Unravelling the mystery behind this simple, but essential, bow part—and what to do when issues arise
By Heather K. Scott
Abow’s tip plate performs a variety of important functions. In addition to protecting the head of the bow, it also reinforces the structure of the surrounding wood—and offers makers an opportunity to add decorative elements and personal style.
So, what happens when there’s a crack in a plate—or worse? Do you need to have the plate completely replaced? “As with nearly everything pertaining to the care of instruments, there are considerations to take into account when one undertakes a tip-plate replacement,” says Port Townsend bow maker Ole Kanestrom, a member of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM), four-time Violin Society of America (VSA) gold-medal winner, and former student of Charles Espey.
Here are a few basics to help you understand how best to maintain the integrity of your bow and its tip plate.
Different Bows Need Different solutions
A factory-made bow needs a tip plate like any other bow; however the price of repair can add up—so much so that it sometimes competes with the value of a replacement bow. “On these bows, a tip repair can be done quickly and effectively using synthetic materials, like Tip Armor, Casein, Ivoroid, plastic, and so on, in conjunction with fiber liners,” says Kanestrom. “They are often more robust and durable than natural materials, cheaper, and able to handle the abuse that this kind of bow receives from students—and frankly, ham-handed re-hair technicians.”
But with custom or antique bows there may not be an easy fix. As Kanestrom explains, “Bows made by known makers are valued not only for their quality and playing characteristics, but also for the maker evident in the bow’s stylistic form—sculptural elements, signature tool marks—and tracks, finish details, or lack thereof.”
Although the tip plate may seem like a small part of the bow, it is one of the most important signature pieces that differentiate bows (and their makers) from one another. Replacing the tip on a fine bow, and particularly a historical bow, is an intricate process. “The slightest inadequate decision or gesture can affect the aesthetics of the bow, and consequently its value,” says Benoît Rolland, a Massachusetts-based contemporary bow maker and 2012 MacArthur Fellow.
Why Being Careful Is Key
So this seemingly innocuous repair can escalate into a situation that decreases the value of your bow, or diminishes its playing quality. “The devil is in the details,” Kanestrom says. “I have seen heads that have been completely reshaped, or mutilated in the process. When working on a bow of value, the repairperson has to be able to shift gears, and the price of replacement should honestly reflect the time and effort to do such a repair.”
Because of all that is at stake, it is generally best to seek out the original maker, if still alive and available, to do the repair. However, if that’s not possible, a skilled repairperson will be able to replace the head plate without touching the original wood or erasing character marks, and will also be able to mimic the original sculptural aspects of your bow’s initial tip plate.
As Rolland explains, there are two professional qualities to look for in a good repairperson: “A trained eye and a sure hand,” he says. Additionally, a bow repairer should be astute at selecting materials, making a well-designed and properly proportioned new bow tip, and then adjusting it to fit the player’s experience with exacting craftsmanship. It is indeed a delicate process, so finding an experienced craftsperson is paramount.
Tip-Plate Repair & Replacement
There’s a certain beauty and romance to working with bows. Minute details make each bow unique, not just singular to its maker’s style—the minor differentiations in custom-created bows give each bow personality, making every iteration one of a kind.
“The beauty of a bow head is sensitive to fractions of millimeters in volumes, lines, and curves,” explains Rolland. “A nice head plate and tip is like a gleam of light underlining a head feature, or like the pen stroke in a signature.”
Though this particular element for makers is so singular, the process is pretty standard. When you take your bow in for a tip repair, generally you can expect the following:
First, the maker or bow repairer analyzes the bow’s head volumes and lines to understand your bow’s specific style and history.
Next up, as Noel Burke—who studied under Charles Espey in Port Townsend and Stephane Thomachot in Paris—explains, the old tip is removed with water and heat. The gluing surface of the head is then gently cleaned with a file.
Then, a new bow tip is cut and filed to fit the head. The ebony veneer is cut and filed to fit the new tip. The whole is then glued to the head using hide glue.
“I then leave this overnight to dry, and attack it again the following evening,” says Burke. Then he files down the new tip to the head, without touching the pernamuco. “I mask one edge of the file with sticky tape to help with this,” he says.
Finally, the new tip is given a light sanding, the mortice is cut, and the new tip is polished.
An important note: If the head is damaged, this may reduce the value of the bow, and if the tip is original, it should only be changed when absolutely necessary. “If the retip is beautifully done, I do not think the value of the bow will be affected,” says Burke.
Materials & Other Considerations
Bow makers select the materials used to replace bow tip plates on a case-by-case basis. There are several deciding factors that experts consider:
Weight “It is a decisive element, as it may affect the bow-playing qualities,” Rolland points out. For example, he shares, “silver is six times heavier than ivory, but can be used in thin plates as the bow style and balance allows.”
Materials & Substitutions Tip plates have been made of many materials, such as silver, gold, ivory, fossilized mammoth (and mastodon), shell, ebony, bone, horn, and a variety of synthetics. “The choice of material used should reflect the original maker’s intent,” says Kanestrom. And, owing to recent international regulations on protection of elephants, ivory is particularly problematic. “A common substitute is well-selected fossilized mammoth,” says Kanestrom—citing mastodon as an alternative. “If the piece has prominent Schreger lines clearly revealed on the tip, then there is no question the material is mammoth and not elephant,” explains Kanestrom, when discussing how to tell the difference. That said, regulations concerning endangered species are in flux and it is best not only to confer with the maker, but to be personally aware of current laws when opting for a replacement tip, Kanestrom advises.
Why Ivory? Historically, ivory was chosen for bow tips because it offered a combination of qualities: a density around 1.8, slightly higher than that of pernambuco (1.1 to 1.3) but keeping in a same range, explains Rolland. “Its dense structure and noble beauty make it a fine material to sculpt and detail, therefore it offers stylistic potential,” he says.