My most recent interview was very exciting for me. I was lucky enough to talk to John Greenwood, a prominent bow maker in San Francisco. I was delighted when I called him and he said he had free time to meet and talk with me at his shop. I had never seen a bow making workshop before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Greenwood’s workshop was located in an apartment complex on Carl Street near the Haight Ashbury. I mentioned to my mother, who is also a violinist, that I was going to speak with him and she decided to come with me since she was interested in seeing his shop and listening to what he had to say.
We walked into the building entrance and I saw Greenwood wearing his apron standing at the top of the stairs, looking as though he was just working on some bow making projects. He welcomed us and his vibrant and outgoing personality made him easy to talk to. Although I had never seen specifically a bow making workshop before, I never imagined one would look as neat and put together as his. Although there were a few instruments inside the workspace, I was mainly focused on the specialized machines and tools that I had never seen before. Most of the tools he has made himself, because they are not commercially available. After giving me a little tour of his space, he took my mother and me to the back room, where he presented us with some dimensioned boards and roughed out sticks from his substantial personal supply of pernambuco wood. He also showed us ebony from Gabon in Africa and especially beautiful ebony from Cambodia. The ebony is used to make the ‘frogs’ of the bow, which he makes himself by hand. He pointed out that even the ebony is becoming scarce.
He mentioned that from a bowmaker’s point of view, he likes to be practical and see what materials he can get and if it has a suitable appearance. “There are about 3 or 4 subspecies of pernambuco that are basically interchangeable.” Greenwood explained, “in the wild you can tell them apart by the leaf size,” but of course he purchases it in small boards or precut bow blanks. Almost all his bows are made out of pernambuco, because a player investing a bow prefers this rare wood. He feels that the wood in his supply is every bit the match of what was available to historic bowmakers.
When working with the wood, he explained that it is important to use wood that is cut “on the quarter,” with the grain running horizontal to the head of the stick. The maker does that because there is less chance that the head will break off after the bow is finished. Greenwood picked up one of the pernambuco slabs and handed one to me saying “the special and virtually unique quality about pernambuco is that it’s super stiff and very dense. Just perfect for making bows. Though it’s one of the densest woods, it’s not the most dense, but it is the most resilient and quick. Pernambuco is marvelous in its ability to transfer the sound efficiently and without over filtering the sound and energy.”
He went on to explain how a number of his violin making colleagues are convinced that bowmaking is even more demanding and precise work than to make a violin itself. Greenwood has made over 200 bows over 14 years and currently makes about 25 to 30 bows a year by hand, including the frogs and metal work. Violin bows start at $4200. Today, about 25 of his bows are being played in the San Francisco Symphony and Opera. “It’s important to realize that just because a piece of wood is pernambuco, it doesn’t mean that it’s good to make a bow,” Greenwood explained. When looking through wood piles, he said that he might only take 5% or less of wood if it hasn’t been pre-screened. Though pernambuco is running out and officially embargoed from Brazil, Greenwood said he feels fortunate, for his own purposes, when I asked him if it was affecting his line of work. He said that he has a more than ample supply himself, and that in America alone, there’s enough pernambuco already to last a couple generations because people are hoarding it. He grinned as he said, “you know, this stuff is precious. If you’re smart, you take the money out of the safe and put the pernambuco in.”
I asked him when his interest in bow making began. He played violin since he was a child and studied at the San Francisco Conservatory, so he always had experience playing with bows. Since he always had a talent for being handy, especially in his woodworking classes, he decided to combine his interest in music and woodworking. “You need to have the ability and drive to get to a certain level in bow making, but to get past that to the next level, you really need to have that innate talent.” He laughed as he explained that when he initially was choosing between violin and bow making, he chose bow making because he thought that it would be quicker to learn and he thought it would be easier to get started with it as a profession since he started later on in his life. However, he learned soon after that it really wasn’t any easier than making an instrument—it’s a lot of painstaking technical and precise work. He told me that the finishing the bow to make it look particularly nice takes at least 35% extra time when making a bow. “The sound truly emanates from the stick, and if you don’t have the highest quality wood, no matter your skill, you’ll end up having a mediocre bow,” he explained.
Greenwood picked up one of the slabs of pernambuco again and started tapping it on the floor. “The thing that makes it great is the elasticity and resilience–the ping,” he said as he continued to bounce the wood off the floor. “When you tap a good piece of pernambuco on the ground, it sounds like glass. You don’t get that same sound with a piece of pine,” he explained. He told me how you can determine the exact elasticity of the wood by using a Lucchi Meter, which measures the speed sound through the wood. Though most of the wood he works with is high grade pernambuco, he said that one can use any wood if it’s attractive and has exceptional elasticity. I was intrigued by the Lucchi Meter, as well as all the other specialized machines in the room, because I never really thought about the level of science and precision that goes into it.
After listening to him talk about the highlights of pernambuco, I felt obligated to ask him what his thoughts were on carbon fiber bows. “Carbon fiber is a different world, certainly esthetically” he explained. He said how with carbon fiber, the bows are indeed quick. He explained that the best pernambuco can have about the same speed as carbon fiber, because it doesn’t filter much and it can still make a large and full sound. “The higher the velocity number a piece of wood has on the Lucchi Meter doesn’t mean that it has better tone necessarily, but rather that it has the good nimble handling.” He went on to say that though carbon fiber bows aren’t made as precisely, he thinks overall that they’re an acceptable option for beginning and intermediate players. However, he did say that he thought they are often too stiff and that the densities in the cell structures are a little more brittle sounding, without the tonal warmth of a wooden bow.
He started moving back into the front room where I preceded to follow him. He pointed to another device he made himself that he calls a Deflection Meter. It measures the general stiffness of any given bow or partially made bow. He told me that some players prefer stiffer bows, particularly beginners. However, stiffer bows usually lack the ability to mold and caress the sound from the instrument, he said, so for this reason, most advanced players prefer less stiff bows that are more flexible and supple. On top of the stiffness, the density of the wood makes a notable difference in the tone too, he explained. He told me that to determine the wood density, he typically floats his sticks in salt water solutions of known densities. If the bow easily floats then it might be difficult to make a bow, and therefore one might have to add a metal tip to the bow to make it heavier, which he said he doesn’t like to do. Fortunately for Greenwood, he stated that the wood he uses is dense enough so that he doesn’t have to use metal.
“My biggest competition today are the older master made French bows, whith prices starting at $15,000,” Greenwood stated. He went on to say that he believed we were currently in the golden age of bow making, and that the makers of today can get right up there to the skills of the past. He told me that even though Tourte’s and Dominique Peccatte’s bows continue to be the standard, what always makes the difference is a great piece of wood. “There are a number of younger makers who may have the talent to be decent bowmakers, but if they don’t have their wood pile put together quickly nowadays, then they’ve got a real problem,” he said. “Most makers like me prefer to hang onto our stash, because it’s getting much more difficult to resupply. And, who knows? I may need to supply my own next generation!” Greenwood has been obtaining his pernambuco from existing domestic supplies. He pointed out that his wood was mostly derived from salvaged lumber, such as railroad ties, fence posts and naturally downed timber and not from fresh cut trees.
He continued to talk as my mother started testing out some of his violin bows. He finished by saying how the challenge isn’t about the supply, but simply trying to make the bows beautiful in themselves. “It’s just like sculpting,” he said, “and people want something that’s nice.”