By David Templeton | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
To a musician, the idea of a custom-made instrument or bow is nothing new. Some players have commissioned custom-made cello cases or even a custom-made violin stand. But custom-made rosin? That sticky, friction-developing substance that players apply to their bows to produce the desired quality of vibration?
Isn’t rosin just… rosin?
The strings trade is a field of great variety—there are so many roles, passions, and stories. Tales Of The Trade shines a spotlight on the trade and the people involved in the art of the instrument.
For Andrew Baker, founder of Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin in New South Wales, Australia, rosin very definitely can be tailor-made to the specific needs of a player, and the process usually begins with an email from a musician, or perhaps a quick phone call. “The first thing we do is ask about their playing, ask about what kind of music they perform, what sound and response characteristics they wish to improve or enhance or change on their instruments,” says Baker, speaking on Zoom from his home on a farm where chickens and horses often appear in the yard. “Generally,” he says, “from the answers we get, we come to understand something that helps us create a rosin that fits that player’s specific needs and preferences.”
The primary products of the Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin operation are its Supple and Crisp blends, both made from pine resin and a number of other ingredients. The Supple blend, as described by Baker, produces a warm, soft sound, providing steady, “velvety” traction and a “sharp attack” on the string. The Crisp blend has a glassier texture, creating firmer traction that provides a “decisive attack” on the string, resulting in a clean, bright sound.
“Generally speaking,” says Baker, “our custom recipes are some blend of those two rosins. If someone says, ‘I’m a soloist, so I need as much projection and clarity as possible, and I’ve been using your Crisp recipe but it’s not quite there for me,’ what we can do is take that recipe and alter it a bit. We can increase the attack on the string to make it vibrate more or change some of the ingredients to give it more power.”
Once he had developed a recipe he liked, he soon discovered that what worked well for one of his instruments was not as successful on another.
The possibilities are as legion as a musician’s unique requirements, Baker points out. Perhaps the client is a Celtic fiddler who plays up close to a microphone and hopes to reduce the surface noise going out through the sound system.
“We can adjust, maybe put more Supple in the recipe,” he suggests, “which gives it better traction on sustained bowing and reduces the surface noise. There are all sorts of levers and pulleys we can alter and change to deliver a rosin that fits the needs of a player.”
For players accustomed to making do with whatever rosin the local music store sells, this personalized approach can be a gamechanger. “I could be wrong, but I can’t remember a time in the last couple of years when we got it wrong,” Baker says. “We take the time to find out what their needs are, and most people are pretty happy with what we send them.”
Baker is a violinist himself, having been a teacher and performer most of his life. He playfully defines himself as “a total rosin and accessory geek.” After growing tired of dropping and breaking his rosin, requiring him to go to the store to buy another, he began experimenting with making his own. That was in 2012. Once he had developed a recipe he liked, he soon discovered that what worked well for one of his instruments was not as successful on another.
“That’s when I came up with the idea of customizing recipes to suit an individual’s needs,” he says. “So it wasn’t one of those, ‘Hey! I’m going to start a business’ things, but more of a ‘I’m going to do this as a hobby and have a bit of fun’ thing.” As a company, Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin was officially formed in 2014, and began marketing its products in 2016. “Since then, it’s done well,” Baker admits, “and so my little hobby has more or less turned itself into a business, and this is what I do full-time now, with a team of five people.”
Though he no longer teaches, he does still perform, and serves as the conductor of the semi-professional Colour City Chamber Orchestra based in the city of Orange.
For Baker, high among the rewards he’s found through designing high-quality rosins for other string players is the opportunity to engage with the string community in a deeper way than he always had, helping people enhance their own experience of playing. He regularly meets musicians from all over the world, discussing their playing at the most detailed and intimate level.
Along the way, he’s learned things that surprise him. For example, he’s discovered over the last several years that the right rosin is often the one a client might not expect—especially at the extreme ends of the spectrum. “We’ve had clients who play on Strads or Guarneris,” Baker explains, “and generally they have so much power and projection in them already that we suggest one of our warmer blends, more on the Supple side, because that enhances depth and warmth and sound color. Likewise, if I have a client who says their daughter is five and has a quarter-sized instrument, we’d suggest our Crisp recipe, because it minimizes the scratchiness in the sound and just enhances the brightness.”
Among the challenges of running a company like Bespoke is addressing the needs of the environment, a goal that Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin takes very seriously. “The environmental impact of rosin itself, globally, is admittedly pretty small,” Baker allows. “It’s a niche market, and pine resin itself is biodegradable and probably relatively environmentally friendly. But what we do is we create our products in a way that makes a statement about being conscious, environmentally.”
According to Baker, the worst, least environmentally friendly elements in most rosins are the plastic packaging materials, and the synthetic nylon elements in the casings they often come in. “Plastic doesn’t bio-degrade,” he says, “and there’s already too much plastic in our oceans, so we wanted to try to create something where the entire product, from beginning to end, is recyclable or biodegradable.”
Most of Baker’s products, true to the company’s name, are packaged in leather and wood. They come in elegantly designed packaging using ethically sourced Australian deer leather—acquired from a venison farm not far from Leatherwood Bespoke—and with rosin casings made of “Australian craft timbers” including rosewood, Huon pine, Queensland maple, and Tasmanian myrtle. Baker offers vegan alternatives as well.
“I’m proud to have created something that, at every stage and with every material used, can be recycled or thrown away, and it will biodegrade and leave no trace, which is our goal,” he says. In keeping with this objective, the company has set itself the goal of becoming 100-percent carbon neutral by 2023. “In Australia, there is a process to becoming carbon negative or carbon neutral, and the last time I checked, only 32 companies in Australia have achieved it. The first step is to have our eco-friendly products certified as carbon neutral. But we want to do that for the whole company, from the way we source our ingredients to the way we recycle our waste from rosin making to transitioning to all solar power. We think it will take about a year to complete that process.”
They are already well on their way.
“The amount of waste our company produces,” he admits, “is actually a lot less than what our family produces in any given month.”
“One of the messages I like to tell musicians is, ‘Do take rosin seriously,’” Baker says. “There are a lot of people out there who think, ‘It doesn’t matter which rosin I use. I just use it because I have to use it.’ But it is important so do think about it carefully. Try different rosins and see how they affect your sound, because I believe it’s just as important as strings or soundposts or the type of bow you’re using—or all of those other things that have an impact on your sound, your playing, and your enjoyment of making music.”