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The Bow – Part Six: Bow Making in the Americas

Previously in our bow series . . .

Having focused on Percival Wilfred Bryant and Lawrence Cocker in Part Five and a Half, I now bring you Part Six – an installment on how bow making developed in the Americas.

As soon as you reach the third paragraph – if not before – you will realize that, as an English bow maker, I don’t specialize in American bow making. I can only go on what I’ve seen myself and what I’ve learned from those much more knowledgeable than myself.  So, my apologies if I’ve made any obvious blunders; corrections and additions will, of course, be welcome.

Bow Making in the USA

Amateur String-Playing Takes Off with Imported Bows

Bows were imported to the USA from France and the UK

When the violin “took off” as a social pastime in the late 19th century, amateur American cellists were quite happy to play on violins imported from Germany (and, of course, violinists, violists, and bassists also). Old Italian master instruments were in short supply, and those were purchased and used by professional orchestral players and soloists.

The First World War and its aftermath saw the enthusiasm for new German instruments (honestly labeled) decline immediately, and home production became a possibility.  But that was only for the instruments, as far as I know; quality bows continued to be sourced from France and England.

There was a flurry of controversy when German bow makers started copying the popular contemporary French bows, especially those of Sartory, and fraudulently stamped and sold them through catalogues and carefree dealers.

Popularity of Hills and ex-Hill Makers

WE Hill & Sons

This is the W E Hill & Son shop front on their 140 New Bond Street premises that they occupied from 1897 to the mid-1970s.

Hills of London always had a good following in the USA, and the firm’s products sold well there. For three decades after WWII, holidaying American players visited the New Bond Street shop and returned home with a usable keepsake. In the 1960s, once the ex-Hill makers had set up, their bows would cross the Atlantic as easy sales, ordered on trust by those who wanted a “Hill” quality bow but didn’t want to pay the full price.

Born in the USA

American Flag

Recently (about 2021), in The Strad magazine, there have been some examples of “early” bow making in the U.S.A.. This took place about 1880-1920 and was the result of immigrants from Europe carrying on previously learned trades in their adoptive country.

For the purposes of this series, I’m not including those makers in the category of American bow making, so neither can I include a brother of James Tubbs, Charles Edward Tubbs, who appeared in New York in 1879 after leaving London. C. E. Tubbs ran a music shop rather than a bow making workshop until 1922. Another omitted bow maker is Émile Auguste Ouchard, who emigrated to New York in 1946, resettled in Chicago 1948, then returned to France in 1960.

In this article, I am only including makers born in the USA who sold their bows there, even if they went abroad for instruction.

The Movie Industry

movie reel with film

A few violin makers became interested in bow making, and they all seem to have settled in or near California.  Whether it’s a coincidence or not, I suspect this was associated with the rise of orchestras in the movie industry. After all, it’s no good making bows if there’s nobody around to buy them. Starting in 1930, studios had their own composers and entire orchestras capable of speed reading and recording scores daily. So how did bow making emerge so fully formed?

Alfred Lanini

The grandfather of home-grown American bow making, Alfred Lanini (1891 – 1956), is better known for making violins.  Lanini, born in California to Italian-Swiss parents, was known as Alfredo (!) when he traveled to Milan, Italy, in 1911 to learn violin making, initially with Riccardo Antoniazzi and then Celeste Farotti.

Later, after studying bow making under August Nürnberger-Suess, who had settled in Novato, California in 1912, Lanini went to Paris to learn bow making with Auguste Husson (who was working in André Vigneron’s workshop). Unfortunately, upon his return to the USA, Lanini found he was allergic to pernambuco dust. Hence, he finished fewer than 100 bows between 1927 and 1935. However, he made over 500 violins, and his workmanship is exquisite, the instruments being highly thought of. Lanini’s younger son, Henry (‘Hank’, 1926 – 2002), who worked with his father and for Hans Weisshaar in Hollywood, returned to run the shop after his father died but had no interest in making bows.

John Bolander

John Bolander Cello Bow. Photo Courtesy Benning Violins

John Bolander cello bow (1980), with a Mountain Mahogany frog and sterling silver fittings. Photos courtesy Benning Violins.

Alfred Lanini was probably concerned that his son showed no interest in his hard-earned knowledge of bow making, so he passed the tradition on to an interested fellow Californian, John Bolander (1893 – 1990). John was a vaudeville actor, so the source of his enthusiasm is unclear, but he took his bow-making tuition seriously, initially working at the back of Lanini’s shop in 1946 (probably with a capable vacuum cleaner for getting rid of the nuisance dust).

