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Amazing Grace- Anthony Houska follows the creation of his beautiful German-style bow, commissioned from English maker Brian Tunnicliffe.

Reproduced with kind permission of Orpheus Publications Ltd.  First printed in the Double Bassist.  Issue Number 8, Spring 1999.

As a dealer in fine double basses and accessories, I am often approached by prospective purchasers overseas for high quality German-style bass bows. Having heard reports that German players are clamouring for bows from the UK's Brian Tunnicliffe, I decided to commission him to make me a bow and added my name to his two-year waiting list.

Although Tunnicliffe has only been making and repairing bows since 1979, he has established a reputation as one of Britain's leading archetiers. With more than 800 bows to his name to date, by December last year Tunnicliffe had made 84 French-pattern bows (mostly owned by English professional musicians) and 32 German models (mainly bought by players in Hamburg and Berlin).

Born in 1934 in Middleton, Lancashire, Tunnicliffe's early talent for wood- and metal-working led to an engineering job as an apprentice pattern maker, then to 24 years of teaching at various schools and technical colleges. While on a summer singing course, violinist friends suggested he turn his hand to bowmaking, and an introduction to Arthur Bultitude was arranged. Bultitude (1908-1990) was apprenticed to Wm. Hill & Sons, becoming workshop manager after the war. He never took on apprentices but did agree to look at Tunnicliffe's work. Every week, Tunnicliffe would show his work to Bultitude, who lived only six miles away from him.

Few English bowmakers have ever departed from the Hill/Bultitude tradition of making that developed from the styles of Tourte. Surprisingly, Tunnicliffe's bows 'are modelled on those of the famous French makers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries', with flowing lines and more rounded profiles.

Following a chance meeting in Bultitude's house with Robert Clarke, a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) Tunnicliffe's career shifted from repairs to making. Clarke placed an order for a copy of a colleague's fine Sartory bow. LSO principal bassist Bruce Mollison then asked for his Sartory bow to be copied - the first bass bow Tunnicliffe completed. Both Clark and Mollison were fundamental in promoting Tunnicliffe's work around the London orchestras; Mollison ended up buying five of his bows. Word spread to other players and a growing order book for bows and repair work enabled Brian to resign his full-time teaching post at Hastings Grammar School and set up as a full-time maker and restorer. Simultaneously, he began to record the details of all the best bows that came in for repair but, given the success of his early Sartory model bows, concentrated his studies on this maker's work.

Sartory model bows

I first met Tunnicliffe in 1992 after he moved from East Sussex to Merrick Square in south-east London. Trinity Church, in the neighbouring square, is used solely by orchestras for rehearsals and recording - including London's four world-class symphonic ensembles - and, by being on the doorstep, Tunnicliffe's business blossomed. He has since moved to Upper Sydenham, London SE26, but still has an 18-month waiting list for orders.

When I visited Tunnicliffe at Merrick Square, his south-facing basement room was crammed with the tools, lathes, free-standing drills and equipment of an archetier. Bows for repair and partly finished models hung from long nails in the wall and the heady aroma of wood dust and polish assaulted my nostrils.

Although happy to accept repair work, Tunnicliffe prefers to be regarded as a maker, so orders for new bows usually take precedence to repair work. His French or Bottesini-style bass bows are based on the Sartory model with slight modifications. The German or Dragonetti-style bows are based on a Pfretchner model. Nearly all sell direct to European dealers, with a flourishing market in snakewood bows developing through one of Tunnicliffe's German agents. In fact, it has encouraged him to develop bows from fluted snakewood - an exotic-looking wood, slightly harder than pernambuco - where the fluting commences in front of the lapping and stops on the top facets, before the head.

I wanted a gold-mounted bow of top quality and Tunnicliffe wrote the details of my order in a sky-blue book. We spent the next hour searching through his stock, including large amounts of wood which Tunnicliffe acquired from the period instrument maker Arnold Dolmetch in 1979. We ended up with a superb blank of dense, close-grain pernambuco that read 5,500 metres per second (m/s) on Tunnicliffe's Lucchi machine. Despite divided opinions on the use of the machine - which measures the velocity of sound through a material - Tunnicliffe has been a firm advocate of its use since buying the technology in March 1989: 'It sorts the strong wood from the weak. We're after good stiffness quality - the higher the velocity readings, the stiffer the stick will be.' Readings obtainable from pernambuco range from 4,500m/s to 5,900m/s, with a really good bass bow averaging 5,400m/s.

After the Lucchi test, wood is subjected to Tunnicliffe's visual scrutiny and any timber containing knots, shakes or other flaws is rejected. The bow blank is put into a lathe and turned to about 14mm - tapering to about 11mm just before the head. It is then treated to six days of ammonia fumes: 'It's a purely cosmetic procedure that is used to darken the colour of any pale wood,' explains Tunnicliffe. 'There is a strong preference for darker bows. On average, five to seven days is sufficient for the fumes to go right through the stick.'

Tunnicliffe estimates it can take up to 40 hours to create a bass bow.

Tunnicliffe can make each facet incredibly flat, even and sharp at the edges. 

