Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Beeswax for Bassoon Reeds

Shortly after starting my job with the Columbus Symphony, someone contacted me to ask if I taught bassoon lessons.  I wasn't sure how to respond, since I was busy trying to figure out how to play principal bassoon in an orchestra and felt that I had my hands full with that.  Teaching was not really on my radar.  So I called my teacher, K. David Van Hoesen to ask him if I should teach.  He said yes, I had to teach....I'd learn from my students.....teaching would force me to analyze what I'm doing.....it would help me figure out what works and what doesn't......etc., etc. He convinced me that teaching protects against complacency and stagnation.  So I taught.

And he was right, as usual.  A recent example of learning from my students has to do with sealing bassoon reeds.  Many bassoonists use glue to secure the binding on the reed and to prevent leakage and shifting of the blades.  I always used Duco Cement even though I have long been aware of its toxicity.  One of my students at the Capital University Conservatory of Music asked if I'd ever used beeswax to seal reeds.  No, I hadn't, and I was only vaguely aware that some reed makers do use it.  Further investigation ensued.

First I bought a brick of beeswax for $10.95 on Amazon.  Then I researched the matter online.  The one complaint I read about using beeswax was the problem of the binding becoming loose.  The way I make reeds, Duco cement is applied underneath the binding before wrapping the reed.  This prevents the binding from shifting later.  Once I began this practice, I have not had any issues whatsoever with loose binding.  So if Duco cement can be used underneath the wrapping, it stands to reason that beeswax can be used as an alternative underneath the wrapping.  The wax is fairly easy to place where it needs to be on the blank, and then a heat source such as a candle flame is used to melt it slightly, making it harden and adhere to the reed.

My students at Capital University were concerned about candles setting off the fire alarms.
(Note: This speaks volumes about their level of maturity......I recall my classmates at Eastman purposely setting off fire alarms for entertainment, especially at the dorms in the middle of the night!)  My Capital University students are not only mature-- they're also innovative.  One of them solved the fire problem by coming up with the excellent idea to use a soldering iron as the heat source.

Here is a Capital University bassoon major demonstrating the application of beeswax to seal the reed, both underneath and then on top of the wrapping.  He is using a battery-operated soldering iron (cost:$22.81):

The reed is immediately available as soon as the beeswax is applied....it hardens immediately.  You can soak the reed, cut the tip, play on it, and proceed with finishing right after applying the beeswax. The immediate availability of the reed after wrapping is a big plus, along with the non-toxicity.


We had mixed conclusions, ranging from liking beeswax enough to use it exclusively to planning to never use it again.  My opinion is that I found the beeswax too messy to deal with efficiently and effectively, perhaps because the beeswax I ordered was the cheapest available (or because I'm a klutz when it comes to the manipulation of beeswax).  I shared one student's observation that the binding was not secure enough....I was afraid the beeswaxed reeds might fall apart at an inopportune moment!  Most importantly though, it took too much time.  I'm already a slow reed-maker, so adding a few more minutes onto my time required to make a reed is not an option.  I'm disappointed though, because I love the fact that beeswax is nontoxic (assuming the bees were not exposed to pesticides or herbicides).  I have not sworn off beeswax forever; I'll probably give it another try someday, maybe with a higher quality beeswax.

We "gave it the old college try" as my teacher K. David Van Hoesen used to say.  If worse comes to worst and you decide you prefer not to use beeswax after trying it, you can always make beeswax candles out of it!



have popcorn will lurk said...

Hi! Your ol- former student (TAB) here :)

Just thinking about all the quilting supplies I have, I'd be tempted to try using a Clover Mini Iron (less than $20 at Joann if you score a 50% coupon when it's full price). There's also a version with attachments that I've been coveting for years, but refuse to buy until my current one dies. It might be easier to smooth the beeswax with a small, hot, flat surface. The heat level is adjustable, but you have to be careful not to touch the shaft, because it's exposed, and you'll get nasty blisters if you accidentally try to pick it up by the shaft (ask me how I know)...

For beeswax, you could try Dritz Beeswax with Holder, $3-4. It's used to keep quilting thread from fraying, so it's a good quality beeswax, although I've never tried melting it. Maybe I'll play later...

Finally, I often iron fabric I don't want to scorch using a Bear Thread Applique Pressing Sheet (about $10). It's a great work surface that you can iron on, plus after sticky things cool, you can just wipe it right off.

Kudos to your students! My sophomore year at Cap, I lived on the third floor of SA (directly across from the second floor bassoon studio in Mees), and for several weeks we were perpetually sleep-deprived because a rodent (supposedly) kept chewing on electrical wires and setting off the alarms at all hours!

B.S. said...

Fascinating! I've never heard of a mini iron. (In fact, I've never owned a regular iron so it's no shock that I'm out of touch with the mini version.) And with bassoon reedmaking being the only craft I've ever attempted, it's also no shock that I haven't heard of the Dritz Beeswax with Holder. The price is right, for sure. I'm starting to glaze over trying to take in the Bear Thread Applique Pressing Sheet, which I can't even envision. It sounds to me as though you're more than equipped to conquer beeswax reed wrapping! All of these tips are very helpful and I'll certainly pass them along. Thank you, TAB! It's always a pleasure to hear from you, and I'm not just saying that because you're not a robot!

(And I can't believe Capital didn't do anything about that rodent problem....but then again there were some undeniably questionable choices being made in those days....)

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