John Bolander book: Violin Bow Making

Photo of book cover: Stringed Instrument Makers of Southern California (SIMSCal) Lutherie Library.

Bolander moved to his own workshop in Santa Cruz in 1978. In the late 1960s, following a health scare, he’d decided to pass his knowledge on by writing a bow-making instruction book. Hastily typewritten text and hurried diagrams didn’t contribute to its success, and once he returned to better health, he expressed a concern that he should have done it much better. Violin Bow Making was at least an attempt to produce a bow-making book, but it is not good. Later, it was joined by “1,000 bows and a tribute.”

Cover of John Bolander Bow Making 1000 Bows and a Tribute

Photo of book cover: Stringed Instrument Makers of Southern California (SIMSCal) Lutherie Library.

A trademark of Bolander’s bows is the use of Mountain Mahogany for the frogs. I suspect this was an attempt to make the “All-American” bow, as ebony was unobtainable without import; otherwise, all the materials could be sourced in the Americas.

John Bolander violin bow (1950s), with a "California mountain mahogany" frog and nickel-silver fittings. Photos courtesy Jake Wildwood.

John Bolander violin bow (1950s), with a Mountain Mahogany frog and nickel-silver fittings. Photos courtesy Jake Wildwood.

John Bolander Cello Bow Bay Fine Strings

John Bolander cello bow (early 20thC), with a Mountain Mahogany frogs. Photos courtesy Bay Fine Strings.

He used yellow, “ring” gold for bows so mounted. When placed next to brown or black woods, this metal looks brassy, and the similarity in color of the frog to the stick makes the bows appear lifeless and rather amateurish. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from being good playing sticks.

John Bolander violin bow from Metzler Violins

John Bolander violin bow with Mountain Mahogony frog and gold fittings. Photo courtesy Metzler Violin Shop.

Frank Passa

Frank Passa (1916-2001) was born in New York City and learned bow making from the expatriate French bow maker Émile Auguste Ouchard as a sideline to his violin repairs with Simone Sacconi. Passa moved to San Francisco in the early 1950s to set up on his own as a bow maker, at which he worked for nearly 50 years.

Passa’s bow making was inevitably far more “French” than Bolander’s, and he used traditional materials. However, it may well be that some bows bearing his name were made by his workshop assistant, Reid Kowallis, especially the later ones.

Frank Passa started the fine tradition of contemporary American bow making carried on by many to this day, teaching as he had been taught.

William Salchow

William Salchow’s (1926 – 2014) early history has been well documented elsewhere; suffice it to say that, by his late teenage years, he had varied employment and education that included toolmaking and playing the cello.

He progressed to demonstrating cellos for customers in Rembert Wurlitzer’s shop. Then, with his toolmaking background, learned how to rehair bows with Frank Passa until the latter moved to San Francisco.

Salchow was thus without a mentor until a fellow cellist, Luigi Silva, suggested he applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study bow making in France. This was a brilliant stroke because French bow making was entering a terminal decline after WWII, and those bow makers from the “golden age” of modern bow making (1920 – 1939) were in their final working years by the late 1950s.

Salchow’s mentor turned out to be Georges Barjonnet – not a household bow making name among players, and not a Parisian worker (he’d always stayed in Mirecourt). But, Barjonnet was obviously blessed with the gift of teaching and happy to pass on the various skills.

Visiting Barjonnet might have been a suggestion by Emile Auguste Ouchard, as Barjonnet had worked for him and his father back in Mirecourt; Ouchard was probably not very keen on teaching, as he couldn’t get on with his own father let alone other craftsmen.

William Salchow also visited other bow makers in Mirecourt and Paris, acquiring as much information as he could.

William Salchow Returns to New York

Upon Salchow’s return to New York, he immediately opened a shop of his own, selling his bows to eminent players and quickly gaining a good reputation. Maybe reflecting on his good fortune in finding Barjonnet, Salchow, in turn, started teaching in the 1960s, having the same gift of communicating. As well as one-to-one teaching he started classes, which I will happily admit formed a template for my own bow-making teaching at Oxford, UK, from 1991.

Salchow also made specialist tools available, designing a new type of scraper plane in various sizes (later produced in milled aluminum by Warren Condit of Sandy Hook, CT, until 2000).

