The Violin Bow – how it works

The Bowbows

Your instruments bow is deceptively simple: a stick of wood and hair that is stretched from one end to the other.

The stick is made from a tropical hardwood called ‘Pernambuco’, an extremely dense wood – it sinks in water – but combines great strength with flexibility. However, pernambuco is protected by law and other woods are used. An alternative to wood is carbon fibre bows.

The curve of the bow’s stick is known as the camber. It is achieved by heating and bending the stick.  The shape and distribution of the camber is critical to its performance.

The hair used is from the tail of horses. Cheaper bows use nylon, but the quality of sound produced cannot be matched to using horse hair. One end of the hair is tied to the tip while the other end is fixed to a movable device called ‘frog’.

An ideal bow will allow the musician to draw from frog to tip without feeling the change in the way it grabs the string. It will have just the right amount of bounce and eveness in spicatto passages. The weight of a bow is also crucial in getting the right feel while playing. The weight is a bow is ideally around 62gms.

According to ‘Daniel Olsen’, the well-known luthier from Japan, carbon fiber bows cannot match up to good quality wooden bows. He attributes the reason to the fact that wood has a resonant frequency that can be matched to that of a violin which improves the tone of a violin dramatically. Daniel insists that getting a good wooden bow should be the priority while thinking of purchasing a violin.

Maintaining your bow

It’s the rosin that creates the friction and thus the sound. However, too much rosin on the bow is as bad as none at all. It clogs up the hair as well as strings.

To rosin your bows hair, hold the rosin in your left hand, place the bow hairs flat on the rosin and move the bow back and forth on the rosin.

After playing or practicing, loosen the hair by turning the screw anti clockwise. It is very important to always loosen the hair after each and every use. Otherwise, hair tension over time is prone to warp and lose camber of the stick.

Avoid touching the hair so it does not become soiled and ineffective. The natural oils on your skin will impact the ability of the bow to grip the string.

Regular use from playing may also affect the shape and playability of a stick. Should a bows stick require straightening or cambering, a qualified repairer can restore a bow to optimum playing condition with the careful use of heat, knowledge and skill.

Hair stretches and wears with use, becoming brittle with age. When this happens or when the hair becomes thin, its time to re-hair the bow.

If the hair stretches a lot, the screw may eventually cease to tighten. If you encounter serious resistance when tightening the hair, do not force the screw any further. Continuing to tighten the screw could crack the stick.

A bows most fragile part is the tip. The ivory, silver or high-grade plastic tip face that lines the head is not merely ornamental but serves to protect the tip during normal use and during the process of rehair. If the ivory tip face ever develops tiny cracks, it should be replaced by a qualified luthier.



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