Bow Frequently Asked Questions
||How do I care for my bow?
||Bows are not as climate sensitive as instruments. The horse hair, on the other hand, is very much affected by humidity. Therefore, the hair should always be long enough to allow the stick to completely relax. Continued tension on the shaft can actually contribute to warping the bow. Secondly, the shaft should always be kept clean. Dedicate a piece of an old tea towel to this task, wiping the entire shaft each time you return the bow to its case. This will help prevent wear as well as keeping the polish smooth. No chemicals should be used to remove built-up rosin. Allow The Violin Shop to clean it next time you have it rehaired.
||How should I rosin my bow?
||Rosin has a very low melting temperature. Often we see musicians vigorously rubbing rosin at both ends of their hair. The reason they do that is because their teachers did it and their teachers before them. The more you rub, the quicker you melt the rosin, creating a glass-like sleeve around the hair. We call that "adulteration" of the rosin. This impedes the tone production at both ends of the bow which makes the musician rub it even more and so the vicious circle never ends. Change your ways with the next rehair. Place the cake against the hair beginning at the frog, draw the bow slowly and evenly across the cake, once up, once down. Try it before you carry on. Rosin only when necessary, not each time you extricate your bow from the case. Follow this advice and your hair will last considerably longer.
||How does rosin work?
||Rosin is what makes the hair stick to the string until the bow
slips back in a continuous cycle setting the string into motion. Rosin is made
of colophony, the residue left behind in the distillation of turpentine. It
comes in various grades and brands depending on the type of
distillation. Pure colophony is far too brittle to use on its own since it creates
a dry powder with little ability to stick. The result is a sound that is
wholly unsatisfactory. Therefore, colophony is generally mixed with
other compounds to alter its characteristics. These modifications may
include neutralizers to change its acidity. This acidity can break down
the surface tension of varnish resulting in permanent damage.
||How long can my bow last?
||We are working on bows that were made in the early 19th
century. Some bows have survived from periods well before that. A bow must be
properly handled and stored. It should always be rehaired and repaired by
a professional. Many good bows have been destroyed in the hands of
||How important is a good bow?
||I have always believed that the instrument played with
the bow is merely the body that produces the sound while the bow is the soul
that produces the music. We hardly ever think about the fact that music for
bowed instruments is not written so much for the instrument as it is for the
bow! Let's have a quick look at the argument. Without going into obscure
corners of musicology, just glance over the two paragraphs below.
In the 'RIGHT HAND' you will find the composer's instructions for the bow (in Italian, French, or German).
The 'LEFT HAND' has the instructions for the left hand, not including the notes themselves:
- LEFT HAND:
- pizzicato, portamento, harmonics, pianississimo(ppp),(vibrato);
- RIGHT HAND:
- pianissimo(pp), piano(p), mezzo-piano(mp), mezzo-forte(mf);
forte(f), fortissimo(ff), fortississimo(fff), staccato / detaché, legato,
sostenuto, crescendo, diminuendo, perdendo, ritenuto / rallentando /
ritardando, marcato, spiccato / sautillé / saltando / ricochet, martelé,
sul ponticello, tremolo, flautando, sur la touche, pesanté, energico,
leggiero, maestoso ,
... and so on ... the score is twenty five to four!
There was a time not all that long ago when dealers would simply
"throw in" the bow when a client bought a violin. Often it would be a fine
French bow made by a Peccatte, Sartory, Vuilleaume, Vigneron, Fetique, Henri,
Maire or Tourte. This practice was still accepted in the second half of the
20th century. However, when the auction house prices of a fine Dominique
Peccatte violin bow started reaching $100,000 and a Tourtes reached a quarter
of a million, we find that the practice quickly ceased. In general, these
early bow makers were paid poorly for their work and often died impoverished.
One was found murdered under one of Paris' many bridges for the meagre value of
whatever he still had in his possession.
Today's musician will seek out the modern bow maker who can make a living wage
with their craft.
