Lipkins’ bass bow wins the gold

Susan Lipkins (photo by Dion Ogust)

Woodstock bow-maker Susan Lipkins has won a gold medal in the Violin Society of America’s 2012 international violin and bow competition. She received the award for one of her bass bows and is the first woman ever to win a gold medal in the prestigious contest.

Lipkins and her husband, David Wiebe, who makes stringed instruments in their workshop on Glasco Turnpike, are on the board of trustees of the Maverick Concerts, and they both play bass in the Esopus Chamber Orchestra.

“I made the bow specifically for this competition,” says Lipkins, who has entered the biennial contest five times before. “When you make a competition bow, you use the best material that you collect for this purpose — the most dense black ebony, the most beautiful pernambuco stick, mother-of-pearl that’s the most reflective and colorful. It’s more warm-looking and appealing to mount in gold instead of silver. And it has to be clean and perfect.”


This year, she had received a commission from Jeff Turner, principal bass player of the Pittsburgh Symphony. “He wanted a gold-mounted bass bow, and he wanted to see it win a gold medal,” says Lipkins. “He paid in advance. I had to make what he wanted — it had to be a player’s bow — but it worked out in the end.”

Her bows are always tailored to the specific needs of the customer. In this case, Turner wanted the frog, the ebony piece that moves to loosen or tighten the hair, “lower than usual, so the response is more immediate,” she explains. “He also wanted the bow on lighter side, weight-wise. That was tough because gold weighs more than silver.”

Before making the bow for this year’s competition, Lipkins showed her last four creations to one of her mentors, New York City bow-maker Yung Chin. “He’s judged competitions a number of times. Every time I would show him a bow, I went in proud and left feeling low. But each time, he was glad to see, ‘Okay, she cleaned that up, here’s another suggestion.’ I’m always trying to learn how to make bows better.”

Asked why there are so few women making bows, she muses, “In the history of bow-making, women weren’t working in the shop — they were doing finishing work, rehairing and putting the grip on. It does take a bit of hand strength and fortitude to rough out and bend the stick. Sometimes my hands look kind of rough — maybe it wasn’t a feminine thing to do 100 years ago. I don’t really know why, but there are only a few women making bows here, a handful in France, and a handful in Brazil.”

Since receiving the award in mid-November, Lipkins has received seven inquiries from prospective buyers, and three have made it onto her waiting list, which now numbers somewhere between 40 and 50. Given that she makes about 10 bows a year, those new customers are going to have a pretty long wait.