Saturday, June 25, 2011

What's Wrong With My Bow?

 Written by: Amy Tobin

In the process of writing posts about violin bows, (how to take care of them, round vs. octagonal bows,  how much bow tension is correct, and whether a better bow really makes a difference) I thought it would be appropriate to write one more post that is sort of a diagnostic of violin bows. This will also apply to cello and viola bows, but, from hereon, I will write "violin."

There are a few things that can happen with violin bows that can worry players.
Most of the time these things are not an indication of any damage to the bow, but there are some instances where it might be  the case.

One thing to keep in mind is that most bows are made of organic materials. The wood and the hair, because they are natural and not man-made, respond to temperature and humidity changes like any other natural thing. If you are using a bow that is made of fiberglass or carbon graphite, the stick will not change when the environment changes, but, if the hair is real horsehair (which I strongly suggest you use!), the hair will change.

Here are a few things that you might notice along the way, what might be causing it, and what kind of remedy there might be for it:

1. My bow won't tighten enough!
     This one goes along with the humidity and/or temperature. When the environment gets very humid, the hair on the bow will stretch. This could cause a lengthening of the bow hair which might make it difficult to tighten all the way. If this happens, DO NOT continue to tighten your bow past the resistance that your tension screw will give you! I have seen many bows where the brass eyelet on the inside of the frog gets stripped from players continuing to tighten past the point of resistance. Once this happens, the only thing to do is to replace the brass eyelet. You will also need to get your bow rehaired to a more appropriate length of hair.

2. My bow won't loosen all the way!
    This is the opposite side of the previous point. When the environment gets very dry, the bow hair will shorten. This is actually more hazardous for the bow than the hair being too long, because shorter bow hair puts an undue amount of stress on the tip of the bow. This, if it gets short enough or stays that way long enough, will break the tip of your bow right off! At that point, unless your bow is worth the somewhere around $1000 that it would cost to fix that, you will just need to get a new bow. Keeping your bow in a fairly evenly humidified environment will help to prevent this from happening (and can help to alleviate the problem). Simply using your Dampit in your instrument while it is in the case will help with this.

3. I am trying to tighten my bow, but the screw just keeps turning and nothing is happening!
    For this one you have to refer back to No. 1. In all likelihood, you have been having difficulty getting enough tension on your bow for playing and have been over-tightening it repeatedly. This has a cumulative effect and will strip the eyelet inside the frog. You need to have the eyelet replaced.

4. My bow has started wobbling towards the upper half!
   Ah. This point is a little more difficult to assess. There could be a few things going on here. First of all, I feel that it is important to mention that there will ALWAYS be a little bit of wobble towards the tip of any bow. It is just the nature of how they are designed. If this is something that has always happened with your bow, then you might try one with a different balance point, or you might be using too much pressure while playing. If it is a new development, however, there could be something else going on. First, your stick might be warping. If you sight down your bow, from frog to tip, and close one eye, the stick should be straight. If you see it curving to one side or the other, then you need to have your bow straightened.
Picture of a violin bow with a straight stick

Picture of a violin bow warping to the right

The other thing that might be happening is the camber of your bow might be off. The camber is the curve of the bow that creates that little bit of arc mostly towards the tip. It is an integral part of a good bow and does, from time to time, need to be redone. A good luthier can take a look at your bow and check to see if it needs re-cambering.

Picture showing the camber of a violin bow



5. I keep putting rosin on it, but it just keeps slipping around!
    This one is pretty easy. You are in need of a rehair. Ideally, you will need to rehair your bow at least once a year to keep it in good playing condition. If you play quite a bit, two or three times a year might be in order! If you live in a climate with extreme temperature swings like we have here in Minnesota, up to 100 with high humidity in summer and down to -20 and dry in winter, try to have your bow rehaired when the temperature and humidity are moderate. That is, mid-Fall and mid-Spring are the best times to have your bow rehaired.

6. My bow hair keeps breaking!
    Actually, bow hair breaks. It is just like our hair in that respect. Normally, a few broken bow hairs just goes along with playing and should not alarm you in any way. Just remove them carefully from your bow (using a nail clipper and clipping the one hair close to the frog and tip is a good way to do this). If, however, you find that it happens a lot, then the hair on your bow is just too dry. This usually happens a lot in the winter time. Be careful not to let too many of the bow hairs disappear before you rehair it, though, because an uneven tension on the bow can cause the stick to warp.
     Another thing to look at is where the hairs are breaking. If they are breaking during use, towards the top or the bottom, fine. That is just due to playing and dryness. If, however, you notice that they are broken in the middle and it happens while the bow is in your case, you might have bow bugs. These are carpet beetles and they love bow hair! Check inside your case for any carpet beetle larvae (you will see these as small, dark, insect shells). If you see them, vacuum out your case as best you can and put some cedar balls or herbal moth repellent in there. This should fix the problem. If you are at all worried, however, you can definitely get a new case!

7. I dropped my bow and it is broken!
   Do they really break that easily? Yes! Bows break if dropped. Look at the head of your bow. There is only about 5mm of wood keeping the head attached to the stick. Any excess stress or strain will start a crack or break the head off completely. Be nice to your bow and the Pernambuco trees that grow so many years to make the wood. Don't drop it, sword fight with it, or use it to applaud by tapping it on a music stand.

4 comments:

  1. thanks for the bow tips my hair kept breaking aand i was worried!

    ReplyDelete
  2. If the bow is warped, should I get a new one? It's REALLY warped. Also I have a brand new one and it won't tighten. It just keeps twisting. Am I doing something wrong?

    ReplyDelete
  3. My teacher said that it is starting to bow! Should I just replace it?

    ReplyDelete
  4. A wood bow can usually be straightened by your luthier/bowmaker. It is not a process that you want to watch, however! If you like the feel of your bow and how it plays, then the cost of straightening it is worth it. If not, and the cost of straightening the bow is more than the bow cost, then I would say to get a new one!

    ReplyDelete