VC INTERVIEW | Isaac Sammis on CodaBow's Carbon Fiber Bows
CodaBow began in 1958, with co-founder Stan Prosen and the inventor of carbon fiber himself, Roger Bacon
CodaBow presents a wide range of bows for different playing levels. The Violin Channel recently caught up with Isaac Sammis, Senior Sales and Marketing Manager at CodaBow.
Tell us about CodaBow and how its bows have developed since the formation of the company?
The story for CodaBow begins in 1958, with co-founder Stan Prosen and the inventor of carbon fiber Roger Bacon. They were testing the ASTM specifications for a newly invented material now known as carbon fiber. Stan fashioned the carbon fiber into a standard-sized test ring, but what was revealed through the study was anything but standard. This was a revolutionary new material. In his notebook, Stan scribed the prescient if understated memo: “strength and modulus of carbon-based fiber ring indicate that such fibers will soon outperform glass and other fibers in composite structures.”
And then — perhaps in his excitement — he dropped the ring. It hit the floor, bouncing back almost to its original height. It was not just the remarkable efficiency of that bounce that caught his attention, however, but the sound the ring produced against the tile floor — a tone remarkably clear and sustained, unlike anything he had ever heard before.
Within twenty years, high-performance carbon fiber was revolutionizing industries as diverse as medical technology, aviation, architecture, and recreation, making it one of the most significant material advances of the twentieth century. But Stan, who came from a musical family, was still thinking of the sound of that ring drop in his laboratory and how to harness its acoustic properties to make beautiful music.
Early prototypes of the CodaBow were born in the attic laboratory of a dormant liniment factory in Winona Minnesota. Amidst the hand-blown flasks and graduated cylinders, the makers gathered their ingredients. Some ingredients, like graphite-fiber technology, were new to bow making, yet some were as old as bow making itself: a passion for the art, a dedication to the science, and an uncompromising commitment to performance. In all our craft, we continue to honor the significant historical events that pioneered the modern bow, whether two decades ago creating prototypes in an attic, five decades ago testing a new advanced material in a lab, or two centuries ago in a Parisian workshop where M.Tourte revolutionized the concept of a stringed bow.
We’ve actually held onto that original carbon fiber test ring, the one whose remarkable tone first inspired the idea for a new type of bow. It sits in the CodaBow Workshop today, a reminder of our origins, and a continuing source of inspiration for the team.
Your carbon fiber bows have been praised for their innovative designs based on century-old traditions and learnings? Can you tell us more about how your team approaches the design process?
One of the greatest advantages of carbon fiber bows is this: in the hands of experts, carbon fiber can be intentionally engineered to achieve tailor-made, hyper-detailed specifications. With the combination of pedagogical expertise and modern design technology, we use man-made carbon fiber to intentionally and sustainably create performance bows ideally suited for players of every style, station, and aspiration.
Carbon fiber offers far more control over the outcome of bow-making. Combined with years of expertise in both the science and craft of bow making, carbon fiber bows are the modern answer to age-old, timeless pedagogical standards.
You make an extensive range of models for different levels of players, from professional soloists to beginners. How do the models differ and how does one go about determining which is the right fit for them?
Respected pedagogical standards worldwide agree that bow expectations need to evolve as players progress from beginner to intermediate and eventually to advanced technique. Teachers, players, and makers have always intuitively understood these expectations. Increasingly, modern methods and materials in bow making are giving us great scientific insight into long-appreciated bow performance and allow us to design and produce bows specifically for each station of player’s technical development. This pedagogical approach to intentionally designing bows ensures that players can be confident that they are playing the best-suited bow for each stage of their musical journey.
In general terms, a student-level bow is going to have a stable and robust design that is supportive of developing technique. Early bow technique is focused on gross motor movement of the arm rather than delicate control in the hand. To that end, a bow should balance towards the tip to rest sturdily on the strings for tonal clarity while reinforcing string connection for advancing range, color, and articulation.
On the other end of the spectrum, an advanced-level bow should be expressive and responsive to encouraging mature musical performance and artistic expression. At this stage, players are perfecting their fine motor control and full command of their musical language. Weight under the hand and supple action allow deeper string connection and sensitivity to the subtle commands from the right hand, thus opening nuanced, complex tonal color, and artistry.
Are there different bows for solo playing as opposed to ensemble playing? If so, what makes them more suitable?
Yes, we have a few models that are better suited for solo playing. Mainly this comes down to the bow's tone and performance characteristics. A bow well suited for an ensemble will have a warmer tone that blends well with other instruments. The opposite is true of a soloist's bow. It will have more projection to cut through the orchestra and a more supple response to align with a more demanding performance.
What are the main differences between playing a carbon fiber bow and a traditional wood bow? What feedback from players do you most often hear?
To understand carbon fiber as a bow material, you must first understand its natural characteristics. Carbon fiber is also called graphite fiber. It is an organic polymer made up of thin crystalline filaments.
There are different formulations for producing carbon fiber with certain qualities or effects. In general, though, the process is part chemical and part mechanical and involves heating up long strands of fibers in an oxygen-less environment. Because there’s no oxygen, the fibers can’t burn, and carbonization occurs.
Carbonization is when the atoms inside the fibers shake viciously and eject most of the non-carbon atoms. What remains is a fiber made of tightly interwoven chains of carbon atoms and only a few non-carbon atoms.
In the hands of experts, this controlled process allows for testing, optimization, and intentionally designed bows that can be perfected to achieve high-quality acoustics and rich tonality. Wood is extremely variable, but carbon fiber is not, so it’s possible to make bows that are very consistent in weight, balance, and feel and are matched to a player's needs.
In addition to this, we use a proprietary blend of organic and composite material infused under high-pressure to achieve unrivaled timbre, overtones, and range. This allows the bows to boast superior quality beyond what is achievable with carbon fiber alone.
What is the lifespan of a carbon fiber bow? Are they equally repairable as wood bows?
You might knock your bow off the music stand, close your case on it, or trip and drop it. A carbon fiber bow can stand up to the challenges of everyday life. It won’t crack after years of use. It won’t permanently warp if too many hairs break on one side. You’ll likely not need many repairs on a carbon fiber bow, but since they are made using composite materials, all the components are very replaceable.
Over the years, your company has shown a strong commitment to environmental sustainability. Can you please explain what initiatives you have in place and why this is so important to your cause?
We are proud to feature our exclusive GlobalBow™ Design which offers advanced material alternatives for endangered, restricted, or monitored species commonly found on other bows (ivory, mother-of-pearl, Madagascar Ebony, Pernambuco). This design not only enables players to travel through international Customs worry-free but also promises a commitment to environmental sustainability.
What is the price range of your bow models?
Our bows range from $350 up to $1,500—$2,000 depending on the level of play and any custom attributes added to the bow.
For those on the fence, when next testing bows, why should we ask for a carbon fiber selection as well — in 5 words or less?
Intentionally designed for exacting performance.