The problem of substandard bow hair

Bow makers, suppliers and musicians are increasingly having to deal with thinning and brittle bow hair. How has this situation come about? Nancy Pellegrini reports

bow hair

It’s odd that instrumentalists, collectors, enthusiasts and auctioneers can spend hours, weeks, even decades arguing the merits of a Stradivari versus a ‘del Gesù’, but those same experts often dismiss bows as mere accessories. Indeed, cellist Pablo Casals reputedly boasted he could produce the same glorious tone with an inferior stick. Today we know better. Bow making is a craft of the highest order: quality bows can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and collectors see them as lucrative investments.

But even as we examine the decorative frogs or the seductive camber, we might overlook an important element – the bow hair. Gleaned from horses around the world and processed largely in northern China, horsehair has been making strings sing for over a millennium, ever since central Asian horse warriors first took their instruments down the Silk Road. And although most horsehair goes to industrial brushes and film costumes, the remaining five per cent or so used in instrument bows comes under close scrutiny, with colour, horse gender, nationality, climate and, most importantly, personal taste as deciding factors. However, over the past several years, the horsehair industry has heard rumblings of discontent, as bow makers, musicians and suppliers alike complain about thinning hair, increased breakage and a changing market. Is horsehair just too knotty a problem for today’s musical environment?

First, let’s take a look at the product. Mongolian horsehair has cornered the international market, being white, fine and popular for a range of violin bows, from cheap to top-end. In terms of sales volume, Siberian hair runs a close second, followed by late arrivals Canada and Argentina, with American, English and Australian hair bringing up a distant rear. Bow makers prefer the thicker, more elastic hair of cold-weather horses, and customers normally want the palest shades. ‘The Siberian horsehair tends to be longer and whiter,’ says London-based bow maker Matthew Coltman. ‘We use that for the best-quality bows and Mongolian for cheaper bows.’ Horsehair supplier Zhang Lintao uses 80 per cent Mongolian hair and the rest from Siberia. ‘The colour is pure and elasticity is very good,’ he says. Bow maker Scott Cao of Scott Cao Violins in California likes thinner Mongolian hair for violin bows, but prefers thicker Siberian, Canadian and English hair for cellos. ‘Thicker hair produces a darker tone, and enthusiastic cellists probably also want some black hair, which is stronger,’ he says. ‘Double bass players also use black hair, or salt-and-pepper.’

Experts disagree about the extent to which different colours affect tone, and individual choice varies. But hue is only one consideration, and anatomy is another. Mares spray their tails with urine, making stallion hair cleaner, pricier and generally more desirable. Hair suppliers may also choose hair culled from live or dead animals, which again comes down to personal preference. Horses are widely processed for meat, glue (hooves) and fabric (skin), and their tails are part of the package. ‘Hair from the tails of living or dead horses has exactly the same physical properties,’ says Canadian bow maker Michael Vann. ‘Either will work perfectly.’  For their part, Chinese suppliers overwhelmingly prefer live animals. ‘If the animals are already dead, then the hair won’t get any nutrition,’ says bow hair supplier Zhang Jianggai, of Xinyuan Haiyang Musical Instruments. ‘The quality is not that good.’  However, Cao feels this is psychological. ‘The Chinese might be too picky,’ he says. ‘It’s like everyone wanting to eat live fish to prove it’s fresh, but if the fish is recently dead, it’s just as good.’

He concedes that storage time is an issue, and suggests a test. ‘If the hair stretches before it breaks, it’s got enough elasticity,’ he says. ‘If it breaks easily, the quality is destroyed.’ Coltman agrees. ‘If you leave the hair in your cupboard for a year, it’s going to become brittle,’ he says. ‘You have to get it in right away.’  But even if lengthy storage time is avoidable, bow makers can’t help their area’s humidity. ‘Each bow or violin shop will have their own preference dictated by their geographic location,’ says Vann, explaining that horsehair absorbs and exudes moisture quickly. ‘Shops in desert areas, where the humidity can drop to seven per cent, have serious issues with rehairs,’ he continues. ‘A dry horsehair will break a hundred times faster than a wet hair.’

