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 help warp 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 is case. This can help prevent wear as well as keeping the polish smooth. No chemicals should be used to remove built-up rosin. Allow your violin shop to clean it next time you have it rehaired. Wash the towel regularly.
Q, 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 while the other end was anchored to a base would rotate a needle attached to the shaft according to the humidity surrounding it. They can still be found intact today.
We have seen bows with hair 50 years of age arrive in 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 per cent of the hair is broken the bow will begin to pull the head to the left, Not advantageous in playing. At ten per cent replace your hair.
Q, 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!
Lets have a quick look at the argument. Without going into obscure corners of musicology, just glance over the two paragraphs below. In the first you'll find the composer's instructions (in Italian, French or German) for the bow. The second paragraph has the instructions for the left hand not including the notes themselves;
1. pianississimo, (ppp); 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.....
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 going on 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 Tourtes reached a quarter of a million, we found this practice quickly cease. These early bow makers were generally poorly paid for their work and often died impoverished. One was found murdered under one of Paris' many bridges for whatever he still had left on 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 demanded by the writings of late 19th and all the 20th century composers and the playing styles now taught. Some of the fine early French makers created bows for their time, which can't stand today's rigors and become the property of collectors.
I have also found that players change as they mature and as technique develops. They may stay with the same instrument their entire lives but find a need for a different bows as time goes on. They also develop composers prejudices. I hear them speak of the "Mozart" bow or their "three B's" bow, likely referring to Brahms, Bach and Beethoven.
Q, 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 and always rehaired and repaired by a professional. Many good bows have been destroyed in the hands of unskilled persons.
Q, How is a bow recambered?
Bows are recambered using dry heat. Recambering a bow should be left to a professional. It is a very sensitive job and in the wrong hand, 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 play a great part in the performance of a bow.
Q, 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.
Q, How can I find the balance of a bow?
Be seated with your bow, a round pen (not octagon) and a 12 inch ruler. Sit at a height where the upper parts of your legs are level with the floor. Carefully place the bow across your legs, hair facing up. Slide the pen under the bow shaft, slowly role it and gently lift just enough to raise one end or the other until both ends lift at the same time. Take the bow at that point with your thumb nail representing the exact balance point. Now measure from the end of the shaft to your thumbnail. More than 9.5 inches shows a heavier balanced bow while the reverse is true for a shorter length.
Q, 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, winding at the grip and even 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. Solid metal sleeve button replacing a divided ring button has the same effect.
Member of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers