Salon des Archets: Retracing the Footsteps of the Old French Masters

What kind of bows do I make?
My specialization is in the roots and refinements of bowmaking which took place in France and, to some extent, England Germany and Italy, as from the end of the 17th Century until the 1870's.

Apart from the Baroque and transitional models (which are often impossible to ascribe to a known maker), I have reproduced some examples of the exquisite bows of the Tourtes (Leonard and Francois), Pajeot, Eury, Persois, Lupot, Maire, Maline, Grand Adam, Dominique and Francois Peccatte, as well as finest examples of John Dodd and William Tubbs.

My aspirations at all times is to attempt to reproduce not only the beauty of the forms of these bows, but also the tonal and technical qualities which they possess.

I make bows not only for musicians involved in the making of historically authentic music, but also for those for those who appreciate the early French bows. The range of my work is very varied, and based on extensive experimentation and experience.

Why copy old French bows?
It may seem strange for a modern maker to spend his time making copies of early French bows. Since the death of Dominique Peccatte, the development of bow the violin family was destined to continue through into the 20th century, where we would find makers like Eugene Sartory, whose concept of design produced bows robust enough to handle the rigorous demands of 20th century music. Yet in general, if we look back to the best work of the early French makers, we can recognize that their work is unsurpassed in almost every sense.

We live in a technological age where, paradoxically, a recognition of the refinements which the early French makers had achieved, has grown hand-in-hand with our appreciation of the differences in modern and authentic (baroque, classical and romantic) performance.

Musicians realise increasingly how an original instruments and bows are ideally suited to interpret the music of the period for which they were written. Having said this, not every player has access to these antique bows; their current high prices and rarity are factors which restrict their use to all but a few players.

What’s so special about an old French bow?
We can appreciate their tonal excellence and incredible richness, colour and purity which they bring to the sound of the instrument, combined with a possibility for a huge range of expression and presence. Their technical capacities can be no less impressive; articulation happens rather effortlessly, provided that the camber (curve)of the bow has been properly adjusted.

There can be no mistaking the characteristic ‘feel’ of an old French bow-a wonderful sense of how the bow clings around the strings, producing a heightened sense of contact with the sound of our instrument.

Finally, we can frequently marvel at the sheer beauty of form, and choice of materials. After years of restoring the work of the work of the old French masters, naturally became absorbed in the process of rediscovering as much as I could of their methods of working-in order to reflect the qualities of their bows to as great a degree as possible.

Is it possible to make bows which play and sound like the originals?
When I began my period of experimentation, it would have been most obvious to assume, given the complete disappearance of the early French style bow combined with the molecular changes which occur in with the ageing of wood, that I would probably not succeed in producing the results which I hoped for.

Somehow, given a series of unexpected discoveries I was kept ‘on the trail’. Now I am happy to say that most of the musicians who own my bows are themselves lovers of old French bows. However, there is no substitute for direct experience and comparison, so, I invite you to find out for yourself.

How do I begin making a bow?
The starting point of any inspired copy must be the choice of wood. It must also demonstrate something of the original maker’s taste, because it is mostly the wood, its structure, which determines the basic quality of the sound. From a large range of pernambuco, a selection must be made.

Every tree possesses unique characteristics, and each piece, different tonal possibilities.

Is it possible to get the bow you really want?
Before I begin working on an order, there are a number of questions to be put before the musician, (these questions can be found in Practicalities).

This is to help determine not only which piece of wood to take, but also many other factors, toward producing the most ideal bow for them.

Do you do restorations?
These days my schedule allows a smaller proportion of time for restoration work. I restore and reproduce (when neccessary) parts for antique bows, especially the bows of the old French makers, and work to exact specifications. All materials used are selected with care, in order to be able to blend harmoniously with the individual bow as well as the idiosynchrasies of the maker in question. Advice is given freely and without obligation.

Do you do adjustments?
The camber in a bow is an important means to regulate the functioning of a bow. In fact many antique bows fall short of their potential, simply because subtle apects of the camber are out of balance. These can usually be corrected in a one session program. Through an initial consultation with the player, and a final check, adjustments in the camber can be made to restore a bow to it’s original wholeness, and to suit the taste and needs of the player. Many musicians report being surprised by the results achieved through the recambering process. (see article: ‘The Art of Recambering’). The balance of the bow is another factor important to consider, and in certain cases this can as well be altered. Advice is given freely and without obligation.

Learn more about Keith Sleeman and Salon des Archets:

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