Vermont's Roger Treat has been making bows for about five years and they are being played by a number of respected fiddlers. Roger is a fiddler himself, and played on luthier Bob Childs' Childsplay -- The Great Waltz CD in 1999. Working as both bow maker and repairer, Roger is able to take us through the bow making process, share some tricks of the trade, and offer advice for fiddlers on the care and maintenance of bows. This interview took place this past August while Roger was vacationing in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
How did you learn this trade?
I took a number of courses, first at the University of New Hampshire with Lynn Hannings and George Rubino, and later at Oberlin in Ohio, with Rodney Mohr and Jerry Pasewicz, all master bow makers. I'm fortunate to know a fine bow maker from New York State, Bill Salchow, whom I've visited several times and he has been very helpful and generous, sharing his considerable experience and passing on various bow making tips.
Is it true there is a German and a French school or method of bow making?
Yes, there is a German or English tradition of bow making, and a French method. How I learned was pretty much the French way.
And how does that distinguish itself?
In the French method, it's all done with planes and files and you put the camber (curve) in the bow by heating it in small sections at a time, to get the camber you want, then continue planing and filing it, graduating it down, constantly checking the curve and the thickness as you go along.
That must be a little awkward, working the bow after it's been cambered?
No, not really. I use a number of planes. For roughing out the bow, I have a basic block plane, readily available, like a Stanley. After that, I use four other planes. Two have flat bottoms and the other two have curved bottoms. The bow starts out as a square, and then you knock the corners off, so it becomes an octagon. As soon as you get it roughed out, then you bend it and if the bow twists, you'll correct the facets so they line up with the head. At this point, the bow is oversized. You put hair on it as soon as possible so you can tighten it up and see how it reacts, and get all the kinks out of it. You can't make a bow straight with the right camber without putting it under tension at some point.
Does the French method have a certain style of cambering as well?
Basically, you want an even curve from the tip to the frog so that when you tighten it, the whole bow comes up evenly. You don't want one part to come up above the curve while the other part is down. Generally, you make the curve so that if the bow has no tension on it and you put it on a flat surface, the middle of the camber will touch the table either in the center or a bit closer to the tip, but it needs to be quite flexible at the tip.
Can you explain that a bit more?
At the tip end of the stick, just behind the head, you want to have a fair bit of camber and it has to be quite thin for it to grip. If you are trying to draw a nice even sound from the frog to the tip, it has to be able to dig in at the frog -- it can't be too stiff there -- and the further out you go, it has to get thinner so that you can maintain a nice even sound. The better the bow is, the easier it will be to draw an even soundin other words, if there are flat spots in the bow, it will tend to jump or jitter. So it's a combination of the camber and how the bow is graduated or tapered, if you like. It depends a lot on the wood. If you don't have good quality wood to start with, it's almost impossible to make a good bow, because the wood has a certain amount of vibrations in its structure.
Pernambuco is the wood of choice?
Yes, all the great old bows are made from pernambuco. Some of the lesser bows are made from brazilwood and some others from snakewood, which tends to be very heavy.
Where does pernambuco originate?
It comes from Brazil -- it's an evergreen tree. It has to be aged at least three years, but the older the better, of course. Pernambuco can be a variety of different colors. Some of it is almost black naturally, and it can be red, yellow, almost white or orange. It does darken somewhat with exposure to the sun over time.
What are the qualities of this wood that make it ideal for bow making?
First of all, it's incredibly dense. The better wood will sink if you put it in a tub of water. It seems to have strength and a certain amount of elasticity so that you can take it down to a fairly small dimension and it remains strong and yet is flexible after it's cambered.
Could one consider those characteristics as opposing, paradoxical?
Yes, there are opposites there. Part of the problem is you're trying to make the bow a certain weight without losing the strength, and the more wood you take off, the softer it gets, the more flexible it gets, so it's a constant balance between the strength of the wood and its weight. On the other hand, you don't want to make it too stiff because it's hard to get the nuances of sound if the bow is too stiff. The other important thing is the balance of the bow and there's a range of balance points which are considered acceptable. Makers measure it in different ways, but the way I measure it is, when you have the frog in the most forward position -- closest to the grip -- with the hair loose, you balance the bow on your finger and measure it from the wood at the button (screw) and that range is 8 1/2" to 10". I try to make it about 9 1/2" to your finger.
Presumably, if you found a good plank of pernambuco, you would have the luxury of working with several bow blanks of consistent quality?
Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Sometimes you can have two sticks right next to each other that are completely different. Sometimes they are pretty similar, but often you are surprised so you really have to judge each stick individually. The first step is to try and locate some good wood and a good supplier so that you have a number of blanks you can choose from, so that if someone wants a particular type of bow, you have some selection. You can't just take any piece of wood and make a good bow. You have to rough it out to get an idea of how it's working. After a while, you develop a sense or intuition of how to proceed with a particular stick. You can play around with the weight a little bit by adjusting the frog and also the grip -- a silver grip or a whale bone grip, which is lighter, or a silk wrap, which is lighter yet.
Players refer to light or heavy bows. They mean the overall weight of it, but I wonder if this can be deceptive depending on how well balanced and crafted the bow is?
Well, as with the balance point, there is also a certain accepted weight range which is between 55 and 65 grams. Most bow makers try to make a bow about 60 grams, which includes everything -- the frog, the grip, the hair. Again, you have to rely on each particular stick because the wood is so different, and some you have to make heavier because the stick is getting too soft and you can't get the weight down below, say, 62 grams. But I think you were speaking of the feel of it in your hand, and if the balance point is closer to the tip, it will make the bow feel heavier -- tip heavy -- and if it's back towards your hand more, the bow will feel lighter. So, some people say they like a heavy bow and you weigh their bow and it's actually a very light one; it's misleading sometimes.
[For the full text of this article, purchase the Winter 00/01 issue of Fiddler Magazine! Please see the Summer 2009 issue for an article by Roger called "Choosing a Bow: Understanding Weight, Balance, and Strength."]
[David Papazian makes and repairs violins, mandolins, and octave mandolins and plays the fiddle. He can be contacted at 44435 Cabot Trail, Little River, Cape Breton, NS, Canada B0C 1H0; (902) 929-2953.]