Monday, March 26, 2012


One thing I think about often is the ratio between the resistance or basic strength of a bow and the string length of the instrument. This is significant because the ‘bottom’ line for a bow is to be able to power the bass string’s vibration. Then there are ratios to the volume of the resonating chamber of violins, violas and cellos. If you take the violin bow as a baseline, the viola bow is about ten grams heavier at about 70 gr and the string length is about 38 cm or a couple centimeters longer than a violin. Then we go up to the cello which has a bow only ten grams heavier at about 80 grams but the string length almost doubles at 69 cm. The difference in the cello’s internal volume is far greater as well.

What really determines a bow’s required power is how much downward pressure on the strings the instrument can withstand without an unacceptable loss of tone. The bow must be able to direct this downward force without bottoming out and playing on the stick. Of course how close an individual player will go to this limit is a personal matter of technique and style. It also varies with the instrument. In practice, a violin bow of around 60 grams usually meets this requirement and so does a cello bow of 80 grams. But the proportions of weight to string length between the violin and cello are radically different.

Of course the cello bow is much stiffer in part because of its shorter length and larger diameter but still the proportional curve between the instruments is not at all consistent. Clearly there must be other factors at play which determine the weight and strength of bows; one of which may simply be tradition and utility. For one thing there is a physical limit to the weight of bow a cellist can handle and play the repertoire with the required agility. By trial and error cellists have usually discovered their ideal bow weight to project as they need to. Cello bows have the greatest variation in weight and I have seen bows in the hands of accomplished players ranging from 74 to 92 grams; a Kittell and a Dodd respectively. In my opinion a weight of around 79 grams is usually very effective assuming that the winding and fittings are light. With a solid silver wire grip we can raise this to about 81 or 82. But this does not explain why this weight is proportionally much lighter than a violin bow. I include pictures of a 79.6 gram bow I made recently for the cellist, Amir Eldan.

Sound quality is implied in these considerations but it is also a separate issue often contradicting the practical terms of a bow’s power. An individual palayer or instrument can require a bow that’s is too flexible or too stiff, too light or too heavy for practical purposes. The most important determant of a bows value for the player is sound quality. The player also wants to play accurately and through a wide dynamic range so in the end one looks for a happy synthesis.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Years ago I was visiting with the Parisian luthier and bow connoisseur, Bernard Sabatier. An American violinist who had recently started buying and selling bows was there and he had just talked Sabatier into selling a cello bow from his collection. It was a gold mounted Victor Fetique exhibition bow in perfect condition. It had what looked like an original gold winding but the neophyte dealer remembered being advised that one should always check to see if a bow had been grafted by removing the winding.

Grafting is done when the bow at the frog area is completely worn out from years of handling. Then a new piece of wood is joined to the original stick under the grip and the original frog fitted to it. The properly grafted bow is just as strong and useful as the original but loses value because some original wood is lost and with it the maker's stamp. With modern repair techniques grafting has become rare. Of course a gold winding is expensive and this adage only applied to a bow in an advanced state of wear, but the young dealer insisted on removing the grip.

Sabatier shrugged and started unwinding the gold, but soon all of our eyes registered a look of incredulity. The bow had been grafted and each of the eight facets of the stick at the graft was stamped 'Vtor. Fetique à Paris'. With his typical fatalistic manner, Sabatier shrugged again, put the bow back in the box and with a certain uneasyness the young dealer left the shop. He had been right but at incredible odds.

Sabatier's Fetique was revealing and being absolutely original was even more interesting as a collector's piece. If Fetique had been obliged to graft a extra piece on a too-short Pernambuco stick it could only mean one thing. He lacked enough really beautiful pernambuco for his gold mounted production and it may have pained him to set aside the too-short piece of wood.

Stephane Thomachot and Bernard Sabatier

This story obliquely illustrates an important point. The quality of the pernambuco wood in a bow is what sets it apart and truly this wood is the rarest and most precious thing in the bow. The gold may be expensive but it is not rare in the same sense, you can go to a dealer in precious metals and buy it at any time. All makers starting with the Tourte family made a limited number of bows with gold mountings for their clients who wanted the highest quality. Gold conferred more value but the bow's real quality always rested on the pernambuco stick. The great majority of the finest bows of all time are silver mounted.

