Tabuteau’s Gouging Machines and Process

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Several of Marcel Tabuteau’s tools and reeds, including: Graf gouging machine, shaper, tube cane splitter, and four oboe reeds. Given to Adrian Gnam in July 1965. 

JM (John Minsker): I had the key to his studio and kept him company and helped him with preparing the cane and turning the wheel when he wanted to grind his knife [gouging blade] and that sort of thing. So I did spend hours and hours with him every week.

MS (Melissa Stevens): Did he get upset with himself making reeds?

JM: Yes, of course, but he never gave up. The gouge, in particular, was an obsession with him. The gouges at that time were very crude compared to what you have today. He had a grinder clamped to a table in such a way that the flat side of the stone was up. He would hold his gouging knife [blade] against that and shape it that way. You thought of him as a very poor mechanic and yet he had a knack for grinding that gouging knife. It was a very difficult thing to do. He’d grind the knife and also file the guide. By the time he got done the gouging machine was a mess. You wondered how he ever managed to make a reed, but he did. He got in touch with a mechanic here in Philadelphia by the name of Graf. You may know that name. He got the idea of raising and lowering the block, and pushing it back and forth and putting the blade in an eccentric bearing. These ideas were developed by Graf and Tabuteau. I often went with him when he went to Graf’s shop.

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Details on Tabuteau’s Gouging Process from Donald Baker

Tabuteau gouges his cane almost every day, soaking it for about 15 seconds after each process [splitting, guillotining, pre-gouging] leading up to actually gouging.

Thickness of the cane [after gouging]: Sides 40 or 45 mm; center 55 mm. It is impossible to obtain a gouge of these thicknesses with one machine; instead, use one machine for the center of the cane and another for the sides.

The blade in one of Tabuteau’s gouging machines was small, so it did not gouge all the way to the edges of the cane.

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JMk (John Mack): Even in his 60s, he would work untiringly, especially on the gouge, because to him the gouge was the Holy Grail. In a way, I have to say, he was right. I remember saying to him one time, “Maestro, if someone gave you twelve pieces of the best cane in the world, what would you do?” He said, “I wouldn’t touch it.” “Why not?” “I don’t have that. I have this. (A big container of cane in the middle of the studio floor.) I will work on the gouge until I get something that makes that cane go.” That’s what he believed, and he strove for that. I can’t tell you the countless hours we spent together, working on gouging machines. Me, down on my knees turning the wheel for the grindstone, while he would re-grind something and finish it by hand. Then he would gouge cane, chop the ends off, look at it, and then say “Mack! Look at this beautiful gouge!” “Oh, Maestro, it looks really good.” He would make a reed out of it, and ten minutes later [in voice], “Son of a bitch!” and go like this (reed blade smashed against the wall) and then I’m back down on the floor, grinding away again! He would go and go.

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“He had a grinder clamped to a table in such a way that the flat side of the stone was up.” Report of John Minsker

MT: Try to inquire at the Drake if they received a parcel or bag from France containing oboe cane. If so, tell them to keep it with great care! Also try to see Graf, and tell him to do his best to have the machines and shapes ready for me. -Excerpt from Tabteau’s August 12, 1946 letter to Laila Storch.

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This photograph and the following one show a Graf gouging machine that once belonged to Marcel Tabuteau. It is now owned by Adrian Gnam who kindly photographed it for this website.
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Tabuteau observing the alignment of the blade in one of his two Graf gouging machines.
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Tabuteau gouging cane. Note the disarray around the Graf machine!

In contrast to the days Minsker remembered when Tabuteau would make changes to the blade of the machine after gouging just two or three pieces of cane, John Mack reported Laila Storch:

Gradually, as he saw that I was getting more and more adept at all of this, I was allowed to start some reeds; and by the time of the first Casals Festival in 1950, I was making reeds for him. During my last year in Curtis (1950-51), I made every reed he played for the first eleven weeks of his half-season with the Orchestra. He had managed to get a good setting on his gouging machine and he would not touch it for anything.”