Much like music itself, horsehair selection is an art, not a science, and emotional response plays a large part. But that doesn’t explain why today’s makers and players are dealing with inferior products. ‘This is a major problem,’ says Boston-based bow maker Benoît Rolland. ‘I keep seeing musicians who come in an emergency before a concert, recording or audition because somewhere on earth, brittle hair has been put on their bow. The problem seems to be widespread.’ Is our planet simply running out of good hair?

Not at all, says Yorkshire-based horsehair dresser Michael Sowden, who first learnt his trade in 1959, and attributes the problem to sloppy sorting. ‘All the manes have to be sorted from the tails, then the colours have to be separated, then the lengths, and most importantly the quality of the tails,’ he says, explaining the painstaking process. ‘If you did not get this right, you could ruin a 100kg batch of very expensive tail hair by letting just one inferior tail get through. This doesn’t sound like very much,’ he continues. ‘But if the tail weighed just 1kg, that would put approximately 33,000 individual “chalky” or damaged hairs into the batch. These hairs should be removed before the dressing (the sorting, washing, disinfecting and combing) begins. Otherwise it is left for companies like us to take them out ourselves, at considerable expense.’

And therein lies at least part of the problem. Suppliers source hair from around the world, but most of it gets dressed and sorted in China’s Hebei province. The process is complex and drawn-out: after several rounds of washing and disinfecting that includes beating the hair with a stick to loosen dirt, dressers then perform at least five cold rinses before drying it under natural light and combing out the not-yet-finished product. This is before the most meticulous sorting even begins. The dry, brittle, knotted, short, curly or broken hair goes into industrial brushes – only the best hair should make it into bows, and quality sorters give each round of hair at least six separate inspections. Even bundling takes special qualifications. The trade was once made up of family businesses, in which parents and children could spend years learning the arduous process of preparing hair for market.

But this may be a dying art. ‘Back then, suppliers had a lot of good hair and they sold it,’ says Cao. ‘Then the market got flooded, and a lot of those businesses went under.’ More common was a change in family dynamics – with children increasingly leaving villages to find urban work, there was no one to carry on the trade. ‘Sorting is time-consuming and labour costs in China are going up,’ says Canisa Shi of instrument, accessory and tool specialists SieLam. ‘Young people don’t want to go into this dirty family business, as they can’t make a lot of money and they want to be rich. Most of the small workshops are finished.’ This means European and American companies paying the same price for Mongolian or Siberian hair will have inferior bundles to contend with. ‘There’s still good-quality hair available, but now they know how to grade them,’ says Cao. ‘They won’t sell you the same cheap hair as before: now you pay the same amount of money and get lower quality.’

Vann agrees that these days, hasty or careless sorting is a serious problem. ‘Short hairs among the bundles can cause serious frustration and an unwelcome vocabulary from the workbench,’ he says. ‘One should be able to use every hair in the bundle.’ Rolland makes the same point. ‘Sources do not seem to be reliable any more,’ he says. ‘I select what I can use in every shipment and send back the lesser-quality hair. I pinch each hair, and run it in my fingers to appreciate its strength and how it vibrates. I check its proper response against my fingers’ skin to evaluate what its sound capacity will be, as well as its response to playing.’ He goes on to blame ‘a lack of competence’ and a desire to sell anything and everything. ‘People want fast results and are not keen to train over decades to learn the fundamentals and details of a craft,’ he says. ‘Commitment, reliability and steadiness are what today’s horsehair market lacks.’

