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The Appalachian Mouth Bow: Easy to Make, Easy to Play!

No one knows what inspired its transformation from a hunting weapon, but the mouth bow is one of humanity's oldest and simplest instruments.

| May/June 1983

  • mouth bow - tensioning the bow
    Set the tension.
    Rick Sell
  • mouth bow - flexing hardwood slat
    Every mouth bow begins as a flexible wooden slat or stick. If the center of your slat can be flexed 2 inches off the straight, it's sufficiently resilient.
    Photo by Rick Sell
  • mouth bow - the single tuning peg
    A wooden tuning peg from a violin adjusts the bow's tension. Here we see the tuning peg, holding peg (optional), screw, and string.
    Rick Sell
  • mouth bow - playing
    Lay the bow against the hollow of your cheek and make music!
    Rick Sell

  • mouth bow - tensioning the bow
  • mouth bow - flexing hardwood slat
  • mouth bow - the single tuning peg
  • mouth bow - playing

Musical instruments have been around for a long, long time, and the mouth bow is probably one of the oldest of them. In fact, an ancient French cave drawing, made perhaps 15,000 years ago, shows an individual dancing toward several buffalo while playing one of the stringed resonators. Early humans may have believed there were magical powers in this simple soundmaker, or may have discovered that wild animals were intrigued by the humming, twanging noises it could produce. Regardless, later musicians have continued to find the mouth bow to be a charming instrument — one that's both easy to play and to construct.

The most traditional sort of mouth bow is similar to its counterpart, the simple hunting bow, being little more than a springy bough with a length of twine, leather, or gut strung between the two ends. The so-called Appalachian mouth bow is a variation on this style, having a flat strip of wood, tapered on each end, rather than the rounded branch. Its design is clean and uncomplicated, and lends itself to artistic woodworking or painting if by chance the maker feels so inclined.

Gather Ye Materials

There's no "correct" way to assemble most mountain or folk instruments, and making a mouth bow is no exception to this rule. I’ve provided an Assembly Diagram, but feel free to use your own creativity to alter any details of the bow you build. My design calls for a strip of hardwood, which I had cut to measure about 3/16" x 1 1/4" x 32"; a guitar string (a heavy-gauge steel second or third B or G string works well), preferably one with a ball end; a wooden violin tuning peg; two No. 2 roundhead brass screws, each 1/2" or 3/8" long; and, if your guitar string has a "loop" end rather than a ball, an 18-gauge wire brad.

For tools, you'll need a jigsaw; a drill with assorted bits (1/16" to 1/2" or so); a small screwdriver; a hammer (if you use the brad); a power sander (this is optional); sandpaper in various grades; and some tung oil or boiled linseed oil, fine steel wool, and several clean rags if you want to add a finish to your creation.

The most difficult task involved in making the mouth bow is likely to be simply finding the right sort of resilient wood (walnut, maple, cherry, ash, or white oak are all popular, and provide a nice range of colors). The variety you do get will depend, of course, on what's available from lumber suppliers, local sawmills, friends, or even your own scrap pile. Most lumberyards deal primarily in evergreen wood (fir, pine, cedar), but others do carry at least a few suitable hardwoods, such as white oak. Then again, you might find that a local cabinetmaker will have some odd lengths of wood to give away or sell. There are also companies that specialize in unusual and exotic woods. Although these products may be quite expensive, such outfits can provide you with clear, straight-grained pieces having the strength and flexibility you'll need for your project. You should know, too, that the necessary "cutting to size" will be difficult, even with the best hand equipment, so if you don't have access to a relatively complete woodworking shop, it might be worth your while to have the wood you select milled to size at a local sawmill or lumberyard.

If you do have suitable tools and wish to cut the slat yourself, you'll need to get a piece of stock that's at least 2" x 2" x 36" (this will produce strips for more than one bow). Allowing for the loss of some wood in sanding, slice off a strip a little more than 3/16" thick, then trim it to slightly more than 1 1/4" in width and 32" in length.

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