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The Bow – Part Five: English Bow Making (Almost) Passes Away

Previously in our bow series . . .

William Charles Retford, (c.1902).

William Charles Retford, (c.1902). Richard Sadler, W. E. Hill & Sons: (1880-1992) A Tribute (Ealing Strings, 1997), Plate 4.

This article follows on from Parts Three and Four about the evolution of English bow making – read those first, please!

In Part Three, about the original company W. E. Hill & Sons (“Hills”)*, I mentioned an extraordinarily talented workman who moved into their new Hanwell (West London, UK) workshops in 1893 to help restart their bow making: William Charles Retford. Then, in Part Four, I wrote about Retford’s most remarkable apprentice, Arthur Bultitude, who joined Hills 32 years later in 1925.

Mass Exodus of Bow Makers from W.E. Hill & Sons

Six W. E. Hill & Sons (“Hills”) bow makers left the company between 1962 and 1973 to set up on their own, probably dissatisfied with the financial reward for their work and boosted by Arthur Bultitude’s success (previously their manager), who had left Hills in 1961.

Hills quickly recruited replacement apprentices. Otherwise, the labor losses would have finished the bow-making shop. In the early 1970s, such work was still seen as a valuable skill for a young person to acquire, though that opinion wasn’t to last much longer.

Hill Quality, Bargain Price

Post Office

Working from home, many of the newly independent makers sent bows overseas. Purchasers, both private and dealers, realized they were getting a Hill-quality bow for a fraction of the price. Due to employment contracts makers signed when they joined Hills, they had to work some miles away from the company. However, the late Malcolm Taylor told me that he didn’t mind where he lived as long as he was near a post office!

Another Move and a Further Depletion of the Skilled Workforce

In the mid-1970s, the Hill retail shop moved from the center of London to a large house in the Buckinghamshire countryside some 40 miles away. The workshop, previously in Hanwell, also moved into purpose-built accommodation that was once the stable block of the house. However, some workers chose not to make the move, as it would mean a tiresome commute from their homes near Hanwell. Instead, they left.

Hanwell Workshop of W. E. Hill & Son

Hanwell Workshop of W. E. Hill & Son

This depleted the skilled workforce. Those who stayed didn’t have the advantage of being overseen by more experienced makers, yet they had to train newcomers. A few completed an apprenticeship then only stayed one year – an obligation outlined in their employment agreement. One Hill bow maker admitted he didn’t like the work (though he was an excellent craftsman), yet he trained a younger maker who, in turn, trained five others!

Furthermore, the 1950s Hill-trained makers were all close to retirement age; by the 1980s, most did so. The last retired by 2008. Even of the later intake, as I write (2022), there are only two left still making bows.

Unchanging Design

Hills continued to make bows through the 1970s, although in smaller production numbers, and they stopped making the cheaper grades after World War II. It is unforgivable that they didn’t change the design of their (relatively) expensive bows to match those made abroad that were so well-regarded by players.

It was as if all the bow development made in London by the Dodds (in particular, John) and James Tubbs could be ignored, despite it being done almost a century earlier. Hills workers must have seen the popular 1920’s French bows of Eugène Nicolas Sartory (1871 – 1946), Victor François Fétique (1872 – 1933), and Joseph Arthur Vigneron (1851 – 1905), to name a few, for rehairs and restorations – why didn’t they actually look at them? One theory I have is that by deliberately not copying them, W. E. Hill maintained the high resale prices of the genuine articles.

Problematic Bow-Making Materials

Through the 1970s, however, the self-employed ex-Hills makers gradually lost sales, especially after the USA banned “tortoiseshell” in 1970. The material, used in frogs, is made from the shell of the Hawksbill turtle. “Whalebone” was subsequently banned by the USA in 1972 – properly called “baleen,” it is used for the lapping.

A tortoiseshell ornament from Micronesia

A tortoiseshell ornament from Micronesia. Photo from Wikipedia, “Tortoiseshell,” CC BY-SA 3.0.