Today's maker has a tendency to build stiffer bows as demanded by the
compositions of the late 19th- and the 20th-century and by the playing styles
now taught. Some of the fine, early French makers created bows for their time
which can't stand up under today's performance rigours and have become the
property of collectors.
I have also found that players change as they mature and as their
technique develops. They may stay with the same instrument their entire lives
but find the need for a different bow as time goes on. They may also develop
composer prejudices. I hear them speak of "the Mozart bow" or of
"their three B's bow", likely referring to Brahms, Bach and Beethoven.
||Where does pernambuco come from?
||Pernambuco is the name of the wood species Caeselpinia
echinata, a relative of the mahogany family of woods. The best of this
wood grows in the Brazilian province of Pernambuco.
||How is a bow recambered?
||Bows are recambered using dry heat.
Recambering a bow should be a task left to a professional.
It is a very sensitive job and, in the wrong hands, the bow
can easily be broken or burned. A bow should be recambered when
it warps to one side or the other or has lost some of its curvature.
All these variations play a great part in the performance of a bow.
||How can I find the balance of a bow?
||Be seated with your bow and have a round pen
(not octagon) and a 30-cm ruler. Sit at a height where your thighs
are parallel with the floor. Carefully place the bow across your
legs, hair facing down. Slide the pen under the bow shaft and gently
lift, just enough to raise one end or the other, moving the pen along
the shaft until both ends lift at the same time. Take the bow, placing
your thumb nail on that pen position, representing the exact balance
point of the bow. Now, measure from the end of the shaft to your
thumbnail. More than 241mm (9.5inches) shows a heavier balanced bow
while the reverse is true for a shorter length.
||Can I change the balance of my bow?
||You bet! Bows are normally balanced about the time they are
finished. The ideal balance of the bow is at 241 mm (or 9.5 inches) from the
end of the wood shaft (not including the button, sometimes known as the
screw). Bows can be balanced using different material for the face plate,
for the winding at the grip, and even for the screw button itself.
At the face plate,
metal can be used to shift the balance forward, while replacing a metal
plate with bone or mastodon ivory can dramatically shift balance toward to
frog. A solid metal sleeve button instead of divided ring button has the same
||How long will hair last?
||Hair can last a very long time.
In hygrometers dating back to the 1800's, a single horse hair, wrapped
around a shaft with the other end anchored to a base, would rotate a needle
attached to the shaft according to the humidity surrounding it. Examples
of these can still be found intact today. We have seen bows with hair 50
years of age arrive at our shop in playing condition. Normally hair breaks,
it does not wear out. Over-rosining will cause the hair to become slippery
and brittle. When more than ten percent of the hair is broken, the bow
will begin to pull the head to the left which is not advantageous in
playing. At ten percent breakage, replace the hair.
||How can I kill bugs that eat my bow hair?
||The thickness of horsehair is roughly 0.4mm.
It is made up entirely of dead cells which have been converted into
a protein called "keratin". Keratin is the favorite food of Anthrenus
museorum; also known as Dermestid, or museum beetle, the larvae of
which feed on all kinds of animal hair. If you should come across
such a creature, don't panic. It is a very slow animal and can easily
be brushed or vacuumed from the instrument case. Cut out the old
hairs and burn them, as well as treating the instrument case with
a common insecticide that kills larvae. These larvae detest sunlight,
by the way, so an old violin case with half-eaten bow is well kept in
open sunlight for a while.
A brief history of the Bow
The violin wouldn't be much without a bow, and yet, until the last century
it was considered almost an accessory, along with the case and the tuning
fork. Having said that, there have always been bows of exceptional
craftsmanship and beauty, admired by those with eyes to see.
The development of the violin bow to its modern form was perfected
by François Tourte (1774-1835). Trained as a watchmaker, he took to
bow making as did his father and brother. After a painstaking search,
he came to the conclusion that pernambuco was the ultimate material for
bows, given its weight, strength, and elasticity. Pernambuco was used in
early times as a colorant for dyeing fine clothes and was then called Brazil.
It grows in South America and the country we know as Brazil actually got
it's name from the wood. Pernambuco is, in fact, a region in Brazil.
