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Choosing materials for bow making

Bows are fitted with materials from all over the world. Other than jewellery and ornaments, nothing is made of so many diverse and wonderful components. Pernambuco and ebony woods, ivory or bone, tortoiseshell, horn, whalebone, mother of pearl, horse hair, leather, silver, nickel silver or gold, these materials are sourced - or used to be sourced - from far and wide and are a testament to a European history of exploration, colonisation and seafaring trade.

We are increasingly concerned about sustainable use of natural resources and the preservation of species. So, where does the responsible bow maker source his or her materials? Which ones are acceptable to use? And how do we find out whether a species is becoming endangered?

I’ll answer the first question last.

So, let’s go instead to the second question. The choice of acceptable materials depends on two criteria. Firstly, it has to do the job properly, so the best place to look for useful materials is on existing bows, old and new. This will give us a list similar to the one above. The choice of materials then has to be balanced by considerations of legality, sustainability and animal welfare.

This brings us to the third question - how do we find out whether a species is (or is becoming) endangered? The oracle is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, which provides detailed lists of all flora and fauna which is at risk, It is the most reliable source for the worker in natural materials, from which they can gain an insight into the current legal status of rare materials, international law concerning trade in the material and much more.

For the bow maker, many of the materials used will have come from a trade supplier, and it is important that they can provide written confirmation of the species they are selling. This will give the bow maker the opportunity of deciding for themself whether this material is ethically appropriate to use, by checking on the CITES appendices.

So, finally we come back to the third question. Where does the responsible bow maker source his or her materials? I can only answer for myself. My wood has all been sourced from within the EU, and is subject to its stringent trade laws. There is no legal source of raw pernambuco from Brazil and I was lucky enough to buy a lifetime’s supply from a retired bow maker who had bought his stock long before the trade ban was imposed.

My pearl I source from the Channel Islands. The Ormer oyster is a local delicacy, and the is subject to stringent laws regarding fishing. But empty shells are fair game and this is where I obtain the pearl I use on my own hand made bows. I also buy common awabi and paua pearl which I am satisfied is in plentiful supply.

I have a supply of mammoth ivory for facings which is perfectly legal to use is it is extinct and therefore not endangered! But I rarely use it because it is identical to elephant ivory (except under laboratory conditions). Instead I use cow bone, Bos primigenius indicus, which is plain white, so not so easy to confuse with elephant ivory. It is also stronger.

My leather is kangaroo, and the horse hair is - from horses. More about this last one in another blog because it needs an article of its own.

Do contact me with any questions you have regarding bow-making materials.

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