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: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/the-real-price-of-gold-512591.html. 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.

Friday, July 29, 2011


I come back to this blog after a long hiatus due to my travels. Before leaving in early June I finished a viola bow for Toronto violist Ivan Ivanovich. The thought process for that bow was interesting and subsequent long email exchanges with Nicolas Cords, violist with the Brooklyn Rider quartet, reinforced an important dialogue on what a viola bow can be and what development of the form can be anticipated.

In Ivanovich’s case, he plays a 16 ¾ “ Greg Alf viola that he loves but he felt it needed to be paired with a bow that had plenty of power to drive the ‘C’ string. He also wanted the flexibility to explore the nuance and color his instrument was capable of. Here the challenge was to select a strong, resonant wood and camber the stick to match his playing style. In Ivanovich’s case he likes to play with the hair fairly close to the stick so there had to be enough camber to bring the hair to tension before it got too high. The important thing here was to apply exactly the right amount of camber to keep the hair reasonably supple at playing height. A hair band under too much tension would have compromised his violas sound potential. The bow had to have enough power without exceeding that level unnecessarily and the wood chosen could not be too heavy.

Finding the right balance of power and flexibility is of particular importance with the viola bow. Another viola bow, for British violist Helena Baillie, took advantage of her comfort playing with the hair up high. A similar wood was indicated but the camber could be different. Here she had the option of playing with a more relaxed hair band for certain repertoire but most importantly, the match was right for her instrument, a Zygmuntowicz.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Sarah Mnatzaganian of Aitchison & Mnatzaganian, the English cello specialists, asked me some questions for an article she is writing. ( She and her colleague Robin Aitchison, have organized a number of exhibits of contemporary cello bows.) Sarah’s questions have to do with the sound a bow generates on an instrument and they are good questions that nearly everyone wonders about.

Sarah: What makes bows sound so different?

Bows of course do not make sound themselves but they accentuate different ranges of an instrument’s potential sound spectrum as well as simply mobilizing more or less sound from the instrument. There are a number of elements contributing to the bow’s sound generating potential. First and foremost is the wood. The wood’s density, it’s grain structure, presence of perturbations in the grain, it’s stiffness and the quantity of extractives such as pigments and waxes in the wood can all effect the sound. Secondly there is the bow’s structure; it’s camber, it’s graduations or diameter from tip to butt, the height of frog and head, weight of frog and winding. Of course the qualities of the wood are reflected in the bow’s structure, strong wood will permit finer stick diameters for example. In addition the quality and quantity of hair has an effect. All these qualities of wood and structure are combined in an infinitely variable way in a given bow. The response of different instruments to this bow also varies, although certain qualities such as brilliance tend to be consistent.

Sarah: As a maker, how much control do you have over the sound of a bow during its manufacture? (for example, if a player asked for a bright sounding bow, would you be confident of fulfilling his/her request?)

As a maker one can definitely affect the bow’s sound generating potential. It helps greatly to have a stock of wood from one region that one comes to know over the years through trial and error. For instance when a stick from a particular board has certain qualities one can assume the sister sticks on the same board will be similar. Also one associates a certain look in the wood to a certain result. In the same way through experience one associates the mass of the frog or the amount and type of camber with a certain result. Brilliance in the sound can be achieved through choice of wood and other physical traits one puts in the bow.

Sarah: What makes the tone of some bows so much more interesting/complex in tone colour than others?

Richness or complexity of sound is a result of matching the right stick and the right dimensions. Once again we are beholden to the wood. There is always some magic to the overall sound signature a bow can produce; there is no simple formula and the maker is inevitably going to use their intuition as well as their knowledge. When players use poetic metaphors like ‘chocolatey’ or my favorite, ‘buttery’, the maker is going to mine all their experience to dig a stick out of their stocks that simply feels right in addition to having qualities that in their experience will produce the desired result. The instrument the bow is destined for is a large part of the equation as well.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Here is a recently completed cello bow shown in some earlier posts. It was made for Eric Jacobsen, a cellist based in Brooklyn, NY and member of the quartet, ‘Brooklyn Rider’. The completed bow weighs 79.9 grams with a winding of ‘argent sur soie’ or French tinsel.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


There doesn’t seem to be an established word for the part of the frog above the throat that sit behind the thumb so I’ll call it the thumb projection for lack of anything better. The thumb projection was always squared off by bow makers in the early to mid nineteenth century. In addition it was left with rather sharp angles because at that time, players often played with the hand further up the stick. By the time Voirin developed his distinctive light and rounded style in the later half of the 19th century the hand position had settled further back with the thumb up against the projection; I believe like it is today. Voirin completely rounded his thumb projection and Lamy, Sartory and everyone else followed suit.

