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MailTribune.com
  • Sounds from the wood

    An Ashland craftsman draws from the past as he creates bows for a variety of instruments
  • Walking into Darrell Hanks' bow-making studio is like walking into a different time, when instruments were painstakingly handmade using techniques passed down by generations of craftsmen.
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  • Walking into Darrell Hanks' bow-making studio is like walking into a different time, when instruments were painstakingly handmade using techniques passed down by generations of craftsmen.
    In his shop across the street from Southern Oregon University, Hanks makes violin, viola, cello and bass bows in the traditional manner, as developed in Paris in the early 1800s, when baroque bows were replaced by today's modern bows. The hand planes he uses for shaping the wood are copies of traditional French planes made by a Port Townsend, Wash., craftsman.
    Wearing a long leather apron, Hanks, 45, works at a small wooden table under a window looking onto a garden. Chickens cluck nearby. Speaking softly and slowly, with a hint of his Texas origins, he explains the intricacies of practicing a 200-year-old art.
    The preferred wood for bows, for its strength, density, resilience and beautiful color, is pernambuco, an endangered hardwood from Brazil now banned from export. With an eye toward the future, Hanks several years ago began collecting a lifetime supply of exceptional pernambuco.
    A lustrous reddish-brown, it lines one wall of his studio on narrow shelves. To ensure a piece of pernambuco is dense enough, he puts it in water to make sure it sinks.
    The handle, or "frog" of a bow is made out of ebony faced with abalone and silver. Hanks also predicts ebony, from Africa, will be banned from export soon.
    Much of the horse hair for bows comes from Mongolia and Siberia and before sale is cleaned and sorted into grades. Hanks' current favorite "dressed" horse hair comes from England; a pound of it costs $600. Thicker hair is used for cello and bass bows.
    To make a custom bow, Hanks first spends time with the musicians to learn what they're looking for. He listens to them play with their current bow and a few of his.
    "Lots of customers say they want a 'chocolate' sound," says Hanks. "They might want a bright sound for projecting, if they're a soloist, or a dark sound for blending, if they're playing mainly chamber music."
    String players usually have two or three bows for different types of performances.
    Then Hanks and the customer pick out three pieces of pernambuco already cut into blanks and air-dried for 10 years — three are selected in case one, or even two, have a flaw or aren't acceptable for some reason.
    It takes Hanks about two weeks to make a professional-level bow to order, for which he charges $3,000. For students, he may make a less expensive bow.
    Old French bows can sell for more than $100,000 today.
    Stephen Bacon, proprietor of Bellwood Violin in Ashland, says the bow is as crucial to the music as the player or instrument.
    "The bow is like the tongue, lips and lungs for a wind player — it creates articulation, timbre and dynamics," Bacon says. "With luck, you can find a bow that resonates at the same harmonic frequency as your instrument; they sing together, it's a perfect marriage."
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