By Cristina Schreil | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
There’s a beloved analogy that reinforces the importance of having a great violin bow: if the violin is the palette, the bow is the paintbrush. It’s a vital tool for shaping and bringing color to the music. Some players would even argue that right-hand mastery is what brings life to violin performance itself.
It’s no surprise, then, that bow making is lauded as its own artform. When it comes to deciding whether it’s the right career path, there are a few questions to consider. First of all, what characteristics does one need to be a great bow maker? What’s the right career path—finding an apprenticeship with an established maker right away, starting out making violins, or studying in school? And, what kinds of experiences help hone the craft of bow making, and setting up a shop?
“This is not an easy profession to pursue, so one has to consider the pros and cons carefully,” says Peg Baumgartel, a bow maker in Rosalia, Washington. I spoke with three bow makers—Baumgartel, Charles Espey, and Mariia Gorkun, an apprentice to David Hawthorne in Waltham, Massachusetts—about their professional journeys. They also offer aspiring bow makers advice for the path ahead.
Bow making may seem like a specialty profession, but makers say there’s plenty of demand. “There will always be work for bow makers, rehairers, and highly skilled bow restorers because string playing is as popular as ever in our digital age—just know that it takes many years to master your skills to a high level and get established in the trade,” says Baumgartel. She adds that one should note it is challenging to find training. Those just starting out may be interested in attending a bow-making workshop. Baumgartel says they are short-term but can help young people understand if they’re on the right career path. However, the next step can be trickier.
“The best way to learn bow making and repairing is to find a bow maker willing to teach you, since there are not many school options like violin makers have,” she says. Some bow makers will charge for training, while others take on apprentices.
This is exactly how Gorkun started. After working in a small violin shop in her native Kiev, Ukraine, where she was tasked with rehairing, she found herself asking questions. She reached out to Hawthorne, who had rehaired her bow when she was previously a student in Boston. This led her to take one of Hawthorne’s workshops. “Doing a workshop is great; you can learn a lot of things in a short amount of time. But, it’s like going to a university one month at a time,” Gorkun says. “To be really good at something, you have to really spend some time with a person who knows what they’re doing.” After a lot of deliberation and years of preparation, she went on to apprentice with Hawthorne.
Espey’s advice on finding the right apprenticeship concerns investigating the kind of bow making one does. “In my opinion, learning with someone working in the French tradition is best because of the superior hand-working techniques; they don’t have to be French, there are many makers worldwide who use the French method today,” he says. “As a student you invest an enormous amount of time in studying something, so it’s important to find the best person to study with. Be selective—poor training can be a major setback.”
Browsing the member directory of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers can be a helpful place to begin.
The Ins and Outs of Apprenticeship
Gorkun began taking apart and cleaning bows and cutting wedges. She started with student-level bows and gradually moved on to “more serious” bows, she recalls. Her Boston-area location exposes her to many top-notch players and great bows by masters, which fuel her learning. “Many Sartorys for instance,” she says. “I’ve rehaired a couple of Tourtes. It’s really amazing.” She adds that she apprentices three days a week and eventually leveled up to make her own bows. She’s currently working on her 17th.
Gorkun’s apprenticeship situation is a strong example, but it can vary. “The length of training is variable, probably about a year is good for mastering the basics and then you just spend the rest of your life refining your style and concepts of playability. It could take four years or so to start making bows of professional quality, but you don’t need to be in an apprenticeship all that time,” Espey says. Prior skills could influence the timeline. “If a person already has developed hand skills, like violin making, they might learn the fundamentals of bow making in a few months, while someone without skills might require a few years.” Striving for the highest quality in your craft is paramount.
Qualities of a Great Bow Maker
Once one decides to plunge into the world of bow making, there are certain qualities that are helpful to have. “Bow making takes advantage of a lot of different talents,” Espey says. He names hand skills, a sense of design, and an inquisitive mind. It’s also helpful to understand structural engineering principles, aiding with designing the taper and curve of a bow. “Self-motivation is a big one, since bow makers usually have their own business,” Espey adds. He reinforces that someone can lack one attribute and still create quality bows. “Many of the great French makers of the 19th century had limited design skills, but they worked out a good style and maintained it, making fabulous playing bows throughout their lifetimes.”
There’s also the business aspect: communicating and connecting with musician clientele. Baumgartel adds it’s helpful to be open to continually learning and improving through self-analyzing your work and accepting criticism. “You have to be a patient, persistent, disciplined, and artistic person with innate hand skills, able to focus for long periods of time, and willing to put in years to master by hand (not machines) the tool skills needed to make or restore a bow,” she says. A great bow maker must also train to see minute details and master working with bow materials spanning pernambuco, ebony, gold, silver, pearl, horsehair, and leather.
Governing everything is a dedicated attitude. “You have to be very, very patient. You have to be very precise. You have to be able to follow instructions. It’s as simple as that,” says Gorkun.
What to Choose: Restoring or Making?
Gorkun notes that some bow makers do rehairs, while some prefer not to. Rehairing is also an art form within itself, requiring patience and precision. Baumgartel adds that most bow makers do both to round out their business model, but choices depend on one’s passions. “If you already enjoy fixing things, then you may be happiest rehairing and restoring. If you want to put your own name on your work, then make bows, but you must learn repairs so you are well rounded in your education,” says Baumgartel.
Espey adds it’s an important experience for bow makers to start out doing restoration. It paves the way for deeper study and even emulation of great bow makers from eras past. “There’s a huge demand for properly trained bow makers who can restore a bow that could easily be worth $100,000,” he says.
“There’s no average day for a bow maker,” says Espey, explaining that the bow to be made at a given point requires a series of different tasks that unfold over the course of a week or two. “One day you might be soldering the silver ferrule and fitting it on the frog and the next day you could be planing and cambering the stick. You might also stop and just think about what your client needs and what wood will be optimal. Then there are the calls or emails with musicians that occur periodically,” he adds.
Baumgartel reinforces that the life of a bow maker shares qualities with other self-employment career tracks: “Each day requires focus and discipline, and some days those qualities are easier to come by than other days. If you’re self-employed, you are usually working in some capacity for six or seven days a week,” she says. Still, for Baumgartel, it’s a life worth living: “Aside from the personal artistic gratification of bow making, when players tell me how happy they are with a bow I made for them, I am deeply satisfied by knowing that I served them, my profession, and music well.”