Many players preferred the earlier sticks and adapted to having their thumb on the angular frog and in most cases the frogs had become a bit worn, softening the angles. They normally didn’t put their thumb right on top of the projection like you can do with a Voirin and instead set the thumb on the thumb-leather and against the projection. But everyone transitioning fro a Sartory to a Peccatte would have to make this adjustment.

When early in my career I moved from the classic late 19th century style to a style of bow rooted in the 1830’ies, I had to face the fact that leaving the thumb projection sharp would be uncomfortable for many of my clients. But rounding the projection as Voirin would have done on a frog like a Persois simply looks horrible and somewhat akin to grafting a camel’s head on a horse. I felt strongly that a stick that articulated in the early 19th century style should look appropriately in that style as well. I decided that the answer was a fine chamfer instead of simply rounding off the angle a bit. A chamfer has the effect of keeping lines looking crisp and often the eye forgets its there. Rounding the projection slightly would make it look like the frog was antiqued in one place. I remember showing the luther, Bernard Sabatier on the rue de Rome, my first bow with a chamfered thumb projection. He didn’t like it. In time though, no one noticed it and players adapted to it well. Since that time I have never had a player not adjust in a week or two.

Cellists are manipulating a bow much more strongly that any violinist and it has become common for players to ask for surgical tubing over the projection and thumb leather. Although it lacks in aesthetic appeal it protects the bow in an area that can become quite worn. A common repair to cello bows is to graft wood into the depression worn in the stick by the thumb just behind the thumb-leather.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Now the cello bow head is carved and polished until it is ready for varnishing. In this case our head is styled fairly robustly with the front of the head rounded into the stick. On the other hand, the ‘dessou-cou’ or curve from the back of the head into the stick is fairly angular. The tension between the two curves gives the head its look.

The head on a cello bow is quite different from the head on a corresponding violin bow by the same maker. Traditionally the cello head sweeps forward compared to the violin head’s vertical stance. But originally, when the modern bow was being developed by Francois Tourte and some of his contemporaries, the cello head was sometimes cut like an oversized violin head. The forward sweeping head became the norm for a two reasons. First the cello bow is under proportionally quite a bit more tension than the violin bow and the head must be very strong. Sweeping the head forward allowed the head to be lighter and finer by transferring some of the stress into the stick. Since the cello head had a tendency to look heavy and bulky, makers and musicians appreciated the more graceful look of the swept forward heads. In the early to mid 19th century violin bows were also occasionally made with a cello-like head. These are called swan heads or ‘col de cyne’ and have the back of the head rounded instead of defined with chamfers. Occasionally, several makers including Peccatte made cello bows in the ‘col de cyne’ pattern as well.

Through the course of the 19th century cello heads became lighter and finer. Francois Tourte’s heads typically sweep forward but they are angular with a strong hatchet-like look. With Voirin and Lamy the cello heads became very fine and rounded and in fact they push the limits of adequate strength. In other stylistic details, cello bow heads follow their violin counterparts in the way the tip or ‘bec’ is shaped and the chamfers or ‘chanfrein’ are cut. But there is one exception. The tip plate or base of the violin bow head curves upwards while the cello tip plate is nearly flat. This looks better with the larger scale of the cello head.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


At this stage the camber has been finalized and the stick, which has been octagonal up to this point is rounded. The taper of the stick and its curve or camber is critical to how the bow will play and sound. Because of the power needed to drive the large diameter cello strings the bow must be far more resistant than a violin bow. On the other hand there is an incredible range of expressivity to the cello’s sound and without flexibility the cellist cannot access this potential. Yet there is no consensus between bow makers as to what will work best and this is for good reason because there is no consensus between fine players either. I have measured bows belonging to a number of today’s great players and they vary in every way; weights ranging from 76 to 90 grams and widely ranging camber concepts and stick graduations.

