All Strings Considered

Sleek and elegant, H.F. Grabenstein’s bows are world renowned

by Anne Averyt

grabenWorking under the business name H.R. Grabenstein, Williston resident Harry Grabenstein plies a centuries-old craft making bows for stringed instruments ancient and modern in his Jericho Center shop.

Harry Grabenstein is an artist in snake wood and horsehair. Officially, he’s an archetier, but he prefers to call himself a bow maker, constructing quality modern and early music instruments for string musicians. It’s a centuries-old craft and he is one of only a handful of full-time bow makers in the United States. Over the last 30 years, Grabenstein has earned an international reputation for his handcrafted bows for pre–18th century instruments.

“I started out as a guitar maker,” he muses. Although always interested in craft and arts, in college he studied anthropology, his major at Temple University in Philadelphia. While a student, he began playing guitar and within a year he had constructed his own instrument.

In the mid 1970s, he moved from his hometown of Philadelphia to Vermont, where his wife’s family had a summer home. “We came to visit and it was too nice to leave,” he says.

His first job was with Time Guitar, a locally famous shop in the 1970s and 1980s. There he met Peter Tourin, a violin maker, and started working with him.

It was the query letter Grabenstein sent to Tourin that got him the job. After more than 30 years, Tourin still remembers what he wrote: “I’m dying to find a job where I can be proud of what I’m producing.”

The first classical stringed instruments Grabenstein worked on were a harpsichord and a viola da gamba, which is a family of six-string baroque instruments ranging in size from a violin to larger than a cello. These days, working under the business name H.F. Grabenstein, he makes bows in his Jericho Center studio primarily for viola da gambas, although part of the time he creates bows for modern violins. In his shop the ancient meets the modern.

He learned his craft at the University of New Hampshire where he attended a bow-making course in 1982. Although he continued working with Tourin, he split his time between making instruments and making bows. Then in 1990, he headed out on his own, focusing on bow making.

Creating a bow is a specialized craft. “It’s woodworking,” Grabenstein says. “You have to make sure you have the right stiffness in the bow, that the weight is right, and the balance.”

In a way it’s like a ballet — or a symphony. “The bow has to drive the instrument,” he explains. “When you pull the bow across the strings, you want the string to wiggle, and not the bow. The bow drives the instrument rather than being driven by the instrument.”

Grabenstein’s business flourished from the beginning, in part, he says, because he had been working in an established shop with a respected builder. “This is a specialized field and it’s competitive to get started and build a customer base. I was fortunate to be working with Peter Tourin because a lot of players looked at my bows sooner than they would have otherwise. I had access to teachers and better players right from the beginning.”

Grabenstein’s modern bows are used by Vermont Symphony Orchestra musicians and members of the Boston Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra as well. Using his classical bows are musicians in renowned classical period ensembles, and teachers and students at schools that specialize in early music programs.

But Grabenstein’s bows “travel far and wide,” says Tourin, who, in addition to being Grabenstein’s mentor, is one of his bow testers. “In the early-music world, Harry has built an absolutely solid reputation. Internationally, he is one of the best-known bow makers.”

About 15 percent of Grabenstein’s business now comes from abroad. He has crafted bows for musicians in Australia and New Zealand and throughout England and Europe.

A typical day finds him working in his studio from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “Being self-employed, I’ve tried different ways of working,”he says, “but I find I do best with a shop that is separate from my house and working basically a 9-to-5 day.”

He works on two to three bows at a time, and when he gets close to finishing one batch, he starts another. Mornings are spent building the bows, while afternoons are less intense as he roughs out plans for the next set of bows.

One day a week, though, Grabenstein “dresses up, shaves, and puts on a clean shirt” to go into the Burlington Violin Shop where he does repairs and bow re-hairing. “It’s a nice connection for me,” he says, “and it’s fun. On Tuesdays everyone knows Harry the bow guy is in the shop.”

Grabenstein’s bows are sleek and beautiful. A bow consists of a hardwood shaft, a carved tip at the top of the bow that secures the strings, and a “frog” that secures the bow hair to the grip at the lower end. Frogs on modern bows are often intricate, made with silver and mother of pearl or prehistoric ivory, which leaches in abundance from fields in Siberia following the spring thaw. The frogs on early music bows are usually made entirely from a single piece of wood.

The “strings” of the bow are horse hair, which comes mostly from China or Mongolia. But the wood is the critical factor in bow construction. Grabenstein prefers tropical hardwoods from South America and Africa because of their density and strength. For his early music bows he uses primarily snake wood from Guyana, the same wood used in the original bows.

Some early bows he can finish in two days, but most take a week to a week and a half to complete. A modern bow requires a full two weeks because of the ornate silverwork on the frog. Grabenstein makes craft bows, not production bows, meaning each bow is made by hand not mass produced. “That’s what I bring to them as a person that makes them one at a time.”

“I am impressed by his product and his process,” says Fran Pepperman Taylor, a professional string musician and teacher in Burlington who owns two of Grabenstein’s bows. Taylor is also one of Grabenstein’s bow testers, which means several times a year he comes to visit with “a box of bows” for her to try out.

“They are often perfect, but sometimes there is a little bounce or wobble” that needs correction. “Sometimes it feels like he’s Merlin the Wizard,” Taylor says. “He heats up the bow with a small flame from what looks like a Bunsen burner, then he rubs it and fixes it.”

Grabenstein says what makes his bows special is his selection of materials and the individual attention he gives to each bow, building and adjusting them. But there’s more to it than that, Tourin explains. What distinguishes a master bow maker, he says, is that the difference between his best bow and his worst bow is very narrow. “The best bow is wonderful but the worst bow is still excellent.” That’s true of Grabenstein’s bows, Tourin says, and “that’s what makes Harry one of the best bow makers.”

For 15 years, Grabenstein has been married to Fran Stoddard, host of the Vermont Public Television series Profile. The two were set up by a friend celebrating her 40th birthday party and, as Grabenstein says, “the rest is history.” Though they both juggle busy schedules, they find time to drum, dance, and travel — their shared passions. Both are members of the Burlington Taiko, a Japanese drumming ensemble that performs throughout the region.

When Grabenstein plays an instrument, it’s the drums and guitar, not a viola da gamba; and when he listens to music it’s more likely to be Brazilian than baroque. But as he points out, “the person who drives a race car isn’t the person who builds it” — and vice versa.

Grabenstein makes and sells between 35 and 50 bows a year, with modern bows representing only 15 percent of his business. A bow sells for between $600 and $3,500, but a player can use one for a lifetime. “Bows don’t wear out,” he explains “but they do get changed when a musician’s playing style changes or they get a new instrument.”

The downturn in the economy hasn’t really affected Grabenstein’s business. “I’m selling to professionals and very serious amateurs who will choose to do without something else to purchase a bow for their work or passion.” He adds that the bow is sometimes the “downsize choice” for clients. “They buy a new bow because it’s less expensive than a new instrument.”

Grabenstein refers to himself as “Harry the bow maker” or “Harry the bow guy,” but he really regards himself as a tool maker. “I make a tool for someone to use in their art,” he says, “and that’s really satisfying — having a piece you made in the hands of a musician. I’m lucky to have found this thing I can do, have that connection, and make a living at it.”