What Reed Knife Do I Need? Guide for Parents and Oboists (and other reed players)
Reed knives come in many different shapes and varieties. Most reed makers use a few different knives for different stages of reed making, though Richard Killmer at the Eastman School of Music famously uses a single knife (with a custom handle) throughout the entire process. No matter what knife you choose, the sharpening techniques of each oboist/reedmaker make each knife essentially unique. This guide can help you choose your tools to help you develop your skills and make great reeds to keep the oboe (or bassoon or clarinet) singing.
Kinds of Blades and Popular Models
As with most equipment issues, your greatest resource is your oboe teacher, but as lessons get more expensive by the minute, this brief guide will help you know what options are out there. Especially if you are just starting out.
There are four basic blades that reed makers tend to use:
- Double Hollow Ground
- Double Hollow Ground Razor
Double Hollow Ground
The most common blade for oboists in the United States and many parts of Latin America is the double hollow ground knife. This knife can be sharpened to a fine edge and is sturdy enough to push against without chattering (bouncing uncontrollably when pressing for the scrape). (Once you gain some knife technique) Most oboists from Eastman, the University of Texas, and many other schools use this blade for the bulk of the scraping process. Though not as popular among bassoonists, I have met many who love the versatility of the Double Hollow Ground blade.
Some popular double hollow ground knife suppliers are: Rigotti , Nielson, Chudnow, Chiarugi, and Reeds ‘n’ Stuff.
My favorite knife and the one I use to make all my reeds from start to finish is the Chiagrugi razor. Each knife lasts me about two years and sharpens easily. I was a bit upset about having to pay so much to replace my knife so I started supplying it for the lowest price I have ever found: $40 you can buy your own and choose the wood you like for the handle by clicking here.
These knives are generally sold un-handed but as they are sharpened they gain handedness (chirality). So they are great for gifts to right-handed and left-handed players alike.
Double Hollow Ground Razor
These knives are excellent for finishing the tip or making fine adjustments. The fine edge on this knife allows for “razor sharp” sharpening and precision scraping. The technique takes a while to master, and it is very common for novice reed makers to shred the tips of the reed with this knife or chatter on the back of the reed. However, once the technique is learned, this knife gives the user unbelievable control and finesse, and I find myself always finishing my reeds with my landwell razor. The difference is remarkable.
Many makers of these knives offer different hardness of steel. Clarinetists and bassoonists tend to like harder varieties because they hold an edge much longer. Oboists tend to sway toward medium or softer hardness to have more control over the edge of the blade.
These knives may or may not come handed, but once sharpened they cannot be converted. Additionally, because of the fine edge, they are truly unique after sharpened, so one reed maker’s preferred edge angle may not be suitable for another. Keep this in mind if you let someone else sharpen your knife. Sharpening is a skill that should be in constant development for the reed making student. I have some tips later in this article for sharpening.
The single most popular razor knife among oboists and bassoonists alike is the Landwell. Some older makers may have a Philadelphia brand, which is an excellent knife but increasingly difficult to find. Jende and Chang are also popular brands.
Although the Chang is very sharp, easy to use, and was at one time my favorite knife, it is fairly brittle and will shatter if dropped. I have since opted for a Landwell with a slightly thicker blade, but the Chang will always summon fond memories. Be careful with your knives! (See the section on tool bags).
Make sure you have a sheath for your knife and a secure tool bag or carrier.
These knives are very popular as a multipurpose do-anything knife. They are not as popular as they once were, but many older generation oboists and bassoonists love these knives. Popular makers are Nielsen, Philadelphia, Vitry, Rigotti (student knife), and Forrest’s.
Many of these knives are ideal for beginner reed makers because of their versatility, especially if they are about to switch teachers. It may be difficult to make and finish your own reeds after your playing demands more refined reeds, however, so be ready to upgrade when the time is right.
These knives are very popular among bassoonists for general scraping and among oboists for rough work. The thickness and weight of the blade make them extremely stable while scraping, though the technique for refined tip work can be hard to master. My high school oboe teacher, Anne Leek, loves to call this her workhorse knife.
The most popular models of these seem to be Rigotti, Adno, and Landwell. The popularity of this style of knife around the world makes it ubiquitous and easy to purchase. There are many other german makers as well, which tend to have very interesting names for their handles (Oslo, Milano, and Toronto).
