Dark wood bow color and its effect on sound

March 12, 2020, 3:22 PM · I've tried many violin and viola bows now, and what I've noticed is that the bows with really dark colored pernambuco (seems to be quite characteristic of Tubbs and Peccatte) tend to sound warmer, but also softer and not as powerful as lighter colored wood. Is there any credibility to this theory? Perhaps it's from a different part of the tree, or has a different density level?

Replies (27)

Edited: March 12, 2020, 3:27 PM · The wood could just have darkened with age. Or had a darker varnish applied. I have no experience in working pernambuco, but I don't think there is any consistent prediction you can make of how a given blank will perform as a bow based on its colour.
March 12, 2020, 3:34 PM · I think a likelier explanation is that A. the older French makers have preferred a darker oil (bows are not "varnished" like violins, but rubbed with oil) and B. there was more high-quality pernambuco available in the past. It seems to be modern makers who now prefer the "agent orange" look.
March 12, 2020, 5:13 PM · Was it not shellac primarily being used on modern bows?
Edited: March 12, 2020, 5:51 PM · I have not found a correlation of bow sound to color. But some makers may prefer certain colors and some may correlate them to stick flexibility.
March 13, 2020, 12:24 AM · could it bbe that darker bows are made of Ipe for instance instead of pernambuco ?
March 13, 2020, 1:53 AM · @Julien Taieb
I thought Ipe wood was of lighter color?
March 13, 2020, 7:58 AM · Julien, Considering the stamped names and provenance of 5 of my darker bows I don't see how you can be correct.
March 13, 2020, 10:08 AM · I've not noticed a correlation between color and tone either. I have seen a handful of pristine old French bows described as "having never seen the light of day" that were quite orange.

Here's an article:

http://charlesespeybows.blogspot.com/2011/09/color-of-wood.html?m=1

March 13, 2020, 10:26 AM · "Density is one of the main factors that influence the sound quality of a bow. I once asked William Salchow, my teacher, what to do with lightweight wood. “Throw it away!”, was his distinctive answer. That may seem radical, but most bowmakers prefer dense wood."

https://www.andreasgrutter.com/2015/09/judging-pernambuco-wood/

March 13, 2020, 2:59 PM · Jeewon that suggests to me that a glass fiber composite might be superior to carbon fiber, or a CF composite made with a denser matrix material.
March 13, 2020, 5:04 PM · The GLASSER fiberglass bows I have played with were very inexpensive and did not handle well and did not produce outstanding sound. The "composite" bows that GLASSER produced subsequently (about 20 years ago) handled quite (to very) well but the sound they produced lacked the overtones one associates with good pernambuco or even carbon fiber bows.
March 13, 2020, 5:19 PM · Same here as others have stated - I've not seen a correlation with the color of the wood and the sound of the bow. Often, the very dark finishes seen on some bows were from staining with acid or ammonia before the shellac or oil finish. Dense wood is generally preferred - wood with Lucci ratings of 5400 - 5600 or even higher with very sought after by bowmakers, but density is only one (although important) factor. IMO the "sound" of a bow is a combination of the wood, the skill of the maker, and the results of that unique combination. Not every bow by Tubbs is great, but the best ones are really amazing, for instance.
March 13, 2020, 5:37 PM · Paul, the title of the blog post is, "Judging Pernambuco Wood."

By your logic, we should play bows made out of pure diamonds.

March 13, 2020, 5:46 PM · Another cool article by Charles Espey on choosing a stick for a commission.

"Sloman wanted a rich and dark underpinning to his Vuillaume's sound and I decided to use a wood of a somewhat lower density than the wood I usually use. He also wanted a bow that could respond to his entire repertoire and so finding these qualities through increased flexibility was not a good option. This stick had to be very strong so it could be taken down to fine diameters but I also wanted some complexities in the grain especially down near the frog."

http://charlesespeybows.blogspot.com/2011/10/elusive-stick.html?m=1

March 13, 2020, 7:32 PM · Well, red cars go faster than other cars, and that's a fact. :-)
March 13, 2020, 7:51 PM · Bernd Müsing, inventor of ARCUS bows put a lot of work into developing a series of bows of carbon fiber material with higher acoustic velocity than pernambuco wood. And I can attest that they do produce a uniquely balanced sound (with lots of the overtones that characterize projection - https://www.arcus-muesing.de/en/background.html ).

Jeewon - that is an interesting article by Espey. Nice looking (light-colored bows). I recall that the bows by multiple gold medal winner Morgan Andersen that I have played were light colored - they have become quite dear - (they are now selling at auction for twice their retail price when I tried some 20 years ago). If you check his bows out on line you will see that most of those shown are light. (I do wish I had bought that viola bow of his I tried back in the day!)

The only light colored bow I have is not pernambuco, it is a Berg Deluxe, by Michael Duff that looks like (Morgan Andersen) pernambuco. In fact when I showed it to Jay Ifshin (when I took it to him for rehair many years ago) he thought it was pernambuco. A very responsive bow that produces a balanced tone and is my best handling bow.

