Bow Care: Dos, Don’ts and Common Questions

The bow gets little to no love from most beginning string players. It's like the little step-child that gets ignored when everyone is paying attention to its golden-child sibling, the violin, viola or bass. I’ve seen bows get dropped, tapped, forgotten, left in the cold, used as swords, swung like baseball bats, and touched in places not meant to be touched by hands.

Though smaller and simpler, the bow has a major role in the sound an instrument produces. Without the bow, sustained notes wouldn't be possible; some sound colors couldn’t be produced, and the instrument wouldn’t be nearly as versatile. Just as technique can change a player’s overall sound, a slight improvement in bow care can also impact the player’s tone.

Here’s a look at common bow care questions for the unintentional rebels — those who defy convention due to their newness on the instrument or gaps in their knowledge — along with some simple dos and don’ts for optimal sound, playability and longevity.

Is the bow made of real horsehair?

Most of the time, yes. There is synthetic hair, but it’s very cheap and not recommended or used by most players. A majority of the horse hair used comes from the tails of Siberian or Mongolian horses.

  • Do hold the bow from the stick of the hair, always!
  • Don’t touch the hair. The oils and dirt from your fingers can build on the hair, making it sticky and hard to play.

The bow seems more durable than the actual instrument. How fragile is the bow, really?

While the bow has to be able to withstand a lot of pressure, especially when playing forte, most are made from wood and can easily break if dropped or hit. Even a small flaw in the wood can eventually turn into a vital problem. There are bows that are made of fiberglass and carbon fiber that are more durable, but I would not advise testing the limits of their durability.

  • Do view the bow as part of your instrument. Though it is not attached directly to the violin, viola or bass, it needs to be handled with the same level of care.
  • Don’t drop, hit or tap the bow. Many students take that nervous twitch that is usually in their leg and channel it into their bow, tapping it on the stand. That’s a bow care no-no, so keep that twitch in your leg. Even after dropping it six times, seven can be your unlucky number if it hits the ground at just the right angle or pressure and you’ll be left bowless for rehearsal.

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My bow loosens and tightens differently when it’s really hot outside. What’s up with that?

Unfortunately, the bow is just as temperamental to the weather as a violin, viola, or bass. The hair expands and contracts with changing temperature and humidity that can leave it harder or easier to loosen and tighten. With enough expansion and contraction, the stress can even require that you get the bow rehaired.

  • Do add a humidifier and hygrometer to your case. Add water to the humidifier when the meter is in the dry range. If possible, move the instrument to a room that is more temperate if the hygrometer shows measurements in either extreme.
  • Don’t leave the instrument in a hot car. The International Association of Violin and Bow Makers says that automobile travel is the second largest source of instrument damage. The same goes for cold basements or anywhere else that air is not regulated.

What type of regular maintenance does a bow really need?

The violin is made of more than 70 parts, and the bow is made of fewer than a dozen. While there are fewer parts to be concerned about, each part needs to be treated with equal care.

  • Do wipe the rosin residue off the violin, viola, or bass and before putting it away, also wiping off the stick of the bow. It gets residue build-up too. Loosen the bow before putting it back in the case.
  • Don’t over-tighten the bow. It can warp the wood and also make it harder to play your best. Also, avoid putting the bow in harm’s way, such as on the floor or on a chair.

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I know I’m supposed to rub some rosin on before I play, but why do I really need it?

Your bow is not a plug-and-play computer interface. It’s more like a genie in a bottle. You need to rub rosin on the bow for the sound to come out. The rosin helps the hair to stick to the string. It also preserves the texture that helps create the sound. If your bow is like a slip ’n slide across the strings, it’s a sign you need more rosin.

  • Do keep a good cake of rosin in your case. Remember to put a little on the entire length of the bow before playing.
  • Don’t over-rosin the bow. It can leave unnecessary residue on both the instrument and bow.

Bows all look the same, so does it really matter what bow I use?

When looking at a table full of bows, they can all look very similar. Though not always obvious, bows come in different weights, weight distributions, flexibilities, and setups. It does take some playing with different bows to really notice a difference, but it becomes more obvious with strokes like spiccato because of varying balance points. Over time, players usually develop their unique preferences. For example, one player may prefer a heavier bow, while another player may like a lighter one.

  • Do try different bows before purchasing. Be mindful of any feel or sound differences across bows, paying special attention to what feels and sounds best to you.
  • Don’t switch bows before a big audition or performance. It may take a little bit to get adjusted to the feel and new balance point of a different bow.

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Is the hair supposed to last forever?

Bow hair can break off, get dirty, and lose texture. While optimally maintaining the bow can help preserve the life of the hair, it will eventually need to be replaced. The process of taking the old hair off and fitting the bow with new hair is called a bow rehairing. There is an art to this process, so it needs to be done by a qualified professional.

  • Do find a trusted professional or violin shop to rehair your bow when the time comes. Your teacher is a great person to ask for referrals in your area.
  • Don’t try to save money by not rehairing your bow. Yes, it can get pricey, but it’s worth it to sound your best.

Should I rehair or replace?

This is a common dilemma in the case of inexpensive bows. Most beginning students use fiberglass or cheaper wood bows that start under $50. When it comes time for a necessary rehair, the cost typically ranges from $45 to $85. So, what do you do when the cost of the rehair matches the cost of the bow? Many people find themselves in this rehair old vs. buy new dilemma.

  • Do plan ahead before purchasing. If you are a beginner who plans on playing for long enough to require a rehair, consider a bow that costs a little more. The time between bow rehairs is highly debated, even among professionals. Generally, though, it will take at least six months to get to that point.
  • Don’t try to rehair the bow yourself. Youtube tutorials don’t compare to the expertise and skill provided by professionals. A rehairing done incorrectly has the potential for damaging the bow.

By showing your bow just a little consideration, you can greatly extend its usefulness and save yourself the time, money, and aggravation of rehairing or replacing it. Plus, you’ll sound better if the hairs are clean, rosined, and neither too loose nor too tight.

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