The bow maker can approach commissions it two ways. One is to simply do what they think is best and the players who like these bows will buy them. The second to tailor the bow specifically to the player but in this case one inevitably has ideas on how to reach this goal. Although I’m in the later group, the solution is not to simply copy the bows a player has. If they want another bow its because they believe they can unlock more potential from their instrument or their technique with a different stick. It is possible that something quite different would be ideal for them if they can make the technical adjustment. They have no doubt tried certain bows belonging to colleaugues that they loved. If it was a well-known maker like Dominique Peccatte or Eugene Sartory, that gives us quite a bit of information up to a point because each of these maker’s work also varies considerably. In the end the maker has to make an intuitive call on the camber, stick selection and graduations or taper that he hopes will give his or her client all the power and potential for expression they need. There is a kaleidoscopic interchange of different elements that effect the hoped for outcome, a bow that joins both power and technical response with the flexibility to bring out the full spectrum of a cello’s sound.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


The cello bow progresses and the stick is getting planed down to rough dimensions. At this time the frog is fit on the stick so that we can adjust the stick with the frog in place.

Friday, April 15, 2011


The silver heel plate or ‘talon’ is about half a millimeter in thickness and it is fit in a shallow channel cut with knife and chisels to accommodate it. When the silver heel is fit and bent into place, the forward edge is squared perfectly straight across where the pearl slide must join it perfectly. Then it is glued and riveted with small silver pins.

At this point the dovetailed channel for the pearl slide is completed and the mortise and channel for the hair is cut freehand using different chisels. The pearl slide or ‘recouverment’ is then fit and trimmed so it fits perfectly on all sides. Finally the bottom of the frog and the heel is filed so all parts are flush with the ebony and smooth. The pins, which have been left proud, are filed off at this time and usually disappear. The pins on a new bow are tight and very difficult to see but over time the miniscule movements of the ebony frog due to changes in humidity rock the pins slightly. So in older bows the pins are usually noticeable.

The frog is now well advanced and all that remains is the underslide or ‘coulisse’ where the frog joins the stick. Here a silver lining is usually fit and pinned in place and a bronze eyelet screwed into place. At this point the frog is complete and ready to mount on the stick but the polishing will wait until the bow is nearly completed.


A cello bow is now in process and as with the violin bow we make the fog first. This is because the frog needs to ready to mount on the stick very early on in the process. Since I covered the frog making process in earlier posts I’ll only cover what is unique to a cello frog. The cello frog has a rounded heel or ‘talon’ so this necessitates a different approach in that area. The amount of curve or radius of the heel varies quite a bit between bow makers and in general the earlier 19th century bows have a bigger radius or are more rounded. There is an aesthetic and stylistic relationship between the curves of throat and the curve of the heel. Since the length of the flat area on the bottom of the frog determines the length of the pearl slide, the rounder heels have a shorter slide all things being equal. In this case our radius is relatively large. The tighter heel curve of late 19th century makers like Lamy was a bit easier to make and made possible a longer pearl slide since the flat area on the frog was longer.

Once the frogs heel is rounded we fit the eyes in the frog sides and in this case we are using a eye ringed with silver or ‘grain et cercle”. . To receive the ring, a narrow groove is cut with a special drill bit, which cuts the recess for the pearl eye at the same time. Each bow maker makes these bits themselves to the requirements of their taste and style. Francois Tourte was probably the first to make this type of eye and to begin with the ring was fairly heavy, getting finer during the course of the 19th century. To make this eye a thin strip of silver is cut, bent into a ring and soldered. It is then put on a tapered rod or mandrel and hammered to the correct diameter. It is then filed until it fits snugly into its groove. The pearl eye is filed to fit and glued into its recess followed by the ring, which is hammered lightly into place. When the glue is set, any silver sitting proud can be filed off flush with the sides and the eye is completed.

Friday, March 18, 2011


The frog illustrated in some previous posts has been mounted on a stick and the bow is nearly finished. This bow is for Antonio Anselmi, a violinist in Rome who is concertmaster of the I Musici chamber orchestra. The selection of the stick was critical for this bow as it always is for the bow maker. Anselmi plays on a late Amati with a Tourte weighing about 57 grams and he wants a soprano vocal quality to the sound. So the challenge was to find a stick with the right tonal potential of low to medium density wood. One such stick was found but ended up being set aside well into the process because intuitively it lacked too many other requisite characters. So a stick of very responsive wood of medium density was chosen and the projected weight raised slightly to 59 grams. The stick is quite powerful but much of this is placed in reserve through the cambering approach to give the stick flexibility. Several earlier bows I made with the same wood proved to have a pure, singing upper register.

