Chemical Forums

Specialty Chemistry Forums => Citizen Chemist => Topic started by: Enthalpy on June 13, 2020, 12:22:43 PM

Title: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: Enthalpy on June 13, 2020, 12:22:43 PM
Hi everybody,

Many woodwind instruments use a single or double reed made of cane (through plastic catches up). They cost some money, double reeds also take much effort, and with luck a reed lasts for two weeks.

I've a strong intuition that the 107 cycles of strong bending weaken the cane. But some people claim that soaking for 2-3 minutes before playing lets double reeds lose some fluids over time and this alters the mechanical properties.

Following that explanation, I propose to keep double reeds longer by soaking them in some mixture or solution that contains the fluids that would be lost. The concentration shall reduce, compensate or reverse the loss of the fluids.

One could try to analyze used soaking water and seek an equilibrium concentration of the several fluids for the magic bath. Or more simply, soak a load of unprocessed cane (waste) for an hour in water, and concentrate the juice until reeds don't lose anything more.

The best commercial form would be granules or concentrated drops that the musician puts in the water before soaking the reed. This might avoid bacterial growth. Perhaps some disinfectant like silver would help. The taste matters.

The budget for double reeds is like 200€/year, and musicians would spare efforts and keep their best reeds longer. If some effect is observed on single reeds, more musicians are interested. A handful of small companies live from reed making.

Marc Schaefer, aka Enthalpy
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: marquis on June 23, 2020, 06:46:10 PM
Dumb question for you- are these numbers just for europe, or do they also include the US?

In the US, with the large number of high school marching bands, the single reeds are much more common.  I dont know how common plastic reeds are, but the natural ones die  often.  And yes, taste matters.

Very interesting.
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: Enthalpy on June 25, 2020, 06:42:26 PM
This market is global. You find Rico reeds in Europe and Vandoren in the US. These are medium-sized companies, the others are small. Double reeds feed fewer people. So, magic granules said to prolong the life of cane reeds may feed a truly small company, like 3 people I guess, depending on how many customers believe it works, and on whether they buy them for single reeds too.

For single reeds, as a varnish rather? Droplets and granules are good for double reeds, which get soaked and whose inner face is inaccessible.

Plastic reeds are still a minority, with Légère having the lion's share. They aren't magic: plastic reeds live only about 2-3× as long as cane (supposedly from alternate bending) and cost much more than cane. Plus, they still sound a bit dull, despite Légère made much progress.
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: Enthalpy on January 18, 2021, 09:08:36 AM
I have used a dozen times isopropanol to clean one bassoon reed and to disinfect it from bacteriae and virus.

This reed is very old and it becomes dull and unresponsive when a biofilm develops inside. Isopropanol eases much the mechanical removal of this biofilm (some bassoonists use a pipe scraper), often no mechanical action is needed. I give some drops in the reed at the bocal end over my usual plastic soaking box, then I soak and shake the reed for about 1min in the flown isopropanol.

The cleaned reed becomes responsive again. Could the biofilm be the cause of reed ageing?

Isopropanol, or isopropyl alcohol, is what gives hospitals their odour. It must be concentrated >70% but not pure. Its deadly dose is half that of usual alcohol, so rinse the reed. Concentrated usual alcohol (ethanol, ethyl alcohol) should work identically; I'd stay away from methylated spirits, whose denatonium tastes so badly. I haven't tried vodka &co, normally it's 40% ethanol so its antiseptic action isn't guaranteed.

My bassoon reeds are covered with wax to be airtight. Perhaps the more usual varnish dissolves in isopropanol and ethanol.

Marc Schaefer, aka Enthalpy
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: Corribus on January 18, 2021, 03:51:33 PM
I would also be concerned that prolonged exposure to alcohol would also dissolve the natural resins and biopolymers that make up the reed itself, leading to a reduction in performance over time.
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: marquis on March 14, 2021, 06:22:07 PM
For a real rough test with single reeds, an analytical balance and oven might do the job.  The reeds, after exposure to different conditions, could be weighed and the percent loss calculated.

An initial test at 105 C would sound good for aging.  Aging time?  Well, at least a couple of hours. 

Still, there are many problems that could come up.  The simple approach might not work.

