Tips for proper bow maintenance

There’s more to looking after your bow than simply replacing the hair. Peg Baumgartel gives advice on everything from monitoring straightness to identifying cracks

bow maintenance

Maintaining your bow is as important as maintaining your instrument, yet many players do not know what this entails beyond replacing the hair. Your bow can bring you countless hours of enjoyment and can last hundreds of years if cared for properly. You should find a trained professional to maintain your bow, however: you would not allow your postman to remove your appendix because he once read a medical book, so have the same consideration for your bow. While bows appear to be quite simple, they are actually comprised of many pieces, and they differ from instruments as cats differ from dogs in their need for specialist care. Being armed with a basic understanding of the bow will enable you to communicate clearly with a bow expert.

The horsehair used for stringed instrument bows is preferably unbleached and sourced from horses living in cold climates where their hair grows thicker and stronger. Due to the extensive cleaning and hand processing needed to remove inferior strands of hair, high-quality horsehair is very expensive. Quality does matter when it comes to horsehair – and may affect the sanity of the professional replacing your hair.

You may need a rehair if the hair is broken on one side from playing, if it feels slippery and has no grab no matter how often you rosin it, or if it produces less sound than previously or breaks easily. If your hair is in good shape but feels slippery in just a small area, or if it has excess rosin, ask your rehairer to clean it with alcohol to remove the oil, dirt or rosin. If this does not take care of the problem, you will need new hair. Be cautious about trying to clean the hair yourself, however. Players attempting to clean their hair with alcohol have been known to splash the stick accidentally and remove areas of French polish, incurring the added expense of restoring the finish. Some rehairers will show you how to clean bow hair safely, although it takes a bit of time and work to remove the rosin completely. If there is a professional rehairer in your area, it is worth having your bow serviced locally. Horsehair is sensitive to humidity, so a rehair carried out locally will achieve the correct hair length more often. Hair stretches in high humidity and shrinks in low humidity. Overly stretched hair will be long, leaving a considerable gap between the end of the frog and the thumb leather, and sometimes you will not be able to tighten the hair to playing tension. If the bow hair stretches considerably after a rehair, you can have it shortened. Some bundles of horsehair stretch more than others, and stronger bows stretch hair faster than supple bows. Dry climates call for longer rehairs. However, if the hair is too short, it can break the bow head off the stick, and nobody wants a decapitated bow.

The outcome of a rehair is based on three factors: the quality of the horsehair, the rehairer’s skill and you. It’s important to communicate clearly with the person who will do your rehair. Let them know about the climate where you live, any travel plans, your perception of the bow’s strength and condition, the humidity of the rooms in which you play and the type of rosin you use, because any of these factors can affect the outcome. Do not ask for extra hair in your bow to lengthen the time between rehairs, since too much hair can act like a mute on the string or negatively affect responsiveness. You need an even, flat ribbon of hair, without any kinky strands. It’s important to tell your rehairer what kind of rosin you use, because rosin incompatibility is possible if the shop’s ‘starter’ rosin does not match yours. Mixing metallic rosins (gold or platinum) with non-metallic ones can sometimes result in slick hair. Too much rosin causes noisy overtones.

An even rehair improves performance and helps a bow maintain its straightness. To test for evenness, wash your hands (without using hand lotion, as it leaves an oily residue), sit down and place the bow in your lap with the hair facing up and the frog towards you. Put both hands underneath the grip and thumbs near each other on top of the hair, then slowly rock each thumb individually and feel the surface. In time you will know an even rehair from one that is tighter on one side or in the middle.

Next, check the wedges holding the hair: the head wedge and the wedge inside the metal ferrule on the frog should have the hair spread evenly across them. Have your ferrule examined for flatness and corrected if necessary. Convexly warped ferrules can occur because of various factors and prevent an even, flat spread of hair. To avoid structural problems, check that the ferrule’s solder joints are sound.

If you store a bow for a long time, you risk attack from bow bugs, which live in darkness and survive on protein, eating horsehair, tortoiseshell and whalebone. Unevenly broken lengths of hair visibly chewed on the ends and tortoiseshell or whalebone with holes on the surface signal an infestation. To prevent bow bugs, use mothballs or regularly leave the case open. If bow bugs are present, cut the hair out of your bow and dispose of it, vacuum the case thoroughly and follow the previous suggestions, or simply purchase a new case. Your bow expert may treat your bow and case cautiously if the bow bugs are still present – they are unwelcome guests in any bow shop. Do enquire about restoring the tortoiseshell or whalebone when you take your bow for new hair.

It is important to maintain your bow’s camber (the stick’s curve when viewed from the side) and straightness (the stick when viewed lengthwise, hair facing the floor) for your playing enjoyment and your bow’s longevity. Think of these factors as being like your spine. Some bows might be technically out of alignment in camber or straightness, but they play well nonetheless. If you are happy with the way your bow plays, leave it alone! If you have any questions about your bow’s camber or straightness, ask your rehairer to look at them when you take your bow in for servicing. (As part of the rehairing service, most rehairers inspect your bow when you deliver it so that any additional repairs can be discussed while you are present.)

