Bow Making Port Townsend: The Mirecourt of the United States

Violins, violas and cellos receive all the attention. They are the main instruments of the orchestra; they are played by the most recognized string musicians (rare exception: Yo-Yo Ma and his cello). When he sees a violinist traveling at an airport, the shape of the box reveals the nature of the content, but that form says nothing about the accompanying bow. An arc for all string instruments is commonly considered an appendix, a support player at best.

But that is for the unconscious, not trained, not a musician. Consumed violinists, alive and missing, such as Joshua Bell, Lindsey Stirling, Fritz Kreisler, Giuseppe Tartini, Antonio Vivaldi, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hilary Hahn and Leila Josefowicz, know that the bow is as essential as the instrument itself. That’s why the bow makers of Port Townsend, Washington, are so important among contemporary musicians and music lovers. But not only looking for violin bows.

Those bow makers include Kanestrom Bows, a store run by Norwegian native Ole Kanestrom, preceded by Charles Espey and Paul Martin Siefried. A promising young man is Cody Kowalski, who was an apprentice to Espey and has already won international medals for his crafts. Siefried learned his trade in his native Los Angeles, but moved to Port Townsend in 1991, attracted by the natural environment of the coast.

The arches are made of increasingly rare pernambuco, which comes from trees that grow only in the coastal forests of Brazil. The laws of the economy tell us that the rarer a supply of something, the higher the price (assuming that thing is of valuable utility, which is certainly an arc) But those same laws suggest that if something reaches a price high, it will attract other manufacturers that will increase the offer and lower the price.

It is not likely that a price drop will occur in the short term. These are not easy to make, they cannot be manufactured of such quality with machines, and the dedication to this craft, as seen in the archers of Port Townsend (what is called bow makers, the counterpart of the violin makers, which they are called luthiers).

That job begins with a conversation between archetier and the violinist (also cellos, viola and viola da gamba). This is because an arc is very personal, and where an arc can work with the style and art of one player, it may not be for another; an arc that can be handled through a bright glow might be less capable of producing the expected sound in a low-register sound passage. The important characteristics are balance, sensation and weight. The ropes, made of mane, also matter, but they will be replaced many times during the long life of the bow.

So why Port Townsend? The archers and violinists in Mirecourt settled in the city of northeastern France as early as 1629, partly due to the guild system of master craftsmen and their apprentices. Port Townsend also has its experts, Kanestrom, Espey, Siefried and Kowalski, which attract both customers and apprentices. In a global supply system of pernambuco, ebony and silver (for the arch frog) and mane, the location is less important than the presence of master teachers.

Port Townsend is also an enclave of artists, which undoubtedly contributes to its place in the elaboration of this essential part of the string instruments. After all, isn’t it the end result of artisan work, good music, a better archer?