Splitting Cane—Or Splitting Hairs?

Originally posted 2/3/2013

One of our most important tasks when we make bassoon reeds is creating symmetry: symmetry of the profile, symmetry of the shape, all aimed toward creating symmetry at the tip. But our raw material—the tube cane itself—is an inherently asymmetrical product.

Tube cane is rarely (if ever) perfectly straight or round. Splitting the cane is the only time during the reed making process that we are able to deal with the asymmetry of the cane and minimize its influence on our finished reeds, which can be impossible to correct for by scraping. While the shape of the tube as a whole may be warped and irregular, we can choose the flattest and most symmetrically curved parts to make reeds from.

This method does take longer than just splitting the cane into random pieces, and I admit, it took some practice before I felt comfortable with the process. Some might even say that it’s not worth the effort—splitting hairs, not just splitting cane—but if we’re going to the trouble of processing our own cane on machines worth thousands of dollars, why not take the extra time to make sure we’re using the best cane possible? Try it for a few batches and see if it makes a difference in your reeds.

You will need:
Tube cane
Ruler
Knife
Dial or digital calipers
Circle templates (available at art supply stores)
Markers, preferably in two different colors (Matthew Harvell, who taught me this method, uses dry erase markers.  I just use the Sharpie type.)
A flat, straight piece of gouged cane the same length as the bed of your gouger (usually 120 mm).

Step One: Make a Gouged Cane Template
Measure the gouged cane and draw a line all the way across the center point. For my gouger, this is 60 mm. You can make this template and use it again and again for future batches of cane.

Measuring the center point of the template

Measuring the center point of the template

Step Two: Find the Flattest Part of the Tube
Using the template you just made, locate the flattest portion along the length of the tube. Place the gouged cane on top of the tube, moving it around until it lies flat, with no detectable warping at either end of the piece of the gouged cane. (If you can’t find a perfectly flat area, that’s ok—just find the flattest part that you can.)

The flattest part of the tube, where the template lies flush against the cane

The flattest part of the tube, where the template lies flush against the cane

Mark the tube cane at both ends, as well as the center line of the template piece of gouged cane. Draw these lines so that they extend all the way around the tube.

Tube cane with marks corresponding to the center and ends of the template

Tube cane with marks corresponding to the center and ends of the template

Step Three: Find the Narrowest or Widest Point of the Tube
There are two types of calipers that you may see at the hardware store: dial calipers and digital calipers. Either will do the job, but I find it easier to work with the digital ones.

Digital and dial calipers

Digital and dial calipers

Open up the calipers and put them around the center point that you just marked on the cane. Applying light but steady pressure to the caliper. rotate the cane all the way around to find either the narrowest or widest point of the tube. (It doesn’t matter what this measurement is; we’re just finding the narrowest/widest point.) Usually, the narrowest point is easier to find, since you can feel the calipers “settle” into it. If the cane is very circular, then the widest point might be easier to locate.

Finding the narrowest part of the tube

Finding the narrowest part of the tube

Closing one eye, look straight down the tube. On end of tube, mark the center point right between the caliper arms. This will be the center of your future piece of cane.

Cane with the center of the arc marked

Cane with the center of the arc marked

Step Four: Mark the Splitting Points
Find the circle template that most closely matches the curvature of the tube cane, aligning the mark you made in Step Three with the center mark of the circle template.

The circle template that fits the cane most closely

The circle template that fits the cane most closely

When you find the right circle template, line up the center mark you just made, and mark the cane at 45° angles. I use a different color marker so that I can easily distinguish these marks from the ones I made in Step Three.

Line up the center line and mark 45° all the way around.

Line up the center line and mark 45° all the way around.

Extend these across the grain at the end of the tube.

45° angles marked all the way around. This is where you will split the cane.

45° angles marked all the way around. This is where you will split the cane.

Step Five: Split the Cane
Use the knife to split the cane along the lines you just marked. I use an old kitchen knife that I don’t care about, but I do keep it sharp to make the splitting easier.

 

Beginning to split

Beginning to split

To split, line the knife up with the marks on the end of the tube. Use steady downward pressure and rotate your wrist to rock the knife from side to side until it digs into the cane. Work the knife further into the cane with this same rocking motion until the cane splits in to two piece. Split each of these pieces again along the remaining line.

Split each half into two more pieces.

Split each half into two more pieces.

You now have four pieces of split cane. If you’ve done it right, two of these will have one arc, while the other two will have a very different arc. To see this clearly, trace each arc on a piece of paper and compare.

The different arcs of the cane

The different arcs of the cane

The cane is now ready to soak, guillotine, pre-gouge, and gouge!

Bonus Feline Outtake

Bento thinks you should split your own cane. It's ok—he will help you.

Bento thinks you should split your own cane. It's ok—he will help you.