Today when buying a contemporary bow it is important to know the practice of the maker. With some makers, gold mountings indicate their highest grade and commissioning a gold mounted bow ensures that you will get the best wood the maker has. In this case it could be well worth the extra cost of the gold mountings. In my case I select the best possible stick for the player regardless of the mounting and so gold is only an aesthetic consideration. I have enjoyed making the occasional gold mounted bow for those who truly love the look. For instance, Francois Hetsch, a french violist received some money when his mother passed away and he wanted to reinvest it in a gold mounted bow to remember her by; this made perfect sense.

Charles Espey violin bow 1983, Bellamy 'or rose'.

Another thing to think about when considering gold mountings is the gold itself. Gold is available in a variety of alloys and their corresponding color. In Paris we would always use 18 carat 'or rose' from Bellamy, a little dealer by the rue de Gravilliers in the jeweler's quarter. This had a beautiful warm pinkish tone against the ebony or the tortoiseshell that was still available at the time. Gold must be alloyed with other metals because if made of soft pure gold the 'passant' or ferrule would bend when the hair was wedged into place. 18 carat gold is ideal for this and consists of 75% gold alloyed with silver and copper to give it stiffness and the required color. But sometimes bows from production shops are offered in gold and this metal is often 14 carats or less. Fourteen carat gold is only 58.5% gold.

I appreciate the simple and elegant look of silver and beautiful ebony. In addition, gold is a significantly heavier metal than silver so gold increases the weight of frog and button by about a gram. This can be compensated for but it depends on the bow. Another thing to bear in mind is the fact that a maker may feel obliged to use dense, strikingly beautiful wood with a gold mounted bow. This wood may or may not be an ideal match for the musician or their instrument. Sometimes a less dense or simpler looking wood will give the best tonal return. One has only to look at the plain brown color of some of Francois Tourte's best bows to recognize this. So gold is an option but not a prime consideration in selecting a fine bow.

Today there is another more sombre consideration regarding gold mounted bows. The staggering rise in the price of gold has come with an exponential increase in exploitative and environmentally devastating mining practices in some of the world's poorest and most unstable countries. 70% of the world's gold is coming from developing countries but even in technologically advanced countries, gold mining has a significant environmental impact. In the Eastern Congo gold is being mined by forced labor under the control of militias who use their proceeds to buy arms. The use of cyanide and mercury to process gold has environmental consequences from the Amazon to the Eastern Congo. See this article for further information: These issues have prompted Hoover and Strong, a dealer used by many American makers, to market a gold certified as entirely recycled. This is a very good thing but any use of the metal effects the demand.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


It was November of 1983 in Paris and a small man of perhaps seventy sat bundled in trenchcoat and scarf on the Metro line Port de Clignancourt. Held securely in his hand like a sheaf of arrows, were a dozen violin bows, each in a wrinkled brown paper sleeve, the bundle secured with rubber bands. Arriving at Metro Simplon he came out into the drizzle of rue Joseph Dijon and at no. 9 he climbed the six flights of stairs to my attic workshop. After he had caught his breath he started removing the envelopes and laying bows out on the bench; ten Eugene Sartory violin bows in perfect condition. One for every five years of Sartory's working life starting in 1895 and ending in 1940. We talked of his visits to Sartory's shop as a teen-ager, Sartory's different bow stamps, Sartory's affiliation with Emile Germain, and of Jules Fetique, Gillet and others who worked for him. We traced the maker's development over the years seen in those ten bows, the long nosed heads of 1895 and the lovely heads of 1905 morphing into the wide and heavy heads of 1930. After discussing some repairs to be done on a Pajeot, he went on his way leaving me the bows for two weeks to study. I had asked him some questions on Sartory's early work some weeks earlier and this was his answer.

Stephane Thomachot and Jean Trible

Jean Trible, or 'Monsieur Trible' as we knew him, a Parisian bow collector and retired violinist in the national symphony, supported and inspired several generations of bow makers. It was Trible who left an incredible Persois at Stephane Thomachot's shop nearby on the Rue de Clignancourt. This bow completely changed our perception of how a frog could be shaped and soon I had radically changed my style on the inspiration of that one bow. And I was not the only one. Then there was his Tourte, 'le chat' with the clear marks of a cat's incisors on each side of the head! Monsieur Trible would show us a bow and get an impish look on his face; it was sure to be a fiendishly obscure maker to identify. But for him, bow making was an ongoing tradition and he commissioned a bow from each of us in the younger generation just as he had from Sartory, Lamy fils, Ouchard, Richaume, Millant and others. He was not without his quirks. He confided that since he hadn't the skills to work on his bows and yet wanting to be involved in their care, he would sit in the evenings and polish the tips of his bow's screws with a bit of emery paper. But his insistence on carrying a sizeable fortune in bows on the Metro without a case, often a number of Peccattes or Tourtes, was probably reasonable. The 18th arrondisement was relatively rough and a nice case might have been tempting to some.

