By Patrick Sullivan
If you ask Ralph Ashmead what he’s learned in 33 years of making historic bows, he’s liable to laugh and give you a self-effacing reply. “I’ve learned they can always break,” he says. “Just had one snap on me the other day.” Luckily, Ashmead had only a day’s worth of work sunk into the project. “There was nothing visually wrong in the wood at all, but the way it broke made it clear there was a hidden flaw,” he explains. “It just completely fell apart. The ones with the most potential are always the ones that you have to watch.”
Frustration may come with the territory, but that has hardly held Ashmead back. Since making his first bow in 1983, the California craftsman has carved out a national reputation as one of a handful of truly exceptional makers of Baroque and transitional bows. These days, professional musicians buy most of Ashmead’s work. He’s made bows for well-known players like Jaap Schroder and Stanley Ritchie, and he’s just finished one for Scott Pingel, principal bassist in the San Francisco Symphony.
His clients also include schools, from the University of California to Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University—and he just sent another batch off to Juilliard.
The 60-year-old archetier makes the occasional modern bow, but the vast majority of the 40 or 50 bows he makes every year are Baroque and early Classical. That’s no accident. Ashmead got his start in the bow-making trade when he moved to San Francisco just as the Baroque movement was undergoing a resurgence led by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the San Francisco Early Music Society. “I was drawn to the early-music scene because of the variety and beauty of the craftsmanship,” Ashmead explains.
After studying classical guitar in college, he began making early stringed instruments. Then he found himself in a quandary. “I took some lessons on a gamba and didn’t have a bow,” he explains. So he bought the only book on bow making he could find and copied an existing model.
“It wasn’t a masterpiece,” he says with a laugh. “But it did the job.”
“With instruments, it’s a lot harder to [experiment]. You’ve got more time invested. If you’ve put two months into an instrument, you’re not likely to suddenly do some radical experiment.”
He brought to that first bow a vast amount of woodworking experience, including studying fine furniture making under James Krenov and helping to build a 70-foot schooner while attending college in North Carolina. “We took it down to the Caribbean and sailed it around for a few months,” he recalls. What really attracted Ashmead to Baroque bow making was the room for experimentation. He points to the incredible variety of approaches and materials used in historic bows on display in collections like the Ashmolean Museum.
“They can vary a lot, and that’s what’s so cool about them,” he says. “The communication between countries and makers obviously wasn’t nearly what it is now. These guys were making stuff in their own little bubbles.”
Bow making also lends itself to creativity because of the short timeframe. “I was able to experiment more, which I enjoy,” Ashmead says. “With instruments, it’s a lot harder to do that. You’ve got more time invested. If you’ve put two months into an instrument, you’re not likely to suddenly do some radical experiment.”
Indeed, Ashmead uses a wide variety of styles and materials. The shortest bow features a playing hair length of 20.5 inches, but they vary widely. “Almost every single model is a different length,” he explains. “I find with full-time Baroque players, the length isn’t as crucial as with modern bows because they tend to hold it where the balance is anyway.”
He’s made frogs out of everything from water buffalo horn to fossilized walrus bone to a muskox horn sent to him by his brother in Alaska. “The locals were allowed to hunt a certain number and he snagged a horn and sent it to me,” he says.
But it’s the wood that matters most: It can have a huge effect on the agility and playability of the stick and the sound it gets out of the instrument, and Ashmead works hard to understand what wood will best suit his musicians. “Based on the tonality of their instrument, I try to guess which wood will bring out the sound they’re looking for,” he says. “For transitional bows, I’ve been having more luck with the ironwood. For Baroque, African blackwood.”
But he also uses more exotic species. “Sometimes I have wood guys in South America who come up with some tree I’ve never heard of and send me a sample,” he says. “And sometimes it even works.”
He even cuts wood in his own backyard. Ashmead lives in Tuolumne County, California, on the edge of a canyon at the foot of the Sierras. Years ago he and his son began taking a handsaw up into the mountains, where they found mountain mahogany. “It’s no relation to real mahogany,” he explains. “It’s very, very dense—even denser than ebony—with a nice reddish tanish color. Works quite well. And it’s really hard to cut—hard as a rock.”
Ashmead is excited about the state of the Baroque music scene today. “There’s a pretty good surge right now, it seems like,” he says. “Judging from the schools that have early-music programs, I’d say it’s pretty healthy.” But he also notes how many of his fellow bow makers and luthiers have fallen away over the years. “The first Boston Early Music Festival I went to, there was a huge room with probably 100 makers,” he says. “You go now, and there’s just a little trickle of makers. It’s not the easiest way to make a living.”
Ashmead has stuck with it in part because he likes being his own boss. But his customers are his greatest inspiration. “I like meeting all these cool musicians from all over the world who are really talented,” he says. “And the fact that they appreciate what I do makes it worthwhile.”