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Darrell Hanks, bowmaster and archetier suprême

Patience, attention to detail, and years of experience are big factors in this niche profession.

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Bowmaker Darrell Hanks in his studio. Photo by James Bash.
Bowmaker Darrell Hanks in his studio. Photo by James Bash.

Patience, meticulousness, knowledge, careful listening, and lots of experience are just some of the ingredients that are required in order to make high-quality bows for professional string players. Portlander Darrell Hanks has all of those qualities and is considered one of the most prominent archetiers in the United States. He’s an individual artisan who works strictly on commission and by word of mouth. He is so well-known among professional string players that he has a waiting list of clients who will wait over a year to get a custom-made bow that is just right for them.

Hanks has been making bows for the past 26 years, starting when he lived in Southern Oregon and worked for a luthier whose tutor was the legendary Victor Gardener. It was during that time that he decided to pursue bow-making.

“I got the sense that you could make something very custom for someone,” said Hanks when I visited his studio in SW Portland. “I wanted to do that. So, I spent time studying in Port Townsend with experts in the field: my good friend Robert Marrow and Ole Kanestrom as well as Paul Siefried and Charles Espey.”

Bowmaker Darrell Hanks in his studio. Photo by Matt Wehling.
Bowmaker Darrell Hanks in his studio. Photo by Matt Wehling.

Hanks learned how to repair and rehair bows so that he could operate a full shop. Since he was new to the business, he built it up by rehairing and repairing bows. He then began to make bows for musicians and moved to Portland. Some classical music insiders might know that he is married to All Classical Radio announcer Christa Wessel. 

Getting horsehair for a bow does not mean that you drive to your local horse stable and negotiate for strands from a horse’s tail. 

“For fine bows, the horsehair only grows in extremely cold climates,” explained Hanks. “To get horsehair for professional-level bows, the horses only come from Siberia or Mongolia. Those horses grow tails with hair that has a very small diameter. Their hair packs closely and is very straight. Their hair has a certain elasticity that you don’t find from horses that live in warmer climates. Those horses have hair that is thicker and coarser. There are grades of hair, and only the best of the best is used on professional bows. Lesser grades of hair are used on student bows.”

It all comes down to the sound that the musician creates.

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“The best horsehair allows the musician to create a cleaner sound,” said Hanks. “So if, for example, you are doing a pianissimo – barely moving the bow across the string – it will sound clean and pure. Coarse hair will make it sound like sandpaper. You will hear grittiness in substandard hair. If the hair has kinks or bumps, it will get amplified and you will hear it.”

All of the hair comes out of China where it has been processed. Archetiers order it by weight.

“You measure a certain amount of hair to put on a bow,” added Hanks. “But bows from the early 1800s and the early 1900s are very different. So if you are rehairing those bows you will find that certain bows need more hair and others need less hair. That comes from experience. But I don’t do much rehairing anymore. Violin shops take care of that.”

In addition to a special kind of horsehair, bows require a special wood.

“For professional-level bows, you are working with one kind of wood: Pernambuco,” said Hanks. “It comes from Brazil and has been used as the source for fine bow-making since before 1800. Pernambuco is known as purple dye wood. It was imported to Paris, which was the epicenter of the textile industry of Europe. It contains oils that can generate a purple dye.”

Hanks demonstrated this for me by putting some Pernambuco shavings in a container filled with water. The color of the water immediately started to turn pink. Over time, the water would become darker and darker.

Bowmaker Darrell Hanks in his studio. Photo by Hanks.
Bowmaker Darrell Hanks in his studio. Photo by Hanks.

It was François Tourte (1747-1835) who discovered that Pernambuco wood is the best for bows. He set the standard length and developed components of the bow. Before him bows were different sizes.

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“Tourte is considered to be the most important person in the development of the modern bow,” remarked Hanks. “The density and resilience of Pernambuco wood allowed him to lengthen the bow, put the curve in it by using heat to bend the wood, and improve the frog. His improvements changed how everyone played. Because of this, he has often been called the Stradivari of the bow.”

Pernambuco is classified as endangered. Almost all of the forests where Pernambuco grows have been chopped down. So, there are now a lot of restrictions regarding the buying and selling of Pernambuco. 

Each of Hanks’s sticks, before he turns them into bows, has a series of numbers written on it. Those numbers identify the sticks by its density, which depends on how much resin it contains and how compact its grain is.

He shapes each stick into a bow with specific planes. His shop has all sorts of specialized tools to make measurements by millimeters and to weigh the wood in milligrams. As he rounds the wood to give it just the right shape, he tests it over and over and over again to make sure that it is just right.

Hanks also makes the frog from ebony wood. That’s the part of the bow that encloses the mechanism responsible for tightening and holding the bow hair ribbon. He has to make a precise channel in the frog. The horsehair gets tied in a knot and goes into a wood piece that slides into the channel and holds everything in place. He also puts a piece of pearl on the frog to give it a beautiful look.

The frog has to be moveable so that the musician can increase or decrease tension on the bow, depending on what kind of sound needs to be made. Everything he does involves intense and immaculate carving, chiseling, planning and silversmithing. That includes putting the Mammoth ivory on the tip of the bow plus the winding and leather wrapping near the frog. After he is done with everything, he stamps the bow with his name. But even that is a lesson in precision because there is not much room for error. 

You may think that the bow for a double bass is longer than the bow for a violin, but that is not true. 

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“Violin and viola bows are the same length,” noted Hanks. “A cello bow is slightly shorter. A bass bow is even shorter. This is because the violin bow speed is faster. Each musician has to get to the end of their stick at the same time as the violinist.”

Hanks has made bows for musicians in the U.S, Europe, and Asia. Closer to home, he has fashioned bows for several members of the Oregon Symphony. 

“I love my Hanks bow!” wrote Nancy Ives, principal cellist of the Oregon Symphony, in an email. “I have an old French bow that makes an incredible sound and does amazing things, but is finicky and delicate, and a modern bow that has some wonderful qualities of its own, but is heavy and tiring to use. I have alternated them, depending on my priorities at the moment. Darrell‘s bow checks off all the boxes; it does it all for me.”

“He worked closely with me to figure out what I most needed in a bow, and knocked it out of the park!” added Ives. “The sound is focused and projecting, while having full, rich overtones. The balance is just right; the stick feels alive in my hand. It grabs the string for legato playing, but is also agile and easy to do off-the-string strokes with. It’s a relief to have a bow I can do anything with, and it’s really pretty, too!”

Charles Noble, assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony concurred. “I commissioned a bow from Darrell back in 2018. I’ve been very pleased with it! It has definitely made my playing better, both in terms of control and sound, as it was designed with my playing style and instrument in mind, as the best bow makers do. He’s a true artisan.”

It takes Hanks a month to six weeks in order to make a bow from start to finish. 

“Suppleness, warm sound, the player should be able to lean into the bow, but you have to know how far to push it,” said Hanks. “It’s a balancing act. It takes a long time to make a bow that is perfect, but it has to be perfect.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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