Until 1775 the bow's length and weight hadn't been standardized.
Working on the advice of famous virtuosi such as Viotti, Kreuzer and
Rode, Tourte introduced many features still in use today. He also
established the optimal length of the violin bow at 74-75 cm. in all,
the viola bow at 74 cm., and the cello bow at 72-73 cm.
Bows are generally made by specialist bow makers, although
some violin makers have made bows as well. Some bow makers never rehair bows,
and many instrument makers never rehair bows!
One task needed in every shop though is a good bow rehairer. For some, rehairing
a bow is a time-consuming and challenging job. The main reasons are inexperience,
lack of skilled training, and knowledge. In order to rehair a bow properly without damage requires unsparing
patience and skill. Too many good bows have been badly damaged by people
who have learned bow rehairing from a book and think that it might be a
lucrative way to pass the time while watching television. Bows should be
entrusted only to trained professionals. Examples of the worst of the
damage we come across are:
- Split heads and frogs from forced wedges.
- Scratched and indented metal fittings and pearl.
- Distorted stick shapes due to uneven tension.
In general, a bow which is being used regularly has to be
fitted with new hair at least twice a year. Over-used hair has lost its
capacity to hold the rosin properly and the player will notice the bow's
lack of efficiency in producing a good tone.
It is often heard that horsehair for bows must be quite white and exceptionally
smooth. While it is true that irregularities in the hair's structure can
cause noise, hair is a natural material and is seldom perfect. Completely
white hair is very rare unless it has been bleached. The hair's whiteness
is not necessarily its most desirable attribute. Often the finest hair is
anything from light-beige to butter coloured. Bleached hair is generally
brittle and should be avoided, as it doesn't last very well. Some say that
bowhair must be from Mongolia or Siberia and that it must only be from
stallions and rarely from mares. The story goes that mares tails are exposed
to urine such that the structure of the hair may change (no comment).
One thing is certain: stallion hair is whiter. Fine bowhair is also exported
from Canada, South America, Australia, Hungary, and Russia.
The thickness of horsehair is approximately 0.4mm and the surface of
the hair is covered with scales overlapping away from the "horse end" of
the hair. Horsehair is entirely made up of dead cells which have been
converted into a protein called "keratin". Keratin is the favorite food of
Anthrenus museorum, or the museum beetle, the larvae of which feed on all
kinds of animal hair. If you should come across such a creature, don't panic.
It is a very slow animal and can easily be brushed or vacuumed from a violin
case. Cut out the old hairs and burn them, as well as treating the violin
case with a common insecticide that kills larvae. These larvae detest
sunlight, by the way, so an old violin case with half eaten bow is well
kept in open sunlight for a while. The most important characteristics of a
good bow for the player are:
- Ability to sustain tension on the hairs,
without having to tighten the screw too much.
- Ability to maintain this tension, while remaining flexible,
without the need for unneccessary weight.
- A nice well-shaped cambre right to the tip of the bow.
This results in the stick touching 2/3 of the length of the bow
from the frog, when the frog and the head are resting on a flat
surface, and the bow is under no tension.
The amount of hair to fit into a bow depends almost entirely
on the bow's build and style as decided by its maker. It is often
said that a violin should have ca. 150 hairs; a viola, 175; and a cello,
175-200. However, this varies tremendously since each bow has it's own
size of mortice, in the head and the frog, and every bow has a cambre
and graduation which tolerates a certain amount of hair.
Rosin is what makes the bow stick to the string until the bow slips
back in a continual cycle which generates the bowed sound. It is made of
colophony, the residue from the distillation of turpentine. It comes
in various grades, depending on the type of distillation. Pure colophony
is far too brittle to use on its own for violin rosin and makes an
unpleasant, scratchy sound. Therefore, it is generally mixed with other
substances to modify its consistency. Most rosin will contain small
amounts of oil to plasticize or soften it. Sometimes there are additions
of alkaline solutions serving to neutralize the colophony, which is quite
acid. The acidity of colophony can be a hazard to the varnish if it is
allowed to build up on the instrument.