Monday, February 8, 2016

Pernambuco or Brazilwood, What's the difference?

If you're an avid fan of stringed instruments and their bows, you might have noticed two names for wood bows- Pernambuco and Brazilwood. So, what's the difference? The answer is- not much. In fact, they come from the same tree 'Pau Brasil' (Caesalpinia Echinata)


The Pau Brasil tree.

What we're actually distinguishing here is the wood that is used to make the stick part of the bow. The long piece of wood that holds the hair.

Just as a human body has different parts, so does a tree. Each year that a tree grows, it adds more wood to itself on the outside, underneath the bark. The start and stop of each growth cycle is 'hardened off' with a grain line. That's why trees get wider as they age. It's also why you can count the grain rings on a tree and know its age. Each grain ring represents one year. Woodworkers, bow makers and violin makers distinguish between two parts of the wood. The 'heartwood'- early on in a tree's life,  the circumference is small and, dependent on the growing conditions, the grain rings are somewhat far apart from one another. The 'sapwood'- As the tree ages, the circumference widens and there is less space between grain rings.
Rings of the Pau Brasil tree.

Specifically, for Pau Brasil, the area of the wood where the grain is less dense and ranges in color from an orange to a dark wine is called the heartwood. The outer, and lighter wood surrounding the heartwood is call the sapwood. To your average tree cutter, all of the lumber is Brazilwood. But as soon as the lumber is sorted and cut for bows, the bow industry gives the wood different names. Bow makers and wood suppliers for bow makers call the heartwood from the Pau Brasil tree 'Pernambuco'.  The rest of the wood (the sapwood) is termed 'Brazilwood'.

Violin Bow made by Francois Xavier Tourte, Paris, ca. 1775-1790. Pernambuco wood. Photo Courtesy of the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota. 


Generally speaking, Pernambuco is a better wood for bows. But, since there's no exact delineation between the Pernambuco wood and the Brazilwood from a single tree, there's always going to be some overlap. And trees aren't interested in their wood designations at all. So some Brazilwood might be better for bows than some Pernambuco.

Viola/violin bow made by Fran├žois Xavier Tourte,  Paris, ca. 1800-1810. Pernambuco Wood. Photo Courtesy of the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota. 

There's also a bit of a color difference. Pernambuco wood is often red-brown or orange-brown, Brazilwood is usually a duller medium brown. The density difference between Pernambuco and Brazilwood also lets bow makers make more precise and delicate cuts on Pernambuco, and give Pernambuco bows a beter strength and spring for the same weight of bow. That's why a lot of Brazilwood bows look and feel a bit "clunky".

Brazilwood Cello Bow

So, what's best for you for a bow? Generally, bows that are designated as Pernambuco will play better and give you better tone quality. But not always! The best thing to do is to try a few different bows. Which one works best for you?

Need more information- The International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative has great informationon their website. And, scholar Stefan Aune wrote a few blog posts about Pernambuco and its conservation on this blog series.

Whatever you play, Happy Bowing!

2 comments:

  1. Excellent article Andrew, congratulations and thank you ! A lot of information that I wasn't aware of, even though I am writing this four yards away from a Caesalpina Echinata in my garden ! LOL.

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  2. I agree. A very good, well-illustrated summary. The simplest and best explanation I've managed to find!

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