What Oboe Gouger should I use?
There are many variations on the design of the gouging machine and each player needs to use the machine that produces results that allow them to make their best reeds. Different gougers produce cane with different qualities so this guide is intended to help oboists sort through the many gougers on the market and find one that fits them best.
While early oboe reed makers had only sharp scoops resembling spoons to prep their cane, modern oboists require the precision and consistency of machines to thin the cane to a workable thickness. While machines were developed for gouging as early as the 19th century, the market for gougers has really grown in the past 50 years and young oboists have many options for what cane they experiment with and use in practice and performance.
This article describes the different kinds of gougers so you may decide what is best for you.
Price of gouging machines
The price for a gouging machine may seem high but the control of the quality of cane for reed making is priceless for many oboists. The table below is a general guide based on pricesfrom various reed tool suppliers and machine creator sites.
When ordering a gouge keep in mind there is often a waiting period of 6-12 months so plan ahead when ordering.
|Gouging machine||Price in USA Dollars $|
|Reed’s and Stuff||1,590|
|HDR (Ferrillo)||Not available for online purchase EST ~ 2,300|
Why does the gouge matter?
The seasoned oboist understands how to scrape a reed to get the desired result so that the outside of the reed is generally consistent and visually straightforward to control. The inside of the reed must be scraped with the same precision. Gouging machines are used early in the reed making process and thus have a huge effect on the end result of the reed. An uneven or inconsistent gouge can be a nightmare for any reedmaker no matter how skilled they are with the scrape. However, an even and consistent gouge can give the player the freedom and reliability to sound their best with ease.
What makes a good gouger
The gouge determines the internal contour or shape of the reed. Most modern concepts of reed making prescribe the piece of cane be thicker in the middle and gradually become thinner along the sagittal plane to the upward curve of the cane. The degree of this tapering of thickness is often referred to as the differential of the gouge. For example, a Ross gouge may have a thickness of 60 micrometers in the center and 35 micrometers on the ends. This differential is 25 micrometers. Meanwhile, the Kunibert Michel gouger may produce a piece of cane which measures 58 micrometers in the center and 29 micrometers on each side. The differential is greater, and the scrape will need to accommodate the different thickness.
How thick and where?
The thickness and differential can be adjusted in most gougers, but most players aim for a particular measurement and hope to be consistent. Of course, the differences in individual pieces of cane may produce slight variations in the final measurements.
A good gouging machine allows the player to predict what the cane will look like after gouging with some degree of reliability. Some players prefer the dry gouge of Innoley for its convenience and speed, while others may prefer the slow control of the Harvard Double Radius Gouge or Ferrillo (named for the maker and chief proponent). Both these gouging machines and all machines favored by professional players are structurally solid and can produce consistent results with some degree of variability to suit the needs of different players.
Reed-making oboists are constantly fussing with their machines. Marcel Tabetau famously used paper or coins or anything he thought would work to adjust the set up of his gouging machine. Most modern gouging machines do not require such eccentric maintenance procedures, but each kind of machine varies in the level of technical knowledge the reed maker may need to ensure the desired result.
Different kinds of gougers
The main difference between gouging machines is in the way the blade cuts the reeds. In general, gouges come in two main varieties: Single Radius gouge or Double radius gouge.
-Single Radius Gouge
A single radius gouge has a blade that is symmetrical and is intended to take the same amount of cane from each side. The cane theoretically should not need to be turned around when gouging, but some reed makers prefer to gouge a few passes with the cane turned around anyway to ensure the piece of cane is symmetrical. Advantages of the single radius gouge include the lower maintenance required from the user and the ability to gouge more pieces of cane before resharpening the blade of the gouge.
Many critics of the single radius gouge complain that the blade wears unevenly on each side and thus eventually becomes a double radius gouge but without the intention or control. However, with regular maintenance this issue may be avoided. Some single radius gouges are preferred by professional players as they can be simple to use and reliably serviced.
-Double Radius Gouger
Double radius gougers have a blade that is slightly, but precisely asymmetrical. This requires the cane to be gouged from both directions for the final piece of cane to come out symmetrically, and results in a small column of thicker cane down the very middle of the piece. This piece of cane is removed and reversed in the bed between passes of the blade on the carriage. The effect on the cane can be seen in the included photo.
