Frequently Asked Questions
v. 26 Feb 2008
FAQ on bows & the elusive
qualities of bows
Herrera © 2008 Westbury
Return to Bow Makersall
about bows - Westbury Park Strings Homepage - See also Buying_a_Bow
Q. What's so important about the bow? Can't I
just use any old bow?
A. It's the bow that plays the violin! A good bow plays well and sounds good and
a bad bow has no body of sound and sounds thin and insubstantial! Good bows have
a warm round sound and are easier to play off the string (they have a regular
bounce). They sing in ways that a bad bow just can't do. A bad bow will just not
extract the sound that your instrument is capable of. Even a Strad would sound
much poorer played with a bad bow rather than a good one. Most teachers would
advise on a good bow and many teachers would recommend proportionally a better
bow than violin. So, when buying a violin remember to budget for a decent bow!
Q. How different can one bow be from another?
A. Very different. Apart from the fact that all bows must stretch around 150
horse hairs in a tight straight line, there is not much else they have in
common. Physical features that vary are length, weight, camber (the shape of the
curve), frog design, size and height of frog, width of ferrule, firmness of the
stick, round or octagonal design, balance towards heel or towards tip,
mass of the head, shape of the head, head chamfers, stick thickness at the tip,
middle and heel, and other features. Playing characteristics also can change
from springy to dull, warm tone to cold tone, adherent to superficial, coherent
focussed tone to generic non descript tone.... etc.
Q. What's the most important quality one
should look for in a bow ?
A. The absolute number one, top characteristic of a bow, to quote a famous
contemporary French maker, is firstly the sound, secondly the sound, and thirdly
the sound. By quality of sound I mean three main characteristics; density,
coherence and focus of the sound. You should add warmth to this list of what
makes a nice sound. Every piece of Pernambuco wood has its own unique acoustical
qualities. The bow maker must make a structurally sound playing machine while
doing nothing to destroy the naturally inherent tonal characteristics of the
material he works with. The bow must sound even and equally good along its three
thirds; at the tip, in the middle at the heel. A lesser quality bow often shows
a lack of tonal resonance at the heel (or lower third of the bow).
Q. How much does a bow cost?
A. You can buy one for £37.50 but £90 would be a bare minimum for your Chinese
violin and I would advise spending at least £400 GBP if you have something
better than a factory made Chinese instrument. You can and should get something
worthwhile for you grade 6, 7 and 8 exams at £850, and £1k - £2k should / could
get you something semi-professional. £2k opens many doors, and is needed
for something unquestionably professional. Now if you want something that goes
beyond Orchestral quality £3k-£4k will buy you a Morizot or Bazin or top quality
English or German bow, and if you have £6k you can get a medium range but
already very warm and classy sounding French bow such as an Andre Vigneron or
Claude Thomassin. The best early 20th Century bows such as Fetique, Richaume and
Sartory cost £8k-£12k then come the Voirin, Lamy and Simon bows at £10k-£18k
(these are often cheaper because they usually come in less-than-ideal condition
and weight or show heavy signs of wear) and finally, the very best bows by Peccatte, Pajeot, Tourte might cost £40k. Of
course they might be more, such as £90k. The minimum ratio (bow : violin cost)
is 1:6, a better ratio is 1:3 and I recommend 1:1 ; at that ratio you are
getting a proportionately better bow than violin, but money spent on a bow can
be far more cost effective than a violin upgrade. For example; to significantly
upgrade a £5k violin to the next level you need another £10k ! To upgrade a £1k
bow to the next level you only need another £1k.
Q. Do bows improve with age ?
A. Yes, it is generally accepted that bows improve with age. Bows with an
unattractive sound will likely remain so. However, a good, freshly
made bow will improve considerably after the first 10 years of use. It will
improve again somewhat less noticeably in the following 10 years. After that
period it will have mostly settled and will then resonate more to produce a
better, more mature sound than when it was first made. Some people estimate a
bow can reach its full potential in terms of resonance and mellowness rather
quickly, within the first 10 years of use.
Q. Are bows a good investment?
A. That depends on the bow. Well known, Antique French bows are an excellent
investment because of the high rate of attrition (bow breakages). Old French
bows appreciate more than violins, and even do better than the stock market!
However, bows must be maintained and insured. Also selling a bow can be
difficult (a lot harder than buying!) often taking up to a year or two.
Obviously, good playing bows, with normal characteristics and weight sell more
readily than non-standard bows (such as light Voirin bows).
Q. Do I need more than one bow?
A. Yes, you do. Especially if you are a professional. In my student days,
I remember being lent bows by my teacher and colleagues when mine was being
re-haired. Once, at The Purcell School, the thread between screw and eye on my
Nürnberger wore out, and my bow wouldn't do up, so I had to borrow a bow for a
couple of weeks, while Ealing Strings fixed it. It wasn't until much later that
I could afford a second bow. I would say a second bow is indispensable for a
professional or serious amateur. There is also the issue that stronger
bows are more suited to Virtuoso Solo repertoire or Romantic Concertos, and
softer bows maybe more suited to Chamber music. Thus many top players have a
collection of at least 4 or 5 bows.
