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.

While attending the violin making school we did not learn much about bows. I remember an annual bow lecture, the purpose of which was to familiarize us with the names and general characteristics of a number of the most celebrated bow makers so that as violin makers, we could at least carry on a semi intelligent conversation about them. Principally what we learned about bows at school was that it was a completely separate discipline from violin making. Violin makers make violins, bow makers make bows.

My first awareness of bow making, which began with seeing the logs in the basement, became an interest over the course of my training as a violin maker. I read what I could on the subject in the school library and asked questions of and watched a local bow maker working some afternoons after school in my second year. This interest was strong enough upon graduation from the school to effect my choice of jobs. I was offered three different positions when I finished school and I primarily chose the job in San Francisco with Frank Passa because he was interested in training people to make bows.

My training as a bow maker with Frank Passa was far from complete. I was there just two years. But one of the advantages we had there that I did not realize until much later was due to the fact that Frank’s pernambuco supply was made up of small quantities purchased at different times from various sources. We learned how much variation there was in the species, which helped me to discern differences in wood quality later.

During the last six months I worked for Frank he seemed more comfortable with our bow making efforts as he had us making gold mounted bows. He also sent my colleague, room mate and fellow bow maker Reid Kowalis to the basement (again, the basement!) to bring up some different wood for us to work with. What Reid returned with were a couple of small half logs just like the ones I had seen in the basement of the violin making school several years before. The last six or eight bows I made for Frank were made from these logs, and by far it was the finest wood we had worked with. Frank also considered it his best.

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, I returned there after finishing my time at Passa’s shop. In a conversation with Frank shortly before I left he told me that the logs of pernambuco we both liked so much had come from my part of the country. When I asked what he meant by that, Frank told me that he purchased the logs from Vitali Import Co. in Los Angeles. When he realized their quality, he called Vitali to see if he could get more. They had no more but referred him to Frank Henderson in Seattle who was the person who had sold the logs to them. If I had not been from Seattle, I don’t think that subject would have ever come up with Frank and I would never have been put onto the trail I would pursue for another 12 years.

Shortly after that conversation I returned home to the Seattle area. I had an arrangement doing repair work for a local violin shop to pay the bills while I worked on my bow making which I hoped would become my main profession. I had much to do to develop my bow making skills, acquire all the tools I needed, and develop outlets for selling bows. I also needed to find some wood.

In 1980, within the few months of my return to the Northwest, I made contact with Frank Henderson. Born in 1901, Henderson grew up on an isolated cattle ranch in Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains. There he learning black smithing, carpentry and cabinetry and was capable of making practically everything needed on the ranch. He remained a partner in the family ranch after moving to Seattle in 1944 to join the construction firm of Nelse Mortensen & Co. He retired in 1977 a wealthy man after helping develop the company into one of the major commercial construction companies in the Northwest. Having played the violin since childhood, he began collecting instruments and during the years I knew him he owned an Amati and the Duke of Cambridge Stradivari.

Henderson was also an amateur maker of both violins and bows, and published a book titled “How to Make a Violin Bow” the same year he retired. Ever the consummate “do it yourself-er”, Henderson figured things out for himself, and lacked training in the traditional approach to bow making. His book is of limited value to someone trying to make bows that will be regarded as professional by today’s standards. But I found him to be helpful and encouraging to someone just starting out. He had a formality about him reminiscent of an earlier age that kept me at a certain distance, also a social status through self made achievement that was a bit intimidating to a young man just trying to get a career off the ground. But he liked nothing better than talking about violins and bows and showing someone with genuine interest things in his beautiful home workshop.

bowintheworksAt our first meeting, after seeing his workshop and a few of his instruments, I brought up the subject of the small logs. He proceeded to tell me the story of his procurement of them. He had been spending time in the Seattle area for years before he moved there, and told me that he first became aware of the pernambuco logs in the late ‘thirties. They belonged to someone who lived east of Seattle where Bellevue is now. If he told me that person’s name, or the details of how and why he had the wood, I do not remember. I do remember that he said that in the late thirties the logs had already been in this country for about twenty years making the time of their cutting and importation somewhere around WW I and their owner was hoping to make bows.

Frank was interested in the wood at that time but it was not for sale. He kept in touch, and twenty years later in 1958 after the owner of the wood died, his widow sold the logs to Henderson and a partner. The partner was a friend of Henderson who was also a musician interested in making violins and bows, but had not yet begun to make. There were somewhere around 300 logs which they figured was enough for both of them so they divided the wood evenly. At some point in the sixties, Frank Henderson then sold about fifty or sixty of his logs to Vitali Import Co. which was the source of not only the logs I had made bows out of at Passa’s but the source of the very first pernambuco I had every seen in the basement of the violin making school. Peter Prier got about forty of the logs and Frank Passa about ten.