Tortoiseshell, often with its spectacular “see-through” look, was popular with buyers in America, Japan, and Hong Kong; customs officials became especially sensitive to its trade, destroying some imported high-quality bows. Meanwhile, North America had progressed in leaps and bounds in making, as we shall see in part 6.

Other Makers Overshadowed and Unobtainable Materials

One of the problems besetting English bow making after World War II was the prominence of Hills and their production. Who – other than the most deeply interested players – knows the names Percival Bryant (Sussex, 1902 – 1994) and Lawrence Cocker (Derbyshire, 1908 – 1982)? Both were excellent independent bow makers who had no need to advertise but were eclipsed by the perception of Hills being preeminent.

In my opinion, Hills effectively stifled English bow making. Only makers who chose not to work for Hills brought any sort of alternative bow to market. Due to their work, players began to realize that the French type of bow wasn’t restricted to French makers.

A Rejection of New Materials

Over time, various bow materials were banned from international trade, culminating recently in the wood favored for the very best bows – pernambuco – becoming unobtainable, apart from existing stocks bought before about 2010. Some makers began looking to alternative materials.

Fabric made of woven carbon filaments

Fabric made of woven carbon filaments. Photo by Hadhuey at German Wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Hills chose not to design a carbon fiber or even glass fiber bow stick. I find this surprising, as they had the expertise on site: in the 1970s they developed a glass fiber oblong violin case, but hit the usual problem: in order to achieve the same strength as wood, the material ended up being even heavier.

Carbon fiber, available to model airplane enthusiasts by the mid-1970s, had the advantage that it was both incredibly strong, stiff, and light. In fact, the only way to bring it up to the weight of pernambuco (remember, pernambuco wood sinks in water) is to load the resin that permeates the carbon weave. The development of that type of bow was left to a Swiss company, whose products were the first on the marketplace in 1981. But that’s a story for another installment.

Handing Down the Traditions of Bow Making

Some ex-Hills bow makers offered private instruction in bow making and charged accordingly; others, more generously, would happily assist those who presented a “calling card” of an attempt at a bow. One, who shall remain nameless, took on multiple “apprentices” to increase his output but never taught any of them the whole job – fearing they’d take over.

Those makers’ reputations among players soon sorted them out. Many gave up bow work after a couple of years. Some became affected by the dust from pernambuco (which can bring on asthma-type symptoms) and had to give up. About ten bow makers commenced their trade this way in the 1980s but only two continue today.

Andrew Bellis standing in a doorway holding a bow

Andrew Bellis.

Fortunately, Arthur Bultitude took a generous attitude to passing on skills. He taught (or rather, mentored) five makers – Dr. Henry Byrom, David Newton, Brian Tunnicliffe, Gordon Bailey, Roy Collins, and me. Of those, I am the only one still working, having started at age 21 in 1978.

The Newark School of Violin Making

The School of Violin Making, Newark is housed in a Grade II listed building on Kirkgate, Newark on Trent which was built for the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Bank in 1887..Banking House at Kirkgate in Newark

The School of Violin Making, Newark, is housed in the 1887 Banking House at Kirkgate in Newark on Trent. Photo by Darren Turner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

In the late 1960s, British school-age children were being actively encouraged to take up musical instruments. As they progressed, quality instruments and their associated maintenance were necessary.

One far-sighted violin maker saw that, with the imminent demise of Hills, who had trained almost all British professional violin makers/repairers for over six decades, a replacement teaching establishment would be needed to satisfy the need for youthful expertise. Maurice Bouette (1922-1992) started a violin-making school as a Technical College in Newark, Nottinghamshire, in 1972. Disinterested in retail, Maurice was only concerned with new work. He accepted students at the same age as they would have gone to specialist further education (about 18 years old). An initial intake of twelve students grew over the years.

The College never trained any bow makers, bizarrely ignoring the craft and its usefulness as far as violin playing was concerned. Maurice retired in 1987. The College is still in existence.

