About my own bows

The thoughts behind my bows

I have been making bows for over 30 years now. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are good, but I have thought continuously about all the different aspects of bow making.

There are a lot of good bowmakers and everybody has his strong sides. My strength is that I have thought a lot about the reasons why I make them the way they are. Every bow is something like a child to me. ( That doesn’t mean that my real children are like bows, even though they seem to have strong characters too.)

For many years I tried to copy the old masters, but I was never really satisfied with them as copies. Then I found out that I was not even able to copy my own bows. It was Ivry Gitlis who told me that it was about time I did my own thing. Since then I no longer try to make copies. My own style is based on tradition, but I feel free to give my own interpretation.

Let’s start with baroque bows. My initial inspiration was a bow with a bird head made by  Joachim Tielke (1641-1724). At first I tried to copy it, but now I do my own abstraction. The general idea of a bird remains quite clearly in the head, the frog would be the wing and the button the tail.

Baroque birdhead

Baroque frog and button in snakewood

As an allegory of the bow and the instrument, you can think of a painting of Leda and the swan if you have a dirty mind. In baroque times they liked the subject.

A second important inspiration is J.S. Bach who had his own little mathematical games when he composed his music. You don’t need to know about them to enjoy Bach’s music, but the feel of a strong structure certainly comes through.

I see the bow as a piece of architecture where all proportions stand in a certain relation to each other. Also a piece by Bach you could see like that, his music is about structure and proportions.

I use the number 3 and its exponents in all my measurements. The number 3 is a holy number in Christian belief and is also used in music as a basic number. In baroque times probably even more than the number 4. Nothing against the number 4, but for my purpose 3 works better.

In a baroque viola bow, the head would be12mm high and 9mm wide, 45mm long with the beak 30mm. The whole stick is 69 cm, the button 30 mm and between 9 and 12 mm wide. The frog is 45 mm long and 12 mm wide, the distance between hair and stick is 18mm and the place of the screw also 18mm from the end of the frog. Even the mortise is 18mm long. You see that there is a lot of repetition.

You don’t notice that the head and the frog have the same length, but it somehow looks very natural. In music you have many repetitions too, sometimes as an inversion, so you don’t hear it as a repetition, but it sounds familiar and you get the impression that you can relate to the music, you understand it emotionally.

That is what I am looking for. There is an inner concept which is not obvious at first sight, but is somehow comforting the eye. For a couple of years I was pretty strict with my measurements, now I am not as precise with it anymore and the bows didn’t become uglier, I think. The reason is probably, that you look at a bow from different angles, so you don’t see the measurements as they are. The perspective alters it, makes it longer or shorter. Or the light that falls for example on the head of the bow makes you notice only the flat part where the light is reflected and not the real outlines, things like that.

In the old master bows, I have looked for repetitions of measurements and I found some, especially with Tourte but it was never a fixed rule. So I also relax a little, but the general idea is still there.

There are a lot of curved lines in a bow and I try to let them flow naturally. Every movement has a counter movement, which is a rule in baroque architecture and also in baroque music.

The way the bows were made in the past was always strongly influenced by the music of the time. J.S. Bach never saw a bow with a screw; people used clip-in bows. I make them too.

Clip-in frog turned (you see the hair going in the stick)

Clip-in frogs have a different sound and behaviour. They have only one tension that can’t be regulated and they curve up like a bow and arrow. Chords tend to come more easily and the instrument rings longer. This can be very attractive, but a modern player would have to adapt his technique considerably.

The following development was to make bows with a screw but no inside curve. The stick is straight without tension. These bows came after J.S. Bach’s death ( 1750). This type of bow feels soft and the reaction is a little slow, which makes a deep round sound. The idea is that the bow stays in the string; a high spiccato is rather difficult.

If you want a baroque bow that also bounces easily you need an inside curve. In fact they came in around 1770, however I call these bows “from Bach to Mozart”, because they cover more or less the whole period. You can use them with modern strings, even though gut strings are preferable.

I personally love gut strings and most of my bows combine well with them but I do respect a player’s choice to use other strings.

All my baroque bows are made from snakewood. Most baroque music was meant for the church or the nobility at court who could afford what was then a very expensive wood.

In the classical period the upcoming middle classes became the new audience. It was a time full of political and social change, from the French revolution and Napoleon to the forming of modern Europe. Classical bows differ quite radically from baroque bows. The most important aspects are the higher head and the choice of wood.

