July 15, 2006 at 3:29 AMPHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania -- Bow making has led Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak all over the world, from the studios of famous bowmakers in Paris to the fields of Brazil, where rare pernambuco wood is grown.
But Shaak (pronounced "shock") hones her craft in Philadelphia, where her small, brightly-painted Mount Airy Bows and Violins is located on an unlikely block of Germantown Avenue lined with store-front churches, boarded-up stores, and Chinese take-outs. Here in Philadelphia, most of the violin shops are clustered within a few-block radius eight miles away, near elegant Rittenhouse Square and the world-renown Curtis Institute. Shaak's store sprang up like an enchanted mushroom on this block.
Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak in her workshop.
"In February 2002, a few months after the 9/11 disaster, I realized that I wanted to invest in my own community," Shaak said when I interviewed her in her shop on a recent sunny summer afternoon. "So I bought a broken-down building in a broken-down neighborhood, not far from my home and my children's school. Since then, it's been like the movie Field of Dreams. People come to my shop in this seemingly remote neighborhood where there were few shops, and certainly no violin-and-bow shops before."
The instruments hanging in the front window invite one to enter the homey and pleasant shop, which has touches like an espresso machine and a display of CDs by local string players. A friendly black dog, Luna, greets visitors, then settles contentedly as Shaak talks to customers.
I asked Shaak whether she also makes violins. "I am a bow maker," she answered, smiling. She gets asked this question often. "Bow making is completely different from violin making. It's an entirely separate set of tools, skills, and investments." Shaak does sell violins and violin accessories in her shop, and she sends instruments out to a luthier colleague for repairs as a convenience for her customers.
Becoming a Bow Maker
Shaak didn't always want to be a bow maker. She discovered what was to be her life's passion by accident. She studied audiology at Ithaca and Bryn Mawr colleges, where she earned her undergraduate and master's degrees.. An amateur musician who plays all kinds of instruments—guitar, piano, gadulka (a Bulgarian folk instrument), as well as bluegrass guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, she was good with her hands and enjoyed making things. While she was still in graduate school, Shaak decided to look into guitar making as a hobby.
"Then I thought, oh, I'll just learn how to rehair bows to pick up some extra money," she said with a chuckle. But as soon as she began working with bows, she was hooked. She started as an assistant at House of Primavera, a well-known Philadelphia violin shop, which was not far from the suburban campus of Bryn Mawr College, where Shaak was pursuing her master's degree in Psychology, helping to develop a hearing test. At Primavera's shop, she learned to rehair, and began to fall in love with the process.
Later, Shaak left Philadelphia went to William Salchow's shop in New York to study bow making. "I made my first bow under Bill's supervision, and it took four months," she said.
After that, she went to France and Belgium to study with famous makers there.
When she arrived in France to learn from the greats, she went to visit a venerable bow maker (who shall remain nameless) and told him she wanted to learn from him. He said, "Ah, but women should not be bow makers. They should be restorers because they have an eye to detail." Shaak replied, "Wouldn't I be a better restorer if I knew how to make a bow?" Unfazed, Shaak went on to study with Jean Gruneberger and Stephane Thomachot in Paris and with Pierre Guillaume in Brussels.
When she returned to the states, she worked under Benjamin Ruth in his former Philadelphia shop and at Vintage Instruments in downtown Philadelphia, where she still does restorations and rehairs one day a week.
Rare and Endangered
The art of making a bow dates back to the eighteenth century, and the materials used by bowmakers are only getting more difficult to obtain.
"All of the materials I use are rare or endangered," Shaak said. "The abalone and oyster pearl come from New Zealand, Japan, and Australia. The silver is mined in New Mexico. My bow tips are made from prehistoric mastodon tusks unearthed by glacier movement in Alaska. And the wood, pernambuco, which comes from Brazil, is illegal to sell or trade. People do trade it on the black market. Right now, people are hoarding logs of pernambuco, which makes the resource even rarer, drives up the price, and encourages poaching."
Elizabeth Shaak planting a pernambuco sapling in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Shaak archives.
Shaak has a personal stockpile of pernambuco wood which she bought in the 1980's, when imports were still legal. She has enough wood for two generations of bow making.
But she is also deeply involved in efforts to ensure that pernambuco wood will be available for many more generations to come.
"I belong to the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI). We're trying to show the Brazilian government that we can grow pernambuco as a sustainable crop, so that the black market can be stopped.
"A blank [a stick for a single bow] costs $200-$300 dollars, which is a phenomenal amount of money in Brazil. As you can see, a single tree could provide a lifetime's income for a Brazilian farmer. And pernambuco trees, which take about 30 years to mature, can grow in am mixed substrate. That means they can be mixed with other profitable crops, such as bananas, coffee, cocoa, and orchids. Potentially, farmed pernambuco could be a great asset to the economy of Brazil."
A Bow Maker's Business
Every summer, Shaak and twenty-five other makers from around the world attend the Violin Society of America's Oberlin Workshop for two weeks. She also attends American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers convention. This year it was in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian and Library of Congress. The other meeting she attends is the Violin Society of America annual convention. There is a competition every year, but no woman has ever won first prize in bow making. Hopefully, that will change soon. At bow conventions, Shaak observes the work of master bow makers and merging makers, and enjoys seeing their work develop over the years.
"Bow making as a career turns out to be three-part job," she said. "It's challenging to balance the time-consuming aspects of the business, such as research, paperwork, and reselling, with the time I need to make bows. I also spend time on maintenance and restoration, not to mention the work I do selling bows by other modern makers, as well as lower-priced bows for beginning and intermediate players."
I asked Shaak if she had any advice for violinists shopping for bows.
"Usually, if people have a $1,000 budget, they'll spend most of it on the violin and use whatever's left over for the bow. But really, the split should be closer 50-50," she said. "The bow lends much of the sound to your instrument. It's much more important than people often make it out to be.
"For lower-end instruments, I recommend spending up to 50% of the price of the violin on the bow," she said. "For more expensive instruments, a quick rule of thumb is 25 percent (about $5,000 for a $20,000 violin.)"
For beginners, Shaak has found an excellent carbon fiber bow—Coda's electric bow, which sells for $325. For intermediate students, she often recommends a nickel-mounted Brazilian-made bow for about $500. An excellent Chinese bow, imported from Beijing sells for around $1000.
Her own bows, and those of the other modern makers she features in her shop, sell for $2000-$5000. She sells fine bows by established and emerging modern makers from about $2000. Her own bows begin at $3200.
Business is good enough that Shaak sometimes wishes she had a clone. But she is not looking for a partner, or even an assistant. "I know the traditional business model glorifies expansion, but I prefer a small business where I can connect with all of my customers, " she said.
"That word, connect, is the main point," she said. "My goal is to help a player connect more with their instrument. I enjoy the process of listening to them, and finding out what it is that they want to improve, what they are trying to accomplish in their playing. Helping them go through that process is the essence of being a bow maker."
"Bow making is an intuitive process. Sure, there are precise details to consider, particularly in the construction of the frog, where a 1/100th of a millimeter can make a huge difference," she said. "But there is also magic."
Nicely written, Caeli.
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