I last saw Jean Trible in 2003 when Stephane Thomachot, Noel Burke and I had lunch with him. He was living in Normandy and with his health failing rarely made the trip to Paris. Two years later he had passed away, the end of an incredible link to the past. Not long ago we had a bow maker's session with Bernard Millant to hear his recollections of his early days in the trade and his apprenticeships in Mirecourt, where he both refined his violinmaking and also learned bow making with the Morizot family. He talked about the difficulties of starting his own violin shop in Paris across the street from his father and uncle, Max and Roger Millant. In those hard economic times shortly after the second world war, Millant was 23 years old and wondering where his direction lay when completely by chance Jean Trible stepped into his shop. Although I knew that the two were friends I was moved to learn that Trible had been a catalyst for Millant's passion for bows as well.

Jean Trible with Noel Burke

Friday, October 7, 2011


For a bow maker, the selection of the Pernambuco stick is the most important element in matching a bow to a player. Some time ago, the violinist Jan Mark Sloman and I started a dialogue and at the end of each telephone call or email I went to my store of sticks held in racks. Promising sticks were examined and in the end half a dozen sticks had his name penciled on them. When the time came to start work on his bow the first task was to decide on the right one. Sloman wanted a rich and dark underpinning to his Vuillaume's sound and I decided to use a wood of a somewhat lower density than the wood I usually use. He also wanted a bow that could respond to his entire repertoire and so finding these qualities through increased flexibility was not a good option. This stick had to be very strong so it could be taken down to fine diameters but I also wanted some complexities in the grain especially down near the frog. I found a great stick and began planing it out, fitting the tip plate, and mounting the frog. I pictured the process on this same bow in an earlier post called "ebouchage' or roughing out.

Unfortunately, at this point I began to question my original choice. The stick's response was slower than I had hoped for and I also wondered if the sound was going to be right. So the stick was put back in the rack and I selected another. But this stick did not reach expectations either. So I found a third stick that filled the original requirements of lower density, excellent strength and a complex grain structure. It also had a nice little pin knot just beyond the winding and came from my first trip to Brazil in 1984. In one of our conversations Jan had mentioned that his friend, the late Sergio Lucca, believed that most great bows had a pin knot. So this seemed like a good omen and I also agree that a tiny knot adds a certain nobility to a stick. As the stick took shape it felt good but it was even lighter than I expected and to give it the right level of resistance I made it about one tenth of a millimeter larger than I expected in some areas. My experimentations with light frogs that have no under-slide appear to create conditions for brilliance in the sound. Since this was not the direction we wanted to go I made a normal weight frog with silver under-slide.

In making a bow there is a period of polishing and varnishing when one has to control their impatience to know what a bow will really be like, especially in terms of sound. When the bow was finally completed and the hair received it's first rosin I played it for the first time and compared it to another bow with unlined frog I had in my shop. I knew the first bow had a rich and focused sound so I hoped the new one would exceed it in these qualities. Instead the new bow's sound seemed very broad but with a razor sharp definition or zing and a tooth to the sound not unlike a reed instrument. With my violin it was not possible to hear its full potential at the lower end but I began to doubt my original intuition for the stick. But the stick's playing qualities felt good and I was very curious to find out what Jan would think. To give him the same frame of reference I had experienced, I sent him both bows without indicating which bow was the new one. On the first day he wrote back saying "the unlined frog bow is fabulous for me...'. So I had to resign myself to the fact that I had failed in my stick selection after all, although not for lack of effort. At the end of a week however, Sloman came to the conclusion that the bow I had made for him really did bring out what he was looking for, a full, dark lower end combined with a 'sizzle' that gave the sound definition. And so goes a lifelong process of discovery; making a bow in response to an individual player and their instrument.

Friday, September 9, 2011


There is a tendency among players to equate very dark colored wood with high quality. Here it is easy to be misled. In fact superb wood comes in a broad palette ranging from yellow through red and light to deep brown. The grain structure that denotes great wood can occur in different colors and some of the finest bows of the early makers Tourte, Eury and Pajeot are made of light brown or blond wood. Wood of poor quality also can be light or dark in color although there is a typical light orange hue to some of the lesser grades.

