Know Your Duck Calls – How to Clean, Repair, & Rebuild

Part I

If you are like me you tend to buy calls, use them, like them, hate them and move on to the next one.  Calls take a ton of abuse and often we pay little or no attention to taking care of them both for maintenance and for adjustments.  I sat down with a good friend and someone that calls as well as anyone I know, to discuss the call components and how anyone can disassemble, adjust, and rebuild just about any call with a few spare parts.

A kit like this will be around $25 and will include multiple thickness reeds, cork wedges, O-rings, and storage. 

Calls have four components: The barrel, the tone board or insert that matches that call, wedge and reed(s).  The proprietary nature of call designers ensure we have a wide variety of each of these items with the exception of the reeds which tend to be generally across thicknesses of .007 – .014 inches, but differ in length and cut.  Some have rounded ends and others have cut ends.  Calls are also bored to different sizes, and some tone boards are flat while others might include sound troughs or spit channels.  Many modern calls we use today are referred to as Arkansas or J-frame calls. 

Reeds come in several thickness, lengths and cuts.  You can experiment with reeds to make a call sound you want.

Most calls are held together with an O-ring, sealing the air and holding the barrel to the insert.  Call makers will either place the O-ring on the insert or some will place the O-ring inside the barrel. 

In the image, you can see both the internal O-ring and external O-ring used for most call applications.    
O-rings seal the barrel but can become old and brittle.  Replacing these annually is a good idea.

So grab your call and pull it apart by gently twisting and pulling.  Some calls if they have not been separated in a while, or ever, can be tough to pull apart.  You will get your first look at the interior and the variety of stuff that is caught in the call.

You will be surprised at what you see in the call when you separate both halves.  It ranges from gross to total surprise. 

It is tough keeping your mouth clean throughout a hunt.  We all eat, smoke, chew, or nourish ourselves and eventually ducks come in and we have a mouth full.  Even at best, spitting everything out and washing out our mouths with water we pass stuff into the call that will sooner or later need to be cleaned.  Just as well the spit needs to be washed out after each day in the field anyway.

Once you pull it apart take note of the position of the reed(s).  I pluralize this because some use single reed calls and some use double reed calls.  The reed needs to be centered on the tone board and pushed all the way under the cork or rubber wedge.  Just make note of the relationship between the reed, tone board, and wedge.  Likely, over time they have moved some and that will greatly reduce the sound of your call.  A double reed call will have a dimple on one of the reeds to keep them separated. 

The reed must be centered and unless it is held in place securely it will move.  Keep it centered for the best sounding calls.
Two different types of reed cuts from two J-frame calls; one with tone sloughs and one flat.

Pull the reed out along with the keeper but first for demonstration purposes mark the reed so you know which side goes up.  Once removed there is a simple method of knowing this by squeezing the reed between your thumb and forefinger and noting which way bends easier.  The reed will tend to bow away from the softer side; so many or most place the bow down or think of it as a smile.  You always have options so try it both ways.  The stiffer side down will require more air and produce some raspy and rougher sounds.  Flip it and see if it changes your air and sound. 

Bending the reed reveals the correct side to place onto the tone board – you can insert the reed both ways to see sound differences.  This image shows the stiff side down and that side will be on the tone board.

Remember how the call works.  Your air vibrates the reed across the tone board.  Therefore, the stiffer side goes down.  Flex the reed both ways and you will very quickly be able to tell which side is stiffer. 

Clean your call with warm soapy water.  Get the barrel, bore, and tone board clean before putting it all back together.  As you reinstall the reed make sure it is on the correct way and make sure it is forced to the back of the tone board as you re-insert the keeper.  It is a good idea to apply some slight pressure to the lip to make sure you don’t break it off when slipping the wedge under.  Some calls will have a tab to help center the calls and some will be straight cut. 

Some call reeds will have tabs to help align the reed and some will not.  Those without tabs will require you to center the reed from end to end.
Note here the thumb is holding down the lip to make sure the wedge does not break it off if it is too tight.  Use something small that will span the wedge to insert it correctly and firmly.

