Bad Bow Hair Day? Find out when to Re-hair Your Bow

Understand the looks and feel of the bow that requires a re-hair.

Erin Shrader an expert and experienced bow maker and founder of Shrader Bows in San Francisco California shared her expertise on when is the right time to re-hair your bow. Shrader had done thousands of bow hairs.

Shrader said that some violin players could go for years without changing the hair of their bow while some seem to need hair change every six weeks. However, when it comes to bad hair day, it doesn’t just happen without reason. When you open up a hundred-year-old violin, you will see that the hairs of the bow are still intact and in excellent condition. Inside the shop, you can see bows hanging there for years and yet they don’t require a re-hair (probably it’s the reason why it’s part of the “permanent collection”). However, hairs do not stretch and break. We don’t know entirely why it eventually no longer engages the strings. Sometimes looking at it would tell you that you need to re-hair it, or you can feel it. Remember, your bow can be in great danger because of a bad hair day.

Here are some guidelines that will help you know when it’s time for you to re-hair your bow.

First, you need to know that too many broken hairs in your bow are not good. The stick will have an uneven tension, pulling the string to the other side and will eventually deform it. When that happens, you need to straighten your stick, and the way to do that is by heating. Heating the stick is too risky even in the hands of an expert. To avoid such problem, change your bow hairs as early as possible.

If you notice hairs are always breaking off in the bow like they were chewed off, the bow could have too much camber. You will stable and nice on this one. However, when you are playing tension, and the stick gets close to each other, the hair will grind between the string and the bow stick when you apply downward pressure on the bow.

If the hairs of your bow are always chewing on the strings or bow stick, there must be something wrong with the player-instrument-bow combination. Maybe it’s a sign that you should take your instrument or bow in the shop for a check-up. You also might consider finding an instrument or bow that responds in the way you want it without driving the bow too hard.

Another culprit for this particular problem is the technique. You cannot produce more sounds by having a firmer bow grip, putting a lot of pressure on the bow. The bow, the string and the instrument vibrate as you play it. You can see the striking difference between the resonances produced by a heavy and light grip. Another thing is when your hand sensitively feels the bow; your fingers can locate a particular area on the stick where the response is better, and the sound is freer. Avoid the feeling that you need to stick to one specific position based on principle. If having a slight variation provides you a better tone, then go for it.

When it comes to temperatures and climates, places that have different seasons requires occasional changing of bows. Changing bow hairs usually should be done in spring and fall due to the changes in humidity. When the rainy season comes, reaching playing tension can be too long for the hair that has the right length intended for the previous dry season. A very short bow hair for the dry season is of a significant threat for the bow. The bow hair can easily snap right off the head of the bow.

There is one way to determine if humidity is a potential threat. If the skin at the back of your hands is dry, you should check your bow. If you can’t get the tension of the bow stick no matter how much you loosen it, then it’s time to change your bow’s hairs. (If you have a temporary dry spell or there’s no help available, make use of the accompanying sidebar.)

On the other hand, if the hair becomes very dirty (or you suspiciously smelled like it’s peanut butter), get it re-haired. Some have used shampoos, conditioners, and anything to clean their bows and the result is fantastic. However, you must remember not to allow moisture to sit in the wooden wedges and ends of the hair that holds them in. Retaining moisture on these parts will swell plugs and hair and eventually damage or pluck out the prongs. According to Shrader, commercial bow hair cleaners are also available in the market. However, in her experience these products would only make the hairs sticky, soft (due to the solvent in the cleaner), but hardens again around the hair, glassy mess (when applied with rosin). The Rosin and the varnish on your stick have the same solvent, and that is alcohol. Disaster will fall when the solvent is dissolved on the varnish of your stick and much more on your instrument. So why fall into such unfortunate fate?

Shrader said that at there is a subjective feeling that gradually sneaks in – thinking that your bow hair and strings are not connecting in the way you remember it, so you keep adding up rosin to get what you wanted. However, too much rosin is not good, but instead, it will give you an undesirable effect. So before you decide to replace your entire bow hair, get a soft, clean, dry cloth and use it remove some rosin. If the process is not useful, and you have not been to the violin shop for quite a while, then you should set up for a re-hair.

Occasionally, after changing your bow hair, you will feel that something’s not right. It could be just a perception, or something is wrong. This happens if you are accustomed to playing on a particular bow condition such as playing with a very long bow hair for a long time, or the frog sitting at the back of the stick, providing a different sensation. Get yourself used to the new bow hair first for a while. But if nothing’s change and something is wrong, you can take it back to the violins shop that did the job. If they have done such an excellent job for you in the past, they can get a different hair from a different supplier and try it on or train a new person to re-hair.  Solving problems without client’s feedback is difficult. If working with the shop is difficult for you, consider asking for your colleagues’ opinion on which re-hair they would prefer. If you cannot find a good shop in your local area, you can look for some best new re-hair mail order services. But one more thing: see to it that you are talking to a real person on the phone. Ask the person about the experience and training of the people who will do the work for your bow hair.