I have planed and given a coat of varnish to some rough bow blanks and then photographed them to show this variation. It’s better to see the actual wood but at least the photos give an idea. The first photo shows two high quality sticks from Espirito Santo state in Brazil showing the variation in color ranging from yellow to brown. The second photo shows an outstanding piece of Espirito Santo wood below a very poor grade of pernambuco wood that is too light and weak for a quality bow.

The issue of wood color is further complicated by the fact that pernambuco wood has often been treated to color the surface a dark reddish brown. Among other things, the natural dye in the wood can be set by applying nitric acid, by exposing the stick to ammonia fumes or sometimes both. This was a standard practice from the mid-nineteenth to mid twentieth century and bows were uniformly treated this way whether of high or low quality. For example, bows by fine bowmakers like Lamy, Vigneron and Sartory were treated with nitric acid. The effect was only on the surface and apparently any harm it did to the wood was insignificant. James Tubbs used a process that turned his sticks nearly black.

Here is a close-up picture of two nice bows by Alfred Lamy, a violin and an octagonal viola bow dating to around the turn of the century. These bows were treated with nitric acid and the wood was probably naturally lighter in color.

During the last three decades the new generation of bow makers has usually chosen to make bows without darkening the wood. This is in part because these younger makers were willing to invest in wood of exceptional beauty and this encouraged dealers and millers of the wood in Brazil to locate the best qualities. It is simply unnecessary to treat beautiful pernambuco and doing so risks losing some of the wood’s transparency and purity of color. But sunlight brings up the color in a nice way as the ultraviolet rays oxidize the surface. So we often put our bows in the sun for a few hours or even put them under an ultraviolet lamp in the winter.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Now a stick is being planed down prior to putting in the camber or curve. This stage is called the ebauchage or roughing out. During the cambering the stick will be one or two millimeters over the final dimensions allowing the stick’s taper or graduations to be subsequently matched or tuned to the stick’s curve. A substantial amount of time selecting the right pernambuco stick has already been invested in this bow. The violinist this bow is destined for wants to emphasize the rich warm sound his Vuillaume violin is capable of. He also plays with a Dominique Peccatte which brings out a beautiful chocolaty sound but in this case he would like something with a bit more power. The basic level of strength players currently want in a bow is fairly high given the scope of today’s repertoire but it is a mistake to over-react to this fact to the detriment of sound quality. Flexibility will promote warmth in the sound here so it will be more advantageous to make a bow that is almost too flexible than one that is more resistant than necessary.

For this bow I have gravitated in the choice to a lighter brown stick with a honey-brown striping, not too dense but very strong. The fresh shavings are light colored and darken in a few days in the air and light. The grain also has a certain pattern of perturbations that I feel will help accent the lower frequencies without cutting out the violin’s upper frequency incisiveness. The height and mass of the head and frog are important elements as well. Here I’m making a decision regarding the stick and how it is shaped based on experience and intuition. I’m confident I can make a bow that plays to my client’s taste, it’s the bow's sound potential that is my biggest challenge as a bow maker. Creating a sound signature in a bow is not something we can do with technical accuracy and the wood has a voice of it’s own.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


As far as the way a bow performs and sounds there three things that represent the bow maker’s intentions and what he or she strives to achieve for a player and their instrument. They are the choice of wood, the graduations of the stick and the camber or curve of that stick. Two of those things are immutable. Certainly the choice of wood is fixed and it is highly unlikely the graduations will be changed although it would be possible to plane down a stick further.

But the camber or curve of the stick is put in place with heat and sensitive bending. If the stick is heated up again it is easy to change this curve. This puts every bow at risk if it falls into the hands of a repair person with a lack of respect for the maker’s intent and the belief they can ‘improve’ it according to their own theory of bow design. This type of individual is rarely capable of actually making bows, much less making them to an exacting player’s requirements. In addition an original camber is an even curve from one end of the stick to the other. To truly re-camber a bow would entail many hours of painstakingly correcting the curve every inch of the way while assuring that it stays straight; a very difficult task. So the repair person typically heats that bow up in a couple of spots and adds camber there resulting in ‘hard’ spots in the curve. In a few minutes the original maker’s concept for this bow is changed forever. To put it in perspective, in over 30 years of making and working with bows, I have never found it necessary to change another maker’s camber.