He had a liking for early English bows, especially Dodd bows for his own instrument, the cello. What he did not have time for was writing a bow-making instruction book – a real pity, as it would have been first class if he had. Neither did he experiment with alternative woods, let alone new materials.

Frank Vernon Henderson

Frank Vernon Henderson How to Make a Violin Bow book

Frank Vernon Henderson (1901 – 1993), Seattle, WA, made his money in the building industry. Being an amateur fiddler, he became interested in making violins and their bows. He was self-taught.

Henderson thought it necessary to write a book about bow making, published in 1977, fortunately including the disclaimer that it was only about the way he made bows. It focuses on expensive machinery and sandpaper and had a short print run; if you want to start bow making and avoid both poverty and poisoning your lungs, don’t bother to search out a copy.

Martin Otto Bielke

Martin Otto Bielke (1896 – 1979) was born in Merrill, WI. Early in life, he worked as a blacksmith. Starting in 1933, he taught himself to make violins. In 1942, he started making bows as well, based in Minneapolis.

Bielke was perhaps self-taught, as his mentor is not noted. He made around 200 bows during his career, many inspired by Tourte and Peccatte, often using trade frogs. In the 1960s and 70s, Bielke was a very influential American bow maker and repairman, and retired at the end of 1970.

He trained Roger Zabinski in bow making.

Roger Zabinski

Roger Zabinski (b.1950) obviously learned well from Bielke as he designed and perfected the carbon fiber CodaBow. More on his work in a future installment.

Canadian Bow Makers

Joseph Kun (1930 – 1996) made his name by inventing one of the best violin shoulder rests ever made, bearing his own surname. However, Kun was born in Czechoslovakia, only moving to Ottawa, Canada in 1968, so he’s lucky to sneak under the wire into this article.

The Art of Bow Making by Joseph Kun and Joseph Regh

Kun began making bows around 1972 and is credited with training Reid Hudson in the late 70s. He authored The Art of Bow Making in 1994 with his colleague Joseph Regh (New York); the text mainly centers on mass production with a lot of expensive tooling, is expensive in itself, and again is not recommended.

South American Bow Makers

In the short time that I worked with the ex-Hill bow maker John Clutterbuck (b. 1949), I got to know all his suppliers. For pernambuco, that was a gentleman called Horst John (b.1927 in Germany) in Brazil.

Horst John graded his wood – it was almost always very stiff, as that seemed to be what his customers required. His price lists were bizarre; the wood was expensive, and took ages to arrive by surface transport. Thanks to Arthur Bultitude, I soon found alternative sources in England and Europe that were more economical and the timber more interestingly varied, though you had to be prepared to work with planks (the ex-Hill makers bought blanks).**

Horst John set up a bow-making school in Brazil, and with easy access to the raw material, started making bows in the late 1980s. I suspect a German bow maker or makers may well have visited there to encourage the local makers to do better work, as the bows are in that style.

There are a few workshops there now, though I despair at their quality control; they seem to be able to find good pernambuco but use it less wisely. The bows appear with many different names stamped on the sticks, and the Brazilians use a network of traveling salesmen to distribute the bows to shops in the UK.

Currently, they are having problems with exporting pernambuco bows due to the changes in the laws governing the movement of such timbers. There is only so much “old” pernambuco available, and even then it cannot tell you how old it really is.

The Current Makers

Although it would be unfair to home in on particular makers in the (to us Brits) vast USA who are still working, and because I don’t get to see many anyway, I have to mention two that have impressed me at rehairing.

One is Charles Espey (Port Townsend, OR), who has adopted the simplicity of French artisanal work and seems to understand the bow; and Isaac Salchow (NYC), who has inherited his grandfather’s flair.

Charles Espey Cello Bow Photo courtesy Benning Violins

Charles Espey cello bow (c. 2010), with an ebony frog and silver fittings. Photos courtesy Benning Violins.

Of course, there are many others gaining the approval of players who prefer not to pay for an antique, and to those, I apologize again for my ignorance. Still, it does seem that the USA is now the home of quality bow making while pernambuco stocks last, and for CodaBow – using carbon fiber – probably longer.

Up Next

Next time – what’s all this fuss about carbon fiber?

*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.

** Planks are just that, with a finished thickness but waiting to have bow blanks cut out of them. Blanks are the hockey-stick shape pieces that make one bow.