Edited: March 14, 2020, 3:04 AM · Over the years I've owned red violins, brown violins and yellow violins, and I'm stuck with the impression that the red ones tend to sound richer and warmer. I know it's an illusion because it disappears in "blind" tests and randomized recordings.

We've all seen those demonstrations that what we see profoundly influences what we hear, for example this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzo45hWXRWU

Even when our violin or bow is out of view, I'm sure just knowing its colour is enough!

March 14, 2020, 8:50 AM · @Steve Jones

Red violins are more emotional. :-)

March 14, 2020, 9:27 AM · Thanks for the Arcus link Andrew. I've long wanted to try high end carbon fiber bows. You mention how your Berg handles. How do you like its sound? And how would you compare the Berg and Arcus to the finest pernambuco bows you've played with respect to their tonal qualities?

I'm really digging Espey's blog! Wish he had kept it up. Regarding the same stick mentioned in his other post (I think):

"Flexibility will promote warmth in the sound here so it will be more advantageous to make a bow that is almost too flexible than one that is more resistant than necessary.
For this bow I have gravitated in the choice to a lighter brown stick with a honey-brown striping, not too dense but very strong. The fresh shavings are light colored and darken in a few days in the air and light."

http://charlesespeybows.blogspot.com/2011/09/ebauchage.html?m=1

March 14, 2020, 9:42 AM · 'Flexibility will promote warmth in the sound here so it will be more advantageous to make a bow that is almost too flexible than one that is more resistant than necessary'

Is he saying that more flexibility tends to equal more warmth? Why is that? I have also felt this..

Edited: March 14, 2020, 10:28 AM · Jeewon, I had my Berg Deluxe rehaired a couple of weeks ago and have been using it exclusively since then. I have also pulled out a different violin than I have been playing (in the past 40 years) and combining that with the Berg bow is tonally more satisfying FOR ME than any other violin/bow combination at this time. It is a little more mellow than the other "good" bows I have (F.N. Voirin, P.M. Siefried, R. Weichold). This Berg handles better than any other violin bow I own. (I have played with a couple of friends' bows that were very good, (Malcomb Taylor (Hill) and Otto Hoyer) that practically played themselves.

My experience with over 100 cello bows was that only about 5% have that miraculous property (like they have a built-in motor driving spiccato and sautille. (I asked gold-medal-winning bow-maker Paul Martin Siefried (over the phone) about this behavior of certain bows - if he knew how it came to be in certain bows and indicated (over-the-phone shoulder shrug) that it was not something the maker could design into the bow. Must be some combination of the wood properties, the carved shape and the cambering.

The Berg Deluxs stick is "semi-flexible," less flexible than the Voirin or Holzapfel, and about the same as the Coda Classic and the H.R. Pfretzchener (that I still owned at the time I made the measurements).

I have a "full set" of ARCUS-Concerto bows (violin, viola, and cello) that I purchased from Bernd Müsing in the company's early days (their "Cadenza" model was also available at that time - and better than the "Concerto.") ARCUS are light bows which makes them easy to handle (I have found that for sight reading they handle fast enough that I can correct a mistake I was about to make before I make it better than with heavier bows). The ARCUS bow sticks are very stiff (for me they work better with about 50% more hair than bows of normal stiffness). I found it took me about 2 weeks to adjust to the lighter tip weight of these bows. I later re-balanced them using titanium hardware that Müsing sent me and I had Ifshin add some tip weight. To my ears they bring out more overtones than any of my other bows. I ALWAYS carry one in whatever instrument case leaves the house with me. I determine when to use an ARCUS bow depending on the music being played, the composition of the ensemble, and the room acoustics.

I also played some later ARCUS bows that Müsing sent me to try (as a conduit to delivering ones I did not buy to Ifshin Violins - again in early days). They were later ARCUS "brands" and more expensive than the ones I had bought.

March 15, 2020, 12:17 AM · Thanks Andrew! So is it fair to say you don't miss anything about a good pernambuco stick while using Arcus and Berg bows (taking into consideration the type of rep you use them for)?
March 15, 2020, 12:22 AM · I would say that is fair to say.

But you must realize I probably never played a GREAT bow. I did hold a Kittel in Ifshin's shop once, but did not play with it. Actually, my hand was in the glove he made me wear to touch it.

Edited: March 16, 2020, 1:09 AM · Andrew, what would be "a great bow"? I'm sure it's not all about money and collectibility. (We know that Kittel never made a bow himself, but had some good makers like Knopf work for him in his workshop and branded the sticks. They're beautifully made, often opulent, and definitely were luxury objects back then and now.) The older folks amongst the contemporary makers often say that it's hard to find the quality of wood they used to work with 50 years ago. Nevertheless there undoubtedly are fabulous moderns, and it is even possible to make bench copies of historical bows - not even in the looks, but also in playing characteristics.

