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Port Townsend, Capital of Bow Making

Meet Washington’s first-string craftsmen.

June 27, 2018

Ole Kanestrom leans over his workbench, insistently shaping a long, slender piece of amber-orange wood. Thin kinky shavings come off the plane as he makes pass after careful pass.

In his Port Townsend studio, he is practicing the art of bow making — an art perfected by French bow maker Francois Tourte 230 years ago that has changed little since.

Kanestrom is part of a community of bow makers who has made the quaint Victorian seaport the capital of bowmaking in North America.

The Port Townsend phenomenon happened after two pioneering artisans, Charles Espey and Paul Martin Siefried, arrived decades ago, attracted to the town’s marine and boating culture. Both were renowned bow makers and they passed on their knowledge to apprentices.   A third generation of Port Townsend bow makers has arrived, with 23-year-old Cody Kowalski, a former Espey apprentice, winning recent international medals.

“There are bow makers who have come to study with Paul Siefried, and also Charles, from all over the world,” says Kanestrom, who studied with Espey. “It was one of the most difficult times of my life, learning how to be a bow maker. The craft is not a simple one.”  

Violinist Andy Liang tries out a bow in the Seattle studios of Rafael Carrabba Violins.
Violinist Andy Liang tries out a bow in the Seattle studios of Rafael Carrabba Violins. 

The crafting of a bow begins with a detailed conversation between player and bow maker.

“A player has criteria, things that they need a bow to do,” Kanestrom explains. “ They want a certain sound, they want a certain playability, certain balance, feel, weight, and so all those things, those technical things have to come together.”

“The most satisfying thing to me about being a bow maker is the collaboration between me and the musician," he adds.

In his studio, Kanestrom crafts a violin bow out of a small plank of pernambuco, a precious hardwood that grows only in Brazil. The wood is used to make the most valuable violin, viola and cello bows in the world.

Ebony frog and silver fitted Kanestrom bow. (Photo courtesy of Ole Kanestrom)
The “frog” end of a bow combines fine woodworking, jewelry-making, sculpting and mechanics. 
Photo courtesy of Ole Kanestrom.

“It has all the qualities,” he explains, as he lines up the bow like a gun barrel to detect bumps or wobbles in the wood. “The strength, the resilience — it's like spring steel. It sings, it does everything. It's the magic music wood.”

After planing the wood, he heats the round, thin stick over an alcohol lamp, then bends it gently and slowly over the edge of his work table. Giving the stick the right arc or camber is critical to a bow’s balance and ability to produce tone or skip off strings with staggering precision needed at the hand of a violinist.

As Seattle Symphony violinist Andy Liang says, “We demand a lot of the bow.”

The final steps in the bow making process is sculpting an elegant “frog” from a block of black ebony. The frog is where a player grips the bow.  Then the carving of mortises for attachments, fashioning silver fittings and pinning Mongolian horse hair.

It’ll take an estimated 60 hours of work to complete this one bow.   

The reward, says Kanestrom, is his contribution to the world of music. 

A fine violin bow from a recognized, medal-winning Port Townsend bow maker like Kanestrom or Kowalski will cost between $6,000 to $10,000.

“You could spend $100 on a bow, you could spend $100,000 on a bow,” Liang, the violinist, says. “But in the end, you just have to find the right bow that suits what you want.“

“The bow is so important because it's really the other half of the instrument,” the musician continues. “And having a great bow is just as important as having a great violin.”


Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

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