Tunnicliffe estimates that it takes some 35-40 hours to make a bass bow, as much as ten hours more than it takes to create one for a violin. The bass bows take longer to complete because they are so much stronger and take longer in the bending: 'Getting the spring and curvature in the stick in the first place and readjusting when the bow is tensioned with hair are the most difficult part of making a bass bow.' To avoid splitting the wood, bending has to be done gradually. Tunnicliffe has devised a very simple technique that reduces both the time and effort involved, comprising three sets of two pieces of wood - one concave and one convex. Tunnicliffe heats the pernambuco stick to around 65-70 degrees Celcius using a dry heat from his portable electric stove. It is then clamped in a vice between the first set of templates, each of which is used in four different positions along the stick starting at the head. The second set has slightly more curve with the third set having a curvature that slightly overbends the stick from its final camber. 'There just doesn't seem to be any point holding the bow over heat for ages,' Tunnicliffe points out. 'Just clamp it up and get on with some rehairs or something else.' A fourth set of templates with a tight curve is used for the head underneath the throat, before the whole stick is checked for length and approximate curvature according to the cambers on Brian's template. Continental players seem to prefer octagonal bows, so I follow suit. Some makers - not Tunnicliffe - charge more for an octagonal stick as it is more difficult to make and can take three or four more hours to obtain a good, even taper towards the head, while the eight corners have to be very precise. While working on the stick, Tunnicliffe clamps it in his vice or simply holds it by hand. Both taper and corners have to be in complete proportion to each other, and Tunnicliffe judges these purely by eye. He can make each facet incredibly flat, consistently even and sharp at the edges.

The frog for each bow can take two days to complete. Each task is a precise engineering job in itself. The three sides for the under slide are milled out, followed by the hair groove, mother of pearl groove and the hair with wedge mortise. The frog is placed vertically in a vice and the ferrule tongue cut to the required D section. The recess for the back slide is cut by hand and the sides of the frog roughly hollowed out. Once the underslide has been pressed out and fitted, it is fixed in position using an epoxy resin-type glue and tiny threaded silver or gold pins. The semicircle of the ferrule is shaped around a former using 0.8mm gauge silver or gold which is then soldered to the thicker (2mm) flat section. A mother-of-pearl slide is made and fitted to align exactly with both the ferrule and back slide, both previously fitted. The Parisian eye recesses are cut to a depth of 1mm and the mother-of-pearl dots and rings are made and fitted, glued in place, filed flush with the surface and polished. If engraving work is required on the Tunnicliffe 'shield' trademark or the Tudor Rose emblem he inherited from Bultitude then the whole frog is sent away. Finally the screw and adjuster are made. Tunnicliffe may work on two or three frogs concurrently, although to proceed he must have one ready once the stick has been planed to the required weight: 'The dimensions for the frog across the bottom slide recess and for the adjuster are standard, so that the handle part of the stick will have matching measurements in all bows of the same type. But because a dense piece of wood is heavier than one less dense, weight will establish the ultimate dimensions of the stick further along.'

Both stick and frog are now planed to fit perfectly together. Once the head mortise has been milled out and an ivory or metal face has been fitted and shaved or filed roughly to shape, the frog is aligned with the head through fractional adjustments to the handle facets, especially the three upon which the frog fits.

The weight of Tunnicliffe's bows has remained 'pretty much the same': '...except if you get a section leader like the principal bass player from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jack McCormack, who created a fashion for real monster French bows at 155g when the average is 140-142g. 'The average German bow made from pernambuco is between 128g and 133g, with snakewood ones slightly heavier (133-137g).

The delicate work of finishing the head starts with the face and throat which are reduced to their final shape. Tunnicliffe checks their contours with two templates that represent his ideal bow head shape. A beautifully carved head can greatly enhance the finished bow, while its style and proportion are the personal signature of the maker. Next, the 45 degree bevels that extend from the bottom of the head are cut out and finished with smooth flat and half-round files. The ridge that runs from the crown of the head to the tip forms automatically as the cheeks are bevelled and shaped, while the tip is brought to a pleasing little triangular shape by using as small file and abrasive paper wrapped around a small dowel of wood to finish off.

The stick of my bow is prepared for polishing using a series of silicon carbide abrasive paper that is wrapped around a short, stiff steel ruler that helps avoid rounding the corners off from the octagons. Next the grains of the wood have to be sealed and filled. Up to 12 coats of french polish are applied with a cloth. Each is allowed to dry before it is rubbed back to the bare wood with extra-fine abrasive paper. The bow is haired with best Mongolian white that Tunnicliffe obtains from Michael T. Sowden & Sons of Drighlington, near Bradford. Bass bows normally use between 12g and 15g of hair, which can number more than 400 hairs - my bow has 440: 'Some bows can take more hair than others. I don't count the number to use; it really is a pure gut feeling.'

Although the polished bow looks finished, the stick must be tested at slightly more than playing tension because it can pull noticeably to one side or other under the considerable poundage and the force being exerted on it through the hair. The whole process of recambering and straightening the stick can often be extremely difficult and frustrating and can take anything between one and six hours to complete (excluding cooling time). The final curvature will differ slightly between each bow as it depends on the density of the wood at points along the stick.

The final touches include applying burnishing cream to the stick to produce a stunning mirror finish to show off the grain. The edges of the frog are 'rounded a little' to make the bow more comfortable in the hand. The frog is french polished, before being machine buffed to a high finish using a cutting compound followed by a polishing compound. Each bow is stamped with Tunnicliffe's name, its date of completion, its number and a tiny England brand. As soon as I set eyes on my red-brown pernambuco bow, my long wait for it paled into insignificance. The bow was exceptional, with evenly tapered chamfers, precise octagons and no deviations in curvature. A stunning, strong grain effect glowed through the stick, while the gold face, lapping, ferrule and Parisian eye glistened and contrasted with the dark dense ebony of the frog. The following day, a Swedish dealer offered to buy the bow from me at a substantial profit but I declined. I've found it impossible to part with my special Tunnicliffe bass bow.

The Tunnicliffe bass bow vital statistics

Date and number of bow

96 27 (27th bow of 1996)

Weight of stick alone


Balance of stick from end, without nipple


Weight of frog alone


Weight of button & screw


Weight of stick plus frog & button


Weight of complete bow


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