By Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak
Traveling internationally with African ivory–tipped bows has become a source of stress for many musicians over the last decade. Thus, when the ivory tip of an antique bow cracks, its replacement material is often a more complicated choice than it was in the past. To travel with ivory on one’s bow means applying for a Musical Instrument Certificate from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and still facing uncertainty at border crossings about required documentation. So, many players have turned to purchasing “travel bows,” which they may or may not find as satisfying, or replacing the ivory tip on their existing bow with something else—removing an original fingerprint of the maker.
African ivory found in the tips of antique bows is included in the “de minimis exception” to the ivory ban that went into effect on June 6, 2016. This important exception helped to clarify that bows ought not to be targeted at customs as long as the ivory was removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976; is a fixed component of a handcrafted item; makes up less than 50 percent of the item; and less than 200 grams in weight.
To travel with ivory on one’s bow means applying for a Musical Instrument Certificate from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and still facing uncertainty at border crossings about required documentation.
Nonetheless mammoth ivory has become a popular replacement material, but unfortunately, smugglers began mislabeling their illegal ivory as mammoth to subvert the rules. As a result, certain US states have now banned the sale of all ivory (California, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York), and many others are scheduled to do so. These state laws do not differentiate between living ivory and fossilized mammoth, nor do they include the de minimis exception. This has radically changed the options for restorers and makers in those states.
With all this in mind, I asked makers and restorers across the US and in Europe for their favorite tip materials and their process. I found that they are using a variety of materials to conform with environmental demands while doing their utmost to protect the historic nature of valuable, old bows.
Here is an alphabetical list of commonly used materials:
Bone: Antelope bone
Casein: A polymer, often called faux ivory, used mainly for less-expensive bows
Ebony: Ebony plywood and other plywoods
Elforyn: A German composite ivory substitute
Fossilized ivory (mammoth): Tip blanks are light tan in color and used most often in new making and restoration in states where it is not prohibited.
Ivory: Not in general use anymore; used only for restoration where the restorer has a record of purchase pre-1976
Precious metals: Silver, gold
Tip Armor: Polymer composite AMW-814; recently developed and formulated for strength and flexibility, engineered to be worked using standard bow-making tools
John Aniano (New Jersey, New York)
Before the ban, his favorite material was elephant ivory, then fossil ivory. Not having much choice, says Aniano, he now uses Tip Armor. He finds it somewhat hard to work and somewhat porous in nature (precluding a high polish). He says, “Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the tip-tip on a finished Tip Armor tip can be somewhat weak and can be split off. I’ve not experienced that, however.”
Aniano also makes up his own black silk and epoxy ‘micarta’ for the tip liner material, which he finds stronger than ebony. Unless he can save the original ebony, he uses it for all tip replacements.
Tim Baker (Oxford, England)
Baker uses mammoth with normal woodworker’s (Titebond) glue. He is also using metal tip plates more frequently.
Jon Crumrine (Massachusetts)
Crumrine uses mammoth most often, but metal tips are becoming his favorite substitute as long as the tip isn’t too thin and pointy. He thinks they work well for weight and balance, and don’t need pins. He uses casein resin for less expensive bows because of the look and ease of shaping, however, he doesn’t think they are a long-term fix. He doesn’t care for Tip Armor. For gluing he uses fresh, thick cyanoacrylate (CA), primes the surfaces with baking soda, uses little glue (spread with a toothpick), and clamps with his fingers.
Anna Huthmaker (Georgia)
Huthmaker once used ivory, but no longer. She now uses bone, but most often casein because of the ease of use and looks.
Jacob Mitas (Oregon)
“I think thin silver with thicker ebony using shock-resistant gel super glue is the greatest. I use mammoth ivory on historic bows. I like casein tips that come fused with fiber backing for less valuable bows. Casein is pretty flimsy without the right glue, but with a fiber backing and a thicker gel super glue, it becomes very durable. I don’t touch the Tip Armor: for all the extra work, and unattractive look, I’ve seen too many tips break off. My new favorite tip design, especially for bass bows, is custom three-layer ebony plywood. It looks awesome and is really strong, easy to work, and inexpensive.”
Rodney Mohr (Ohio)
“My favorite tip material is mammoth. It’s a bit easier to work than elephant ivory. And much easier to bend. Tip Armor is hard to work and is hard on tools. Its biggest problem is the point is a little tender.”
David Orlin (Michigan)
“My favorite material is probably mammoth, but I use it very little anymore. For several years, I went to metal only.” This is Orlin’s preference because of the precedent set by FX Tourte: It has no travel issues, and can be glued without pins. It also has the advantage of a “negligible weight change, about .2–.3 gm more than a similar ivory tip.” (This is less than variations in re-hair weight from different shops.) “I use mammoth occasionally, for restorations where the original appearance is important,” but only for states where it’s legal. He doesn’t like anything artificial so far, but likes the idea of black or dark red/brown cross-grained laminates.
Jerry Pasewicz (North Carolina)
“I prefer mastodon/mammoth ivory; it looks great and I am used to it. It also makes for a wonderful story to tell the kids and adults alike to promote respect for the bows.”
Isaac Salchow (New York)
“Silver or gold is best.” Salchow likes them because they are the best at maintaining the integrity of the original bow. He points out that when he sees a historic bow such as a FX Tourte with a metal tip, the frog can be broken in many ways, but the head will still be intact. Even bad re-hairs don’t destroy the head. Contrast that with a bow whose ivory tip has broken and been replaced. There can be damage to the nose or sides of the head. Salchow uses pins but is careful to make them cylindrical with a flat end so as not to split the wood. He uses hide glue to adhere the tip pieces because of its reversible nature.
This August, there was a new development that may relieve the burden of strict state laws affecting musicians and their bows. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) deemed that mammoth, or fossilized ivory, cannot be subjected to permit requirements because regulating an extinct species was beyond their scope, and a strong case was made that mammoth ivory can be distinguished from elephant ivory. If restorers and makers specifically state in their sales receipt that mammoth was used, this could satisfy international customs.
Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak is a bow maker, restorer, and owner of Mount Airy Violins & Bows, LLC in Philadelphia. She once used ivory, but now uses ebony, mammoth, or silver for fine bow tips and casein for less-expensive bows.