Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to our experts
In the 16th of the series, a reader asks if there are long-term consequences for a bow if a player fails to have it rehaired in a timely fashion. Two bow makers and one supplier give their views.
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The dilemma My bow probably needs a rehair (there’s a tuft of broken hair ends near my frog!), but I’ve been so busy doing my office job during the day and playing chamber music in the evenings that I haven’t had time to get it seen to. Will it harm my bow if I keep playing on it anyway? And what’s the longest anyone should go between rehairs – does the hair deteriorate even if it’s not being used?
VIGDIS BREKKEN, OSLO, NORWAY
JUTTA WALCHER Developing a ‘tuft’ of broken hair ends near the frog is usually the beginning of the end: it is a sign that the hair has worn out and it will continue to break at an ever-increasing rate. This will lead to the stick being pulled over to one side when under playing tension. I have come across bows where the wood has been worn away as a result of a lack of hair on the playing edge – damage that cannot be fixed. When receiving a bow in this condition, I occasionally wonder how the player ever managed to keep going with half of the hair missing!
Watch out for how much the hair has stretched. As the number of the hairs diminishes, the remaining hairs have to take more force when the bow is pulled up to playing tension, so they will be stretched even further. It is worth checking that the gap between the thumb leather and nose of the frog is not too big, otherwise there might be trouble ahead if the brass eye hits the back of the stick mortise.
To give an idea of the time frame when a bow should be rehaired, I can only say that it depends on how many hours it was played for, and what kind of repertoire was being played. I see some of my customers every three months, whereas others manage to keep going for two years or more. There are several indicators for when the next rehair may be due:
* when you notice that you have to apply more and more rosin. This shows that the hair is simply worn out and has lost its grip.
* if the hairs are breaking at a more frequent rate. Do not let it get to the point where you end up playing on the wood instead.
* if the hair has shortened so that it is impossible to relax the tension fully. Again, visit your bow maker. A drop in humidity can bring this on, which tends to happen in the winter months, especially in places like Norway. This may be potentially dangerous for the bow, as the strain on the head could cause it to snap off.
* if the hair has stretched a lot. Have it checked by your bow maker. It may be down to a change in humidity or the wedge inside the frog may have slipped.
My advice in your case would be to go and get a rehair. Perhaps you could delegate the couriering. You may want to consider buying a cheap bow as a spare for when your favourite bow is due for a service.
DAVID HAWTHORNE If very much hair is broken off, you are probably rubbing the stick of the bow on the strings while you play. In fact, if your bow is warped towards the playing side, or if it is weak, or if the camber is uneven, this might be why hairs are breaking in the first place. With less hair on the playing side, you are probably pulling the bow more to that side as you tighten it, and you will break even more as you play. As far as damage to the bow goes, you are probably rubbing away a little bit of wood as you play on the stick, and perhaps you are warping the bow too. On the other hand, maybe the bow is not a bow of extraordinary value, and a little wear is not a worry, and maybe when the bow is rehaired it will straighten up again.
Many professionals who rehearse and practise every day have their bows rehaired every six months or so. Students typically get it done once a year, and casual players require it even less frequently. If a player has more than one bow, they may rehair each bow less often because they are using it less frequently while they play their other bows.
If your hair is old and it still works, it’s probably OK. If you store your bow for some time without playing it, though, you may lose hairs to the larvae of carpet beetles. If many of your bow hairs are broken, you can identify this problem by looking at the hair ends under a magnifying glass. Instead of a square end, the hairs will have a kind of ‘munched-off’ look to them, with small dents in the profile tapering to the severed end. Bow owners who play every day won’t generally have a problem with these creatures, since they don’t like light or disturbance. They also eat natural gut and tortoiseshell.
MICHAEL T. SOWDEN As a supplier of bow hair I can only answer the last part of the question, regarding the horse hair itself. Bow hair should always be stored away from bright light (for example, in front of sunlit windows) and high temperatures (near central heating). Both of these conditions have the potential to dry out the hair and make it very brittle, which in turn will cause individual hairs to break.
In humid conditions the hair will stretch too much while it is being tightened on the bow. If it is not completely released, after the player finishes their practice the hair will dry out and go back to its original length. This can lead either to hairs snapping out of the bow or, worse still, the bow tip coming off completely. So it is essential for the hair to be correctly stored at all times, whether it’s in the workshop of the maker or restorer or in the bow itself.
Bow hair can also become breakable if the hank has been accidentally dropped or mishandled while rehairing, causing the hair to matt up. If this happens, great care will have to be taken, with a comb, to tease out the tangle very gradually without putting too much pressure on the hair by snatching at it – this only stretches the hair and can weaken it before it is put into the bow.
The hair will also be less stressed if it is combed in the proper direction: start at the white of the hank and comb it down to the slightly sandy-coloured tip. By doing this, the hank is being combed in the direction that the natural scales lie and not against them. These scales run down the hairs in the same direction, and without them you would not get good rosin adhesion.
DEREK WILSON It does sound like your bow definitely needs a rehair as soon as possible. The hair usually breaks on one side, which means that when the bow is up to playing tension, the uneven hair will prevent the stick from being straight and it will distort the stick in a direction that won't help the playing quality! It may bend it enough so that you have to adjust your playing style to stop the stick from rubbing on the strings.
It is difficult to say how often players should have their bow rehaired. A good friend, Pieter Schoeman, concertmaster of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, has his bows rehaired every couple of months. He says, 'The bow becomes unresponsive with old hair and harder to control the technical aspects.' Other musicians may leave it for at least a year, but because hair grip and sound gradually deteriorate it's often not really noticed until it is replaced with new hair.
I don't know if hair deteriorates if it's not being used, because if I have a bow with old hair in it, I don't know how much wear it has had, so I replace it with fresh hair anyway.
Jutta Walcher has been a professional bow maker and restorer for the past 25 years. She is based in Oxford and London.
David Hawthorne runs a summer bow making workshop in Cambridge, MA, US: www.violinbows.net
Michael T. Sowden is a bow hair supplier based in Drighlington near Bradford, UK: www.sowden.co.uk
Derek Wilson established his own business in 1991, specialising in the maki