During the course of the 19th century in Paris where most of the bow’s evolution occurred, the way a bow was cambered evolved significantly and the way the stick was tapered or graduated evolved in a parallel course that complimented the changes in camber. Starting with Tourte the stick tapered quite evenly from frog to head and the camber was moderate especially towards the tip, which gave the stick flexibility there. This concept evolved slightly as the Peccatte school in the mid 19th century made the stick somewhat finer at the tip and added some camber to compensate. In the later half of the century Voirin’s ideas became more and more influential. Voirin believed that the bow should be as light as possible without losing stiffness and to achieve this he completely redesigned the bow. Voirin’s new bow had a lower frog and head, which put the hair under more tension. The stick started very fine at the frog and swelled out to maximum diameter just past the grip and maintained this large diameter past the middle. Then it tapered rapidly until it was exceptionally fine behind the head. To compensate for these graduations, the stick was relatively straight from the frog to the middle and then took a strong curve, which kept increasing up to the head. The Voirin bow when tightened stayed relatively stiff towards the head with a pronounced hook in the curve even when under tension. Voirin’s concept was adopted by Lamy, Sartory and the other makers working into the 20th century. These bows were exceptional off the string, with a bounce point relatively close to the frog, and suited the taste of the times admirably. At this time the idea that the perfect camber manifested plenty of curve at the tip was fixed.

Although the Voirin school of bow making enjoyed a great success, many of the finest players continued to use early 19th century sticks as they do up to this day. Bows by Tourte, Eury, Peccatte and their contemporaries continued to be highly valued because of their phenomenal sound potential and nuance. For this reason makers in the renaissance of bow making that began with Bernard Ouchard’s students in the early 80’s have usually chosen the earlier 19th century style. Nonetheless there persists a bias in favor of a decent amount of camber behind the head and relatively few makers actually use Tourte’s relatively flat camber despite its potential. But one thing is certain, the graduations and the camber of the best bow makers are always matched so the bow performs properly.

Not long ago a client of mine, the concertmaster of a major orchestra brought his bow back for a check. He had been breaking some hair. One look sufficed to see that the bow had been recambered, and recambered poorly. He told me that a bow repairer who worked for a well-known shop had convinced him the bow would be improved greatly if he could ‘adjust’ the camber. This consisted of adding some ‘Sartory’ style camber to the stick behind the head and in the meantime the bow was warped to the side. I was very thankful to have had an opportunity to restore the camber and my client was relieved to have his original bow back. This stick, a remarkable piece of wood and graduated in the spirit of the early 19th century was completely unmatched to Sartory’s type of camber. It is very important that players be aware of the risks involved in having adjustments made. There are very few bow restorers with the sophistication and understanding to make these adjustments. If the maker is still living the conscientious and knowledgeable restorer will recommend sending the bow back to the maker.

Bow are made of living material that is sensitive to humidity and other factors. Bows will occasionally warp somewhat in time, turning to the left or right or losing a bit of camber. A little loss of straightness is not necessarily a problem if the player is accustomed to the bow and it is also far better to have less camber than too much camber. If a bow feels good in the hand a player is not obliged to have corrections made. In general violin bows that turn slightly to the right and cello bows that turn slightly to the left actually compensate for the sideways force that occurs when the bow hair is inclined to the side. But if something must be done to correct the camber it is of great importance that the player entrust this correction to an expert. In the case of an early bow it is important the restorer be familiar with the cambering practices of the maker whether it be Peccatte or Sartory. Before making any corrections the restorer should trace a record of the existing camber so it can be recreated if need be.

A bow can be of use for 200 years or more and the owner of a fine bow is the guardian of that bow for future generations who may use it. The majority of damage to bows occurs during re-hair when all the delicate parts are exposed. But it is difficult to locate the best people to work on one’s bow. Even major shops have difficulty securing the best people because bow makers tend to be independent and establish their own shops. Many of the best restorers like David Orlin of Ann Arbor work in the peace of a smaller town and have all their work delivered by Fedex. Locating a member of the American Federation of Violin and Bow-makers is a good start for there are rigorous requirements for membership. However this is not a guarantee and some experts like Isaac Salchow or Christopher Dickson are not members. Players should definitely be open to sending their bow away if there is a lack of competent work in their area. The value of their investment is at stake not to mention an essential tool. There are also times when a player’s situation evolves and the bow that has been their standby is no longer quite appropriate. A player’s new violin may require a somewhat different stick or a different playing environment may change things. The client I mentioned earlier found that he was playing more aggressively after his appointment as concertmaster. It is important to understand that a bow is what it is and no adjustments to camber will make it something else. Violins can be adjusted quite significantly with different bridges, sound posts, strings and so on but it is far better to consider another bow than to think about changing an existing one.