For the player of a stringed instrument, the bow is the magic wand that causes the sound, expression, and all of the music. Without it, a fine Stradivari is only good to look at and admire for its craftsmanship. The origin of the bow, like the violin, is lost in history and we can only imagine how the first scraping of a string may have happened. It is known to have evolved from a bent stick down to the reverse-curved design of today as begun by Tourte in France. The current form is so well suited and efficient for playing that, like the violin, there is not much chance it will be improved. To watch prominent artists like Perlman, Bell, Shaham, Mutter, and dozens of others weild the bow as deftly as they do is amazing even to the uninitiated, all for the beauty of the music.
Wood is the material of choice for making the bow. Fiberglass, carbon fiber, plastics, at cetera does not produce as good results. Pernambuco is the best thing found thus far. The frog (called the nut a century ago) is made of a variety of things such as ebony (the most), tortoise shell, ivory, bone, plastic, snakewood and others. The frog has no function in producing the sound, but anchors the hair and provides a reference point for the players grasp. The adjuster, sometimes called the button, lets the user tension the hair for best feel in playing. The face of the head is usually of bone now, formerly of ivory, silver, or gold.
The log of wood is sawed into planks, on which the bow blanks are carefully marked out to avoid knots, wavy spots, curly wood etc. The resulting stick may be planed to taper, then bent to final curve, or it may be bent first, then planed under tension, with a wire holding the stick straight (the Hill method). The head is carved, the hole for the adjusting screw bored, and the mortises chiseled out for the adjuster nut and the wedge block in the head. The frog is made with its mortise for the hair. The metal parts are made for the frog and adjuster, and the pearl or other trim pieces are made and installed. Assemble all these pieces and you have a bow, ready to finish, usually with French— polish or linseed oil compound. Now is the time ~o wind on the grip, traditionally of wire or tinsel to match the other metal parts, or of whalebone or imitation, with a band of leather for the thumb to hold.
Horsehair plays better than any substance tried so far. Plastic hair that works is available, but doesn't bite and grip the string as horsehair does. The horsehair is carefully washed, then sorted to remove as much as possible of the wavy, curly, and uneven sized hairs, so the finished ribbon in the bow is perfectly smooth. The hair is held in place by the undercut mortises and wedge-blocks. No glue is used, and the blocks must fit perfectly, so pulling on the hair simply locks them tighter. You should be very cautious about getting your bow rehaired, and find someone with good references from symphony players and teachers that you can trust to not damage the bow. Many bows have the head split, or the hair glued in, or the mortises cut out by unqualified “handymen”. This is bad for an inexpensive beginners bow, but is a serious and expensive disaster for a premium bow worth thousands of dollars.
The playing quality of the bow is its most important asset (or not). All who try it shuns a beautifully crafted bow that will not perform properly. The hair may be at fault, or too much or not enough cait~ber (bend) in the stick. An improper curve in the stick may cause playing difficulties, or wrong balance point. One bow will produce a larger sound than another, or more beautiful sound, or sound more evenly from end to end. One bow may track (stay in line on the string) better than another, or produce better spiccato. The bow that does it all with no shortcomings is what everyone is looking for, and when they happen the maker often mounts them in gold. Gold mountings, however, are no guarantee of playability. The player should like the feel of the bow he uses, and if he is not a professional, get a professional to help him select a bow they agree is a good choice.
Antique and collectors bows sell for large amounts of money, and depreciate if the player uses them hard. Use a good bow, but don't kill of f the old ones. The best modern makers ask from two thousand to ten thousand dollars and more for their finest bows. This depends on the craftsmanship, beauty, perfection, wood, fittings, playability, and reputation of the maker. The buyer commissioning a bow is often waiting in line for a while. A fine modern bow may be a lifetime investment, and if the player gets happy and satisfied, it's worth the inconvenience. The bow maker must work for years as a student, then more years in the shop of a master bow maker to gain recognition as a journeyman craftsman. (No wonder they' re uncommon). The French have the reputation of producing fine bows, then the Germans, English, U.S., and Canadians. However, a top quality bow may come from Belgium, Italy, or anywhere.
When you find a bow you really like, inexpensive or otherwise, the tendency is to hold on to it. To care for it, consider these dos and don'ts: Never lay it down where someone may sit on it.
Don't leave it out when not in use. The hair loosens in damp weather, and tightens up in dry weather.
The cleaner it is, the better. Wipe of f the rosin dust on the stick frequently, so it doesn't cake and build up.
Use waxy grease on the screw and adjuster to keep it turning easily. Never use oil- it soaks into the wood and blackens it.
Let down the tension when the bow is not in use, to preserve the camber of the stick.
The bow can stand whatever heat and humidity your violin can. The chief cause of breakage and loss is dropping the bow on the head, snapping it of f. Carry and handle your bow with care to avoid this.