While this style of gouger may require more maintenance and care, the reeds produced are favored by many professionals. Some claim that the stability in pitch and flexibility in color required for the professional orchestra is possible only with the double radius Gouger.
What is the difference between gouging machines?
Within each kind of desired gouge there are many machines that aim to precisely and consistently create the desired dimensions of cane. Each variation comes with degrees of control for the user which may or may not be desired depending on the comfort of the person operating the device.
Specific Single Radius Gouging Machines
As described above, the single radius gouger uses a symmetrical blade to facilitate ease of use and reduce variability. These gougers can usually be set up and repaired by an experienced player though comfort levels vary with different aspects of maintenance.
Usually these machines can be used for years by a single player without any issue that would require sending the machine to a specialized technician, though some issues like regrinding the blade may need a specialist’s attention every 2-3 years. University or studio machines, often used by as many as 25 players, may need attention a few times a year to maintain functionality.
The Ross Gouger was developed by Dan Ross, professor at Arkansas State University and former principal of the Arkansas Symphony. He worked closely with Richard Killmer at the Eastman School of Music and Paul Klipish, an engineer at Westinghouse. Killmer once told me that he was initially reluctant to work with Dan Ross in developing the gouger, but is now a great advocate for the machine.
The Ross machine was designed to have few moving/variable parts and is intended for players who need to reliably control their own supply of cane without having to adjust or configure the machine very often. The Ross is a more solid machine than most with an aluminum base and extra thick rods and supports. It also has nylon cane clips instead of metal which prevents accidental damage to the cane or bed of the machine.
Proponents for the machine claim that it produces cane with a simple and reliable gouge that can be recreated with minimal effort or technical knowledge. Adjustments to the thickness of the cane can be made by turning a knob attached to an eccentric wheel while most other variables on the machine remain solidly in place. Many careers have been built on the Ross Machine.
Critics assert that the gouge shape produced becomes uneven over time and there is no way for the player to manipulate all the variables to compensate for an undesirable gouge.
For example, the bed is not movable on the Ross Machine. This leaves many feeling that if the gouge is not functioning, they are powerless to fix it.
The Innoledy gouge is perhaps an outlier in that it does not follow the carriage-to-bed design of almost every other gouger. It uses a crank pusher system in which the blade remains stationary. Interestingly, this is the only gouger to my knowledge that does not require the cane to be soaked before gouging.
The Innoledy gouger has grown in popularity because it requires virtually no maintenance from the player and is more mobile than other gouge designs. The only downside of the machine is the simplicity of the gouge dimensions seem to lack the complexity of tone that many players desire, but perhaps this is simply the cost of reeds that reliably vibrate and respond with ease.
Gilbert or RDG gouging machine
Robert Dan Gilbert was a veteran of the Second World War and studied economics at the University of Redlands. He began the company RDG Woodwinds by importing clarinet reeds from Europe to sell in the United States. He grew the business to include gouged cane from European suppliers. This supply chain was very unreliable and he began to explore the possibility of gouging his own cane to sell to American oboists and reed makers.
Gilbert created his gouging machine after seeing that there was a market for them in the growing oboe-playing community, but he was not a reed maker or an oboist so he could not reliably test his machine. He worked with Frank Desby and Kunibert Michel, who makes a very popular machine in Europe, but they were unable to make a reliable machine together for the American market.
Gilbert then began working with Edward Laker and created a machine with fewer moving parts. This machine is more adjustable than the Ross machine but requires less training to use than the double radius gougers. It was popular for a time, but decreased in popularity following Robert Gilbert’s death in 2008.
Double Radius Gouges
While the Graff machines have perhaps the longest and most colorful history (discussed later in the article) of the American gouging machines, they remain controversial. Perhaps this is because Robert Graff senior was not an oboist and could not make reeds, so he was not able to set up the machine. An oboist must make a reed on the machine to know that it is working properly, so this complicates the comfort of ordering one to be made.
This is one of the oldest gougers around and was used by Marcel Tabuteau himself.
Erst Graff began the firm-making machines for Tabuteau and his son and grandson continued the business and later expanded into making English Horn and Baroque oboe gougers as well.
Modern Graff gougers have been upgraded with the option of brass basses and parts and more precision in construction.
