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.

As a species, pernambuco varies greatly in density, strength and a variety of other characteristics. Within an individual piece of wood changes in the grain and growth patterns can create stronger and weaker spots. Mass production oriented, or factory bow making, has an important role to play in providing less expensive bows, but is usually designed around methods that can not take the individual traits of a piece of wood into account, therefore reducing the quality of the finished product.

Most makers of fine bows today are making one or very few bows at a time. They discern the individual characteristics of each piece of wood as they work with it, resulting in a series of decisions over the course of making the bow based on their training and experience to optimize the possibilities of that particular piece of wood.

Physically speaking, the bow is a relatively simple device… however a good bow is also extremely sensitive. Subtle changes in its taper, camber, weight and balance can change its sound as well as other playing characteristics. The better the musician, the more they will be aware of the individual traits of a particular bow and are more likely to require a bow that suits their personal technique and instrument. Playing styles and instruments vary widely and there is no one perfect bow that will suit all players. As well as the thickness, bend, weight and balance, good bows vary in flexibility, responsiveness, power and tone. Musicians are looking for a balance, stability, a connection with the string and a responsiveness that allow the bow to feel like a natural extension of their arm that articulates complex bowing passages with ease. But for most players the tonal considerations are paramount.

IMG_6131It is widely known that violins sound different from one another, and some are much more highly valued than others. Acoustically speaking, this is because of the differing number of overtones that make up a single note. Bows, while not having a voice of their own, can affect the range of overtones present in the sound of an instrument.

Some violins can be said to have a darker sound or a brighter sound and the same is true of bows. When looking for a good tonal match of violin and bow it would be normal to pair a darker sounding instrument with a brighter sounding bow, or a brighter instrument with a darker sounding bow for a balanced sound. A bright violin with bright bow brings out too many of the upper overtones and can accentuate high frequencies that may not make for the richest sound possible from the instrument. Likewise, a dark violin together with a dark bow came create a “muddy” sound without the high end sparkle needed to get a soaring sound.

In addition to the basic match of instrument and bow, a musician looks to their bow to give them the ability to shape or color the tone of a note, thus broadening their ability to fulfill their own artistic interpretation of the music they play. For all of these reasons, string players put as high a value on having a good bow as they do on having a good instrument.

Just like a musician, the better a bow maker is, the more sensitive he or she is to the individual traits of a bow. They are able to apply their training and experience to make choices while making a bow, or changes to a finished bow which will optimize its potential. In addition to these playing aspects of the bow, a good bow maker must study historical bows from the aspect of visual style and predominant trends in different periods. They also need to master a wide variety of metal and woodworking skills to make and assemble all the parts with a high degree of control.

All of these aspects of bow making combine to make it a complex, demanding and challenging craft which takes dedication and years of work to achieve a high level of proficiency. The long term future of this craft, which is inextricably linked with violin making and string instrument playing, remains in question due to the state of the material at its core: pernambuco.