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Reeds by Holly

Sharpening the Reed Knife

Developing a Comfortable Feel with your Reed KnifeRichard Kilmer is famously known to have said, tongue in cheek, that reedmaking is easy. “Just scrape all away all the wood that isn’t supposed to be there.” You gotta love him! He’s just brilliant, and he’s a sweetheart of a man. But, he’s also right. Once you learn how to make reeds that you like, it does get much easier to make a lot of them that are fairly consistent, IF you keep your knive sharp. Until then, a reed maker’s success is a bit of a mystical thing, because we are manipulating factors that we can feel but in many cases cannot see. Reeds will often sound good to the listener long before they feel good to the player. To get to that finished state, you must have control of the knife.

I have to say first, consistency in your playing is a must. You must be physically fit, playing every day, so you have the physical control to play softly and to control crescendo-diminuendo and high and low register transitions. You must be able to control lingering tapers at the end of a note. Without this, you cannot test the reed with any consistency.

Consistency in your knife sharpening is a must. Read the page on [Sharpening the Reed Knife]. Your control of angles and pressures must be immaculate, the control of which is also developed by feel. If the knife feels dull, the temptation is to push down a little harder. This is a mistake! Even as it appears to be removing cane, you are as much crushing and tearing at the microtubules of the cane as you are scraping it, and this will show up as tip noise. Worrying heavily at the cane with the knife subtly affects its ability to vibrate. The generally unrefined quality of that kind of scraping is not subtle to listen to. It causes countless little hesitations, chirps, whistles, hisses, and these gremlins make the reed sound ugly and feel “unsafe.”

Part of your quest for knife handling consistency, a large part, is affected by how you refine and shape the burr. There are two concepts about the burr you need to understand.

First, imagine a frayed line of various-sized steel particles being pushed out onto and beyond the sharp edge of the blade by friction with the stone. You are dragging a trail of steel particles out onto the thin edge intentionally. It is quite disorganized. The rough stones make this happen. They tear away these particles from the main body of the blade. The smooth surfaces, water stones, lapping paper, knife steels, intentionally clogged and blackened red India stones, all organize this ragtag batch of torn steel particles by sorting away the particles that are too big and aligning the ones of similar size neatly along the blade’s edge. This takes a lot of time. The reed maker creates this irregular edge and then works it to a razor smooth edge. The “fine honing” strokes on the smooth surfaces are rubbing away the irregularly-sized, bigger particles, leaving smaller particles that are more equal in size and shape. This makes the burr more compact, more smooth. Then, we tilt the knife up at an angle and make a proper quantity of controlled passes over the stone and flex this frayed edge around and toward the front surface of the knife. This bending of the burr is where the reed knife receives its manifesto to scrape. The quality of the sorting and compacting of the particles we accomplished during the refining of the burr has everything to do with how smoothly the knife scrapes. Smooth, uniform particles in the burr yields a smooth, glassy, almost buttery feel to the scrape. That’s the first concept.

The second concept that you need to understand about the burr is, how far the burr is bent forward determines where in the pendulum motion of the knife that it begins to scoop cane. The more you tilt the blade up while setting the burr, the more you bend the burr forward. Bend it too far forward and either the knife won’t scrape at all because the burr has collapsed, or it will only scrape for a brief instant as you start the scrape and then start skating over the surface. Bend it too little, and the knife may only scrape well with the edge pushed well forward of vertical. Bend the burr just right and it begins scraping somewhere close to vertical. You can see it start scraping as the edge comes into sight beneath the spine of the blade, and it scrapes all the way through the forward swing evenly and feels controlled. Now, here’s the thing, some people like to scrape with their knife pushed way out in front of vertical because that feels right to them. So, everybody sharpens their knives differently. What works for me will probably be different from what works for you, because it’s all a matter of feel.

You can imagine that this means that after you have mastered the sharpening of your knife your way, you must develop consistency in the motion of your hand. Get the reed nestled in your free hand, and your thumb of that free hand planted onto the spine of the knife, so the blade is swinging sometimes like a pendulum beneath it and sometimes being pushed forward by the thumb while being held stationary at near vertical. You will develop the ability to pull the reed back into the palm simultaneously to facilitate the pushing motion of the vertical knife, all while cushioning the reed tip in the fat pad of your index finger. Yes, it’s as awkward as it sounds, at first. But, we’re talking about a skill that is totally learned by feel. As you practice this, sharpen your knife consistently so it scrapes the same way every time, and develop a motion of the knife that feels familiar every time you move it across the cane. Your hands must become comfortable and relaxed. And, because you’re successfully controlling the angle at which you are refining and bending the burr, the knife will scrape the same way every time you swing or push it. Only then can you begin to manipulate any downward pressures of the thumb that you might use on the knife to make it scrape more lightly or aggressively, or shift along the length of the blade to find sharper areas. When you make these changes in knife position and downward pressure, you want to know exactly, from your past experience, how much bite the knife is going to exert, because once the wood comes off, no one’s yet figured out how to put it back.

Over-scraping a place on the reed is one of the most vexing mistakes and very common. You will do it a lot before you master the feel of scraping with a reed knife. Remember, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it, and be good at it. You, on the other hand, are going to be someone special. Get your knife out and try again, and again, and again. Get help from a teacher, and don’t quit. It will pay off in the future…bigtime!