The Graff machine is currently one of the most affordable machines and is set up and can be maintained by many well known oboists including:
- David Weber, Chandler, AZ, 480-726-6800, info@Webreeds.com
- John Symer, Collingswood, NJ, 856-858-0605
- Robin Driscoll, Washington, PA,
- Robert Weiner, Miami, FL, RWeiner@miami.edu
John Mack, famous oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra and prolific educator, was unhappy with the impression of the Graff machine and the lack of adjustability of the Gilbert gouge. In 1990 his student, Valarie Anderson, worked with Mack’s advice to design a machine that is “fully adjustable.” This is to say: “Adjustment for overall gouge thickness; Blade depth adjustment; Blade side-to-side adjustment; Adjustable bed; Adjustments to level [the] carriage.” according to Anderson’s own book Gouge Shape and Scrape: A Complete Guide to the Oboe Reed.
Anderson sets up each machine herself and can guarantee its functionality as she is a very skilled oboist. She notes, however, that each player should adjust the machine to complement the environment in which they play as well as the shape of the reed they use.
“Fully adjustable…adjustment for overall gouge thickness; Blade depth adjustment; Blade side-to-side adjustment; Adjustable bed; Adjustments to level [the] carriage.”– Gouge Shape and Scrape: A Complete Guide to the Oboe Reed.
The Opus1 was developed by Robert Driscoll and is truly a feat of engineering unlike any other gouger. Driscoll also studied with John Mack and released his gouger in 2001. He wanted a gouger that had many adjustment knobs and does not require taking apart any pieces of the machine to adjust the effect on the cane.
There are many parts on the Opus1 that are not on traditional looking gougers, similar to the Innoledy, and Driscoll has put together a helpful website and YouTube channel describing how to use and manipulate the gouger. Unfortunately, because Driscoll services ea
Harvard Double Radius or Ferillo
A recent addition to the oboe gouging machine market is the HDR gouge colloquially known as the Ferillo gouge. John Ferillo, principal oboe of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, based the designs for his machine on the Graf gouger and the somewhat less popular Wohlfeld gouger. The manufacturing is handled by a company called Maine Tool Room, but Ferillo sets up and tests each machine personally.
His creates the same bottleneck issue that Driscol and Gilbert experienced, so twice a year Ferillo hosts a two-day seminar on “building your own machine” in which he teaches a small group of oboists how to build, maintain, and adjust the HDR gouging machine. He also provides a copy of his book on the machine and the tools that facilitate dismantling and adjusting the machine.
But, What gouger is best?
The best gouging machine is the one that allows the player to make comfortable reeds consistently. All professional players own one or more of the above gouging machines and in the end it is a matter of taste.
European Vs. American Gougers
Robert Sprenkle’s observations on Gouger variety.
“Keeping reed making simple is undoubtedly the best solution”-Robert Sprenkle
In modern oboe playing circles, it is commonly accepted that American style reeds are very different from European style reeds, but in the mid-twentieth century this difference was not so marked. In his book, The Art of Oboe Playing, Robert Sprenkle (once Professor at the Eastman School of Music) describes a wide variety of gouge dimensions that seem unusable to modern American oboists but must have provided good results.
“Florian Mueller states that Alfred Barthel (Solo oboe, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1904-1929) made a very short-scrape reed by using a gouge that measured .45mm in the center and .45mm on the sides. Cane gouged in the manner has no taper at all from the center of the vane to the sides;yet Barthel achieved fine results. Mr. Stannard (Solo Oboe, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra) uses cane gouged .65mm in the center tapering to .45 mm on the sides. Weaver (Solo Oboe, Houston Symphony) gouges cane .69-.71mm in the center tapering to .53-.56mm on the sides. Dandois (Solo oboe, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra) gouges .64mm in the center and makes a French style reed. (French reeds are ususaly made on much thinner cane). Dandois is gouging a furrow that is .56mm at the center tapering to .69mm at each end….”
Sprenkle goes on to describe many other varieties of gouge measurements that seem to make reeds that play in the nation’s best orchestras. Did you notice the last one was inverted?! Very strange.
Much of the variation seems to be due to a lack of consistent and standard machinery for reed making as well as the large influence of European educated players in the United States. Luckily, good makers of gouging machines have simplified the process and as Sprenkle himself says, “Keeping reed making simple is undoubtedly the best solution”
General European Style
In general, European style reeds use a much thinner gouge than Americans. They leave much more bark on the reed so a thinner gouge allows much more vibration through the reed. European oboe playing tends to be less reed-centric and the variety of gouges is far more varied and personal than in the United States.