I'm owning two Hans-Karl Schmidt bows from the 1960ies, one light and one dark with beautifully flamed wood, and the difference in sound and playability is almost neglectable. With eyes closed, I can distinguish between them mostly by their thumb leather.

Edited: March 16, 2020, 6:56 AM · In a recent discussion on Maestronet a knowledgeable dealer offered his experience that, whereas good players tended to agree as to which out of a group of fine violins was the best, their preference when it came to bows was much more various. He (or was it another contributor?) also reported that bow makers themselves couldn't specify what features endow certain bows with certain qualities (in the opinion of certain players!). I believe (on the basis of little personal experience, and I wouldn't be so foolish as to bet on my own judgement) that in terms of their playing qualities bows aren't inherently "great"; with every decent bow it can take quite a while to discover all that you can do with it, and how.
Edited: March 16, 2020, 11:09 AM · I posted this at Maestronet on April 11, 2002:

"There are certainly lots of people who say they don't "make" pernambuco wood the way the used to. But, some mighty fine bows are being made anyway.

I found an interesting juxtaposition of related stories in an issue of The STRAD Magazine a few years ago. An article about J. B. Vuillaume (1798 - 1875) quoted him as complaining that good pernambuco wood was hard to find. In the same issue, an article described the bow-making activities of the Madrid, Spain shop of Fernando Solar (Gonzales), who claimed he had found boards of marvelous old pernambuco that had been used as shelves in the old Vuillaume workshop. I wrote to the expatriate (British) author of the Solar article, who assured me that the bows being made there in Madrid were wonderful - and he had one.

Of course, this left me wondering why Vuillaume complained about the quality of wood for his bows if he was using such great wood for his shelves. But then I remembered (actually I never forgot) the story Solar had told me in 1990, when I visited his shop, that he had bought an ancient "nunnery" (Abbey) to get the main vertical support in the basement, by which the whole structure was supported, a massive spruce log that had been, in its previous life, the main mast of a Spanish galleon (which would potentially make it up to 300 years old). Solar claimed he had used that as the source for the tops of all the instruments he had made (even mine).

I think these are both "world-class" wood stories!"

And then there is this:

https://maestronet.com/forum/index.php?/topic/18795-bow-making-vs-violin-making/

And finally:

In 2000, a year before he died, I visited former San Francisco luthier, bow-maker and violin-shop owner Frank Passa at his home in Santa Rosa, CA. It was after a stroke had ended his SF career, but he was still doing work from his home, still had the remained of his stock of instruments. In his basement, which was also a 5-car garage, were stacks (I mean REALLY -- STACKS!) of sorted pre-cut pernambuco blanks for violin, viola, and cello bows. After Frank had died the next year, and after I had played some Morgan Andersen bows, I asked Jay-Ifshin (who was and is the seller of bows made by Andersen - who had been a fellow student at the American School of Violin Making in SLC) if he had checked out Passa's stacks of pernambuco blanks. He said he had and they were not of sufficient quality for Andersen's bows.

And - I think that exhausts my experience about bow stuff.

March 20, 2020, 9:23 AM · I think the varied preferences simply comes down to playing style. Do you articulate more from the fingers, the hand, the forearm? Do you use slower, dense strokes, or faster? Do you like to change colour frequently, or are you more of a bow division kind of player, a master of monochromatic expression (e.g. Vengerov vs. HH)? Do you like high tension in the hair with more pressure, or low tension and less pressure? Do you like tip heavy, whippy, balanced? Do you like playing on a "Swiss Army bow" or prefer to use different tools for different rep? Etc. How do your proportions (longer forearms, big hand, etc.) fit with the design of the bow (low/high bounce point, grip at the extremes, cushion, etc.) How adaptable is your style of bowing, i.e. do like to explore the capabilities/design of the bow, or do you want it to conform to what you're used to.

Espey talks a bit about the design of bows here:
http://charlesespeybows.blogspot.com/2011/08/camber-heart-of-bow.html?m=1

Having said that, I still believe a bow can be inherently great, even if it might not quite match your fiddle, or playing style.

A great bow has a great tone, even if it's not a perfect match for your fiddle, you can still hear it. It brings out overtones, even if on one fiddle it's a bit overbearing, you can clearly hear it brings out more overtones. With a great match, it will bring out all sorts of colours you didn't know your fiddle had. A poor sounding stick won't match any fiddle in this way (from my limited experience.) It helps the fiddle resonate more. Especially on bow changes and detache, and chords. When you release the current stroke, whether into the next stroke or off the string, there's more ring to the sound. A great bow responds very quickly, whether you want it to sit on the string, or jump off, even considering the varying styles of playing. Top of my list of makers I've tried include Eury, Grand Adam, D. Peccatte, Tourte, Dodd, Voirin, Tubbs.


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