Q. How strong or soft should a bow be ?
A. Strong enough to do its job, keeping the hairs straight and tight. Also, when
played the bend should be strong enough not to allow the bow itself to come into
contact with the bow hairs, thereby squashing the hairs between string and bow.
This is because, aside from increased surface noise close up, the live resonance
and carrying power of the sound would be dulled or deadened. The bow
should be soft enough to allow different dynamics of sound and gradations of
tone, and especially to maintain suppleness and warmth while playing softly
(piano or pianissimo). With too
stiff a bow, the tone becomes hard and one dimensional, and off-the-string
spiccato sounds cold and brittle . Generally, French bows are soft and German
bows are hard (though there are exceptions to this).
Q. What determines the strength of a bow
A. From the makers point of view, the strength of the wood is important.
If a bow is well made, exactly following a straight grain (though in practice,
the grain is never quite straight along the entire length of a bow), a good
quality, dense wood will provide the materials and conditions for strength and
stiffness. From this early to middle stage, wood is continually shaved off the
stick, especially towards the tip, or upper half of the bow, to reach the
correct amount of suppleness / stiffness.
Q. Do old bows wear out and lose their
A. Yes, it's possible. Over many years, a bow may lose its strength by heavy
continual use. However, not all bows do lose strength. There are some Peccatte
bows as strong now as the day they were made, and others which are softer and
have become "tired." The same applies to other makers. Obviously if the grain in
a bow is wavy or uneven, or if the wood has weaknesses in it, over time these
will let the bow down, gradually softening with heavy use.
Q. Do bows weaken if they lose their bend a
little ? (when to re-camber or re-spring a bow)
A. Yes, for certain. A loss of bend or camber in the bow leads to reduced
strength in the bow. Lateral bends also lead to weakness. A maker is often able
to restore the camber or curve of a bow, restoring or increasing strength
to the bow. This is done by heating and bending the bow across the knee. This is
not a procedure to do on a regular , repeated basis. An expert bow maker will
advise on whether the procedure is necessary and whether it will be beneficial.
Sometimes this can be a dangerous procedure, if a bow has irregularities and
does not follow the grain accurately. Lateral bending can often be corrected,
but corkscrew twists along the length cannot be fixed.
Q. How do I check the camber of my bow ?
A. Loosen the hairs as much as possible. Make sure they are all loose, and none
are tight, otherwise, if you cannot loosen your bow completely, it will be much
harder to determine the camber. Lay the bow down (but not on its side) on a flat
even surface or table. Using one finger, gently press the bow stick down about
2/3 of the way towards the tip. This is the lowest part of the bow curve, and it
may already be touching the table, in which case you have 100% camber. If
the bow depressed by as much as 1 cm you should consider re-springing. Another
way is to loosen the hairs, and observe the curve of the stick to see if it
meets the hairs at its lowest point of camber.
Q. Are bows all of the same length and weight?
A. No, there is no standard length. My bows vary from 72.7 cm to 73.3 cm
in length (but this is excluding the screw). Voirin made long bows, and
Pfretzschner bows are often a little shorter. In weight, violin bows can vary
from 55 to 65 grams, averaging at a round 60 grams in weight. A light Voirin
weighs about 56.5 grams, and two heavier French bows by Jules Fetique and Andre
Vigneron are 63 grams each. The majority of bows are all 60 grams (+/- 0.5
grams). Viola bows weigh 70 grams (or between 68-74) and Cello bows 80
grams (or between 78-88). Another important factor is the balance of a bow which
can sometimes suggest that a bow is heavier (or lighter) than it really is.
