Oct 8, 2009 Uncategorized
This article appears in the November issue of Strings Magazine.
Israeli Bow Maker Conjures the Magic from the Stick
On a remote kibbutz, award-winner David Samuels is perfecting the art of bow making
By Mark Summer
Photo Credit: Barbara Summer
Bow maker David Samuels tightly grasps a rough stick of pernambuco at several points he has marked carefully with a pencil, stressing this rare wood to feel something that only a bow maker can feel: where wood wants to be removed to achieve the magical marriage of responsiveness and strength that fine bows possess.
He calls it “tuning the stick.”
“When I make a bow, I’m tuning the stick by planing it and bending it to a very specific resiliency and flexibility, and many characteristics have to balance out,” Samuels says. “What you want to get ideally is a bow that has flexibility and yet has resistance, that has balance and yet has stability—and it has to have all those things just right.”
Looking lean and fit, the warm and friendly 49-year-old Samuels stands beside the bench of his modest workshop on Kibbutz Ein Carmel in Israel, between Tel Aviv and Haifa. I’ve come to Israel on a family vacation; when I found out that Samuels’ workshop was ten minutes away from the home of my wife’s cousin, I contacted him and arranged a meeting. Thankfully, Samuels is generous with his time—his patience with having five members of my family crowd into his space pegs him as a father.
This Chicago native moved to Israel in 1961 as a baby. After attending Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan during high school, he returned to Israel to join the army. At the same time, he began making violins late into the night at the workshop of Amnon Weinstein.
But it was while working with luthier Etienne Vatelot in Paris that Samuels started to study with celebrated bow maker Stéphane Thomachot. He fell in love with the art of making bows, and after working at Jacques Français and René Morel’s New York shop, restoring instruments, Samuels dedicated himself to perfecting the bow maker’s art.
Clearly, he has succeeded. In 1992, Samuels won a gold medal for a cello bow the very first time he entered the Violin Society of America’s bienniel instrument- and bow-making competition. In subsequent competitions, he has received six more gold medals for his violin, viola, and cello bows before being declared Hors Concours (“beyond competition”) and being invited to serve on the panel of judges at the VSA competition in 1998.
Samuels’ workshop is long and narrow, and on this day it is sweltering inside. This former kibbutz chicken coop, located in a one-acre enclave of artists, is flush with raw materials, including ebony and pernambuco—the lifeblood of fine bow making. He hands me a beautiful ten-year-old piece of ebony, most likely from Vietnam, measuring 3’ x 4”x 2”. Samuels estimates that this prized piece of wood—exceptional for its beauty, density, and strength—would yield hundreds of bow frogs. He wonders how difficult it would be to find wood of such quality today.
“Making a frog is a combination between woodworking and jewelry making and you have to be able to cut very precise mortises into this very hard and dense wood,” Samuels says of his handcrafted bows.
He picks up another stick of pernambuco and reflects on the attributes of this rare and rapidly disappearing Brazilian wood. “The stick itself is vibrating in synch with the instrument, and affecting the tone through the string, the bridge, and the instrument,” he says. “It has a damping effect on certain sounds and overtones, and that’s why different bows will give you a variety of tone and different strength of sound.”
Watching Samuels flex the unfinished stick, I ask if he’s ever broken a would-be bow. “If it does [break], it wasn’t meant to be a bow,” he says. “When I heat it and bend it, there is tremendous strain on the fibers of the wood, and if it’s going to break, it’s going to break then.”
We move next door to the workshop of Jonathan Hai, a young Israeli violin maker trained at the International School of Violin Making in Cremona. Hai graciously supplies an excellent cello for me, so I can try out Samuels’ bow. As I put the bow through its paces, both bow maker and instrument maker watch and listen intently.
Upon my return a week later, Samuels has finished two more bows specifically with my style of playing in mind. Each stick has a very different appearance—and feel. The reddish bow I played at our first meeting now has a heavier grip and is the stiffest and quickest to respond. It is joined by an amazingly transparent orange stick that pulls out a softer, gentler sound, as well as a beautiful brown bow that pulls out a rich, singing tone.
For Samuels, the visit is an opportunity to hear the very obvious differences between the bows and to gauge my feelings about each stick. For me, it’s a treat to play bows made with my particular needs for flexibility and strength taken into account.
It’s this marriage of the attributes of the stick to the needs of the player that is Samuels’ ultimate gift.
To watch videos of Mark testing out David’s bows click here: http://www.stringsmagazine.com/article/default.aspx?articleid=25251