Pernambuco and the Art of Bow Making

Bows for the violin family of instruments continued to evolve as the demands of music changed until the classical period, and settled on the current form, or the “modern bow” around 1780-90. About this same time, pernambuco, which had already been imported to Europe from Brazil for 250 years as a dye making material, became the wood of choice for bow making. It remains so today.
Select pieces of this unique wood have a combination of sonic qualities, density, strength and suppleness, as well as the ability to bend with dry heat and retain the shape when cool (known as “memory”) which make it ideal for violin, viola, cello and bass bows.

The IPCI Alternative Woods Project, completed in 2006, identified several other promising species for bow making, but making bows from them on a larger scale and over a longer period of time would be required before any of these could be considered a true rival to pernambuco. There have also been recent advances in bows made from synthetic materials such as carbon fiber. While the quality of these bows has increased in recent times, there is still a broad consensus that such bows still lack the last few percent of sound and performance qualities possible from a fine wood bow. Pernambuco remains just as important today to the world of sting instrument playing as it was when first identified as the best bow making wood over two hundred years ago.… Read the rest

My Pernambuco

Not long after enrolling in the Violin Making School of America in 1974, I was sent to the school basement to retrieve something, I don’t remember what it was. What did pique my interest and lodge itself in my memory was a small pile of cross stacked half logs of dark reddish brown wood. There were may be forty logs each slightly more than a meter long and varying from about five to eight inches in diameter. They had been halved with a large circular saw and their outside rounded surface had the telltale scoop marks of an adz, which I found out later was the method used for removing the outer sap wood.
IMG_2725_2In the making of violins we concerned ourselves with learning about spruce, maple, and to a certain degree, ebony. These small logs clearly were something else, and unlike any wood I had seen before. While this may seem like revisionist history given what was to come, I clearly remember that pile of logs having a certain presence which drew my attention. I stopped long enough from my errand to pick up and examine one of the logs and was surprised by it’s considerable weight in relation to it’s size. At the next opportunity, I asked Peter Prier about the logs in the basement, and he told me it was pernambuco, which was used for making bows. Little did I know then the enormous impact searching for not only this species, but for logs from this very same shipment would have on my life.… Read the rest

Answers to Questions Posed During Interviews

The first four questions are from an interview with Sarah Mnatzaganian for an article on the sound qualities of bows. She posed the same questions to a number of bow makers and used short quotes from each in her piece. What is published here are the complete answers provided. The fifth question is from an interview with Clyde Curley for an article for Strings Magazine.

1. “What makes bows sound different?”

Just about everything. Wood choice; how the wood is shaped; camber; hair tension; how comfortable the player is with a bow etc…

It’s a big question and a hard one to answer with a brief definitive statement.
I think an analogy to wine comes close to explaining why something that seems so simple produces such a wide variety of results. What makes red wines taste different? It’s a very simple process of pressing the juice out of grapes, letting it ferment, and aging it. The process is similar the world over, and yet the variations of the finished product are almost endless.

Anyone with the least interest in the subject of wine knows that different areas use different varieties of grapes. Even with the same variety in a particular area changes in soil, drainage and slope can produce differences in flavor and quality. Each wine maker, while repeating the age old process, has their own sense of when it is optimal to pick the fruit, how long to leave the juice on the leas, when to bottle the fermented juice, how long to age, etc…

Pernambuco varies as much as grapes do.… Read the rest

Professional Influences

The Violin Making School of America; Peter Prier; Paul Hart
In the fall of 1974 I enrolled at the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. I was a student of Paul Hart, and Peter Prier. There was no bow making school in Salt Lake at that time and we learned little about them, but the tool skills as well as the hand and eye development that I acquired at school were an important foundation of skills that I have relied on as a bow maker.

The other significant influence on my career from the Salt Lake experience involves the people I worked with there. Many at the school at that time have gone on to distinguish themselves in different aspects of the violin world. Some of the best violin makers working today, as well as restorers and shop owners were at the Salt Lake School in the mid seventies. Going to violin making school enriched me with some of my most significant lifelong friendships, as well as deep connections in the violin business.

Frank Passa; David Gusset; Reid Kowallis
My interest in bows developed while at school. I was curious about this related field that was also separate from violin making. It seemed somewhat mysterious as there few opportunities to learn bow making at that time in the United States. This interest is what influenced my choice of job after I finished school. In Dec. of 1977 when I completed school, there were open positions in the best shops on New York and Philadelphia, but Frank Passa in San Francisco was interested in training people to make bows.… Read the rest