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The Modern Bassoonist: Sealing Bassoon Reeds I

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"or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reed Wax"

Sealing a bassoon reed has never been a perfect art. Pick your poison: hot glue gun, hobby glue/cement, wax cake and flame—these methods represent some reliable yet imperfect options available to reed makers. In the end, a “to each their own” mentality prevails, because hey, we’re talking about sealing bassoon reeds. I will post a comparison of such methods in the future, but the present discussion pertains to my recent experiments with Carnauba wax.

“Carnauba (Copernicia Cerifera) is a vegetable wax grown only in Brazil and comes from the leaves of the Brazilian “tree of life.” It is the highest melting point natural wax that can impart gloss, hardness, slip, and improved thermal stability to a variety of applications.”[1]

Spit-roasting wax over a flame may seem a bit medieval, especially when compared to modern glue alternatives. I have noticed some key advantages, however, to using Carnauba wax, which include the following:

  • Cost effective
  • Quick drying time
  • Hard coating
  • Good water resistance
  • Lack of toxic solvents

Similar to beeswax, Carnauba can be purchased as a hardened cake/bar. It is also available as a powder or in its natural flake form. A 3–4 oz. bar of Carnauba will set you back about $12-15. Widely used in food, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and rubber/polishing industries, Carnauba has notable sealing properties. Carnauba's hardness and high melting point (approx. 180 degrees Fahrenheit) earns it high marks in durability. In fact, Carnauba has a higher melting point than beeswax and other plant-based waxes.

Water resistance is always a concern for reed making and Carnauba does not disappoint. This wax does not dissolve easily in water (water insoluble), which means it will not deteriorate with repeated soakings. Note: I will continue to experiment with longer soak periods, in order to determine the lifespan/maximum durability of Carnauba in water. I have not observed the kind of superior water resistance or hardness found in hobby glues, which may be due to Carnauba's plant-based composition. For example, it does not mark easily but one can scrape the surface of hardened Carnauba with some effort. 

Carnauba is unlikely to break down easily, due to its hardening properties and high melting point, Rather than digesting the wax, the substance would pass through the body—this makes sense given the wax's use in coating everything from medicine to candy. I imagine this is not a major issue for bassoonists, as we are talking about trace amounts in soaking water (assuming it does break down over long soak periods). The yellowish finish may be a negative for some reed makers, but I don’t think this detracts much from the reed’s appearance (and it certainly doesn’t affect its playing). 

Here is my process for using this wax:

  1. Using an open flame, heat a section of the Carnauba wax bar over an open flame (I recommend an alcohol lamp)
  2.  Drip the wax onto the tube. I allow the wax to build up all around the tube—trust me, it will look messy at this point
  3. Melt away excess wax by spinning the reed over the flame, using spare cardboard to catch any dripping wax

Finally, let's talk toxicity. As a naturally-derived wax, Carnauba does not contain harsh solvents like those found in popular hobby glues. This wax is free of Acetone and solvents that have some nasty health effects—but more on that in a later post. I'm currently performing Carnauba experiments on my personal set of reeds, but my continuous exposure to hobby glue makes a natural alternative more appealing by the day. Who knows, depending on my findings with Carnauba, I may use this wax (or another natural sealant?) for Basso Vento Bassoon Reeds in the future!

What are your thoughts on sealing bassoon reeds? Specifically, have you used wax and liked it, or used wax and absolutely hated it? I'm interested in your thoughts, so please leave a comment!

[2] - Technical Data Sheet

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