You may also find wood bows in the same price range as fiberglass (around $30 – $50) but they are less stable. If choosing between the two, the fiberglass bow is probably better, as it is at least stable and very unlikely to break, which is more than can be said for wood bows in that price range. If buying a fiberglass bow, try to get one with real wire winding and thumb leather. This adds a bit to the cost, but it’s worth it! The least expensive fiberglass bows have a plastic or rubber tube slipped onto the bow to replace the winding and leather. It usually works loose after a while and slides up and down the bow making a nuisance of itself.
Bow Sticks: Good quality wood bows should be made of brazilwood or pernambuco. Brazilwood bows will be brown in color and can be found beginning at around $100 – or less. Pernumbuco bows have a red-brown or orange-brown color. Prices start at about $150 and can go up into the thousands.
Top: Brazilwood bow stick
Bottom: Pernambuco stick
Composite bow sticks are becoming increasingly popular, and are available over a wide price range. Many of these composite sticks have a graphite or carbon fiber base. Pernambuco bow sticks with a graphite insert in the area of the winding are also available.
Some bow sticks are round, others are octagonal. (All are octagonal on the end beyond the frog.) The shape of the stick is not an important factor in selecting a bow unless you happen to prefer one over the other for appearance sake.
Frogs and Fittings: A beginner’s bow may have a plastic frog. It is adequate (at least until it breaks). That’s all. More expensive bows usually have frogs made of ebony – a hard black wood. The pegs, nut, fingerboard, tailpiece and chinrest are often made of ebony as well. Many frogs are decorated with a mother of pearl dot, a “Parisian eye” or something more ornate on the sides. This is an indication of quality only in that makers don’t usually bother with such amenities on inexpensive bows. Frogs may also be described as being “half-lined” or “fully-lined” – an indication of the metal (and possibly other material) plate found on the underside and back of the frog.
Several Different Types of Frogs
Ebony frog, mother of pearl dot, plain button, nickel silver winding
Viola style frog (rounded on the bottom corner) with decorative strips in the lining
(This bow hair needs to be replaced!)
Ivory frog and button, half lined, Parisian eye
Fully lined frog, silver fittings, three part button with mother of pearl half lining and button end
Plastic frog on fiberglass bow, half lined with plastic
(note there is no winding, just a plastic “sleeve” over the stick.)
Fully lined frog,mother of pearl half lining
Fully lined with silver and mother of pearl, Parisian eye, three part button with mother of pearl dots and end, imitation whalebone winding
Grip Windings: Most windings today are of wire (nickel/silver, silver or gold) or imitation (plastic) whalebone. Older bows sometimes have windings of real whalebone (baleen) or colored, patterned thread.
Bow Hair: Never touch the hair on your bow! Well, maybe your thumb can touch it just a bit right by the frog. But other than that, try to avoid touching the hair at all. Touching the hair causes it to pick up oil from your skin. The bow is unable to produce a smooth, even tone when there are oily places along the length of the hair.
Bows need to be rehaired periodically. This should be done by a professional. You can tell your bow needs to be rehaired when the hair becomes dirty or worn and has lost its ability to accept the rosin. All professional violin shops can take care of bow rehairing.
Rosin: Rosin is nothing more than dried up pitch. Well, it’s very special pitch, but pitch all the same. Some rosin has other materials added in to enhance its performance. Plain rosin for beginners is inexpensive. More advanced players can experiment to see if they prefer another (and more expensive) type of rosin.
Rosin is rubbed along the length of the bow hair as often as it is needed. It adheres to the natural roughness of the hair and causes the hair to “stick to” the string, producing sound as it sets the string vibrating. (Just for fun, try playing with a brand new bow, straight from the manufacturer. No sound!) My personal preference is to use as little rosin as possible. That “draggin’ a cat through a keyhole backwards” sound many people dislike about violins can often be attributed not only to poor playing – but also to too much rosin.
I play many hours each week. I rosin my bow only about once a week – but when I do it, I use a lot of rosin – back and forth maybe as much as 15 times or so. This works the rosin through the hairs rather than just coating the surface of the outermost hairs on the bow. I encourage my beginners to do the same, but of course more advanced players each develop their own preferred method.
Bow Bugs: These nasty little critters are real.
They are members of the Dermestidae family of beetles. Museum curators call them Anthrenus Museorum. What they do is eat your bow hairs. They never bother with bows which are used regularly. They don’t like fresh air and sunlight. Instead, they find their way into closed cases which have been left in closets, forgotten until little Johnny grows big enough to hold a violin or some spring cleaning brings them to light. These little buggers leave behind a mass of severed bow hairs – and also their own corpses (well, exoskeletons) littering the case. They do their worst damage when they are in the larval stage – only a few millimeters long.
It’s possible to get rid of them. Remove the violin and bow. Send them to a professional to do all that needs to be done for them. Vacuum and clean the case thoroughly and leave it outside where there’s plenty of sunlight for several days. A second alternative is to throw away the case and get a new (probably better) one. But don’t bother to get the bow rehaired if you’re only going to put the closed case back in the closet.
Care of the Bow: The tip is the most vulnerable part of the bow. It’s the one area where the grain of the wood is not working in its favor. Young children often drop the bow directly on its tip when in rest position, not realizing how important this is.
Fiberglass bows are an entirely different matter. I’ve often said you could pry the lid off a paint can with a fiberglass bow without damaging it. I don’t know this for a fact, as I’ve never tried it, but the point is, fiberglass bows are pretty tough!
The bow stick should be wiped free of rosin regularly (or if rosin buildup has occurred, have it cleaned by a professional). The screw holding the frog in place (also used to tighten and loosen the hair) should be removed if it begins to get stiff, and cleaned with WD40 – being very careful, of course, not to get any lubricant on the bow hair! Occasionally problems will develop with the fit of the screw mechanism, or the brass screw eye holding the screw will strip and need to be replaced. Any violin shop can take care of this for you.