Henderson told me he had cut up and used most of the logs he saved for himself. He claimed to have only a few left and had no interest in parting with them. He had even purchased a few more from the original partner in the wood deal. At this point I asked about his partner. “What had happened to the logs that he owned?” I asked. Henderson replied that he still owned them and had never learned to make bows. “Do you think he might be interested in selling any of them?” He knew for a fact that his friend was not interested in selling. I asked if he might tell me his friend’s name and he refused, then told me another story.

Years before someone else had called Henderson about the logs and he told them about his friend who got the other half of them. This person then began calling his friend and did not want to take “no” for an answer. He bugged the wood’s owner to the point that he made Henderson promise to never give out his name again in relation to the wood. The caller turned out to be Frank Passa who had been put on the trail by Vitali.

The late seventies and early eighties were a time when any pernambuco was hard to come by, and really good stuff was practically impossible. Here I was in 1980, a young maker needing wood, hearing a story about a large pile of excellent old pernambuco that was sitting somewhere in Seattle and I couldn’t find out the name of the owner. And not just any pile of wood. I now knew it was the same wood I had seen in the violin making school basement, and the same wood I had already made gold mounted Frank Passa bows out of and had greatly admired. Having found it residing in my home town added another twist to the story that was rapidly gaining a mythical quest like status in my mind and I began to feel a personal connection to this pile of wood I had never even seen and did not know where it was or who owned it.

After my first meeting with Frank Henderson I found myself some what obsessed by the story of the wood. I stayed in touch with him visiting him a couple of times a year for the next few years. He did help connect me to another source for pernambuco during that time, a German company from which I bought two 200 kilo crates of wood. The quality was typical of pernambuco on the market at that time which was very low, and I never used more than a few boards of that wood. Beyond those first few years I decided to take the same long term approach that Frank Henderson had taken to get the wood. I would go out and see him about once a year, sometimes being invited to lunch, other times just discussing things in his shop for a couple of hours. I was never pushy or impolite, but before leaving each time, I made sure to say, “and by the way, if that wood ever comes up for sale, I’m still interested.”

By the end of the eighties I was beginning to lose hope of ever seeing the old logs. Frank Henderson was approaching 90, and the story about the wood had not changed in a decade of contact. There was a wood dealer that had begun to bring good pernambuco into the country a few years before, and in 1989 I decided to make a major purchase and be prepared for a career that would not include the old logs. Then, two years later in 1991, I got the phone call I had been hoping to get for almost 12 years.

Frank Henderson called to say his friend with the logs had just passed away, and his widow had asked him to help sell some of the violin related items including the logs of pernambuco. Did I want them? I said yes right away. Frank had set a price for the owner that was not low, but fair and based on the condition of taking the whole pile, no high grading. There was a six month probate period before the wood could be sold which gave me some time to raise money.

The owner’s name could now be revealed to me: Jack Flannery. When it came time to do business with his wife, she gave me an address and set a time to meet. When I arrived, she showed me into a small Victorian house in the Interlake neighborhood of Seattle that no one lived in. She had a beautiful home north of town not far from Henderson, but this small house her husband had inherited and he used for storage.

It became apparent immediately that Jack had been a collector of music related objects and as well as a very serious pack rat. Every room in the house was packed with stuff. I opened the door to what had been a bed room and it was completely full of things up to about four feet off the floor, just a wall of objects when you opened the door. The rest of the house was the same except for a few pathways.

In the hall Mrs. Flannery opened a trap door revealing steps down into a dirt floored space under the house that had about four feet of head room. It was full of more stuff, and over in one corner were the logs. There were 138 of them in two piles stacked right on the dirt. They had been there for 33 years since 1958. It still took me some time to take possession of all of the wood, but at that moment I felt like one of the major quests of my career and a quest that had started before I even was aware of it, back in the basement of the violin making school in 1974 had come to an end. Together with the best of what I purchased in 1989, it would prove to be enough good wood for the rest of my working life.

Frank Henderson died just two years later in 1993. Frank Passa followed in 2001. I remain indebted to them both because if I had not known either, I would not have ever found the trail leading to that pile of old logs which would become a major cornerstone of, and one of the defining factors in my work.

Myself with the old logs shortly after purchasing them in 1991

Myself with the old logs shortly after purchasing them in 1991