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Alex W.Grant Violins Collingwood Shop

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A Background on Bows

Hill bowGood bows are now held in the highest esteem but has this always been the case? Perhaps not. At one time a fine bow would be “thrown in” with the sale of an instrument. Paganini, it is said, boasted that he could play using a reed in place of his bow and apparently went on to prove it.

A fine bow by W E Hill & Sons could be bought for one guinea, a pittance even in those days and a famous London firm, when taking in a bow for rehair, would simply exchange the customer’s bow there and then for one rehaired earlier.

Hill bow

As the above suggests, some of the finest bows may not, at the time of manufacture, have been treated with the reverence that they are afforded today. There is no doubt that the great bow makers themselves took their craft very seriously, going to enormous lengths to procure the finest materials and sorting and treating their horsehair with great care. However, what would happen to these master pieces after they left the workshop when, for instance, a rehair was required? Would the back street music dealer or the local violin maker be willing or able to sort and treat bow hair to the standard required by the original maker? – it seems doubtful and there are recorded cases of music dealers being charged with unlawfully snipping chunks out of horse’s tails which leads one to believe that many of them were not particularly fussy about where they procured their raw materials or the quality thereof.

Bow components

Things have, thankfully, changed. The bow has gained in stature over the past 150 years or so to the point now where many regard it as being at least as important to a performance as the violin itself.

With this increase in stature has come an increase in the value of fine bows and this has led to refinements in the art of restoration and conservation. Damage to bows which not so long ago would have caused them to be thrown in the bin will often now be seen as a routine repair and at the really clever extreme, we see woodworking repairs so complex that Tourte himself would have been in awe.

So, what of the materials that have been used to make bows? Well, it doesn’t make encouraging reading. Tortoise shell and elephant ivory, once used to make frogs, are now endangered and the finest ebony no longer grows on trees.  All three of these materials now attract CITES appendix listings.

Bow woods

Snakewood, ironwood, brazilwood and pernambuco are some of the woods which have been used for sticks but pernambuco, by far the most favoured wood, has for some time been on the endangered species list. Bow makers still hoard small quantities of these exotic materials but supplies are limited and prices extremely high. Pernambuco was once used as ballast for ships returning from South America and when it was landed in Europe it would be chipped up and used for dye making a fact no doubt, that brings tears to the eyes of our fine, contemporary bow makers.  Pernambuco is also now subject to a CITES appendix listing.

Space age materials such as Kevlar, carbon fibre and glass reinforced plastics are starting to be used and the best of these new bows are quite impressive.  Our experience is that the best of these bows can perform very well technically but lack the sound quality of good pernambuco wood.

Composite bows

Bow hair is certainly scarcer than it has been in the past, however, it is not a rare material, nor is it likely to become rare. This hasn’t stopped people from trying substitutes, including vegetable fibres, nylon and, believe it to not, steel wire filaments, but horse hair has survived the test of time and still remains the favoured material.

Bow hair As appreciation of fine bows has grown, so the supply of horse hair has improved. No longer will the back street dealer be nipping outside to procure your next rehair from a passing nag. These days the hair from white horses is especially sought out for supplying bow hair. Canada, Russia, Mongolia and China are major suppliers. Naturally enough, when such efforts are being made, bow hair has become expensive, with a 1 kg hank of the best professionally dressed hair now retailing for upwards of  $1,750.00.  Unfortunately, whilst supply has improved, quality control is still sadly lacking with violin and bow makers routinely rejecting up to 50% of commercial supply.

Mongolian hair is regarded by some as being a finer filament than, for instance, Canadian hair and it is certainly more expensive – but is a finer filament necessarily better for your performance? Well that would be a subjective decision made by the individual player after experimentation but it is worth remembering that all grades of bow hair are so fine that they will not produce a sound from the instrument without the use of rosin.

Hair is not smooth but is, in fact, covered in tiny barbs which, when seen under the microscope, resemble fish scales. These barbs are too fine to excite the strings unaided and this is where rosin becomes all important. As the bow hair is ‘charged’ on the block of rosin, the barbs of the hair literally tear chunks of rosin out as they pass over the block. These chunks of rosin are also microscopic, but many times larger than the barbs of the hair into which they are now firmly wedged.

Bow hair magnified

As the bow hair, now charged with rosin, passes over the string the chunks of rosin catch the string and deflect it out of its line. The string is, however, under too much tension to be held for long by such a tiny particle and so it releases suddenly only to be caught by the next tiny particle and so on. Thus the string is ‘plucked’ thousands of times with each pass of the bow, to the point where we hear not a plucked sound, but a continuous sound.

It is remarkable how resilient the hair is, sometimes surviving this tortuous treatment for weeks, months and, dare I say, even years in some instances. Eventually, however, the barbs start to break and will no longer hold rosin and so the bow produces less and less sound. Naturally enough, the point at which a player decides to have the bow rehaired depends entirely upon how much (and how hard) the bow is used and at what point that individual decides that they are exerting more effort for diminishing return.

Damaged bow hair

Bow rehairing is regarded as a routine job and is the most common repair or maintenance procedure undertaken such that it seldom arouses concern with the player; however, it is one of the most potentially hazardous operations that the bow can undergo. There are more ways of damaging a bow whilst rehairing than we care to think of and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to state that virtually every old bow shows some signs of damage due to a badly executed rehair. However, this is not intended to alarm but merely to instill some respect for the dangers involved in rehairing bows. Always entrust this operation to a professional and preferably one who comes well recommended.

Bow tips also need to be replaced if they are cracked or broken. They are traditionally made from ivory, bone or a precious metal such as silver or gold, although these days a tip made from casein is also becoming popular. The tip has a two fold function. First, it provides added strength to a particularly weak part of the head and its second function is to act as a shock absorber. Should the bow be dropped on its point the brittle tip will shatter or break, thus absorbing the shock and, hopefully, leaving the head of the bow intact. If the tip cracks, it has done its job. Have it replaced, but again, be sure to entrust this only to a well recommended professional as this is a particularly tricky operation.

Damaged bow face

The frog end is where most wear occurs, due not only to the player’s grip on the stick but to the moving parts which are constantly in friction with each other. Small adjustments can and should be made regularly by your trusted professional to keep your bow in optimum playing condition. Replace cheap thumb leathers regularly and expensive silver wrappings will survive. When necessary, have frog eyelets tightened and frogs re-seated on the stick. Occasionally lubricate all moving parts and bearing surfaces with a dry lubricant such as graphite, candle wax or a combination of the two. Do not use soap as this is thought to accelerate rusting of ferrous screws and avoid oily or greasy lubricants as they will soak in to the stick, making future repairs to cracks virtually impossible.

Damaged bow frog

If your bow is going to be unused for any length of time, take it out of the case and place it in a safe position in a light room.

Larvae of the common carpet beetle like the dark conditions of your violin case but shun the light.  They like to eat keratin, the stuff your fingernails, horse hair and tortoiseshell are made of.  If a bow is left for any extended period in the case, these larvae will chomp through the hair and will happily munch on your rare tortoiseshell frog, as seen in the following image.

Bow frog insect damage

A bent bow can be straightened, and a straightened bow re-cambered.

When you have finished playing, gently clean the woodwork with a soft, dry cloth before you put it away.

The essence, then, is to keep conservation of your bow in mind, do as much as is necessary and as little as possible and, hopefully, your bow will survive and appreciate in value during your playing career going on to be the treasured possession of a future generation.