Caring for Your Bow
By Peter Zaret
Bows are strong yet fragile implements and should always be handled gently. In wooden bows, the tip is particularly vulnerable to cracking. A bow belongs in a case when not being used, and most importantly, always loosen the hair of the bow when it is not in use, so that the stick is touching the hair.
The bow should not be used on anything or for anything other than the strings of a stringed instrument (ie. don't tap your music stand with it). There are some places in music where it calls for tapping the stick on the strings. This is called "col legno". If the bow is valuable even this should be avoided. (I used to tap the string with the ivory part of the tip). That usually satisfied the conductor. If the bow falls on the tip when it is tightened there is a very good chance the head will break. Even if it falls on the endscrew and the bow is tight the bow can break. Breaks in a bow are much more difficult to repair than cracks in a violin. Unlike the violin the bow loses most of its value, and the break is far more likely to open up again.
Do not over-tighten the hair. Usually about 1/4 of an inch distance from the low point of the curve to the hair is ideal. For some it is more and some it is less depending on how the player plays.
It is important to monitor the condition of your bow on an ongoing basis and seek professional assistance when needed. Only trust your bow to a qualified and well trained string instrument repairperson. An all-purpose instrument repairperson probably doesn't have the training and experience to do the quality of work necessary and could make matters a lot worse.
When cleaning the bow stick, take a moment to wipe off any metal appointments on the frog, button, tip, etc. which will prevent tarnishing.
Finally, over time the bow hair may develop dark spots from rosin and other substances. Since bows should be re-haired periodically that will solve that problem; there is no type of "cleaning" that will do other than damage the hair.
Temperature extremes can wreak havoc on a bow; effort should be made to minimize the rate of temperature change it is subjected to. For instance, warm up or cool down the car before putting your bow and instrument in it; keep it in the case until it has warmed up to room temperature, etc. Do not leave your case in direct sunlight, in a closed car during hot weather, next to a heater and so on.
Humidity should be controlled as much as possible. Too much can cause warping; too little can cause cracking. 50% relative humidity is optimal; a comfortable range is 40-60%. Ideally you should focus on humidifying or dehumidifying the room your bow and instrument lives in (a wall mounted hygrometer can be used to measure the room's relative humidity). Secondarily you may want to employ a case or instrument humidifier, keeping in mind that these implements only work in a closed case — once the case is opened, the humidity dissipates.
The purpose of rosin is to aid the bow in grabbing the strings. You want enough rosin to do this, but not so much that the excess creates a coating on the instrument or bow. Violin, Viola and Cello rosins are very similar; Bass rosin is notable for being much softer - the better to help the bow grab the thicker strings. There are many varieties of rosins available; lighter rosins will typically grab less than darker rosins. When heat and/or humidity is high you may want to use a lighter rosin; when it is cold or dry, use a darker rosin.
"Un-mounted" rosins should be rotated to maintain a flat surface; deeply grooved rosin can damage the sides of the bow.
You should rosin as often as you need to, which can mean a couple times a day or every couple of days depending on your duration of playing, the type of rosin you're using and the surrounding weather conditions. This is something musicians develop a feel and preference for over time. In the early stages, consult your teacher for guidance.
For Violins, Violas and Cellos, you apply rosin in long, slow strokes back and forth along the full length of the bow (hair that needs more rosin will grab it and hair that is sufficiently rosined will slide over it). For Basses, the technique is fast strokes from frog to tip — one way only (the rosin is too soft to use a back and forth stroke).
Professional Maintenance or Repair
Breaks, Cracks or other Damage
Any kind of splitting, cracking, loosening, etc. to the stick, frog, button or tip should be referred to a professional immediately. The usability and value of your bow have been compromised and well-meant amateur efforts at repair are likely to intensify the problem. Sadly, once a bow has been cracked, the monetary value drops dramatically. However, repairs are quite possible and can usually enable the bow to play as good as new. Successful repairs, unfortunately will not return the monetary value to its pre-cracked level. so once again, a bow must be treated gently at all times.
Over time some bows will develop a bend: to the right (looking down the shaft from the frog end) on the violin and viola and to the left on the cello and bass. This will result in bowing difficulties, unexpected noises and scratches while playing and difficulty in controlling the bow. A stick can be straightened — definitely a job for a professional.
The camber is the curve in the middle of the bow stick as it dips down in the direction of the hair. If the bow is cambered too much it becomes stiff and clumsy and if it is not cambered enough it feels weak. A bow will tend to lose its camber over time if it is not loosened when put away or is subjected to very intensive playing. Once again, the camber can be restored on a bow stick but you have to know what you're doing.
Bow Screw problems
Loose or long hair, a stripped eyelet or mis-aligned frogs or buttons can make tightening or loosening the bow hair problematic. A good bow repair technician can resolve the problem without further damaging the bow.
Sometimes dirt and rosin harden into a layer on a bow stick and should be cleaned by a professional. The necessary solvents are serious chemicals that can hurt the bow or the person using them — don't try this at home!
If you play your instrument every day, the bow should be rehaired periodically. If a lot of hairs are lost in playing, rehair the bow. If the hair seems not to be able to grip the string while playing it probably needs a rehair. This happens when the player practices a lot. As it gets older the hair stretches and may become too long to tighten properly. When this happens, attempting to tighten the bow may seriously damage the stick; once again, time to rehair. If no hairs are lost and the player practices very little it is okay to rehair roughly once a year. Whatever you do, don't attempt to rehair a bow yourself — this is a very difficult job even for some repair people.
If you treat your bow with care and clean after every use you can avoid a lot of problems, but it is important to know when you're in over your head — at that point, call the pros!
A bow stick should be wiped clean after every use. A soft, non-abrasive, clean cloth (lint free) with no oils or chemicals of any kind, should be used. There are special untreated cloths marketed for the cleaning of instruments and bows; there are also many types of cleansers and polishes for stringed instruments that can be used on bows. If the bow is wiped properly after every use, cleansers and polishes are pretty much unnecessary. (If you feel the need to polish your bow stick, first use a drop on a small area of the stick to make sure it won't damage or discolor your finish.) Never use any kind of commercial cleanser on a bow (or stringed instrument) and keep all chemicals, cleansers etc. away from the hair.