By Erin Shrader
Here’s how to know when to get your violin or cello bow fixed and why you should do it.
Take a look at your bow. That long, spindly stick appears vulnerable, though it’s hardier than it looks. Still, it’s so easy to drop, to knock off the edge of your music stand (where you know you should never leave it, but do anyway), or to leave sitting across an open case just waiting for the lid to fall and snap the stick.
There are reasons why more bows survive into old age, and not all of those reasons have to do with accidents—wear, tear, and deferred maintenance can lead to damage, too. But mindfulness, routine maintenance, and prompt repairs can prevent more serious problems down the road.
- A Bow Rehair Can Prevent Damage
- Purpose of Thumb Leather
- Replace the Grip When Worn
- Heed the Mechanics of the Screw and Eyelet
- The Fragility of the Frog
- Gluing Cracks in the Stick
- The Vulnerability of the Head
1. A Bow Rehair Can Prevent Damage
While a rehair is more maintenance than repair, certain types of damage can be prevented or minimized by not postponing a rehair when you really need one. When too much hair breaks on one side, the uneven tension pulls the bow to the opposite side, eventually warping it. Straightening the stick entails heating it. Even in the most experienced hands, there is always a slight risk that a hot bow will crack or break. It’s cheaper to get a rehair.
And then there’s the climate. Hair shrinks in dry conditions. If it shrinks so much you can’t loosen it all the way—this often happens with a change of seasons or a move to a drier climate—get it rehaired. Constant tension can pull some of the camber out (recambering involves heating the stick). In severely dry weather, the hair can shrink so much it pulls the head off the bow. This is a tricky, expensive repair that can reduce the value of your bow by half.
Hair stretches as relative humdity rises. If it becomes so long that your thumb rests on the stick in the gap between hair and frog, get a rehair. This may feel nice and comfy at first, but your thumbnail wears away at the wood, causing permanent damage to your bow. This can be filled, better sooner than later, but it can diminish the value of an expensive bow. When the thumb-worn bow is rehaired at the proper length, the worn facet no longer supports the frog, which is always being pulled forward by the hair. The frog depends on the support of a proper fit (called seating) on the facets of the stick. Poor seating eventually leads to a host of problems, including cracks in the frog.
When the hair is too long to reach playing tension, players often turn the button in hope of resolution or out of frustration. Inside the bow, the eyelet is still traveling along the screw, but it’s pushing against the back of the mortaise, which can crack the butt end of the stick.
It’s cheaper to get a preventative rehair than to deal with these repairs.
2. Purpose of Thumb Leather
The thumb leather is there for more than comfort: it protects the bow from your fingers and thumbnail. Once the leather wears through to the grip or stick, have it replaced. If you seem to wear out thumb leathers quickly, ask for lizard. It’s more expensive, but lasts longer.
Because of skin chemistry, some peoples’ fingers eat away the stick above the frog. If left unchecked, some players wear all the way through to the mortise, exposing the eyelet! Your bow maker may recommend covering the area with a strip of leather or lizard to protect it.
3. Replace the Grip When Worn
If the winding on the grip comes loose, have it fixed. If the problem hasn’t gone too far, the grip might be salvageable. If it can’t be saved, have it replaced—the grip or winding protects the stick from your thumb and fingers. It is also an integral part of the weight and balance of the bow, so a missing grip will affect how the bow feels. It’s best to replace the grip with the same material, usually some sort of wire: silver or gold for fine bows, “nickel silver” or other alloys for inexpensive bows.
Other grip materials include silk thread, silver-wound thread, real or faux whalebone, and simple plastic. The price of this repair will vary greatly depending on the material.
4. Heed the Mechanics of the Screw and Eyelet
The adjuster button turns a long steel screw inside the end of the stick. As you turn the button, a brass eyelet that is screwed into the frog travels along the screw in a trench-like mortise. The eyelet pulls the frog along the screw, adjusting the hair tension. Over time, the screw can wear out the softer eyelet. It’s designed this way—replacing the eyelet is easier than replacing the screw.
If the screw feels tight or isn’t turning smoothly, the eyelet is probably worn. Take it in at the first sign of trouble: if the eyelet strips you won’t be able to use the bow.
Most of the time replacing an eyelet is a simple operation: a repair person just needs to find an eyelet that matches the threads on the screw, file the slightly oversized eyelet to fit the mortise, screw it into the hole, and adjust the height. After that, the complications begin. Different thread types have been used on bows. There are a few standard threads, but if yours is not one of them, the bow maker may even have to make a custom eyelet. If the originality of the screw is not important to the value of the bow, the screw may be replaced with modern equipment.
If the hole that the eyelet screws into is crooked (which might have caused the initial problem) or is too worn out to hold the eyelet, the hole may have to be “bushed,” or drilled bigger until it is perfectly round, then filled with new ebony and redrilled.
