Fetching the stick
The delicate art of commissioning a bow – and one or two tips on how to do it
By David Templeton
The modern stringed-instrument bow was more or less perfected in the first half of the 19th century. The basic elements in the construction of any bow-the stick, the frog, the head-are, as New York bow maker Michael Yeats describes them, "fundamental essentials" that remain constant, having already been fussed over and sorted out by the great bow makers of the 18th and 19th centuries. In other words, a bow is a bow is a bow.
There is only so much a person can do to a bow before it stops being a bow--and becomes something else. Something like a very expensive stick. That said, a modern bow maker with any breadth of experience can easily see, within the constricts of the bow's essential design, a thousand tiny variables that make each bow unique in sound and performance.
Whatever a player's reason for seeking a new bow, an experienced maker has the power to provide something that specifically matches each player's vastly varying desires. So, while some might say that a bow is a bow is a bow, it is also true that in the hands of a skilled maker, a bow can be made to fit an endless number of needs.
"Buying a violin bow is like buying a suit," says bow maker Matt Wehling, who won the 2002 Violin Society of America (VSA) gold medal for best violin bow and shared another gold medal for best cello bow. "Let's say you're hoping to get one off the rack. If you look long enough, and you have a good enough idea what you want and you can express that pretty well, and if you narrow down all the suit shops in town until you know which ones you can work with, then you can probably buy a suit off the rack that is a pretty good fit.
"But," he adds, "it's never going to fit as well or be as good as the suit you had tailored to your body. It's the same with buying a bow. It's a matter of having something made exactly to fit your needs as opposed to just hoping to find something that sort of happens to meet your needs."
A one-time chemist and former Irish fiddler (he now plays the mandolin), Wehling apprenticed for ten years in France, and runs a thriving bow shop in Northfield, Minnesota, 42 miles south of St. Paul. He has earned a reputation for crafting beautiful bows--the made-to-order kind as well as the off-the-rack variety--and has built an impressive worldwide client roster that includes the members of Kronos Quartet. With his current waiting list, it usually takes Wehling about two months to supply a client with a standard issue bow, and a bit longer for a commissioned one.
Where to start
Having established that commissioning a bow will usually result in a satisfying match of bow and player, what exactly can a player expect from the process of having a bow tailor-made to his or her needs? And how does one begin the process?
Naturally, you'll need to find a bow maker in the first place. You might start by contacting the VSA at www.vsa.to or the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM) www.afvbm.com. You'll also find listings for many bow makers in Strings' annual Buyer's Guide, available online at www.stringsmagazine.com.
The process proceeds with a lot of questions, on the part of the player and the maker. "There's a lot of work involved in having a bow made for you," admits Wehling. "You have to know what you want, which is not always the easiest thing, and you have to be able to communicate what you want, which can also be difficult."
When you commission a bow from an experienced maker then, long before the actual work begins, you can expect to spend a lot of time discussing music: What music do you play? How do you play your instrument? Do you play solo, in an orchestra, or in a small ensemble? The way you answer such questions will influence the end result. "I recently did a made-to-order bow for a cello player," Wehling recalls, "and she was very specific about the sort of projection she hoped to achieve for her orchestral needs, as opposed to what she expected from her chamber playing. So people need to be very specific about what they want to achieve."
Only then will talk turn toward the physical aspects of the bow itself: Which bows have you played? What did you like about them? What did you hate? Do you want a silver headplate or an ivory headplate? Whalebone, silk, or silver wrap? Gold mounted or silver?
As for the type of wood: Pernambuco is more than the standard, these makers say, it's the only game in town.
The price you pay for a made-to-order bow will vary from maker to maker, based on that maker's experience and reputation, the grade of wood and other materials used, and such requests as gold mounting, gold inlay, or other specific ornamentation. A reasonably new maker might charge $2,000, while a living legend--not hard to find, actually--might charge $5,000 or $6,000 and sometimes more. Wehling's price for a custom silver-mounted bow starts at around $2,800. For a bit extra, he'll stop just short of completing the job and have the buyer come to his shop and play their instrument with the nearly finished bow. Then he'll make whatever changes seem appropriate, either changing the camber or actually taking wood off the stick where needed.
"So," he says, "you truly are getting a tailor-made bow."