The walls of Ernie Hartl’s Walla Walla workshop are lined with violins, violas and cellos. But Hartl’s passion is the bows that unlock the voices of the instruments. Hartl, a bowmaker (also known as an archetier), has been crafting exquisite bows for baroque and classical stringed instruments full time since 2010. His bows demonstrate the heart of an artist and the precision of an engineer.
Hartl was born in Fargo, N.D., but spent much of his childhood in Montana. As a young boy, he enjoyed spending time every summer with his grandfather, Luke Lacock, in Orofino, Idaho. Although Lacock studied under violin maker (also known as a luthier) Del Brock, he was so busy repairing stringed instruments that he was never able to finish making a violin. When Hartl was 19, Lacock gave him patterns and wood to build a violin — marking the beginning of Hartl’s relationship with stringed instruments. He still has that first violin (which he finished in the late 1990s), though he prefers to keep that first attempt tucked away.
After attending community college, Hartl spent a year at West Texas A&M University. Although he started out studying criminal justice, his heart wasn’t in it, so he shifted to fine arts, including taking courses in jewelsmithing. The skills he gained from those courses is clear in the exquisite detail found in his bows.
Although he held other jobs after college, notably as a youth detention counselor, his interest in stringed instruments persisted. In 2000, he started making violins in earnest and set about honing his skills. He spent time studying violinmaking with Juan Mijares in Colorado Springs, concentrating on finishing and setting up the bridge and pegs of the instrument. Over the years, he built a dozen violins. But, after numerous inquiries about suitable bows for instruments —and his belief that the quality of the bow is critical to the performance of the instrument — he made the decision to concentrate on making bows.
In 2010, he spent an intense five weeks at the Victoria, B.C., Conservatory of Music studying classical and Baroque bow crafting and repair with Michael Vann. Twelve-hour days were the norm. In 2011, Hartl spent several days in New York at the workshop of Isaac Salchow and Sons, who opened their vast library to him, even allowing him to study and measure a bow made by François Tourte in the late 1700s, a bow he later found out was worth several hundred thousand dollars.
In 2012, he went to bowmaking school at Camp Bendabow in Mendocino, Calif., with Steven Beckley. Through continuing study and courses, Hartl continues to hone his skills with a goal of becoming a master bowmaker.
Hartl’s bows trace their inspiration to another epoch, to bow makers like Albert Nürnberger, the Peccatte family, and Eugène Nicolas Sartory, a noted French bowmaker active from the 1880s into the 20th century. Sartory was known for his stunning and technically outstanding bows.
In that tradition, Hartl’s bows are things of beauty, and the technical aspects of their design are exquisite. Hartl still believes that the quality of the bow is, in many ways, more important than the instrument itself. It takes him two to three weeks to make a bow, and in his career he has made more than 50 bows. His bows range in price from $3,000 for a silver bow to $5,000 for a gold bow. The gold or silver designation reflects not only the quality of the bow but the actual materials used in its fittings.
Hartl is a member of the Violin Society of America. His goal is to win the prestigious Gold Medal at the organization’s competition, held every two years. He plans on entering the competition in 2020. In the future, he hopes to qualify for membership in the American Federation of Violin and Bowmakers as a master bowmaker.
While Hartl doesn’t play a stringed instrument himself, he has loyal string players who are happy to take his bows for a test run, including locals Tim Brown, Sally Singer Tuttle, Lyn Ritz, Amy Dodds, and Ardeth Erikson.
And music runs in his family. Hartl and his wife, Joy, have a son, Jacob, who is an avid percussionist, and daughter Sharon plays violin. Hartl goes to her lessons with Ardeth Erikson and takes copious notes. His thirst for knowledge is calculated to fine tune his skills and understanding of the relationship between instrument and bow.
Hartl’s workshop, which he built himself, adjoins his home. And all those instruments hanging on the walls of his shop? About half of them are used in the Walla Walla School District for budding string players, giving students a chance to explore their interest in music by renting a violin, viola or cello. Perhaps they will inspire the next generation of musicians, perhaps even a violinmaker or bowmaker.