Maybe a local University would be interested?
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: Enthalpy on August 07, 2021, 06:35:47 AM
I've tried Stroh Rum 80 and again isopropanol on bassoon reeds.

80% ethanol Stroh Rum is a drink of repute as a cheaper antiseptic too. It smells strongly, colors the reed and destroyed one. It also corrugates the mouth's skin. Maybe dilution to 70% would save the reed and the mouth, but I didn't try again.

Isopropanol (1L for 5.90€ on eBay) regenerated one more reed that became responsive and clear-voiced again but not tinny. Cleaning mechanically the reed inside hadn't brought this. Maybe isopropanol removes the damping biofilm better while sparing the cane and its strength.

70% ethanol (without tannin) would smell better but is expensive, so I haven't tried yet.


Hi Corribus and Marquis, thanks for your contributions!

Yes, alteration of the reed itself is a concern with isopropanol. As usual with natural items, the composition is unknown to a high degree of accuracy, hence predictions are difficult, so experiments decide. As it looks now, isopropanol does more good than harm to the reed, which gets destroyed be mere use too. Mechanical and water cleaning didn't rejuvenate the reeds like isopropanol does. I must still try the improved mechanical cleaning (special inner brushes, goat hair outer brush) and compare, maybe also try ethanol. Possibly I had big luck at first trial.

Yes too, good idea to weigh the reed and try varied conditions. If for instance cycles of clean - play - clean lose no mass, the cleaning method would be considered caring. This doesn't even demand accelerated tests, since our precious reeds are destroyed within 2 weeks use. You know, future wind musicians practice daily for 10+ years to play somewhat decently, so it's not a matter of a couple hours.
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: marquis on August 08, 2021, 01:39:21 PM
No, a couple of hours is not enough.  But it is a starting point.  Try a number of different methods and expand on it.  The clarinet has a much simpler reed than the bassoon.  That will not make your job easy.  Good luck and let me know if I can help. Regards.
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: Enthalpy on November 15, 2021, 06:45:54 PM
I've been using 70% isopropanol on my bassoon reeds for almost a year now, time maybe to share observations.

I received finished reeds from Neuranter in a transparent tube with bottom and stopper. Such a container, but bigger than a reed, contains now the isopropanol. Since the alcohol is antiseptic, most times I only refill a bit. The 5,90€ litre from eBay is still almost complete. Isopropanol diffuses through the container and deforms it.

After playing, I soak the reed several times deep in isopropanol. After the last dips, I blow through the reed, except the very last time. Isopropanol then evaporates in the air from the "disinfected" reed, without rinsing water.

A reed serves me several months for 80min a day. I make no mechanical cleaning at all and notice no deposit - a deposit did grow previously, without any cleaning. The varnish on the reed is unscathed, wax too.

I ignore how isopropanol compares over time with mechanical cleaning. But it works.

70% isopropanol should be an excellent method to disinfect reeds, for instance made by a professor for a pupil. I got used to the smell, like nurses do. 70% isopropanol is only twice as toxic as 70% ethanol, it's cheap, it doesn't destroy the reed like Stroh Rum did immediately, and isn't disgusting like methylated spirits.
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: Corribus on November 15, 2021, 07:12:31 PM
Hey Enthalpy,

It would be really interesting to do some analysis of the reed before and after the soaking treatment. (And on the isopropanol before it is discarded.)

Do you notice any changes in the quality of the sound? I know that's not a very scientific measurement, just curious.

There could be a neat scientific paper in here somewhere.
Title: Re: Save Our Precious Reeds
Post by: Enthalpy on November 20, 2021, 07:49:28 AM
Hi Corribus and everyone, thanks for your interest!

I too would like to see analyses. I have zero dot nothing here to conduct them.

Sound is the ultimate goal, even if subjective. My feeling is that the reed works as it should, even after several months of use and cleaning. This, despite evaporated 70% IPA must leave the reed dry, while the current doxa is to keep reeds in a box with their humidity. I leave the IPA on the reed and keep my reeds in the room's air.

Maybe I (or someone else more proficient on the instrument) should take two reeds, alternate them on each day, clean one mechanically and the other with 70% isopropanol, and observe which one works longer. One uncertainty: reeds are not identical and some wear out faster.