The Plight of Pernambuco

by William Bartruff, Violin Maker

Since about 1786, when Françoise 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.

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!

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

Proposal To Include Caesalpinia Echinata In The Appendices
Presentation Of The International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative

"A significant number of bowmakers who started their craft since the 1980's had gradually become sensitive to the issue of pressures on the Mata Atlantica due to urban development, mass sugar cane and cellulose production, pasture, etc. While they were genuinely concerned, they felt that a solution to the problem was beyond their control"...[more](pdf)

" a dense, orange-red wood (which takes a high shine), and it is the premier wood used for making bows for string instruments from the violin family. In the bow making business, the best quality Brazilwood bows are referred to as "Pernambuco", while those bows of lesser quality wood from this species are often called "Brazilwood""...[more]

Arcos Brazil
Pernambuco Wood: Conservation Measures
"Pernambuco wood is a typical example of how predatory exploitation can lead to the extinction of a species. During colonial times, rare voices were raised against its destruction. Many laws were conceived in an attempt to control logging and preserve"...[more]

Global Trees Campaign
Why is this species important?
"Pau brasil is the national tree of Brazil, the country to which it gave its name, and has strong cultural links to Brazil’s social and economic history...The species is famous for the dye extract taken from the heartwood, although synthetic dyes have now reduced this trade. The timber is highly valued by musical instrument makers for the manufacture of bows for stringed instruments"...[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"...[more]