By Cliff Hall | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
What is the perfect bow? Though most string players have a general awareness that the bow is a fundamental part of their sound, how it functions and therefore how it is made is somewhat shrouded in mystery. But before we can identify what the ideal bow is, we’ll need to hop aboard the Magic School Bus back to elementary school.
“To the violinist, a good fiddle without a good bow is like Hamlet, with Hamlet left out. It may surprise the reader to learn that a good first-class bow is much more difficult to obtain than a first-class violin. To the artist, the perfect bow means everything.”
—Lyon & Healy’s 1896 Catalogue of Their Collection of Rare Old Violins
Remember levers? Those rigid bars placed on a fulcrum to move a heavy rock—the simple machine whose importance your third-grade science teacher tried to impress upon you? Well, the violin bow is a lever, too, but just not that kind. That would be a first-class lever, which is a force multiplier. No, the bow is a third-class lever, like a tennis racket or a golf club.
Third-class levers are mechanically inefficient (read: you have to put more work into them than you get out of them), but their main advantage is that they are a velocity multiplier. That means you can move the string a longer distance than you move the bow on the string, with the thumb and middle finger serving as the fulcrum. And what do you get out of this? Speed and, when combined with the right amount of natural arm and bow weight, pressure. In biomechanical terms, the bow functions as only one part of a complex kinetic chain.
Tennis players typically are always looking to generate effortless power and a racquet that facilitates that. Since work is a measure of the racquet’s power, the less work the player has to create, the more powerful the racquet. For more than 20 years, Matt Wehling, a bow maker out of Northfield, Minnesota, has been making high-end bows that help players minimize their effort (while maximizing their power) and color their tone. This process, not surprisingly, often starts with the player.
“One of the absolute most important parts in making a bow is choosing the right piece of wood for the client. So before you can choose the wood for the client, you have to get to know the client well,” says Wehling. “What is their repertoire? Where are they at professionally, or perhaps they are a good amateur player? A person who is just getting out of a conservatory is going to have very, very different needs than someone who’s been in an orchestra for 20 years.”
What information is Wehling looking for at this point?
“The ‘aha!’ moment could be absolutely anything. But some of the variables I’m interested in are balance, strength, and overall finished weight,” says Wehling. “But balance is what I personally think is more important than weight.”
After an initial conversation, he sends the client one of his finished bows so they can tell him how their ideal differs from the demonstration bow. The next step is invariably picking out the right piece of pernambuco—the Brazilian wood that has served as the standard for good bows for centuries and, although carbon fiber and less expensive brazilwood are available options, the only kind of wood he’ll use. What stick he picks (which has been cut to that form and seasoned for at least 15 years) is based on information like where on the bow the client likes to perform spiccato passages and where they like their balance point. It’s at this stage when Wehling lets the stick do some talking.
“You’re always letting the wood be what it wants to be rather than imparting your own will,” says Wehling. “Once I have a really good idea of what I’m going to make with someone, I will rough out and bend the initial stick. And then I’ll let that sit for a couple of weeks. I’ll drill the end hole and let that sit for three or four weeks.”
Turning away from the stick for a bit, Wehling brings his attention to constructing the frog and the button. Both are made of ebony, and Wehling does the metal work for the button as well. As he roughs out a basic shape for the frog, he has a very precise goal in mind as he goes through the process that many makers often skip.
“One of the things you see in older bows is that they were made incredibly quickly. The parts don’t fit nearly as well once the wood has settled,” says Wehling. “So I’m trying to eliminate that from the process so that this is going to be a good, stable bow for someone for generations to come.”
The next step is for Wehling to start meticulously dialing in the balance of the bow, which is what distinguishes a good bow from a great one. Violinist David Garrett recognized this difference in his book If You Only Knew: Autobiography when he wrote that François Tourte (1747–1835) “was able to create perfectly balanced bows that were more pleasant and effortless to use.” Known as the Stradivari of the bow, Tourte revolutionized bow design, and his changes have since become the standard way to squeeze every modicum of efficiency out of what is essentially an inefficient simple machine. But some of Tourte’s techniques proved very difficult to reproduce.
In 1856, Belgian musicologist François-Joseph Fétis wrote Anthony Stradivari the Celebrated Violin Maker, in which he described Jean Baptiste Vuillaume’s formula to calculate the way Tourte changed the bow’s radius over its length. Although musicologist Stewart Pollens asserted in the 2013 edition of Fétis’s book that Vuillaume’s math was wrong, the fact that he was trying to mathematically codify Tourte’s methods to maximize the efficiency of a nonefficient lever demonstrates the relationship that bow making has long had with science.
At this point, however, Wehling makes a notable divergence from this approach.
“Once the frog is mated to the stick, I can switch my brain into a much more artistic mode, much more concerned with how the stick is going to play. It is less, ‘Hey, let’s measure a whole bunch of numbers,’” says Wehling. “[When] carving the head and the frog… I’m going much more by feel.”
Wehling has a musician in mind and how they want the bow to play. “I’ve got hair in the bow at this point… and a pseudo-grip, and I’ll be bringing it down to where it’s four grams overweight. I’ll be reviewing all my notes, and I’ll be playing the bow to some extent. I’ll be feeling it in my hand. I’ll bounce it, which is a really big part of making a bow,” says Wehling. “Being able to look at a piece of wood and imagine, ‘What’s in this?’”
By generating this feedback, Wehling can get an exact feel for what the balance of the stick is. “I’m constantly cambering the bow at this time. I’m constantly putting in just a little bit more here, a little bit less there. And similarly, I’m trying to make the graduation of how the bow gets thicker from the thinnest point behind the head to the thickest point. I have a very regular concept of what that should be.”
Does this tinkering ever go a little too far?
“To quote a Los Angeles violin maker of yore, we don’t want to hear, ‘Oopsy,’” says Wehling, who studied bow making in France for five years. “One of the things I learned at Benoît Rolland’s shop in Brittany is one time I made a bow that had gotten too thin at one place. And he said, ‘You can’t finish this bow. You might think it’s okay—it’s just this once—but if you lower your standards one time, then you’ve lowered your standards. There’s no such thing as just this one time.’ So if I did have an ‘oopsy’ like that, it would just not go out the door.”
The final steps are to finish the bow with three to five coats of shellac and to add the silver winding. Although the extra weight of the winding is another variable he has been planning for, there is still a mystique about the process as a whole. “There are formulas to some extent,” says Wehling, echoing Vuillaume’s scientific efforts. “But there’s mystery as well, which is a really fascinating, interesting thing that keeps driving me forward.”