Other common problems in the tightening mechanism can include a screw that’s not set into the button properly. The bow maker might remove it, possibly bushing the button as above, and reset the screw. Over time, a poorly fitted screw and eyelet can wear the screw hole in the end of the stick so much that the end of the stick must be bushed and redrilled.
If one of the metal rings comes loose or falls off the button, have it glued back on right away before the exposed ebony wears. The wood is more fragile than you might think.
5. The Fragility of the Frog
The frog should meet the facets of the stick perfectly without wobbling from side to side and without a gap at the back. The issue might be with the tightening mechanism or worn facets, as discussed in the section about the screw and eyelet, or even dirt that has built up between the stick and the metal underslide that protects the top of the frog.
Too much play side to side can pull the stick to one side, warping the stick. Rocking from side to side, or front to back, puts stress on the fragile top edges of the frog (look at it from the back or front and you’ll see how thin the edges are). If the edges start to crack, have them glued. If pieces break out, save them. Lost or crumbled ebony can be replaced by removing wood until there is a flat surface, gluing on new wood, and shaping it to match. The best restorers can make it nearly invisible, but it’s an expensive job.
The pearl eyes are ornamental, but if they fall out, replace them promptly. This goes for all metal or pearl parts of the bow. Your fingers will wear the edges of the hole so that replacing them becomes difficult. There is very little ebony between the back of the eye hole and the mortise that holds the hair inside. In fact, it often crumbles, leaving a hole in the frog that will only get bigger with wear. The pearl slide is not only ornamental: it helps hold the hair in the mortise and protects the fragile insides of the frog. If the pearl falls off, have it glued back on. The edges of the face of the frog are very thin and fragile without the perfectly matched slide in place.
6. Gluing Cracks in the Stick
I’ve already discussed problems that lead to having the stick straightened or recambered and to various repairs at the frog end of the stick. Cracks and breaks may or may not be repairable depending on where they occur. When you drop your bow, inspect the stick carefully for cracks. Have any cracks repaired right away; some mean the end of a bow’s life, while others are repairable but result in a significant loss of value. Your restorer can advise you on the severity of the crack. Some cracks can be glued and are sometimes reinforced with a tight thread winding.
7. The Vulnerability of the Head
The head may be the most vulnerable area of a bow. It must be strong enough to withstand the constant pull of tightened hair but flexible enough for expressive playing. It’s a showpiece for both the maker’s artistry and the restorer’s skill. The head, itself, can split off from too much tension or a drop to the floor. After a serious drop, have a valuable bow checked for tiny cracks visible only to the trained eye. Repairing can extend the useful life of the bow, but a broken and repaired head reduces value by 50 percent.
Here’s the repair process: First, the head is glued back into place, then the break is reinforced by one of several procedures. In the old days, a slice was cut out of the center of the repaired head and filled with new wood, called a spline. These days, common fixes include screwing, pinning, or tying the glued pieces together in a repair that can be barely visible from the outside.
The tip, or headplate, that is glued to the face of the head lends structural support to the fragile head. If the tip becomes unglued, take the bow in for repair right away—regluing is simple, but must be done right. If the beak at the tip breaks off, find it and have it glued back on. If you lose it, some shops can make a replacement, others may suggest replacing the whole tip. Left unattended, the tip is vulnerable to wear, making headplate replacement difficult and expensive.
If you see cracks where the hair comes out of the head, have the hea plate replaced. A cracked headplate doesn’t have the structural integrity of an intact one. Tip replacement is common, but time- consuming—and expensive. It requires a lot of skill. A well-executed tip doesn’t detract from a bow’s desirability, but a bad job can ruin the value of a fine bow.
Here’s the process: The original tip is removed, the surface is cleaned and prepared, and a new tip and, often, new ebony liners are glued together. The new tip is then carved in place to match the old one. Some shops offer different levels of this repair. The tip of an inexpensive student bow may be replaced with a plastic tip with pre-glued linings—less attention is paid to the artistry of the repair, but structurally it will be perfectly sound. Quality faux-ivory tips are becoming more common in repair shops for all but fine bows. This material is easy to carve, less expensive, less brittle, and looks almost like the more expensive natural mastodon ivory when polished.
Is the Bow Worth Fixing?
Routine bow repairs—such as rehairing and replacing thumb leathers, eyelets, or pearl slides—are worth doing for any bow that you enjoy playing. But the cost of more time-consuming repairs—such as reattaching the head, replacing the headplate, or restoring a crumbling frog—can soon overtake the value of most student bows. Also, some kinds of damage devalue a bow so much that it may not make financial sense to undertake expensive repairs. On the other hand, if you love the bow for its playing qualities and repairing can make it playable again, then it may well be worth the price. Consult your repair person and insurance agent to help you make a sensible decision.