Harvard Square Bow Maker Practices Rare Craft
By Jamie Bologna
BU News Service
Until the 18th century, a coastal section of the Atlantic Forest of Brazil—from Natal on the easternmost point south to just north of Rio in Vitória—featured an abundant number of Caesalpinia echinata trees. Known more commonly as Pernambuco—sharing its name with the Pernambuco state in Brazil—the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative says the trees only grow in this special area and deforestation of the Brazilian rainforests since the days of Christopher Columbus has shrunk its habitat to less than 5 percent of its original range. The tree can grow to a height of 65 feet, features spotty gray bark, and according to the Smithsonian Magazine, is so short in supply that wood dealers must trek hours deep into the coastal rainforest just to find one or two mature trunks.
Pernambuco’s use in history, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, is one that is intimately tied with Brazil’s—also known as “pau-brasil,” meaning “red wood” in Portuguese, the wood’s ruddy-colored center was used in the colonial era as a dye in Europe. For a time, the tree was the top export back to Portugal, and the colony eventually adopted its name from the wood—Brazil.
In the 1770s, according to Edward Heron-Allen in his book Violin-Making: As It Was and Is, French clockmaker Francis Tourte entered the world of archetiers—bow makers—and changed it forever. Tourte responded to the demands of Parisian musicians who desired a bow to glide across the strings of their instruments that could produce sounds that would better complement the human voice. The inventor of what is today known as the modern string instrument bow, Tourte tried a variety of woods—including wood from used sugar barrels, according to Heron-Allen—until he settled on Pernambuco, because it possesses the right stiffness-to-weight ratio.
Prior to Tourte’s bow design, bow makers produced bows of a more classical form, making the Baroque-style bows into the 1750s. Modern bows feature the same basic shape, a long stick with horsehair strung from one end to the other, resting on a wedge known as the frog. In Baroque bows, the frog is made of a separate piece of wood and the tension of the hair holds the three elements together. One of the benefits of the modern bow, with its more complicated frog and screw at the end, is the ability to make the horsehair tighter or looser by adjusting the screw, explained BU Associate Professor of Music Bayla Keyes in her studio. The player can make adjustments depending on the temperature of the room, the humidity of the climate, and the style of the music.
Why use a Baroque style bow over a modern bow today? “If we want to have an idea of what Bach might have heard, then we’ll try to use the original instruments,” said David Hawthorne, an American bow maker based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
According to Hawthorne, these are the two woods he prefers to use—snakewood for Baroque bows and Pernambuco for modern bows. On a Tuesday in December, he explained that the snakewood he was whittling came from the rainforests of Suriname, a small former Dutch colony facing the Atlantic to the north of Brazil and to the east of Guyana. Hawthorne didn’t personally get the wood there, he bought it from a dealer of exotic wood based in California, but he did buy some of his very own Pernambuco years ago from Brazil. Snakewood is best for Baroque bows, said Hawthorne, because it is exact type of timber used by European bow makers in the 17th century.
Hawthorne is 54 years old. He taught himself how to make crude wood instruments as a kid. Eventually he made guitars, during that adolescent time when he “thought violin playing wasn’t cool, so I learned how to play guitar.” With his proclivity for woodworking, it might have made sense, he said, to attend violin-making school, “But it never occurred to me and perhaps my parents wouldn’t have considered it.” He attended music school instead, while still making wood instruments as a hobby. At 18, in 1979, someone suggested the enterprising instrument maker try a workshop with the bow maker William Salchow, “the best bow maker in the United States at the time.” The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers lists 43 full-time U.S. bow makers on their website. Salchow, who continues to make bows and is based in Golden’s Bridge, New York, was the teacher and inspiration for many of today’s American bow makers, said Hawthorne.
Hawthorne worked for Reuning & Son Violins through the 1990s, before leaving in the early 2000s to start his own shop. Before Reuning, he worked at Boston String Instruments doing maintenance and repair on violins and bows. In his career he estimates he has re-haired more than 10,000 bows. At his shop he makes about 15 Baroque bows and 15 modern bows a year.
