Remember when the younger Harry Potter visits Ollivander’s shop in search of a wand? Harry was looking for the wand that best complemented him. The particular materials that comprised the wand and its accompanying properties lent this tool to be indispensable to any wizard.
One may view the string player’s bow in a similar light. While sometimes overlooked in favor of its instrumental counterpart—the violin, viola, cello or bass—the bow facilitates tone production, nuances of phrasing, and articulations ranging from short to long strokes. Soloists, orchestral and chamber musicians, even fiddlers, rely on their bows to bring out the best qualities in their instruments and the music that they perform.
Not unlike Ollivander’s magical shop, bow maker Sai Gao fashions modern bows in his Ballard workshop, Sai’s Bow Works. In his workspace one finds a plethora of raw materials such as seasoned pernambuco (also known as brazilwood and pau-brasil), amber liquids in sealed containers and various tools for crafting his bows.
Gao has an effusive persona upon meeting, easily erupting in laughter during conversation. As a child in Shenyang, China during the Cultural Revolution, he spent his days at home as schools remained closed. Thus, home became his first workshop, where he made furniture and toys.
“I could make a chair at age seven. At age thirteen, I could make models—airplanes, ships…I could make anything I wanted at that time,” he said. Soon he tried making a violin, using a cheap factory instrument he had taken apart and his own violin, as models. There were no instructional books available and Gao used what tools were on hand. He was pleased with the results.
“Chinese violin making is different from Western [methods]…they use different tools [and methods],” says Gao.
In 1973, Gao approached the esteemed luthier (maker of violins and other stringed intstruments) Jia-Yu Wang, who was working in an instrumental factory.
“[Wang] decided to teach me [for] about a month. I learned the real techniques, not [just] my own. [But] it wasn’t so far from what I tried.” Violin maker Yun-Kai Jang was another influential teacher.
Gao also ventured into making bows, fashioning his first bow in 1978. He traveled to Europe in the 80’s—Germany, Denmark, and Sweden—to visit luthiers, where someone in the field connected him to a Seattle violin shop, David Stone Violins, in the University District. Thus began his move to the Pacific Northwest, where Gao worked at Stone’s upon obtaining his green card. Later, he quickly honed his craft with Charles Espey, noted bow maker in Port Townsend. Curiously, the town has become a renowned “hub” for bow making.
Along with Espey’s work, Gao favors the French bows made prior to 1879 such as those by Dominique Peccatte (1810-1874). He attributes good bows to its camber (curvature or arching) and its flexibility. While many modern bows are known for its strength, Gao says, he cautions that the age of the wood is crucial: “If the wood is not well seasoned, it will change over time. The wood of modern makers’ bows shrinks a lot. In a year or two the wood can feel ‘edgy’ because the frog (attachment at the lower end of the bow, usually made of ebony) is wider than the [bow stick]. The stick got smaller and the frog stayed the same, resulting in this gap.”
For this reason, Gao chooses the oldest wood possible for his bows, as he puts it, that is “not too strong and flexible.” While he has visited Brazil several times and collected wood that is about sixty years old or more, pernambuco has become scarce. “You can’t cut the trees or export wood now in Brazil,” says Gao. Synthetic materials such as carbon fiber have been utilized as alternatives, but professionals and serious players still prefer bows made of pernambuco. This presents a dilemma for the industry, and some bow makers are advocating the use of new wood from seedlings. (Read the April 2004 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, which includes an article on pernambuco).
Gao does not favor using synthetic materials. His craftsmanship mirrors the traditions of the older French masters. Many of his clients are professional musicians, who will wait up to six or eight months to have a bow custom made for them. Akin to the artist’s paintbrush, the string player’s bow possesses singular qualities bestowed by the materials used and the craftsman’s touch.