The Case of the Missing Corners

Few things are more frustrating than finishing a reed and watching the corners of the tip fall off with a single scrape of the knife. All that time you spent on the reed! Now it’s gone.

You can keep working on it, hoping that the one missing corner won’t affect the reed too much. I’ll admit, I’ve played my share of reeds with missing corners. Sometimes it works! Other times, I’ll keep working on the reed and watch the tip continue to shred around that missing corner, and my frustration grows and grows.

The best solution is probably to figure out how to avoid lopping off corners of the reed in the first place.

So, what causes it?

I’ve made many reeds, and I’ve lost many corners. Your tendencies may be a little different than mine, but when I lose corners, the cause can usually be traced to one of three things.

1 – The knife is slightly dull.

2 – My scraping has left a notch in the tip, just behind the edge.

3 – I’m putting too much pressure on the cane through the knife.

Number 1 is relatively easy to solve – sharpen your knife! I can’t tell you how many times a teacher or a colleague has engaged me in super nerdy conversations about how to sharpen your knife. And it seems like such a boring topic, but we get very excited about it, and so should you! See the upcoming article on Knife Sharpening about some of the many ways to sharpen your knife.

Numbers 2 and 3 deal with knife technique, and can be tricky to solve. Here are some thoughts that have helped me.

I often think about finishing each scrape all the way off the edge of the reed to help keep an even scrape. It’s like a follow-through of a golf swing - each time the knife is on the tip, it must continue with even pressure all the way off the reed. This helps prevent any of the notches or thin spots that can make the surface of the reed uneven. The smoother tip will also make sure that no part of the reed (especially the corner) will stick up, catch the edge of the knife, and disappear forever.

Similarly, I also like to think about keeping my wrist still while holding the knife. I find that if I rotate my wrist with each scrape, it creates “u”-shaped divots in the cane, and the tip becomes uneven. Holding my wrist steady and using my thumb from the opposite hand to guide the knife helps keep even pressure throughout the scrape.

My final thought is usually about trying to not push down on the reed AT ALL. I often approach it by imagining the knife touching the cane with the weight of a feather. If it takes 1,000 scrapes to thin the tip enough, I’ll take it! It only takes one scrape to destroy the reed. I’d rather spend more time on a reed that turns out well than get carried away hustling through the finishing stages and have a raucous and wild-sounding reed (or the dreaded chirp!).

Some people like to imagine the knife blade as a squeegee on a tennis court. Dip the reed in water and just scrape the water off. You’ll inevitably remove a little cane as well, but it will be with a very light scrape that is unlikely to cause problems.

On a related note, I’ve also found that if I’m really focused on thinning out only the corners of the tip, I inadvertently scrape the corner in a slightly downward motion, which adds pressure and typically removes the corner in a single scrape.

In general, thinking about these things helps me keep the corners on my reeds, and it might help you, too! What do you think? What other solutions have you found?