Saturday, February 23, 2013

Off-label Uses

Off-label Tool Uses--Mostly Cheap!

In the pharmaceutical field, the term "off-label" applies to uses for a drug other than that for which it was originally tested and marketed.

Accompany a bassoon player into a hardware store or craft store and you will see how this applies to our field. We spend a lot of time in these stores looking at products and wondering how they can be used to make reeds, etc.

The bassoonist views the sandpaper in the automotive or paint section of the hardware store as a wonderful abrasive for finishing reeds. The rubber slipjoint washer in the plumbing section doesn't belong under the sink, it is for the long joint extension from the boot socket, you dummy! I once brought my long joint in to the plumbing section to find the washer that fit best and boy you should have seen the looks I got from the plumbing guy!

This is the first in a series of posts about cheap, off-label uses for ordinary tools as applied to the bassoon and reed making. Feel free to contribute your own ideas and uses!

My first example comes from the medical field.  It's a scalpel.  This tool is GREAT for shaping and scoring.  Because of the high standards demanded by surgeons, the blade is of much higher quality than your average razor blade, X-acto or other type.

Using proper technique, I can shape up to 50 pieces of cane with just one blade before it gets too dull to use. Strip off as much cane as you can before actually contacting the shaper body with the knife. When shaping, as long as you keep the blade nearly flush to the slope of the shaper the blade will keep its edge for a long time.

The handle is available from McMaster-Carr:

It's only $6.47!!

Unfortunately McMaster doesn't sell the blade that's best for shaping.  This comes from Cincinnati Surgical.
Order the Swann Morton blade, 100/box, Size 25A. The non-sterile blades are a bit cheaper -- $31.00 for 100.

Cincinnati Surgical also sells a larger handle than the one from McMaster-Carr. This may fit your hand better. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the handle.  It's the last one on the page. Product: 07SM6B. The handle is $20, so not particularly cheap.


Remember, these are scalpel blades!  Take care when using.  The blade may be shaped differently from what you're used to.  It has a very sharp point (I know, I've poked myself with it several times getting used to it!).

The blades are also available from Cincinnati Surgical.  Order the #25A.

When inserting the blade in the handle, it's best to put it on part way with your fingers.  Look for the slot in the handle nose. Slide the nose part way into the open slot in the blade.  Then gripping the handle and not the blade, point the handle/blade down and push the blade point onto a table or piece of wood to push the blade in place. When the blade is in place you will see that the slanted back end of the blade locks into the slanted ridge in the handle nose.

When removing the blade use a pliers.  Bend the blunt back end of the blade up with the pliers, twist the blade slightly and slide it off the handle.


  1. I'm really excited about this series! I have to confess that I LOVE walking around Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Michaels, other various hobby shops just imagining what I could use this or that for. I always end up buying something, and then comes the inevitable explanation to Erin (my wife) why and what it will be used for and she usually says something to the effect of "don't you already have something that does that?" and I say something like "well, yeah but I thought this might do the job better, or easier, or, I don't know it just looked cool!"

    I think that specialized bassoon tools (forming hole pliers, profilers, your reamer and mandrel pins) are, even though a bit expensive, absolutely essential (sometimes you get what you pay for). But these off label tools often do a great job and need not be bassoon specific, a great scalpel is going to cut really well, end of story!

    I'll try to post a few later, but probably my favorite off-label tool is my system for using melted wax instead of Duco cement to seal the turban on the butt end of the bassoon reed. I'll try to come up with a step-by-step, but I don't want to hijack your comment section!

    Looking forward to more off-label tools!

    Anthony G.

  2. Instructions for waxing a reed using the "double boiler" technique:

    So basically what I do is wrap the reed as usual and then with a mandrel tip in the butt of the reed I dip that in melted wax. (Not the Stees mandrel tips, while they are by far the best I've ever found for forming the tube, they are too long for this procedure)

    I have a small sauce pan with about an inch of water in it, and then a small metal container (a votive candle form that I got at Michael's) filled with wax submerged in the water about half way. So, the wax is in the metal container and the metal container is submerged in the water. I hope that makes sense. So it's not really a double boiler per se, but you get the idea.

    I usually do a batch of anywhere from 3 to 6 reeds at a time (I only have six mandrel pins of the size that I like to use for this), and I usually dip the reeds 2 to 3 times in the wax. Once when the wax is really hot, then I take the pan off the burner and usually wait five or so minutes and do a second and even third dip when the wax has slightly cooled. Not too cool though, it can get thick really quickly. Tip: Take the mandrel tip out before the wax hardens!

    Warning: I stupidly tried it once without putting something in the back of the reed to make sure wax didn't go all up into the throat. Never made that mistake again! A small mandrel tip works well for this. I had one student cut off the end of a round chopstick and put that in the butt of the reed and that worked pretty well too.

    I use beeswax sometimes and paraffin wax other times. I love the way the beeswax feels and smells, but the paraffin wax has a lower melting point so it's a tad easier, or at least quicker to work with. Paraffin is also a little bit more slippery, which can sometimes be a pain because the reed can slip out of your hands if you're not careful, but the thing I like most about the paraffin wax (and this is purely cosmetic) is that it's completely clear so if you use fun colors they look really vibrant, beeswax tends to yellow everything. Normally I just use black cotton size 10 thread with beeswax, but my students complained about how boring looking the reeds were! Thus all the experimentations with different colors and paraffin wax. Btw, I find cotton thread to be a little bit more flexible with the life of the reed, and it also soaks in more of the wax as compared to nylon thread.

    It's messy, and I've ruined a few reeds in the process, but it's just so much more natural and I think people will be really pleased with that. I've come to loathe the smell and taste of Duco cement. Oh, wax also doesn't harden up and get crispy and crusty like duco cement which is another bonus.

    Enjoy my favorite "off label" use! I'll probably contribute a few more later.