For those in the industry, it comes down to trusting their suppliers. ‘So many companies on the internet are not sorters themselves – they send small samples that are good but after that it’s 99 per cent rubbish,’ says Shi. ‘I reject those samples, but they just send them to someone else. We hire our own people to do the sorting,’ she continues. ‘There’s a lot of bad hair from around the world, so you need to check the process of sorting and cleaning before you order.’ As far as bow hair gone wrong, everyone agrees that the biggest problem is bleaching. ‘Bleached hair has an even colour all the way down its length with no urine stains showing, which is how they imitate stallion hair, but it’s brittle and it breaks quickly,’ says Sowden. ‘It looks good in the bow, but it’s no good in action.’ Some unscrupulous hair suppliers will add bleached hairs into non-bleached bundles. ‘Honest hair suppliers will tell you, but the new guys probably won’t,’ says Cao. ‘The colour looks very white, but the hair isn’t good.’

But different customers have different requirements. ‘Our German buyers always buy the high-quality hair, but Chinese buyers have different demands,’ says Zhang Jianggai. ‘Sometimes for the lower cost, they will mix horsehair and bleached hair (at an 8:2 ratio), and some will even want full bleached hair,’ he says. ‘If the price is cheaper, and no one tells makers to change it, they will think it’s OK and will keep using it.’

Zhang Lintao also admits to selling bleached hair on request. ‘But untreated horsehair is better, because its elasticity and tenacity is better than with bleached hair.’ Guan Shangchi, vice president of Guangdong province’s violin makers association, also cautions against overheating. ‘Chinese bow makers like to buy hair that’s 78–80cm long, but Europeans want 90–95cm,’ he says. ‘Some hair suppliers soak their hair in hot water to make it longer. European makers have to find good suppliers, not ones off the internet,’ he continues. ‘You can’t be guaranteed of quality.’

However, as China grows wealthier, the market shows more diversity. While Cao admits that quality Chinese suppliers see a much greater profit dealing with overseas companies, Chinese customers are becoming more sophisticated. Cao has shops in both China and the US, and claims that ‘people will pay more for good hair, whether they’re amateurs or professionals’ in China only. ‘Not in the US shop.’ He also says that Chinese musicians often insist on Canadian or Argentine hair. ‘Even my Chinese hair supplier is importing Canadian hair for Chinese customers,’ he says. ‘China used to be an export country, but now it’s getting richer and becoming a country of imports.’

As obtaining quality hair is getting increasingly problematic, is it time for a good synthetic substitute? Probably not. ‘The last time I used a substitute it was in the 1970s,’ says Coltman. ‘It was nylon, and it was useless.’ Cao feels there will never be a shortage of horses. ‘It’s not like pernambuco wood, which is endangered and takes time to grow,’ he says. ‘Carbon fibre might be the future of the bow. But it would take a lot of time and energy to produce fake hair.’ Sowden says there are some synthetics on the market, but that they are generally low quality. ‘In order for the filaments to hold rosin, you have to spray them with an adhesive, which is not practical,’ he says. And although he predicts a ‘massive synthetic market for the cheaper end of the bow trade, if produced correctly’, he still prefers the real thing. ‘There will always be a good market for horsehair,’ he says. ‘It has that certain magic quality that synthetics cannot imitate.’

However, that magic needs some help. Insufficient rosin will affect the ‘bite’, or string grab. Rehairs can be faulty, and using too much hair will deaden the sound. ‘Rehairing is a complex part of our craft, long and difficult to learn,’ says Rolland. ‘A bow maker needs to have rehaired thousands of bows to have an alert sense of how to choose the hair, and how to rehair without ever damaging a bow,’ he continues. ‘A lot in the playing quality of the bow relies on a good hair ribbon, well balanced, and well installed.’ Of course, shoddy construction has its own problems. ‘If the ferrule is too thin, it’s like a knife,’ says Chinese bow maker Liu Chongyu. ‘That will break the horsehair.’ Furthermore, Cao reminds us that the bow hair is just one part of the musical equation. ‘The hair will help a lot, but a high-quality bow will produce a better tone,’ he says. ‘It’s also how you use the bow, the rosin, the whole thing.’ In other words, buyer beware – but don’t (always) blame the hair.

This article was first published in The Strad’s 2013 Accessories supplement.

Watch: Making a bow – from start to finish

Photo: Michael Sowden