Jim Clinton Violins Greenville, SC

Archive for April, 2013



My experience with ipe started when I needed a bow rehaired in the middle of a recording project.  I was playing fiddle for a singer-songwriter, and the hair on the good pernambuco stick that I reserved recording sessions and high profile gigs just was not getting it done.  I dropped by Clinton’s Violin shop and was trying out bows.  Jim said, ”Try this, it is new.”  He handed me a bow with a light color wood and a very nice looking frog.  It was heavy but very well balanced.  It produced a warmer if not quite as bold sound as the pernambuco bow, but it was more alive than my very good carbon fiber bow.  It tracked well and followed the strings very nicely.  It was not quite as stiff as either of the other bows but was not nervous either.  There was some give but I didn’t fight it during difficult bow passages either.  I took it to the recording session a few days later.  I was warming up in the studio and trying to figure out what bow to use since my main one was still being rehaired.  The singer-songwriter heard the ipe bow and said, “That sounds good. Use that one.”  So I used it on the session that day.  The combination of warmth and the smooth ease of performance make it a good choice for a bow.


As musicians, we tend to be more introspective. We tend to be aware of the spiritual aspects of life and the world around us.  To care for our environment, as commanded, is obedience to God.  As believers we will show good stewardship by accepting the responsibility that was given in the beginning.  As musicians, we are constantly striving for a better sound.  We want the best tools we can afford.  We search for that right instrument, and want to marry it up to a complimentary bow.  As the world strains under the load of supporting ever more people and a small fraction of those people take up bowed instruments, the amount of resources available for each person is diminished.  As more activities take place in the rainforests of Brazil, fewer trees remain uncut.  As a result, pernambuco, the wood of choice for violin bows, is an endangered species.



Many efforts have been made to find a substitute wood for pernambuco. Ipe (pronounced ?’-pay) is regarded as one of the best candidates.  It shares some of the properties that make for an excellent bow. Ipe is a dense tree from Brazil and has been utilized in making furniture, decking, and other outdoor uses. It is increasingly popular as a decking material due to its insect resistance and durability.  Indigenous peoples of the Amazon made hunting bows from the wood, which is the source of its common name pau d’arco, “bow stick”.  It is proving to be a very good source for violin bows. In recent years, some bows made of ipe even won gold metals in international string instrument making competitions. Good ipe bows certainly outperform the moderate level pernambuco bows. One bow maker claims, “Ipe bows are ideal for advancing players, with a medium firm to strong stick that is quick responding and offers full tone projection. Ipe makes for a bow with a medium to heavy weight, an excellent balance and a warm tone.”


Ipe is a fast growing wood that shares 90% of the physical properties of a high quality pernambuco. This makes it an extremely good choice for making bows. While this wood is more commonly adopted in Europe and among European makers, it is less commonly used in the US and Asia. In double blind tests, this bow has outperformed pernambuco bows. Many European bow makers have used ipe and continue to use it in their bow lineups. Prestigious bow making competitions have been won with ipe bows. The best advantage ipe has over pernambuco is cost. It is a fast growing tree, so it is easily replenished, therefore making it a candidate for sustainable usage.


Pernambuco is not the only wood that is getting scarce, so is ebony, a material of choice for making the frog of the bow.  In late 2011, Taylor Guitars and Madinter Trade, S.L, an international distributor of guitars and tonewoods used to make musical instruments, partnered to purchase Crelicam, an ebony mill located outside of Yaoundé, Cameroon. The new ownership shares a forward-thinking vision for the procurement and milling of ebony, one that offers both investment and enrichment to the local community and ensures that ebony is legally, sustainably and ethically harvested.  Ebony, a material used in lots of musical instruments and for frogs on bows, has become quite scarce.  This prompted Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars to buy an ebony plantation so he could manage his supply.  When he found out that the wood cutters may cut ten trees in order to find one that was all black and let nine lay in the forest to rot because they brought less money due to color variations, Taylor announced that from now on ebony will display these color variations.  There is not enough ebony to meet the demand.  Taylor said, “We need to use the ebony that the forest gives us.”


Much of the same thing is happening with pernambuco.  While it is increasingly being grown in sustainable plots, it is becoming more expensive and harder to get.  Ipe has many characteristics that make it valuable as a bow material.  We are living in a world where flexibility is required.  We cannot remain dogmatic that only one wood is good for an application.  We all need to be to be ready to embrace change.




In researching this article I found quite a number of bows out there made from ipe and they range from inexpensive to quite pricey.  Jon Paul Ipe bows start around $200 with nickel-silver and range up to $450 with fully mounted silver.  Comparable pernambuco bows made in Brazil, start at $400 for nickel-silver and $700 for fully mounted silver. Asian imports range from less than $100 to a couple of hundred dollars, and European makers charge more for their work.  There is a bowmaker in Montana who makes bows out of bamboo, but they start at $1,000.  A bit more than some players want to spend.  Good carbon fiber bows start in the $300 to $400 range, and while they are no match for the very best bows out there, they are a definite step up from fiberglass and Brazilwood bows often offered as part of beginner outfits.  Ipe makes for a warm sounding bow with good handling characteristics.  Ipe makes for a reasonably priced bow that produces a more dense and live sound than a carbon fiber bow.  So in this time of an ever so fast changing world, it is good to know that while not everyone is a bow maker, there are bow makers out there finding what will work best for you in a bow in the future.


Bob Buckingham performs in the southeast region on a variety of folk instruments, but primarily plays fiddle. While teaching and playing Old Time and Bluegrass fiddling styles, Bob uses a bow of pernambuco, carbon fiber, and now Ipe.

To try an Ipe bow or discuss its attributes Contact Jim Clinton Violins.