted continually throughout its lifetime.  The good news is that the steps outlined above are the same scraping techniques I use every day to make fine adjustments.

 If the reed is stuffy, repeat the blending scrape in Step 6, but only in the very center of the reed.  (Make sure you are scraping behind the tip, not on the tip itself.)

 If the reed feels stiff or the tip is not closing from the sides to the center, scrape more in the hinge area, as in Step 7.  Check for flexibility by feeling the contours of the cane with your fingers, or the back of your knife.  Once the front third of the reed feels flexible, you can extend the lateral scrape farther back into the channels.  You will be scraping even more across the grain at this point. Always check the smoothness and thickness of the rails after this, and blend with your file if necessary.

If your tip opening is asymmetrical—with one or more quadrant curving less than the others, use the lateral scrap in those quadrants until the tip is closing symmetrically. 

Wires can be adjusted to change the resistance of the reed and the size of the tip opening.  Open the first wire from the sides to open the tip, increase resistance, and lower pitch.  Closing the first wire from top and bottom will close the tip, decrease resistance, and raise pitch.  Manipulating the second wire will have the opposite effect: opening it will close the tip and closing it will open the tip.  This is called reverse wire function.

 A note about adjusting the wires: once I set the initial tip opening I do very little adjusting of the wires, except to open the tip if needed as it closes down during the scraping process.  Think of the wires as setting the structure of the reed—moving them can have a powerful effect, but too much manipulation can undermine stability and lead to overscraping. 

 If at any point either wire becomes loose, tighten it so it is once again snug.

Good luck and happy scraping!