Q. When should I re-hair my bow?
A. A bow should be re-haired whenever the hairs are uneven (pulling more on one
side than the other and gradually causing the bow to warp to one side), too
short, or too long. Too few hairs or too many (over charging the bow) also
create bad conditions for the health of a bow. If you have a good even bow
re-hair it should last for many years. Hairs that become particularly dirty or
greasy at the heel (usually from the thumb rubbing against them) should also be
replaced. You can clean hairs with some cleaning alcohol and then, renewed, they
will hold rosin easily once more. There are players who maintain that the hairs
lose their grip / adherence, that the hairs wear out, and have their bows
re-haired every 6 months... I think that is excessive. The main difficulty in
re-hairing bows that I have is that bows re-haired in the Summer often have the
problem of the hair becoming too short in the winter, as central heating dries
the air out in a house, the hairs contract, shorten, and cannot always be
loosened sufficiently to allow all the tension to be taken of the bow so it can
rest. Another problem arises if you have your bow re-haired in a dry country,
then travel home to find the hairs are too long because you live somewhere a lot
more humid. I must confess I usually have the former problem of hairs becoming
too short, typically half way through winter when houses dry out. Show your bow
to a maker or restorer, and ask them if your bow is correctly re-haired. A
correctly re-haired bow works so much better and more efficiently than a poorly
Q. What is the ideal humidity level for a bow
A. Similar to an instrument. 55% humidity is about right. 50-60% is a safe range
Above 60 is too wet, soggy or humid for a bow. However, humidity up to 66%
shouldn't be too damaging for a bow. However, too dry is a worse condition. If
you fall below 45% consider a small instrument humidifier in your violin / cello
case. These won't work if you want to keep your case open most of the time ! You
can also put water in containers next to your heaters in the room where you
practice (to increase humidity by around 8% say from 38 to 46 %.). I have 2 of
them hanging from my central heater but I do keep filling them up, as they do
dry out... (that's how they work... the water evaporates into the air, and the
air holds more water... or is said to be more humid.)
Q. Do bows need regular maintenance?
A. Yes. Bows are often the subject of much neglect and attention. Unlike certain
instruments, which are very stable for years and years, bows continually wear
down with use. Mostly, it's just the fittings that need to be replace... i.e.
the leather grip wears and at worse starts shredding or coming off. Sometimes
the mother-of-pearl needs replacing, as these corrode when exposed to sweat or
perspiration. Frogs too wear out, mostly in the area closest to the bow beneath
the silver plate. Again, sweat is the cause of the damage, and either new
slithers of ebony have to be inserted, or the crumbling gaps can be filled with
an ebony/glue mix. Other issues may arise; ivory tips may at times break, when
accidentally a bow is knocked against something hard.... and then they will need
replacing, as these protect the bow tip itself. The stick itself wears down at
the heel, due to the constant playing weight of the middle fingers. Sometimes
leather is used to cover this area of a bow, and sometimes a clear polish, like
a varnish can be applied to cover and protect the wood. Neither of these two
solutions are poplar though; leather can become dirty and greasy and the clear
varnish has a glossy finish which is a little slippery to the touch. There are
many other parts of a bow which are subject to wear or just light damage; bent
ferrules have to be straightened well before they break! Take your bow to an
expert maker or restorer ; it will work better if it's not falling apart.
Q. What kinds of lapping / wrap can I have on
my bow ?
A. There are several options here. Assuming your bow is silver mounted, you
could have solid silver wire, silver thread (which is silk coated with silver
plating, and is actually more expensive than solid silver), whalebone lapping
(nowadays a synthetic look alike substitute or plastic is used instead.) Solid
Silver (or Gold) is the heaviest, but if you'd like a lighter heel and lighter
overall weight, and if you'd like to shift the balance towards the tip (which I
personally like) then silver thread is the best option. One more oddity; if you
have a light bow with silver thread lapping, simply changing this to solid
silver does not always result in a satisfactory improvement, mainly because the
centre of gravity is shifted slightly towards the heel, thus you will feel the
tip of the bow less, and the overall feeling might be that the bow has become
lighter, not heavier!
Q. Octagonal or Round bows; which is
A. Many people believe Round bows are more supple and produce a rounded sound,
and Octagonal bows are harder or stiffer. I personally believe it doesn't matter
whether a bow is round or octagonal, the only thing that matters is the quality
(read density, coherence & focus) of sound. Round bows are more common than
octagonal bows. All bows start off being octagonal, and as wood is shaved off
the decision to make the bow round or not depends on the flexibility of the
stick during manufacture. I have an octagonal bow which has a very nice
sound. I also used to own an old Albert Nürnberger which was also octagonal and
had a good dense sound. It was a little stiff, though, but I now wish I hadn't
Q. How does one become an expert on bows?
A. This can happen after careful observation, handling and exposure to many
bows. One builds up a generic bow database (or call it a set of templates) of
characteristics whereby a makers name is associated with a list of
features. For example, after viewing and playing with many Sartory bows,
one builds up a generic database of features that one has observed in his bows.
First, one learns to recognize the difference between let's say a Sartory, a
Voirin and a Peccatte. However, over time, one is able to make out the
difference between an early Sartory, with its rounder, feminine head and
softer playing stick, and a late Sartory, with its fuller more masculine,
angular head. In fact, one starts to notice that no two bows by Sartory (or any
other maker) are identical, (but only an expert can distinguish between the two
most similar bows Sartory made). In observing a new Sartory, certain features
will be familiar with our generic database we have in memory (and how good is
our memory?!), and certain features will stand out as being new and not
previously archived... and in this way we build up our personal knowledge and
concept of Sartory bow "facts and features", becoming more and more of an expert