Individual bows have different needs in terms of camber or straightness due to the particular piece of wood and any anomalies it may have, the way the stick is shaped and graduated, the era the bow was made, and so on. This is a highly complex and technical subject, and it is not an area for amateurs to delve into.

Always loosen your hair after playing to take tension off the stick. You want a rehair to be even, because if the hair is pulling more tightly on one side it can pull the bow out of alignment – and this also applies if your hair is broken on one side from playing. A loose, wobbling frog can put the stick under uneven tension. Misaligned heads and frogs also negate straightness. Don’t panic if your bow is out of alignment – it can usually be completely corrected.

French polishing is an art unto itself. Let your rehairer maintain your bow’s surfaces during servicing or after cambering or straightening, because you can ruin your hair should you splash polish on it. In addition, many frogs have been unknowingly scratched or had edges rounded from attempts at polishing the metal parts.

These should be properly maintained to ensure the optimum playability and longevity of a bow. The thumb leather deteriorates first, so replace this inexpensive item to prevent grip and stick handle wear. Should you develop an extreme thumb wear divot in the handle, you can structurally weaken and devalue your bow or even destabilise the front end of the frog seating and cause cracks on the frog’s thumbrest. An easily replaceable leather covering on top of the handle and brand stamp will provide protection from wear or acidic perspiration.

Bow experts can identify bows without brand stamps, but for posterity’s sake you should preserve your brand stamp, especially if you have a tendency to round the facets of the handle with your bow hold. In most cases the value will not be affected if your bow is readily identified without a brand stamp, but be mindful that the condition of a bow affects its price.

The two most commonly used leathers come from the water monitor lizard and the Moroccan goat. Water monitor lizard leather usually lasts longer and feels stiffer under the thumb. A maker chooses a particular type of grip to factor into a bow’s weight and balance. The choice of grip material is either metal wire, tinsel (silk core wound with silver or gold), coloured thread or whalebone. These can have varying lengths and weights. For metal wire grips, maintain the tiny leather ring on the front end since it helps hold the wire, should it loosen.

The tip, or face plate, protects the thin sides of the head mortise from cracking if excess hair or an oversize wedge is inserted. Have your bow inspected every rehairing for the structural condition of the head and the ivory or metal tip. If you have an ivory tip and it is chipped or cracked, have it replaced to stabilise the wood. If you have a metal tip, have the head checked for cracks caused by the metal pins used to hold the tip in place. Wood naturally shrinks over time and the metal pins remain a constant size, so cracking can occur and must be repaired and reinforced. Pin cracks devalue bows slightly.

A frog-and-button adjustment should be smooth and without wobble, and should be regularly lubricated by your rehairer. Do not allow your frog to wobble loosely from side to side on the bow’s handle, as this promotes frog cracks and leads to head and frog misalignment and stick warping. Ask your rehairer to turn the eyelet to eliminate wobbling, as novices can easily damage the underslide (the three-sided metal plate found on most frogs where the eyelet resides). When needed, have eyelets and button screws replaced professionally, as their holes often require bushing (plugging and drilling for the new-sized shaft). Eyelets are made from brass or bronze, and these softer metals can wear out from the steel button screws. However, properly aligned eyelets and screws last longer.

Regularly examine the metal parts on your frog and button. They are fitted into place, and glued and held with metal pins or tiny screws. If the bow is missing any pins or screws, or has loose parts, get it repaired immediately. Do not lose the metal part as it will be expensive to replicate – and it is a loss historically for old bows. It is normal for metal parts to sit above the surface of the frog or button because while the metal retains its original size, the other organic materials shrink over time (and this happens faster in arid climates).

When they are worn, the pearl slide and eyes in your frog and button should be replaced to protect the delicate edges of the surrounding ebony, ivory or tortoiseshell. If you own a historic bow, have your pearl replaced with the approximate colour and species: do not use white mother-of-pearl when it should be pink and green abalone. Your professional bow rehairer will know what your bow requires, and will antique the pearl if appropriate.

If you have moist hands or acidic perspiration, ask your rehairer to clean the pearl and place a thin coat of clear lacquer over the slide and eyes when your bow is apart for rehairing. Lacquer greatly slows wear, its sheen can be dulled with 4x steel wool, and the process is easily reversible when necessary.

Wipe your bow with a soft cloth every time you finish playing, especially over a tortoiseshell frog. Moist hands or acidic perspiration dissolve tortoiseshell layers, making them appear cloudy and lined. In some cases this can be reversed, but you need an experienced professional for this delicate task. If you have an elephant ivory or tortoiseshell frog on your bow, do not travel internationally with it because these banned species can be confiscated, or consider getting an ebony frog copy.

Unlike a crack in your instrument, you will not hear if you have an open crack in your bow. For structural considerations, however, any bow cracks should be repaired immediately. To find a crack in your bow, hold the bow so that you have sunlight or bright light washing across the surface. Slowly rotate the bow or frog while examining the area to see if a line or ‘break’ appears on the surface. If you are still unsure about a crack, have your bow examined professionally. Do not touch an open crack since your body oils can degrade the gluing surface and harm delicate edges. Cracks should be repaired immediately for best results.

With knowledge, observation and a working relationship with a professional bow expert, you can keep your bow finely tuned for your playing and help preserve it for future generations.

This article was first published in The Strad’s January 2010 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here