By Julia Sommer
for the Mail Tribune
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.”
Hanks has made bows for Michal Palzewicz, principal cellist with the Rogue Valley Symphony, as well as other symphony players and for the well-known Schuback Violin Shop in Portland.
“Darrell has made a superb bow for me,” says Palzewicz. “It is full of character and not only produces a beautiful tone, but also supports the finest nuances of right-hand cello technique.”
Because musicians’ taste in bows changes over time, Hanks allows customers to exchange bows, giving them credit for the original price.
Raised in rural East Texas on his grandparents’ cattle ranch, Hanks taught himself how to play guitar, both rock and roll and classical.
In 1991, he moved to Grants Pass to take a job as a substance abuse counselor for adolescents. It was there he added violin to his repertoire, both playing and learning how to make them. To expand his skills, he traveled to New Hampshire for classes on bow making and repair.
“I became fascinated by bow making,” he recalls.
Hanks says he eventually burned out in his counseling job and turned to bow making in the winter and spring. In the summer and fall, he worked as a river and fishing guide on the Rogue River and Middle Fork of the Salmon. A traditional wooden drift boat Hanks built out of Port Orford cedar, African mahogany and Douglas fir sits in his driveway.
To further his skills as a bow maker, Hanks began taking trips to Port Townsend, where several of the best bow makers in the world had settled, attracted by the sailing and wooden boat-building tradition there. Over the years, he has studied with them for weeks at a time.
Four years ago, Hanks moved to Ashland, where he took up the cello and continued to make bows, both for individual musicians and shops. While business was slow during the Great Recession, he also made custom fly-fishing rods for R.B. Meiser Fly Rods.
But Hanks is obviously not in it just for the money.
“I’ve been fascinated by music all my life,” he says. “I enjoy creating things. It’s challenging. I like helping musicians make beautiful music.”
Julia Sommer is a freelance writer living in Ashland. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.