“You could do this job anywhere. I could live on the Isle of Rhodes, which is a nice idea. I could be a bow maker there but I’d never meet any good musicians there, because there’s no big orchestra there, people wouldn’t go there to see the bow maker, they’re there to eat octopus and go to the beach,” he said. “If you’re somebody who wants to do high-quality work and you want to see good stuff, you live in a city where there’s a good orchestra and a lot of musicians.”
Hawthorne’s studio is a small, three-room space across the hall from the offices of “Dewey, Cheetham, & Howe,” the playful name of NPR’s Cartalk business office. The studio is two stories above the Curious George toy store, marketed as the only one on Earth, at the corner of Brattle Street and John F Kennedy Street in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. Cork flooring, to protect the precious woods from accidental falls, covers each of the three rooms. The largest of the rooms, where Hawthorne made himself a mug of tea at a kitchenette area, also serves as a welcome area for customers and features at a small table, a place for his daughter to do her Spanish homework. His actual workspace—a room to the right of the entrance room, probably no larger than 10 feet by 7 feet—has one window overlooking Harvard Square, a tall woodworker’s table littered with various tools and pieces of wood filings, and a red patent leather stool with a short back to support him as he leans over his work.
The piece of snakewood in Hawthorne’s hands, starting as a long and thin rectangular piece cut roughly into the shape of a bow offsite with an band saw, will sell for about $2000 once finished. In his initial stages of crafting, the stick of spotted wood—it resembles snakeskin, from which its name derives—looked like a crude magic wand from a Harry Potter film; not quite smooth yet, but starting to take the shape.
He studied a laminated sheet of paper, a template with the exact dimensions of the bow he is carving. He was making, in fact, an “almost exact” replica of a bow made in 1680. He said it wasn’t a famous bow, or at least not famous enough to be compared to and identified with the style of the famous bow makers of the time. As Tourte’s bow came into fashion, the Baroque style of bows fell from grace and few from the transitional years were preserved. He estimates that hundreds of bows of this model were made in the 1600s, most of which are now lost. After 1700, bow makers would stamp their work, but the bow he is replicating lacked any sort of identifying marker.
He measured the stick at various points, using the same Vernier caliper—an extremely precise measuring tool—he had used when sketching the dimensions of the original French bow. The Baroque bow consists of three simple components—a carved piece of snakewood, a frog made of Pernambuco, and horsehair, said Hawthorne. Very little else goes into the making of the bow—no pieces of ivory or mother of pearl ornamental inlays which adorn some modern bows; just wood and hair. As he told me about the original French bow, his hands worked on the stick, scraping a small plane along the grain of the snakewood, curling shards of it off and flaking onto his black apron. His immediate work area was lit both by the fall sun, which slowly set outside the window, and a floating arm lamp anchored to the back of the worktable. Hanging on the wall behind the worktable, directly in front of Hawthorne, and on the back of the table itself was a variety of tools—rows of little wooden hammers and mallets, coping saws, flat files, long files, skinny files that come to an almost sharp point, and at least 10 drill bits.
While working, Hawthorne wore steel-rimmed glasses, as well as a headband magnifier, essentially two round lenses attached to an elastic band, to better see the wood he was planing. The stick started as a rectangle, and Hawthorne, over the course of two hours, planed it down to an octagonal shape. Then, with a smaller plane, he proceeded to plane it into 16 sides, tapered from thicker at one end, thinning down to the head at the other. To the untrained eye, at this stage, the snakewood looked almost round, but there was still much to be done.
He stores some of his tools in cigar boxes, including the various grit sizes of sandpaper imported from Germany. The original French bow might have been sanded smooth using volcanic pumice, but this dense stick—a test Hawthorne uses to see if the wood is dense enough to make a good bow is to see if it sinks in water—was sanded first with different types of files, then by progressively more fine sheets of sandpaper. He started with a fine 180 grit, progressing to 220, 320, 800, 1200, and finishing with an ultra fine 1500. Using super fast hand motions, sliding the paper up and down with the grain of the snakewood, he polished it to a point where it shined without varnish or polish.
