What Are Violin Bows Made Of?
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Most violin bows are usually made from one of three materials:
2) fiberglass; or
3) carbon fiber.
1) Wood. For centuries, the finest bows in the world have been made from wood. Specifically, pernambuco wood from Brazil. This wood is quite rare and expensive, as it is taken from the center of a tree that grows only in Brazil and is available in an ever-dwindling supply. So-called “Brazilwood” bows come from the same tree, but are not crafted from the center cut. The price of a wood bow can range from $35 to literally over $50,000. All this for a thin stick of wood that can, and sometimes does, break. (Musical instrument insurance is a must for owners of expensive wood bows and violins).
19th and early 20th century French bows made of pernambuco wood are considered the most valuable bows on the planet, and it is possible to spend over $100,000 for the finest examples. It is quite common for professional musicians to spend between $10,000 and $30,000 to obtain a fine French bow. Some of the most famous French bow-makers: Eugene Sartory (who made strong, powerful sticks favored by many soloists for their ability to produce a large sound that carries well), Francois Tourte (possibly the inventor of the “modern” bow, also favored by soloists for its incredible sweetness and smoothness), and Dominique Peccatte, another maker of choice for soloists, known for crafting bows of exceptional balance and depth of sound. The Sartory might go for $20,000, and the Tourte and Peccatte upwards of $50,000.
Besides the French School, there are two other schools with a rich history of high quality pernambuco-wood bow-making. The first is the English School, from which bows made by Tubbs and those stamped “W.E. Hill” are the most well-known. Fine English bows usually sell for around $5,000 to $15,000. The second is the German School, which is significantly less favored than the other two. Bows by this country’s most famous family of bow-makers, bearing the name of Nurnberger, are “comparatively cheap.” But even a Nurnberger will usually cost at least $2,000.
There are also several contemporary American bow-makers using pernambuco wood who are doing excellent work. One of these is Roger Zabinski, a luthier who lives and works in Minnesota. It is possible to commission from him a new bow designed to meet your needs, or to match your violin. But you should expect these also to be priced somewhere in the range of $2,000 to $4,000.Although you probably would need to spend over $1,000 for a genuine pernambuco bow, you will find many Brazilwood bows priced at or below $500 and as low as $50.00. The quality of these bows is very hit and miss. Even if they bear the same stamp, each is unique. If you want to go with a Brazilwood bow, consider trying a lot of them. By a lot, I mean at least a dozen. Consider taking a couple home so you can spend more time with them. It might be a good idea to visit a couple different shops. Brazilwood bows are a dime a dozen, so hold out for one that you really think is special. Remember that wood bows can be quite fragile. If you tend to be hard on your equipment you might want to consider a different material. Expect to spend at least $300.00 for a wood bow that will perform quite well.
2) Fiberglass. A fiberglass bow usually costs between $25 and $50. However, fiberglass is a very poor substitute for wood. These bows are almost always very weak and will collapse at the middle with very little pressure. The hair is sparse and of low quality. These bows are sometimes on the heavy side, and can have a club-like feel and appearance. It is very limiting to have a fiberglass bow, and, as a teacher, I do not recommend them, even for beginners.
3) Carbon Fiber. Bows made from carbon fiber bows usually cost between $200 and $700. These bows are very durable, and tend not to break. A good example can offer comparable performance to a pernambuco wood bow worth many times its price. Although carbon fiber bows are generally more consistent than wood bows, each carbon fiber bow, no matter the make and model, is still unique. Why? The answer is wood. Namely, the ebony wood frog. Since each piece of ebony differs in density, carbon fiber sartory violin bow actually do vary both in weight and in the location of the balance point. The best bows usually come in at around 60 grams give or take a gram or two. But I have seen carbon fiber bows that weigh as little as 55 grams and as much as 65 grams (from the same company). And, some of the cheaper models actually sound better than the more expensive ones. Be prepared to try several different models and ask to compare different bows of the same model as well.
In sum, the finest wood bows offer incomparable performance but at a price that few can afford. In addition, wood bows may break. Fiberglass bows, though attractively priced, are simply not an option due to poor performance. For many violinists, carbon fiber bows offer the best of both worlds: high performance and durability at a relatively low price.