Helpful Hints and Observations on Bows By Samuel Kolstein

Learn to recognize the difference between Pernambuco, Brazil, Beef, Rose, Snake, Maple and many varieties of domestic and tropical wood.


The most durable wood that our finest bows are made from is pernambuco. Its characteristics vary in density and buoyancy. Its innate color which in time, with oxidation varies from light orange going into the reddish spectrum to deep reds and browns. Its graining can vary from the straight irregulars into the curly patterns that one sees in maple.


With reference to cambre, its properties have a similarity to steel in that heat control is important and proper cooling are critical procedures so that temper, as in metals, will give you an accuracy and permanency in the bending.


The most beautiful patina is obtained in time by using a medium of proportions of turpentine and linseed oil and the heavy variety of venetian turpentine. This gives you one of the finishing mediums, which in conjunction with time and oxidation and final applications of highly concentrated formulations of carnuba wax will give the wood the ultimate in finish. On cheaper bows, the procedure is accelerated in oxidation and varnishes are applied with either spirit or oil. If you see a bow that you like but the stick is not straight, or the frog needs repairs; if the grip or tip needs to be replaced and the overall characteristics of the bow are to your liking, don’t hesitate to buy it, since these details can be rectified by a competent bowmaker, and will give you the price leverage to acquire a valuable bow. As a matter of fact, I have had on many occasions, parents of students come to me with a bedraggled bow that they wanted to replace, and the only work that was needed was a rehairing.


A good playing bow need not be perfectly straight since it could have "the good bend". On the violin and viola bow, besides having its normal cambre, the bow can have a side bend. If in the playing position on the violin and viola the stick bends toward the bottom of the instrument, the tail piece section, this characteristic is known as the good bend since the tilt of the playing will be toward the scroll, the good bend will offer the additional resistance, and actually during the playing the stick will straighten. If on the other hand, the opposite prevails, known as the bad bend, the bow should be recambered and a small portion of the bow should have the good bend.

On the Cello and the Bass, the latter which includes two schools of bows, known as the Dragonetti, (German) and Bottesini, (French), the opposite side of the bow will now have the good bend, since the player will have the neck portion of the instrument up, and instead of bowing the instrument from the back, the instrument in its playing position will be bowed from the top section. The tilt of the stick will also be toward the top of the instrument, the neck portion. It will be bowed from the opposite bout of the lower string section.





Our fine bows are not cut to acquire the cambre but are bent by controlled dry heat. The diagrams below will show the end grains continually intersecting the outer edges of the stick.




This weakens and will lack the temper that a truly cut straight bow will have when it is bent. It will also eventually open at some of the end grains in the vicinity of the head. The blank before making the bow can also have a portion of the bow cut to the cambre and a portion bent. Again, our best bows start with a straight blank.




In rehairing, the best hair is the winter crop and longer length hair. During the winter or in countries where the geographic location has a cold climate, nature will endow the animal with a coarser and stronger hair. The shorter hank of hair will utilize the bottom portion. This is not desirable since that portion is brittle, having split ends and smaller diameters, since this section deteriorates due to its exposure to ground, abrasions, swatting and being in contact with its own waste. The top portion of the tail is continuously regenerating. On Violin, Viola and Cello we try to utilize hanks from 34 to 36 inches. For the Bass Violin we need a minimum of 32 inches.

Hair can come in black, brown, gray, bleached and unbleached white and sometimes in combinations known as salt and pepper. The denser the color in the blacks and browns, the more coarse and longer wearing. These hairs are used quite often on the Bass bows and even on the. Cellos. I have had occasions where I used it for Viola bows when I had a request for it.


Good hair in the long lengths retails for close to $200 a pound and when one considers the waste of practically an inch to an inch and a half off the top and close to four or five inches off the bottom, the yield to the person rehairing the bow, will from actuary figures give him just so many rehairings per hank or pound, so don’t be taken back by the high cost of rehairing today. Actually, we pay for what we get.


A person who does good rehairing will use the proper grade and the correct length. He will take time to remove the ferrules with the proper tool in conjunction with a heat knife to, loosen the hair spreading wedge. He will take time to remove the ferrules with the proper took in conjunction with a heat knife to loosen the hair spreading wedge. He will clean and buff the frogs and fittings, remove the accumulated dirt and rosin from the lining that slides on the stick, will put a light film of lubricant on the lining and the metal screw that engages with the brass eyelit, he will remove accumulated rosin from the stick and tip. He will replace the wedges in the hair nest of the frog. He will use soft wedges to spread the hair in the ferrules using our soft grades of mahogany since much of our destruction of frogs and ferrules are done by forcing hard and oversized hair spreaders between the bottom of the ferrule and the hair. The pearl slide which rides in the dovetail of the frog should have a slight coating of wax. This can be done by rubbing both edges across a block of paraffin. Before inserting the slide back in the dovetail of the frog make sure that there is no residue in the channels since any restriction will crack the frog. If this procedure is followed, then on future rehairings in removing the pearl slide after the ferrule is off there will be no damage to the slide as a chisel or tool will not be necessary. The tool will chip the pearl, scratch bend and lossen the precious metal inlays at the heel of the frog. On cheaper and volume type of rehairing as done for schools, etc., the cost factor won't allow the above work to be done; and normally someone who has been trained will have to work at a volume capacity and will utilize prepackaged strands of hair already sealed at the end or go into the synthetics that are marketed today. My own evaluation of the synthetics and the clients I deal with have not reached a point where they will replace the natural horse hair.


In selecting a Bass bow the wide farrel and tip on the French model, (Bottesini) school are the best in performance. The length of twenty-six inches to twenty-six and a half inches, are established as standard to date. The German model, (Dragonetti) school is the most intimate bow of the string quartet in that the frog portion of the bow is totally involved with the hand. Select one that will give you the natural position without cramping or constricting.


The new Zimmermann model German Bass bow is the one that the late prominent bassist Frederick Zimmermann was involved with involved with me in designing. The length is twenty-seven inches.


It is a difficult task to thoroughly discuss each area entered into this article. Literally speaking I have barely scratched the surface of each of the above topics. However, I have offered enough fundamental information to prove a measurable guidance to the string player in the care, selection, and some enlightenment in related areas to the string quartet of bows.

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