The Plight of Pernambuco

by William Bartruff, Violin Maker

Since about 1786, when FranÁoise Xavier Tourte (1747-1835) created the modern version of the bow used for all bowed stringed instruments, pernambuco (Pau-Brazil) wood has been the standard material for bow making. Tourte surely noticed a strange, new type of wood introduced by the Portuguese from Brazil. This wood was pernambuco which was imported for use as a reddish dye. Tourte was struggling with his new bow design and tried the wood. It worked perfectly. Strong and flexible, pernambuco allowed the musician better control over his instrument and withstood heavy use.

Pernambuco in bloom.
Caesalpinia echinata in bloom
Photo: Ad Naturam

Now, many years later, pernambuco wood is quickly becoming scarce. Found only in the Mata Atlantica region of Brazil, pernambuco is listed by the IUCN as endangered and will thus be subject to international trade restrictions (CITES). And though there was a time when ivory, tortoise shell and ebony were also used extensively in bow making, bow makers have found various substitutes to adorn their works. However, there is no good substitute for the wood used to make the bow itself. Although a carbon fiber bow has been invented, most musicians eschew this in favor of the traditional pernambuco wood bows because of their "feel" on the strings.

The links on this page provide additional information. Please take the time to inform yourself and get involved. The concert you save may be your own. And thanks for listening!

Brazilwood (Caesalpinia Echinata) in Brazil
"Brazilwood (Caesalpinia echinata) is the national tree of Brazil, where it is commonly known as pau brasil. After many years of harvesting, this species is on the verge of extinction. Despite Brazilwood's inclusion on CITES Appendix II and the Brazilian threatened plant species list, exploitation continues due to its extremely dense hardwood ideal for making bows for stringed musical instruments"...[more](pdf)

"Paubrasilia is a genus of flowering plants in the legume family, Fabaceae. The sole species it contains, P. echinata, is a Brazilian timber tree commonly known as Pernambuco tree or Brazilwood (Portuguese: Pau de Pernambuco, Pau-Brasil; Tupi Ibirapitanga). This plant has a dense, orange-red heartwood that takes a high shine, and it is the premier wood used for making bows for stringed instruments. The wood also yields a red dye called brazilin, which oxidizes to brazilein."...[more]

Arcos Brazil
Pernambuco Wood
"The ceaseless exploitation of brazilwood (caesalpinia echinata Lam., known in the bow business as Pernambuco wood) on the coast of Brazil between 1501 and 1857 was responsible not only for the name given to the land and its people"...[more]

Global Trees Campaign
Pau Brasil
"The pau brasil is the national tree of Brazil, the country to which it gave its name. The species is only found within several remnants of the Atlantic Coastal Forest where it provides important habitat for orchids and other epiphytes."...[more]

Russ Rymer
Out of Pernambuco
" level bows can only be made of one known material, a wood that is increasingly rare from a tree that is imperiled. Facing the extinction of their craft and the end of classical music as we are used to hearing it, bow makers are abandoning their workshops in the capitals of Western culture and invading the forests of Brazil, the only place where the pernambuco tree grows, to mount an international rescue effort."...[more]