I recently spent some time in the shop doing a new round of experimenting with wind instruments of the family that I call ‘Moe. I described the resulting developments in ’Moe design in this recently uploaded article. Some of that shop time was spent on things that are not specific only to ‘Moe, but are of general interest in the area of homemade wind instrument making. The current article is a hodge-podge of notes on those more widely applicable topics. We’ll touch on register holes, fabrication of single reed mouthpieces, making barrel joints to accommodate store-bought mouthpieces, and minimally toxic plastics for making homemade wind instrument tubes.
Implicit in all this is the question, how badly misplaced can a register hole be and still be effective? This determines how much range you can get in the upper register with a single register hole. Professionally made instruments can do quite well on this question, covering a large range with a single register hole. But that involves getting a lot of factors just right, including hole size and hole height as well as location. On the other hand, you can make the upper register secure over a larger range by having more than one register hole. In my work with the type of ‘Moe design I call Floppy ‘Moe (see the other article for a description), I was able to have two register holes nicely positioned for convenient and facile playing. With those two register holes was able to extend the range easily an octave and more into the second register.
Important note for this method: Clarinet reeds are rather narrow, and for a tube whose inner diameter matches that of a clarinet, the standard clarinet reed will be a tiny bit too narrow to dependably fully cover the opening created when you make the angle cut for the lay. Store-bought clarinet mouthpieces are made to accommodate the narrow reed, but this involves more complex shaping of the mouthpiece. Saxophone reeds are wider, and will serve where a clarinet reed will not. You can use an alto sax reed to cover a clarinet-sized bore, or you can play it safe and go still wider with a tenor sax reed. The differences in tone quality or playability between these reed types are, to my ear, not problematic. I have also come up with methods for making the mouthpiece opening narrower to accommodate the narrower clarinet reed, but they’re more complex to make, and in any case they don‘t necessarily produce a better result, so I won’t describe their construction here.
Register holes should be small, typically in the range of 7/64”. (Remember, all we want is a small leak.) For acoustic reasons unknown to me, the register hole on a classical clarinet is made extra tall, being extended by a tiny pipe extending a about 5/16”into the tube. But you can make simple and successful register holes without this extension, just by drilling the small hole in the tube wall. And here’s something very convenient about these holes: being so small, it’s easy to backfill them with a bit of silicon or similar gloppy glue, or even just to temporarily cover them over with with sticky tape. This means that with an experimental instrument (as opposed to one that must look perfectly finished when completed), you can experiment to find the best register hole locations by drilling, testing, backfilling and re-drilling as many times as needed.
Lots of casual homemade wind makers have worked with PVC tubing because of its easy availability and affordability. To this we can add the convenient fact that the interior diameter of the widely available nominal 1/2” PVC conduit, at just under 5/8”, is remarkably close to the classical Bb clarinet bore diameter. And the wall thickness is suitable for making many sorts of winds (including ’Moes, where wall thickness is important in providing a suitably wide gluing surface where the metal bar is to be attached). Also, PVC is easily workable with common tools (but be sure to wear a breathing mask!). We won’t worry too much here about the fact that PVC is ugly.
(Aside from clarinet- and sax-style mouthpieces described here, you can also have fun with a home-buildable single reed form that is closer to those found in an organ reedpipe, with reed in the form of a strip of flexible metal positioned over a hole drilled near the end of a stopped pipe. You can read about that in this article.)
On clarinets and saxes the metal band used to strap the reed in securely place is called the ligature. A ligature borrowed from one of these instruments will not work well with the system for mouthpiece making system just described. Instead, as mentioned above, you can simply use a rubber band, or devise some other reed-strapping system of your own if you want something more elegant. To improve the way the rubber band holds in place, add a small post in the form of a tiny screw sticking up from the opposite side of the instrument body opposite the lay as shown in the drawing.
An Easy Way to Make Barrel Joints to Connect Mouth pieces to Tubes.
You might be surprised at what an effective mouthpiece you can make just by cutting the end of the tube at an angle mimicking that of a clarinet or sax mouthpiece and carefully shaping the resulting surface over which the is to reed lie; then strapping a clarinet or sax reed on there with a rubber band. The surface over which the reed lies is called the lay, and the whole trick is giving this surface just the right degree of curvature. You can study a standard clarinet or sax mouthpiece to get a sense of how this very slight curvature should go. Notice how, when the reed is in place, the lay curves slightly away from the reed toward the tip. Sanding this surface into just the right shape calls for a nice touch and a high degree of control. But if you have access to a bench sander (a fairly common and not killingly expensive tool), there’s a relatively easy and dependable way to achieve the required degree of refinement in the process. This approach works for wooden or plastic tubular instrument bodies. Typically the bench sander includes both a belt and disk sander. The disk, which is mounted vertically, has a very small attached table in front of it to rest the work on. For the lay-shaping job, remove this table and replace it with a much larger table, large enough that most of your wind instrument tube can rest on it. Of course you wouldn’t attach this large table to the sander; just make it the right height so that you can place in on the bench top in front of the sander. The idea is that, having made an initial rough-cut to create the mouthpiece angle at the end of the instrument body, you can rest the instrument body on this table, and in a very controlled fashion feed it into the disk sander to shape the lay surface. In doing this you need to prevent the instrument body from rolling or tipping sideways as you carefully press it against the sander disk. For this, try to find some kind of clamp — a spring clamp or a small C-clamp may work– that you can clamp somewhere toward the far end of the instrument body so that when it rests on the table the clamp prevents the body from rolling or tipping. Be sure that the clamp is positioned so that the angle cut is perfectly vertical, parallel to the vertical surface of the sanding disk. Now you can shape your lay in imitation of a standard mouthpiece by gently and carefully pressing it against the sanding disk. Don’t be afraid to do a bit of experimenting, first shaping, then strapping a reed on for testing, then removing and shaping again until you get something that speaks easily and sounds good. (What? You’re not already an experienced reed player? Then get someone who is to help with the testing.)
ADDITIONAL NOTES PERTAINING TO HOMEMADE WOODWIND MAKING I recently spent some time in the shop doing a new round of experimenting with wind instruments of the family that I call ‘Moe. I described