Monday, March 9, 2020

Round or Octagonal Bows- Which Are Better? The Definitive Answer

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins and
Ivana Truong

A round bow or an octagonal bow- Which is better???? 

The absolute, definitive, very, very correct answer is...

That is, given all the other important factors that go into making a bow play the way that it does: wood quality; weight; balance; strength; resilience; and tone quality; the actual shape of the stick has almost NOTHING to do with how the bow plays and sounds.

Let's go through some characteristics one by one and see if there are any attributes of round or octagonal bow sticks that are DEFINITELY attributable to the shape of the stick: 

Tone quality? Nope.
Resistance to warping? Nope. 
Strength? Nope.
Resilience? Nope.
Weight? Nope.
Feel? Nope.
Aesthetics? Yes! But...

The most important thing to look for when choosing a bow isn't only what it looks like, it is: Which bow is best for you? Which bow sounds best to you? Which bow feels best to you? 

I can almost hear a chorus of players, teachers, and dealers telling me I'm dead wrong, that a round or octagonal bow always is better because of a specific XYZ factor! The interesting thing to me is that 1/3 of the voices will be adamant that round bows have that characteristic, 1/3 will be adamant that octagonal bows have that characteristic, and 1/3 don't know or don't care. There are wildly different opinions on why one style of bow is better than the other--some say that octagonal bows are stiffer and less flexible, or that they don't bounce as well off the string, while others will say the same of round bows (1)! Overwhelmingly, though, it seems like people don't really know what makes one style of bow better (even if they admit having a preference).

To players, the most obvious difference between bows might be the shape of the stick, but to a bowmaker/luthier the most distinguishing factor of a bow is actually not the stick at all, it is the head (3). You can tell more about a bow based on how the head is shaped than how the stick is cut. Factors like the slant of the outside curve (the ridge), the length of the point, and the inside curve can say much more about a bow than bowmaker's choice to make the bow round or octagonal. The shape of the stick isn't so much functional as it is aesthetic.

In all my research, I found one academic source that provided any evidence that either octagonal or round bows have any advantage over the other. In the "Handbook of Materials for String Musical Instruments", Bucur says that the stiffness/mass ratio for octagonal bows is 0.2% higher when compared to round bows (4). Still, this difference is based on a simplified mathematical model of a violin bow and assumes that the bows you are comparing are exactly the same in every possible way. In reality, two bows made from the same tree by the same maker using the same tools will sound different based on many different factors, of which shape is probably not very significant. What would a 0.2% weight difference be in an average 62 gram violin bow? 0.124 grams- which is unnoticeable to everyone.

There is one thing I will say definitely applies to the shape of the stick. Octagonal bows are a bit harder to make. According to bowmaker Anthony DiAmbro: "To finish a stick octagonal, each facet must carefully be gone over, the integrity and evenness of the octagon is kept the entire length of the stick. Each facet is sanded with sanding sticks keeping the edges of the octagon sharp. This adds a tremendous amount of time to the finish, but can be spectacular when it is executed well."(2)  So, a new octagonal bow from the same maker with the same quality of wood and fittings will be 10% - 20% more expensive. Or, another way to look at that is: a round bow stick is a better value.

Confusion over which style is better could have started from the higher price of octagonal bows, which could be interpreted as a difference in quality, rather than a result of the labor that it takes to make clean facets. To add to the confusion, great French bow makers made mostly round bows, leading some players to say all decent bows should be round.

We did our own little comparison of some of the bows in the shop to see if we could hear a difference between round and octagonal. What do you think? Can you tell the difference?

Round bow G major scale

Octagonal bow G major Scale

Opening of the Bruch Concerto on a round bow 

Opening of the Bruch Concerto on an octagonal bow

Victoria Athmann on an Antonius Stradivarius Model A. Fein/Atelier Cremone model violin with both a Round and an Octagonal A. Fein Elite bow.

Victoria's thoughts on these two bows: 
Did you feel a difference generally?
"They both seem very similar in weight, flexibility, and stability."
Do you have a preference? 
"No, the octagonal bow looks cooler, but it doesn't mean I wouldn't buy a round bow!"

What do you think? Do you have a preference between round/octagonal bows? What kind of bow do you have? Let us know!

Need a good violin, viola or cello bow? We have them! Made from Pernambuco wood, Carbon, and Carbon/Pernambuco Hybrids- Violin, Viola & Cello Bows

3. Bows for Musical Instruments, page 61. 
4. Handbook of Materials for String Musical Instruments pp 583-637

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