By Patrick Sullivan

Mary Vanorny bought her first fine bow at age 16. The Minnesota fiddler has been making music for 30 years, often flying to Canada and Europe to play traditional Irish songs. And for more than a decade now, traveling abroad has meant leaving her best bow at home. “I always brought a backup bow—one I wouldn’t be devastated to lose,” Vanorny says.

Ivory was the problem. As national and international ivory rules aimed at curbing elephant poaching tightened, Vanorny worried about losing a beloved bow to a zealous customs official. For bow makers, that concern is a growing challenge. And it’s not limited to ivory, says New York bow maker Yung Chin, former president of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers.

“As all natural resources around the world are being put under pressure, these materials used in violin and bow making are being more scrutinized by various governmental agencies and NGOs,” Chin explains. “This is not going to go away.”

That’s why bow makers have launched an increasingly intensive search for alternatives to prohibited or controversial materials. And musicians are increasingly interested.

“I believe the general consensus is that while carbon-fiber bows seem to not generate as unique a sound, their general ease of playing, coupled with the guarantee that no customs agent will confiscate your bow, seems like a pretty attractive incentive to leave your expensive investment at home.” 

Ray Chen

Vanorny, for example, recently bought a “Le Voyageur” bow from Minnesota maker Matt Wehling. Sporting an ebony frog and a silver tip, the bow has no ivory—or any material that could be confused with restricted substances. “Matt’s bow is my primary bow now, and I absolutely adore it,” Vanorny says. “And being able to travel with it is wonderful.”

No bows have been permanently seized at the American border over ivory issues, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. But there have been hassles and confusion over the complex rules, and concern has built. Acclaimed soloist Ray Chen has noticed many orchestral players using obviously ivory-free bows on tour. “I believe the general consensus is that while carbon-fiber bows seem to not generate as unique a sound, their general ease of playing, coupled with the guarantee that no customs agent will confiscate your bow, seems like a pretty attractive incentive to leave your expensive investment at home,” Chen says.

Ivory aside, environmental concerns surround many traditional materials, including tortoiseshell, monitor-lizard skin, and pernambuco, the imperiled Brazilian tree that yields wood essential to bow making. Bow makers have reacted by supporting efforts like the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative. And they’ve also sought alternative materials—especially natural ones that preserve the handcrafted look and classic sound of a fine bow.

Many synthetics are available, of course. Faux whalebone has been used for decades, notes Michigan bow maker Douglas Raguse. But others haven’t stood the test of time. Some makers, for example, report problems with synthetic tortoiseshell, which apparently tends to break. “Also, synthetics don’t absorb moisture from the hand as do ebony and other woods,” Raguse says.

The search for alternatives doesn’t come easily in this traditional field, but Matt Wehling says it’s necessary. Wehling, winner of five gold medals from the Violin Society of America, began making serious use of alternative materials in 2013—and he says it wasn’t an easy process. “You have to be flexible, like a great bow,” he says. “And yet still have some strength to you.”

For “Le Voyageur,” Wehling uses a metal headplate or, sometimes, a synthetic alternative called “Tip Armor.” The frogs are typically ebony to avoid controversy over mother of pearl. And the grip is leather, not lizard skin. “My idea was, ‘Let’s make a bow that avoids any problems that can possibly be conceived of,’” he says.

The Voyageur bows have sold well, including to musicians in the two major orchestras in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. “It helps when I explain that Tourte made bows like this,” Wehling says. “It fits within a tradition of bow making.”

Still, some musicians aren’t onboard.

“People who are up for it are really up for it,” Wehling says. “But others aren’t ready to change what they’ve been dreaming of, and I don’t blame them.”

Makers of early-music bows have an advantage over modern makers, as Baroque bow maker Ralph Ashmead notes. Early bows were made from ironwood, African blackwood, and other species. Mountain mahogany is one of Ashmead’s favorites. Unrelated to real mahogany, it comes from a small tree in the Sierra Nevada mountains. “It can be harvested from recently dead but still standing trees and is denser than ebony, with very fine grain and a reddish-brown color that darkens with age,” says Ashmead.

Wehling says that some classical bow makers are experimenting with mountain mahogany and ironwood. But finding a true alternative to pernambuco for the stick has been tough. Certain species of Brazilian ipe may be the strongest possibilities, according to Chin. Ipe is a fast-growing wood, which could make it sustainable. Some musicians report that ipe bows deliver a rich sound, but not as much power.

Natural ivory alternatives are also elusive. Elephants face extinction largely because ivory has unique characteristics, including a fine, even grain that can be delicately carved. Fossil ivory from prehistoric mammoths and mastodons has been a popular alternative. But recently, driven by concerns that poached ivory is being disguised as fossil ivory, states like California have imposed tough new ivory rules that include fossils.

Some makers have experimented with elk horn. Others have tried cow bones, but Wehling says that’s problematic. “Cow is very brittle,” he says. One maker Wehling knows has been infusing bone with polyurethane, which apparently helps mimic ivory’s collagen. “But if you’re traveling, bone or horn can look too much like ivory to a customs inspector,” he notes.

The bottom line, many bow makers say, is that alternative approaches are gaining ground, but further innovation is critical. If ebony or pernambuco rules tighten, the craft would be in a tough spot. Still, Wehling sees reason for hope. Bow makers are tenacious, he says. They won’t dodge this challenge.

“Despite all the reasons not to go into bow making, people still do,” he says with a laugh. “You have to be pretty dedicated. I think we’ll figure this out.” 

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