Thursday, January 28, 2010

Knife Fight

     It's not what you're thinking.  By "knife fight", I'm referring to the ongoing battle I've been having with my reed-making knife lately.  As an oboist, I must make my own reeds.  In order to do this, I must have a good, sharp knife.  This is the secret to good reeds. (...and also to good cooking, apparently.) 
     We oboists are known for being obsessive about our reeds.  Our reputation is probably deserved, however no one but another oboist can understand the angst one goes through over this.  It's like having your entire reputation depend on the whims of mother nature.  We can't control what the cane is going to do on any given day.  (It's a natural substance, after all.)  You might be flat, sound like a duck, have some notes crack, not be able to get low notes out, or the reed might shrivel up, giving you a really wimpy sound.  If you have a bad reed day, and you have a really important performance, there's little you can do to prevent certain embarrassment.  For this reason, we are constantly adjusting our reeds and making new ones with the sharpest of sharp knives.  If your knife is not sharp, you will shred the tip of the reed, rendering it useless. 
     Now that you know a bit about the importance of good reeds (and sharp knives), you can imagine my state of mind when I haven't been able to get a good edge on my knife, and therefore have not been able to improve my reed situation.  Every now and then, it is necessary to re-grind the knife.  This is because the metal gets slightly worn away to the thicker part of the knife.  Anyway, I decided to regrind the knife in order to get a new, sharper, edge on it.  This takes hours because you have to wear away a layer of metal.  A diamond stone must be used for this.  By the way, did I mention that I HATE doing this?  It's tedious, hurts your hands, and get metal shavings all over the place.  If you cut yourself, which I did, the metal shavings get in the cut.  I always worry that  this might cause health problems in the long run.  Is it bad to have steel in your blood stream?
     I have been fighting with my knife all week.  After re-grinding it, the knife is less sharp than before!  I feel the burr of the knife with my finger, but when I try to scrape a reed, it's like a butter knife.  I tried to re-grind it 3 times.  I do have a new Landwell knife (expensive but good), but it takes even longer to put an edge on a brand new knife.  Plus, the way things have been going, I feel like I might destroy it and it costs too much to do that.  Recently, a colleague of mine (who makes reeds professionally) said, "Why are you doing this to yourself?  Just get a cheap knife that's been pre-sharpened".  (A Weber Vitry-style, for instance)  This is what she does.  Genius!  If a professional reed-maker can take this shortcut, then so can I!  I ordered one last night and cannot wait for it to come in.  Hopefully, it will allow me to make reeds in the meantime, while I continue to fight with my knife.

Fellow oboists:  Can I hear some love?
Non-oboist friends:  Sorry for geeking out on you here, but it had to be done.

     I received the Weber knife in the mail three days after I ordered it.  (...and I hadn't even paid for fast shipping!)  It did indeed come with an edge, so all I had to do was "refresh" the burr and it was good to go.  I won't say that I'll forgo my Landwells, but it's nice to have something to fall back on while you grind your knife down.  It cuts out some of the pressure.  (No pun intended!)  I have to say, once you get a good edge on a Landwell, it's hard to beat it.  However, this Weber knife got me back on the right track and allowed me to get some reeds going.  Another oboe buddy of mine says she uses Chudnow knives.  I may try one of those next!     


  1. i quite making reeds long ago. i buy mine now and couldn't be happier. of course, i still fuss with them, but it takes the vast majority of work out of the equation. who could complain about that?

  2. Smart! Why put yourself through all that? Where do you buy them from? I've never bought a reed that I didn't have to "fix".

  3. Yes tell, where do you buy your reeds from?

  4. This is totally why I hate playing my clarinet. I know it's not nearly as tedious a process, but it's similar enough. I like piano because you can just sit down and start playing.

  5. Good point, Kim! Also, you don't have to worry about tuning. Hm....must start playing piano again. :-)