By Erin Shrader
Taking care of a bow is not complicated, though it does require diligence. Whether you’ve just bought your first bow or are playing on a fine antique or contemporary handmade bow, the ground rules are the same: don’t overtighten it, keep it safe, keep it clean, and get a rehair when the bow needs it.
Of course, the devil is in the details, so here’s a detailed guide to taking care of your bow.
1. Keep It Safe
Be careful where you put your bow when you’re not playing. Even if you don’t intend to be gone long, put it somewhere it can’t fall, be knocked off, or spilled on. The best place is right in your case, in the bow holder. Some older cases have bow holders made of metal and covered in fabric. Beware! The fabric wears out where the bow rubs across it and can expose sharp edges that can scratch or tear up the edges of the frog.
Also, never lay your bow across your case with the lid open. The life of many a bow—and instrument—has been ended by a falling lid.
2. Know When to Tighten or Loosen the Hair
At a certain hair tension, the bow “comes to life.” It is responsive, the sound is good, and it just feels right. When it is too loose, the bow feels sluggish, too tight, skitters easily, and doesn’t make a full sound.
Don’t tighten solely by visual cues. There should always be some daylight between hair and stick, but hair that is at playing tension can look very different on different bows depending on the inherent characteristics of each bow. Playing tension is one of those things you learn to feel by experience.
Loosen the hair when you’re done playing or even just taking a break. You might get distracted and not come right back—a bow under tension is much more vulnerable to breaking than one that’s not.
Turn the button just until the hair begins to flop and then tighten it just until it looks like a smooth ribbon of hair again.
The exception to that rule is if you know you’ll be taking your bow to a place that is very dry, for example traveling on an airplane or driving from a temperate zone into hot, dry weather. In that case, loosen the hair more or it will become too tight as it dries out.
If you can’t tighten the hair enough, it’s too long. Don’t keep turning the screw in vain hope. You’ll only damage the stick. If a momentary deluge is the problem, wait till the weather dries out. Otherwise, it’s time for a rehair.
3. Keep It Clean
Wipe the excess rosin off your bow with a soft cloth. Rosin melds with the varnish and makes a mess, sometimes even leaving a blackish buildup that the rehairer may have to charge you extra to remove. If too much rosin builds up on the hair, you can wipe that off with a clean cloth, too. But it’s better not to over-rosin in the first place—that has the opposite of the desired effect.
If you’re comfortable removing the frog, check for dirt that builds up between the stick and the frog. Over time, this buildup can cause the frog to wobble. You can prevent this wobbling by cleaning the dirt off with a bit of very fine steel wool.
4. Know When You Need a Rehair
Some people rehair their bows every few weeks, some every few months, while others go for years without needing a rehair—it can depend partly on where you live. If the seasonal contrast in humidity where you live or travel is so great that the hair gets so short that you can’t loosen it or so long that you can’t tighten it, you will probably need to rehair at the beginning of the wet and dry seasons.
Some people break a lot of hair on one side of the bow. When too much hair breaks on one side, the hair pulls unevenly on the stick, eventually warping it.
Time for a rehair.
After a while, you may notice that the hair doesn’t seem to engage the string as well as it used to or that something feels or sounds different. This is a signal to get a rehair. But some people don’t notice or aren’t bothered by this.
As long as the hair is the right length, not pulling to one side, and works for you, there’s no danger to your bow.
5. What to Do When You Can’t Loosen the Hair
If you open the instrument case and find the hair so tight it cannot be loosened, take the bow into the bathroom and turn on the hot water—don’t put the bow in the shower, but steaming up the room can rehydrate the hair enough to remove the frog.
Here’s how: hold the bow in your left hand with the thumb firmly over the pearl slide. You want the frog to stay in place as you loosen the button and pull it out. Then carefully pull the frog straight out of the stick and wrap it in something to protect the sharp, fragile edges. Be careful not to tangle the hair. If the humidity situation is temporary (a freak dry spell, or you are just visiting) wait it out. If the humidity is longterm, you’ll need a longer rehair.
6. Check For Wear
From time to time, carefully inspect your bow. Keep an eye out for signs of wear, especially if you have a valuable bow and want to ensure that it holds its value or if you love it and want it to last forever.
Taking care of problems sooner rather than later is cheaper than neglect and protects your investment.
- Inspect the ivory headplate for cracks. If you see any, ask a repairperson to look at it. Some cracked head plates will need to be fixed right away, others can wait. Cracks can be hard to see, but if you see one, take the bow in right away.
- Look at the stick. Is rosin grinding into the stick at the lowest point of the camber? Is the thumb leather worn through? Are the windings coming loose? Mention these to your rehairer.
- Check the frog. Does it fit well on its facets, or does it rock from side to side? Look for cracks in the ebony, especially at the top and bottom edges. Are all the pearl and metal parts in place? A missing pearl eye might not seem like a big deal, but your fingers quickly wear away the edges of the hole, making it harder to replace the missing pearl. Left unattended, your fingers can wear right through the side of the frog.
- Does the screw turn smoothly? If it seems tight or feels like it’s grinding, remove the frog, as described above, and check the eyelet. If you see a lot of metal dust, the eyelet is wearing. If you put the screw back into the eyelet and it wobbles up and down, it’s wearing. You might as well take the bow in for a new eyelet; if you wait until it gives way completely it will undoubtedly happen at the most inconvenient moment!
Looking for a more in-depth look into instrument and bow care? Try Strings’ Violin Owner’s Manual. We also offer a handy series of web guides: Care & Repair of Violins or Violas, Caring for Your Violin or Viola Bow, Care & Repair of Cellos, and Caring for Your Cello Bow.