Hammerhead in ironwood (higher head, very round outline at the backside)

Many types of hardwood were used. I often use ironwood, but I also experiment, just as the bowmakers did then. In furniture making the style went from Rococo to Empire. Early examples of bows of this period had a hammerhead and a very delicate frog. Later they became more sober and clean. I prefer the more sober style, fluid lines, but simple and logical.

Classical music sounds best played on classical bows. It’s obvious really , but not many musicians actually do it. During Mozart’s lifetime they were standard, and in fact their use was still the norm in the time of Beethoven. They were particularly common in Vienna. With classical bows Beethoven sounds much lighter than it is often played.

Frog and button in ivory (a little tilted)

On a classical bow there is no silver or metal beside the screw. That already makes it lighter than a modern bow. Usually they have less curve, so if the bow is tightened the distance between the hair and the stick is quite high. That makes it difficult to press vertically on the string. You have to work more in a horizontal direction, which is something you need to do anyway if you want a good sound, even if it is technically challenging.

Playing a classical bow you should not be looking for pure volume in the same way as you would with a modern bow. What you loose in pure volume you probably get back as carrying power, because you produce a wider range of overtones.

When I make classical bows I use the same idea about proportions as with baroque bows.  Whereas in the baroque period the detail stands for itself, in the classical period it is part of a bigger idea.

My favourite maker of that time is Leonard Tourte, who made bows of stunning beauty and elegance.

The modern school of bow making is dominated by Francois Xavier Tourte. He was only 12 years younger than Leonhard, but already another generation. F.X. introduced the metal parts in bow making. I like his early period best. The tips are elongated ( swanheads ) and they are very light and soft. I make these types of bows and call them Gitlis bows, because Ivry Gitlis bought one. It makes me very proud that he put his Peccatte and Persois away and continues to play with my bow.

At this point I want to mention Gordan Nikolic too. We have spent many hours in my workshop together doing all kinds of experiments with my bows. He is a fantastic musician and has always pushed me forward to extend my limits. My development in the last 10 years I owe mainly to him.

When I make modern bows I like to offer a wide variety. My heart is more with the light bows, but I also make heavier types. The lighter ones are based on Tourte models, the heavy ones on Peccatte and lately I like Eury.

Modern frog and button with heelplate

Eury invented a wide heel plate on the frog which I copy. I don’t know of anyone else who does that and I wonder why. I think it is a very good idea which just got lost somewhere in history. I also use another idea that is not mine. Instead of a silver slide under the frog I use carbon fibre. It glues better to the ebony and is light and strong. Even if I am a little conservative I do believe that if a modern material offers a better solution, it should be used.

The Eury model has a distinctive head, where the upper facet of the stick continuous on the head. I like this idea very much and think it’s very logical.

Modern head from the front

When I begin a new bow I start out with a concept, an idea of what I want to achieve. Then I choose the wood that fits the concept. I have enough old wood, but every stick is different. I look at the density, the elasticity, the grain and the colour of the wood to judge the character. That way I build up an expectation, but there is always room for all kinds of surprises.

While I work on a bow, my intuition is building up on how far I can go in bringing out the full potential of the wood; and when I have to stop working on it. Actually that is one of the most difficult things : to know when you have to stop. Sometimes I’m not afraid of extremes; I have made a modern violin bow that weighs just 47 grams and a cello bow that weighs 95 grams. I personally think they are both great, but I haven’t sold them up to now.  Selling is nice, but it is not my highest priority. It makes me happy if a musician can make a step forward using my bow.

Usually a musician doesn’t look much at a bow, he just uses it. Looks are important, but the feel in your hand is what counts. I try to give my bows the same comfortable feel as an old bow, I round the edges, I hollow the frogs and avoid sharp corners.

Personally I prefer sound quality over a big volume. If the bow grabs the string well, you can go closer to the bridge and that way you can also make a lot of noise.  Most students can play very loud, but few of them are able to do a pianissimo. That doesn’t make sense nowadays. If you want to be loud, you can put a microphone on your fiddle and blow the ears off your public.

Lately I also prefer a slower attack or grip on the string. The fashion in modern making is to be crisp and fast, but you lose a lot of the lower overtones like that, and it is the lower overtones that really make the difference in sound. Old bows have a lot of them, and the great old master bows are still the non plus ultra of what most musicians wish to use. To get close to them is what I am aiming for.