Part II

Now that we know how to take the call apart and put it back together let’s consider a complete replacement of all the parts of the call and some adjustments.  I do this for several reasons.  First, many seasonally replace all the parts especially the wedge, as it tends to shrink over time.  Replacement parts can be both universal and specific to calls.  Many kits are less than $10.  You soon realize though the subtle similarity of components.   To begin, you will have to measure and mark your reed onto a new reed so you can cut it.  Use sharp scissors and you want a clean cut.  Start just outside the line and keep trimming the reed.

When you replicate a new reed make sure to match the new reed with the old reed considering length and thickness of the reed.
Mark the new reed with a pencil before cutting it and start by making gradual cuts to the line.  Accuracy is important.
Use a sharp a pair of scissors.  A dull cut will impact the sound.  Most reeds are cut on paper cutters.  Just be sure to make a clean accurate cut.

Let me insert the idea of tuning a call and understand humans tune all calls.  Each call tuner has their own characteristic, sound and output they want.  Yours of course is yours to define.  So experiment with a cut reed or try shorter and longer reeds.  The variation in length is usually very small.  A shorter reed will have a higher pitch while a longer reed will vibrate at a lower pitch.  If all fails, you can always duplicate the original but trying different reeds and cuts might be worth the time to get what you want.

Once you replace your reed you will need to replace the wedge and these come universally over-sized.  Some callers moisten the cork wedge in their mouth to soften it before inserting.  Slip it in and cut the side off.  Mark the cross cut on the wedge and remove it to make that cut to ensure you don’t cut into the reed.  You can also place the wedge into the insert without a reed and make both cuts.

The wedge can be inserted and then trimmed with a sharp razor knife.  Make sure you get a clean cut or the reed may not slide into the barrel. 
Reeds have a variety of shapes at the cut end.  Start with the original and then try more aggressive cuts and styles to see how they impact the sound.

Some callers will lubricate the O-rings with a water-based silicone.  That is fine, just remember a call needs both halves and once lubricated you can have a call come apart unknowingly.  For this reason I highly recommend a double loop lanyard.

A slight application of water-based silicon grease will not only protect the O-ring, but also keep it from rolling as you slide the insert into the barrel.  Note the comment in the text to use a double lanyard to make sure the two halves do not part.
Here is a good example of a double lanyard attached to both the insert and the barrel of the call.

I recommend you take an old call and pull it apart and try a few different reeds and wedge cuts.  Remember if you leave the wedge cut beyond the insert that will stiffen the reed.  Experiment with reed cuts, shaving reeds down, and wedges and see what each change does to the tone and sound of the call.  Make notes of the changes so you can reference these as you go along.  I assure you those changes will be notable and noticeable. 

Note in the image how the wedges are cut.  The crosscut on one is right up to the bridge while the other is slightly further out.  This is another way to adjust the tone of your call.
Here are some of the sizes of wedges you might get in a kit.  Most of these kits are somewhat universal.

Remember calls are the product of the tuner.  You can become good at this if you practice.  The first step is to order a call tuning kit if your original call did not include extras and don’t be afraid to make changes.  Also, keep in mind most call companies want you to be satisfied and will tune your calls at no cost if you either take the calls to them at a sport show or send them in to be tuned. I also know they love to visit with their customers so do not hesitate to give them a call.   Either way it is a good idea to clean and tune your calls before each season.  Once you do this a few times, you will even carry a few reeds in your shell bag just in case. 

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About the author: David R. Vaught, Ph.D. began hunting waterfowl at a young age due to his father being a waterfowl biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Today he hunts both public and private waterfowl grounds and is always working on something related to waterfowl throughout the year. He loves to turkey hunt and fish for walleye and crappie in the spring. David is a university professor, holds an NRA Level II coaching certification and works with youth in trap and skeet shooting in the summer with his annual trap-shooting academy.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • reiver May 13, 2022, 6:07 pm

    where do i find/buy a call rebuild kit???

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