To further complicate the issue, it is still very common for European players to avoid reed making altogether in favor of purchasing ready-made reeds from a dedicated reed maker. Further study into the field would be required for me to write further.
Even though Kunibert Michel died in 2015, his machine remains the most popular machine in European use. The machines are now constructed and set up by his employee and student, Charly. The machine can be customized to accommodate a thicker American gouge.
I have known only a few American players who use this machine regularly and the main difference in my experience is that the gouge is much thinner on the sides than most American gouged cane. This in turn causes a greater differential between the middle and sides of the cane which some players prefer.
General American Style
Most modern American players seek measurements between 58-61 micrometers in the middle and 30-40 micrometers on the sides. Some variation in preference exists, so choose your gouging machine wisely.
Why so many machines? Brief History of the rise in popularity of Gouging Machines in the USA
Until the end of the twentieth century, it was common for students and amateur oboists to purchase gouged or even gouged and shaped cane from specialty shops by mail or in person. Only established professionals demanded the control and reliability that owning your own gouging machine provides.
The most recent generation of students are now expected to know about different machines and how to use them, as well as how to thoughtfully purchase a machine by the time they graduate from University. Most university oboe studios will own at least a couple gouging machines for students to learn on.
Perhaps this is because of the education that John Mack and John DeLancie provided to their students on reed making, or perhaps economic and cultural pressures allowed or forced reed making to progress. Nevertheless, even though Tabuteau and his colleagues were not so forthcoming with their reed making wisdom, the bar for reed making has risen during the twenty-first century and the expectation of owning a quality gouging machine has risen with it.
Eric Ohlssen, professor of oboe at Florida State University, explains in a recent interview, “The approach to teaching reed making has changed dramatically over the last thirty years. This is a continuation of the advances made during, say, the fifty years before that. If you were fortunate enough to study with Tabuteau, you were ok for reed making, I think, but the distribution of first-rate advice on reeds was hard to come by. Also, Tabuteau himself was evolving in his making of reeds. So, by the mid-to-late 1970’s there had been lots of advancements in teaching students how to make reeds. There were places that had very large oboe classes—at Ohio State we had eighteen students in the studio. I think there may have been more at Indiana. John Mack was teaching at Cleveland, John deLancie at Curtis, etc. The [oboists] who studied with Tabuteau had higher expectations about students making reeds, using gougers, etc I think. If you hadn’t been forced to learn about gougers and reeds, you probably didn’t do so. There was a lower expectation because the technology was less available to everyone. If you purchased a Graf gouger and didn’t know how to set it up or know where to get help with it, you were probably better off buying your cane already gouged… I expect my performance majors to purchase a gouger at some point. In reality, most of them should own a gouger. The music education students need to own one, too. They will all be making reeds for themselves and their students… All students who will be actively involved in oboe performance and/or oboe instruction in their careers should own a gouger.” (Sprenkle 51).
The expectation for young oboists has changed and the quality of oboe playing is better for it. Ideally, new aspiring oboists will gain information about gouging machines as they progress through school and be ready to choose the machine that suits them best. Whether simple or complex, double or single radius, self serviced or not, I hope this guide serves you well.
Barret, Apollon. Marie-Rose. A Complete Method for the Oboe:. 2nd edition. London: J.R. Lafleur and Son, 1900.
Driscoll, Robin. “Opus 1 gouger.” http://www.opus1gouger.com/ (accessedn July 1, 2019).
Ostoich, Mark. “The Influence of Gouge and Shape on Pitch and Tone Quality of the Oboe.” DMA diss., Louisiana State University, 1980.
Bate, Phillip. The Oboe, An outline of its History Development and Construction. London/Ernest Benn Limited. Toronto,1975.
Burgges, Geoffery and Haynes, Bruce. The Oboe. Worldprint, Yalle University Print, 2004.
Sachs, Curt and Enich M. von Hornbostel (1994), Systematik der Musikinstrumente;Seitschrift fur Ethnomologie 46:553-90, London, 1996.
Kistler, Karen A Manual for the Oboe Gouging Machine: Initial Setup, Maintenance and General Usage, Specifically for the Harvard Double Reed Gouging Machine, 2010, Florida State University