Chang, a newcomer to the market, recently released an excellent bevel knife as well. These knives are handed, so make sure you purchase the appropriate chirality for the player to sharpen and use with their dominant hand.
What is the best Knife for beginner reed makers?
In my opinion the Rigotti Razor is the most versatile and easy to use knife for beginners. Other double hollow ground knives may work great as well. The Razor style knife may be too fine for novices to control without shredding the the tip or adding diggs to the back.
Which ever knife you choose for a beginner steer clear of the Albion Beginner reed knife. Though no longer very common this cheap knife was once ubiquitous in beginner reed kits. It simply does not scrape cane. This was my first reed knife and I hope to spare other beginners the pain and frustration I suffered. I repeat do not start with Albion Reed Knife!
Many knives can carry a personal touch. For an “edgier” persona, you may like to opt-in for a folding knife. Or you may like to have a personalized size or a colorful handle. Many makers who have these cool features are: Chudnow, Graf (folding Knives), Reeds ‘n Stuff, Rigotti, and Vitry.
Ferillo Sharpening Method
About a year ago I first heard about the Harvard Double Reeds sharpening set up invented by Boston Symphony’s own John Ferrillo. He came up with a carriage that secures the knife in order to insure a consistent angle and edge on the knife. The stone is also a particular grit and there is a technique with an Emory board as well to finish the process off.
The technique has become quite popular so it is worth checking out. Grace Stringfellow teaches me about the technique in the video below. If you are interested scroll down and check it out!
If you have difficulty traveling with knives or need a tool that is just for quick adjustments while teaching or at a gig, the ReedGeek may be a great solution.
The DoubleGeek is especially made for double reed players and is a safe, quick alternative to packing and traveling with knives. It is very small and compact and keeps an edge well. While I prefer to use my collection of knives, the ReedGeek will suffice in a pinch.
Other Knife Substitutes
Other nonconforming reed makers may elect to use a TINA 385 Fixed Blade Grafting Knife. Others use a whittling knife, and one bassoonist I know uses a miniaturized samurai sword model. Most bassoonists favor using files for reed making anyway.
Most reed makers will use a variety of knives: a light knife for finishing the tip, a heavier knife for taking off the bark, an exacto knife or razor blade for shaping, and maybe a razor knife or GEM razor blade for clipping the tip. Over time most people collect an overwhelming collection of things with which to attack the reed, but the most important thing about any knife is that it works best when sharp.
Another recent trend is a ceramic blade on the reed knife instead of a steel blade.
In the end, it is all just a matter of taste. I personally use a Chiarugi double hollow ground razor and recently started finishing with a Landwell. I have previously loved Rigotti and Chang knives as well. Each reed maker must find the tools that are best for them.
How to Sharpen Your Knife
It doesn’t matter what knife you use as long at it is sharp! There are many tools that can be used to sharpen your knife, and they are basically either flat or round.
The most popular round items are hand-held sharpening steels, which come in a variety of sizes but are basically just round steel rods, which hone the edge of a knife, and ceramic rods, which usually come with a holder or mount.
The round sharpening tools take some skill to use, so ask your teacher or experienced colleague for help. With incorrect technique, these tools can cause uneven rounding or bowing of the blade, but when used correctly they can help your knife get a precise edge.
The flat tools are either ceramic stones, india stones, or diamond and steel blocks. I love to use these, as they are a bit more foolproof. The angle of the blade is much easier to manipulate with a flat surface and the only technique needed is holding the knife angle steady and honing with enough speed to sharpen the blade. I use a very acute angle to sharpen my knife; just high enough to fit my thumb between the stone and the knife, but everyone needs to find the angle that works for them. No two reed makers use the exact same angle, so be wary of letting others sharpen your knife.
Grace String fellow, a very accomplished Obosit from CU Boulder, and I discuss our knife sharpening techniques in the video to the right. If you have any questions about what you see please leve a comment and Grace and I will get back to you!
There are so many knives to choose from, any reed maker can get overwhelmed. Use your teacher and oboe heros as a guide for what knife to choose, and if it doesn’t work for you, there are many more varieties that may suit you better. Reed making is extremely personal and there is something for every reed maker. If you found this article helpful, please leave a comment below to let me know what reed knife you use or which knife you are excited to try next!