After purchasing a violin, the next step is to choose a bow to compliment it. Like the instrument itself, each bow is unique and I have found that taking the time to find one that allows for ease of playing, is well worth it. This is often an overlooked step and I encourage students to try as many bows as they can before committing to purchasing a particular one. Luthiers and bow makers will let students borrow several bows at a time to try out for a week to ten-days, so that the student can get a sense of what they like the best. During this period, it’s usually possible for the teacher to test them out them out with the student and offer feedback.
Bows vary in price from thirty to hundreds of thousands or dollars. This is based on materials, the quality of the craftsmanship, and also the country of origin. Traditionally, bows have been crafted from wood — pernambuco and brazilwood are the woods of choice for the stick and ebony for the frog. Over the past twenty or so years, carbon fiber has become a popular, cost effective alternative.
Pernambuco has been the favorite of bow makers since the 1800’s and to this day, the finest bows in the world are made from it. There are a variety of reasons that this wood is top choice by bow makers due to its combination density and flexibility. When bow makers refer to pernambuco, they are referring to the rich, red-brown colored wood that is harvested from the core of large branches and the trunk of the Caesalpinia echinata tree. Native exclusively to Brazil, pernambuco has been over harvested for centuries and currently, conservation efforts are underway to preserve and expand the species. For bow makers, this makes new pernambuco difficult to acquire and the bows made from it expensive. Bow makers and Luthiers are notorious for hoarding wood, so even though acquiring new pernambuco is a challenge, they have their own stockpiles from years past, so you do not need to worry that a tree was recklessly cut down to make your bow. A bow with a pernambuco stick runs currently starts around six hundred to seven hundred dollars (USD). However, a good pernambuco bow is worth the investment for serious students.
A more economical alternative to pernambuco is brazilwood. This is general term which refers to wood from other species of trees related to Caesalpinia echinata family as well as from the outer layers of the pernambuco branches and trunk. Bows made from these woods are an excellent option for beginning and intermediate students. A quality brazilwood bow will range between one hundred – five hundred dollars (USD).
Carbon fiber bows are becoming a popular alternative to wooden bows and have been on the market for around twenty years. The names “carbon,” “graphite,” carbon graphite,” “carbon composite,” or “carbon fiber” are all synonyms for this type of bow. Crafted from a combination of carbon fiber and epoxy, they are durable, resistant to warping (a common problem with wooden bows when not taken care of), light weight, and virtually indestructible. A recent innovation for carbon fiber bows is a pernambuco veneer wrapped around a carbon fiber interior. These are the most economical choice for beginning students and the safest those who are prone to dropping things…
The other parts of the bow that are important to know about beyond the stick are the frog (the rectangular piece of black wood where the player will place their hands), the tip, the winding, and the screw. The frog is the rectangular piece of ebony wood or tortoise shell (often decorated with silver and a mother of pearl decorations and additional metal inlay) where the eyelet (mechanism) that attaches to the screw is encased. The screw is at the base of the bow and is used to adjust the tension of the hair. The winding is a usually a piece of wire (gold, sterling silver, or nickel), faux whalebone (plastic), silk thread, or a mixture of silk thread and metal wire that is wrapped around the bow stick where the index finger rests that both protects and adds a small amount of weight near the frog. This is held in place near the from with a piece of leather or snakeskin near the frog. On the opposite end of the bow, we have the tip, which has a small plate that holds the hair in place. That small plate at the tip is often crafted from ivory or metal.
Quality bows will have ebony frog (sometimes with a mother of pearl inlay), along with silver or gold wire winding (or a combination with silk) with leather or snakeskin fastening. The screw should move smoothly when turned and will easily adjust the tension of the horsehair on the bow.
A full-size violin bow weighs around 60 grams and viola bows around 70 grams. From bow to bow, there is a certain amount of variation as to how the weight is distributed throughout the stick. A balanced bow with the weight evenly distributed across the stick is the ideal. It’s easy to achieve a variety of dynamics and move the bow with ease across the strings with little effort. Some bows have more weight near the tip, which make creating a big sound without needing to apply additional arm weight when playing. For many students, it takes significantly more effort to move the bow and getting a variety of dynamics and expressions is more difficult.
When a student is ready to go to the shop, they need to determine a budget of the maximum amount they will pay for a bow and only look at bows in that price range (it’s easy to get carried away). After they have done that, students can go to a shop and try out as many as they can in their price range. This is vital in order to determine what type of bow feels the most comfortable in their hand and sounds the best with their instrument. If the student is not happy with the selection, they can go back to the shop on another day or try a different shop altogether. It can’t be stressed enough how important it is for the student to end up with a bow that both feels comfortable in their hand and brings out the best sounds with minimal effort from their instrument. Always feel free to ask your teacher for advice — we’re here to help you.