The tension of the horsehair—a material that Hawthorne says they have not been able to replicate synthetically and he buys from a British company—holds the two pieces of wood together, the Pernambuco frog and the snakewood stick. “There’s no glue in this, just a couple of pieces of wood,” he said. The bow is exactly 58.5 centimeters long, and felt heavy in the hand. There’s a small notch on the head, and a larger notch on the other end; he’ll string the hair from the head to the frog Pernambuco piece tomorrow. One of the final steps is to stamp his name—“Hawthorne.” The period included—and a number into the stick, on a spot right above the frog, with a weight heated by the blue flame of a hand-held blowtorch. This particular bow, numbered 924, was his 124th numbered replica of the 1680 French bow. After a quick rubdown with Everclear alcohol, a coat of Watco Danish oil, Hawthorne placed the stick into an ultraviolet light box to dry overnight. It would be ready, he said, for the customer’s use the next day.
Bayla Keyes, BU Associate Professor of Music, Violin, owns one of David Hawthorne’s gold-mounted modern bows. Her father was a composer and her mother a pianist—her bed as a child was under the piano. “Since they were both very good pianists, I didn’t like being the worst player in the house, so I started studying the violin,” said Keyes in her Boston University studio, at the end of a long hallway in the College of Fine Arts. After graduating from music school, Keyes founded the Muir String Quartet, with classmates of hers, touring the world for 16 years. She left the Muir Quartet in 1996 and joined BU teaching.
On the afternoon I met her, Keyes had played in a lunchtime concert—before a room of about 15 students. The quartet, which was played by Keyes and three of her students, was written by the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz in 1964 and featured movements of various tempos—the first, fast and almost spooky sounding; the second, slow and melancholy; and the third, intense and upbeat. The four women pulled their modern bows across the strings of their violins, their heads bobbing up and down to the tempo of the music.
“My father used to say the violin is the closest sound to the human voice,” she said. “I think that’s true—it’s so versatile.” In fact, Keyes believes the violin has a dual nature.
“It can, and quite often does, represent the angelic, the greatest aspirations of humankind; everything pure and noble,” she said. “But it belongs equally to the Devil—there are all kinds of musical pieces where the Devil uses the violin to try to seduce a soul.”
And if money truly is the root of all evil, then perhaps the violin does belong to the Devil. According to The Economist, the most expensive violin in the world, an 18th century Italian violin, was sold last year to an anonymous buyer for $16 million. In the most recent economic downturn, instrument prices didn’t waver for a moment. In October of this year, according to CNN, one of the violins played on the deck of the sinking Titanic was sold for $1.7 million. And the violin Keyes played on during her midday concert last week? She bought that violin, made in 1740 in Italy by the Gagliano, for $350,000 from a dealer in Chicago. “We bought the violin instead of a house, when we were first married,” she said with a laugh. “My husband wanted to build an extension on it so we would at least have someplace to sleep.”
“It’s very difficult for young string players to afford these instruments,” she said. “But a modern instrument is considerably less—you can get a good modern violin for $30,000, which is still a significant chunk of change.”
Hawthorne compared the expensive violin and violin bow market to the art market. He said some 19th century French bows can cost between $50,000 and $80,000. “Why is a Picasso painting worth so much?” he asked. “It’s because art dealers and rich people agree that a genuine Picasso or Van Gogh is worth a certain amount. It’s irrefutable that those artists occupy a place in history, they were pioneers, there is something really resonant with seeing the actual thing.”
“That’s true of old bows too—bows made by famous people and played by famous people,” Hawthorne said. “But I’m a little bit irritated at the super high prices all these things have achieved.”
“Boston Symphony Orchestra players can afford a $20,000 bow and a $300,000 violin,” he continued. “In normal cases, with a good, normal job, let’s say you get paid $100,000 a year, then you might buy a house and a car and save up to send your kids to college, but you don’t have to buy a $300,000 violin to work.”
As he sanded the head of the snakewood bow he was making he said, “Yes, they’re very expensive, but at the same time in a parallel world, they’re just pieces of wood.”