In the picture you can see the unlined frog while the screw and evelet are lubricated. An unlined frog should not swing laterally on the stick as this can weaken the edges. So the frog is carefully adjusted for a snug fit. Finally the bow is measured and the camber recorded so I have the record of the bow and can duplicate aspects of it in future bows if need be. The diameter of the stick is measured in 12 places and also the height of the frog and head are noted.

Now the bow is photographed and the basic work is done. But the bow is not complete; it is now rosined and played for a day or two. If there are any final adjustments to be made to the camber they will be made before the bow is shipped.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Rehairing may be the most common work done on bows but it is not the easiest. Since the most delicate parts of a bow are open during rehair, both skill and care are necessary to avoid damage. It also requires a lot of experience to select the correct amount of hair and ensure that it is of even tension. There is also a wide range in hair quality and the conscientious rehairer will use only the best, which can easily cost three times as much as ordinary hair. The good rehair person is also checking over a bow to make sure no problems arise like a frog that becomes too loose or an eyelet that needs replacing. More serious problems like an enlarged screw hole can be brought to the attention of the player. That way the problem can be repaired before the bow becomes weakened.

In addition there are two basic methods of rehairing, one in which the hair is secured first in the head and the other where the hair is started in the frog. In France the hair is always started in the frog, which ensures that most of the work takes place with the frog mounted securely on the stick. When the hair is started in the head, the frog is loose and must be placed on an often ill-fitting jig to press in the wooden wedge that secures the hair. So while a competent person would no doubt do a good rehair with either method, I think the latter method is preferable, especially for a bow without a silver under-slide on the frog.

It’s rare for a bow to be damaged in general use and more damage occurs during rehair by poorly trained people. Although the frog is quite durable as long as it is securely mounted on the stick, it must of course be removed for rehairing. Then the under-slide or channel between the frog and stick is exposed as well as the knife-edged dovetail where the pearl slide fits. These edges are sharp and delicate, especially when there is no silver underslide. They are easily chipped of damaged. This makes the selection of a really competent and conscientious bow rehairer of importance. Too often in even well known shops the bow-person is under a lot of pressure and must work at top speed. It’s a very good idea to know the person rehairing your bow and their credentials. Every player is the guardian of their bow for it can be of use for generations of musicians.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


The last step on the frog before polishing is to cut the underslide channel or coulisse where the frog slides on the stick. This is done freehand with a narrow chisel. Normally when it is completed we stamp a piece of thin silver in a press and glue it into the channel. This strengthens the area.

In this case we are leaving the coulisse unlined as Tourte and his contemporaries did in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is for several reasons. For one thing we want to minimize the weight of this bow and the silver lining weighs nearly one gram. In addition we want the tonal effect created by a frog of the lowest possible mass. And lastly the unlined frog enhanced the style of this bow, which is rooted in the early 19th century. Contrary to some opinions, this frog is quite durable with one exception. When the bow is being rehaired the fine edges of the coulisse are exposed and easily chipped. This bow should only be rehaired by a craftsperson with the required experience.

The stick, which has already been cambered and planed down to oversized dimensions, is then planed to match the frog’s underslide in such a way that the frog is in exactly the same axis as the head. Then the mortise is cut and the stick drilled. Finally a hole is drilled for the eyelet. At this point I have outlined the whole process of making a bow starting about two months ago. So rather than repeat myself I’ll cover the following steps in more general terms and write more on other areas of importance to bowmaking. Anyone who would like to know more can go back to the earlier posts.

Monday, February 21, 2011

RECOUVREMENT or the pearl slide.

This blog has been in existence for about two months. Its proving to be hard to post regularly especially during times like last week when I’m traveling. I think once or twice a week is possible.