The “Golden Strad” Bow

One English-made ‘new materials’ bow that did find its way to market in the 1970s was the “Golden Strad,” aimed at students. It was made in all sizes for all orchestral string instruments. German-made wooden student bows, although needed in quantity, had become expensive, and still broke easily in the hands of rough youngsters. So, these innovative (though misguided) bows sought to satisfy that market.

Golden Strad detail of frog, grip, and winding

Golden Strad violin bow, detail of the heel and frog, showing the nylon construction and the crude nickel mounts.

Originally produced in a rather revolting brown-streaked finish painted onto the yellow base, the stick and head were fiberglass. The stick was tubular, just like a fiberglass fishing rod, but the bow itself was fatally made as two separate parts joined by an aluminum dowel in line with the stick just behind the head, and glued. What could possibly go wrong?

Golden Strad detail of the stick

Golden Strad violin bow. Detail of the coloration of the stick and the plastic lapping.

Well, the sticks were strong and “found out” the join by opening it up on the top under playing tension. Cheeky youngsters would then loosen the join completely, rotate the head, and wind the hair around the stick using the aluminum dowel as an axle, presenting their teacher with a weird, “look what’s happened to my bow” problem.

Golden Strad detail of the tip

Golden Strad violin bow. Detail of the head, complete with a plastic face.

The frogs of the Golden Strad bows were black nylon.

Golden Strad Hair

The hairing system was meant to enable rehairing by the teacher. Ready-made crimped hanks were inserted into the head with a spring-loaded plug and trapped in the frog once the slide and ferrule were installed. It was a laudable idea, and a variant of that invented by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798 – 1875) in Paris in the 19th century. But, the teachers soon shied away from such intervention. They were no longer confident in handling instruments and bows.

For some of their production life (c.1970– 1985), Golden Strad bows were haired with Synhair, a nylon replacement for horse hair. In my opinion, this was the only reasonably satisfactory attempt (to date) to make such a fiber.

Golden Strad detail of the frog showing the slide and ferrule

Golden Strad violin bow. Detail of the frog showing the name so proudly molded into the slide.

The Beginning of the End

These bows had their uses – a double bass-making (and playing) friend of mine bought one for his daughter when she started playing the bass, rightly judging it better than anything else at the price. Later, she gained a place in the National Youth Orchestra, so it served her well.

Maybe unintentionally, the Golden Strad bow was the end of British factory production bow making. Given the economic situation in Britain, where the cost of road fuel almost tripled through the 1970s, the wages required by skilled craftsmen ruled out making musical instruments, including essential elements, for the masses.

Offshoring Production to China

In 1995, Stentor, a well-thought-of string instrument supplier to schools and individual students through high street music shops, opened its own factory in Taixing, China. The company may have seen that as the only way of keeping prices affordable to young players, but it effectively killed any chance of a European – let alone a British – manufacturer succeeding.

The only makers left in Britain would be individual workers in very small workshops, supplying the top end of the market with work of excellence appreciated by serious and talented players. Even then, the supply of materials and the legal withdrawal of some of them from the marketplace made sure that such an enterprise would be economically insecure.

Bow-Making: An Endangered Profession?

Bow Making an endangered profession?

In 1990, England had about 20 bow makers, two reliable sources of suitable timber, one dealer/cutter for ivory and pearl, and two merchants for sorting bow hair. By 2022, we have 6 full-time bow makers, one timber merchant familiar enough with bow requirements, and one hair supplier. Otherwise, we rely on foreign sources. In 2021, the UK Heritage Crafts Association placed violin bow making – but not violin making – under its “Red List” of endangered crafts.

The work has, understandably, become of little interest to young people who see the expense of setting up to make bows from a timber that has become banned (as a raw material) from crossing international borders as rather pointless. But it is essential – now even more so – to maintain old bows in good condition, so I teach whoever approaches me to do rehairs and minor repairs that require a minimum tooling-up cost.

* Please note – any reference to “W E Hill & Sons” or “Hills” refers only to the original company that was in existence from the late nineteenth century until 1992.