North Versailles man is master of making bows for instruments
When William Hockenberry's daughter started taking violin lessons in fifth grade in the 1960s, the North Versailles man rekindled his interest in the instrument, he said.
But he wanted to do more than play the instrument. He wanted to build violins — and the bows.
After learning both trades, Hockenberry said he went on to make 1,523 bows for string instruments, including violins, violas and cellos, for customers in nine counties and 23 states over about 40 years. He sells some items on eBay for his home-based business, William N. Hockenberry Violins.
“I didn't have any problem with competition as long as I could do the work,” said Hockenberry, 85.
His health has declined since he suffered two heart attacks and a broken hip between 2005 and 2008. He finds it difficult to stand in front of his machines for long periods of time, and so, he put his equipment up for sale.
The equipment comes with something intangible — knowledge. Hockenberry said he wants to teach the buyer the art of bow making. The buyer should know how to play an instrument for the business endeavor to thrive.
“If you make an instrument, you should know how it sounds. If you make a bow, you should know how it plays,” he said.
Hockenberry played the violin as a child, and his musical inclinations are shared by one of his daughters, Pamela Narushoff, 56, of North Versailles. She began playing the violin in elementary school in 1965, and later spent 38 years with the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, she said.
For several months in the mid-1960s, Hockenberry visited the shop of Pittsburgh violin maker Ben Phillips, who trained Hockenberry in how to make and repair violins.
Hockenberry's business started as a violin shop in 1968 but he began making bows in 1973 after noting a disparity between the quality of bows he saw and their prices.
“Sometimes, the cheaper ones seem to play better than the more expensive ones,” he said.
He learned to make bows mostly on his own by studying books, he said. It didn't hurt that he was mechanically inclined. He was employed by Fisher Scientific in a research and development lab in electromechanical design.
It can take up to 10 hours to make a bow, he said.
Hockenberry's bows cost between $35 and $1,000, the latter being the price for a rarely requested gold-mounted bow.
Over the years, he has made bows and more than 250 string instruments for members of the Duquesne University Tamburitzans, the Pittsburgh Symphony, public school bands and others, he said.
North Huntingdon resident Michael Orrvick, 76, has been going to Hockenberry for fiddle repairs and bow maintenance and purchases exclusively since 1972, he said.
“Well, you gotta watch who you go to. It's just like (going to) auto mechanics … his work is good, quality work,” said Orrvick, who plays a fiddle under the stage name Mike Carson with bluegrass band Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers.
These days, Hockenberry is spending his free time with his family, including his wife of 58 years, Gloria, 83, and daughter Susan Keyser, 53, of Mt. Pleasant. He's not making new bows, but he is finishing bows he started years ago.
Hockenberry is selling three drill presses, a 12-inch band saw, an 8-inch table sander, the lathe-mill machine and other tools for a negotiable price. He has received only a few inquiries in response to his newspaper classified ad, which has been running for a few weeks, but he's optimistic.
“I think it would be good if someone came along and takes advantage of 40 years of experience,” he said.
Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.