Before cutting the coulisse and fitting the heel, a piece of shell is cut into a rectangle and glued to a strip of ebony. Now it is ready to fit by filing an angle or dovetail on each side and gradually bringing it down until it slides in snugly against the heel. The coulisse or channel is slightly tapered which ensures a tight fit. It would not be good for the hair underneath to push the slide up. Then the other end is trimmed carefully until the ferrule can slide back on and fit tightly against the shell. But the ebony strip underneath continues on under the ferrule to prevent the slide from lifting.

This particular piece of nacre or shell is very beautiful but for some optical reason it’s difficult to record this in a photograph. When the pearl slide is fit the frog is nearly finished and only the under-slide where the frog fits on the stick remains to be done. Since the stick hasn’t been chosen I will put the frog aside for now and think further about the bow and the choice of wood.

Friday, February 11, 2011


The pearl slide slides into a dovetailed slot called the coulisse at the end of which the silver heel is glued and pinned. Techniques passed on for generations allow this to be done freehand with great accuracy using two chisels. The pearl slide is made of a thin abalone sheet glued to a strip of ebony. Originally the small silver heel was also attached to this ebony strip and formed a joint with the larger silver heel running down the back of the frog.

But later both parts of the heel or 'talon' were glued and pinned together leaving the pearl slide independent. The heels are pinned by drilling a fine hole through the silver and into the ebony. Then a piece of silver wire is filed to fit and riveted with a small hammer.

Under the pearl slide, another channel leading to a mortise is cut to accommodate the hair, which will be secured with a wooden wedge.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


The open flanks of the frog on the early bows probably piqued the human desire to ornament things, sometimes to excess. So eyes and other inlaid ornaments were soon common on the frog sides. Tourte, once again with all his creative intelligence, is most likely the first to make the silver rings around pearl eyes. But some of his most beautiful bows are without eyes or even a pearl recouverment or slide. But the simple pearl eye is found on the greater majority of bows from every tradition.

Later in the 19th century, eyes were often surrounded by silver rings, but in this case, stylistic convention required that the button be plain silver with no ebony showing. This may well have started with Voirin and certainly Lamy used that rule. Vigneron is also a good example and Sartory followed this style with the exception of the bows he made his friend Emile Germain, the luthier. These were without eyes and stamped with Germain’s name. Although I have always avoided trading in old bows, I once had a visit to my Seattle shop from a violin shop owner with one of these bow’s in hand. He asked my opinion and I told him it was a Sartory. He later confided that he was afraid to sell it as a Sartory because its authenticity could be questioned. So he wondered if I would buy it as an unknown entity. I took it to Paris on my next trip and sold it immediately because the bows were well known there. On the other hand, gold mounted bows in this period most always had a button showing two gold rings.

To put eyes on a frog we drill a very shallow hole in the frog using a special bit we make ourselves. Then a piece of pearl is filed round to fit tightly. This is glued in place and after the glue sets any excess pearl is filed flush. Traditionally the eyes are cut out in little squares with a saw and the corners are filed or clipped off making an octagon. Then the eye is filed round and fit. This can be done much faster and accurately than one might think. However today makers often use a lathe to cut out the little eyes. Interestingly, the hand fit eyes look livelier because they are almost imperceptibly out of round.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


The pearl-shell or nacre has long been used to decorate bows, certainly since the time of Tourte. This was normally Abalone; species in the genus Haliotis that are found throughout the world. In the early 19th century an abalone found along the coast of Brittany known as Ormeau (Haliotis tuberculata) was used but the shells were small and curved requiring much labor to make a pearl slide. This was the typical recouverment or slide still to be seen on an original Peccatte with very tight and brilliant waves. This shell is still available for restoration work.

Around the mid 19th century, a lady of a certain class was obliged to carry a fan with which dispel harsh odors in the streets or strike boorish gentleman. Fans made of delicate Abalone pearl strips were much in vogue and this Abalone came from the Far East, no doubt creating a trade in the shells. Bowmakers soon adopted this material for its beautiful hues and its use continues to this day. Delaruelle, an intrepid supplier of tools and materials to the luthiers and archetiers around Paris during the 80ies discovered a cache of this shell dating to the 19th century. For quite some time we were able to buy parts of abalone shell fans from him. He continued to supply the trade with shell until his untimely passing a few years ago.

Although the normal shell is a bluish green with some pink striping, some shells are a blaze of red and gold, the colors boiling and bubbling to the surface.