Violin Bow


Several types of stringed musical instruments, among them the violin, the viola, and cello, cannot be successfully played without a bow, and are therefore referred to as "bowed stringed instruments." Because they are almost always heard while being bowed, the bow is considered an integral part of their tone production, contributing its own individual character and timbre. The use of different bows on the same instrument will produce correspondingly different tonality as a result. Most instrumentalists believe the bow's quality to be as important as the instrument's, and fine bows are therefore manufactured and selected with the utmost care.


The practice of using a bow of some sort to make musical sound is so ancient that its origin can only be surmised. The most likely scenario is that the ancient hunting bow, its string treated with mixtures of wax and resin to hold the strands together, served as either instrument or bow in different contexts. From this primitive origin, the bow went through countless stages of evolution. The latest and most important to us today are the so-called "early" bow and the "modern" bow. All the bows of these types have important things in common: they are tapered sticks of special woods that are permanently bent to an arch, and have a flattened length of horsehair, stretched, under some tension, from end to end of the stick. One end is usually pointed, and the other squared off and usually fitted with a small raised portion to fasten and adjust the hair tension. The pointed end of each is called the "tip," and the raised portion of the other end, the "nut," or later, the "frog." (Experts are unclear as to how the latter name evolved.)

The early bow (sometimes referred to as the "baroque" bow) is based on the oldest and most obvious of designs, and has a curve that bows away from the hair. This type of bow was in common use until some time in the early 19th century, when the modern bow came into use. Although their design made these bows agile and responsive, their delicacy was not suitable for the pressure needed for louder and more forceful playing. As the concert halls and orchestras became larger, the violin family instruments received subtle modifications to suit the demands of the great performers. No modification was possible for the early bow however, and it suffered a swift extinction at the hand of the modern bow. After the modern bow's inception, the early bow became&Amost unheard of until it was revived in the late 1960s by early music enthusiasts seeking to recreate the ambiance of that time period.

The modern bow was a revelation after its introduction in France around the turn of the 19th century. The Tourte family is generally given credit for giving the modern bow its accepted final form, much as Antonio Stradivari contributed to the making of the violin. Modern bow manufacture reached its pinnacle in Paris between the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, and bowmakers came from all over Europe to collaborate with the famous French workshops and share their excellent reputation for bowmaking. The biggest changes in the modern bow involved inverting the curve of the stick into the hair, to give it more tension and resistance; shortening the tip to a squat hatchet-like

Violin Bow
shape to quicken the flex of the stick; introduction of a screw and eye adjuster for finer adjustment of the hair; and the adoption of Pemarnbuco wood as the standard wood for the stick. Eventual further improvements included adaptation of a ferrule on the frog to hold the hair spread the full width of the frog, at any tension. The makers experimented with many subtle modifications, including building sticks with round or octagonal shafts, using precious metals and materials for the mountings, and incorporating subtle changes in the dimension and curvature of the stick. Today, fine bows are made in much the same, if not exactly the same, manner as they once were by the craftsmen who designed them in France over 150 years ago.

Raw Materials

The making of the bow begins with the selection and rough cutting of the correct woods and raw materials. Pemambuco wood is the accepted type of wood from which the stick of the bow is fashioned. Pernambuco wood grows only in the Amazon delta region in a Brazilian state of the same name. Actually there are several sub-species of this wood, many of which are completely extinct, and others which are rapidly nearing extinction. After harvesting, the logs are sawn into planks, and then into "blanks" which are cut into the rough outline resembling the stick and its tip. The ebony for the frog is split from log cross sections into small wedges which resemble the finished outside dimensions. Sheet silver or gold is prepared to the thickness of the various metal fittings, and a round ebony stick or dowel is prepared to make the adjuster barrel. The decorative pearl slide and pearl eyes are fashioned from specially milled sheets of abalone or mother of pearl shell, sawn and filed to rough size and shape.

The Manufacturing

Roughing the stick

Roughing out the frog

Fitting the frog to the stick

Finishing the stick and frog

Treating the stick

Lapping and hairing the bow

Where To Learn More


Henderson, Frank. How to Make a Violin Bow. Murray Publishing Co., 1977.

Retford, William. Bows and Bow Makers. The Strad, 1964.

Roda, Joseph. Bows for Musical Instruments of the Violin Family. W. Lewis, 1959.

Peter Psarianos

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