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By Liz Lambson
It’s hard enough to know what you’re looking for when shopping for a violin outfit. So just when you think you’re all done making such life-altering decisions (Shoulder rest? Strings? Case? Rosin?), you’re faced with another mammoth dilemma. Which bow do you pick?
Kennedy Violins offers a wide variety of bow options(and upgrades!) with any violin or viola outfit because we know how important it is that you get what you’re looking for. But what if you don’t know what you’re looking for? Well, look no further! Welcome to Bows 101!
When choosing a bow, it helps to know what the bow is made of. From there, you can decide what quality of fittings you’d prefer. Note that in general, the more expensive the bow, the nicer the fittings, materials, and build.
Fiberglass bows are often the most affordable option. Fiberglass, not to be confused with carbon fiber (see below), is glass-reinforced plastic that is not as strong or light as carbon fiber, but also not as brittle. Fiberglass is easily molded and cheap to manufacture, which allows for its affordability. These bows are often used for beginners, especially children, as they are very durable (if dropped, scratched, or thrown about by a sibling) and affordable, especially when purchased in smaller sizes that will be grown out of. On the other hand, fiberglass bows rarely respond or bounce as well as quality wood bows, and can sometimes be heavier than preferable.
Wood bows are a step up from fiberglass bows when made properly with quality fittings. Wooden bows range in quality from beginner to professional. Beware though, if a bow is described as “wood,” but without the type of wood specified. Just like you wouldn’t want to buy a violin made of balsa, steer clear of bows made of “mystery” wood. Look for wood types such as ebony, pernambuco, and Brazilwood (see below).
Bows are traditionally made of pernambuco, a high-quality, dense, strong wood of a beautiful red hue grown in the north of Brazil. However, as the export of pernambuco to Asia and Europe became so popular to the point of exploitation in the 1700s, pernambuco has since become an endangered tree species. Pernambuco forests are now sponsored by many instrument makers who hope to continue the tradition of using this scarlet wood in the art of bow making.
Brazilwood is another name for pernambuco (Caesalpinia echinata). But as pernambuco is now endangered, related species of wood similar in quality, strength, springiness, lightness, and color are now used and also referred to as Brazilwood in the bowmaking industry. Related species include include Pink Ipê (Tabebuia impetiginosa), Massaranduba (Manilkara bidentata) and Palo Brasil (Haematoxylum brasiletto).
*Note: High-quality, cured Brazilwood is often used in bowmaking because it has less tendency to warp. A warped or curved bow is unfavorable. To check for warpage, “sight” down the length of the bow from the frog to tip to view whether the wood is bent to the left of right, if at all.
Carbon fiber, or carbon fiber reinforced polymer, is extremely strong and light with a high strength-to-weight ratio. Used in aerospace and automotive engineering, carbon fiber is more expensive to manufacture than fiberglass or other plastics, but the material is of such quality that the effectiveness of carbon fiber bows can sometimes exceed that of Brazilwood bows--depending on the bow, of course. Carbon fiber bows can be manufactured to such precise dimensions that their response, balance, and bounce can be exactly predetermined. Carbon fiber bows are thus more expensive than fiberglass or lower-grade wood bows as they are so well made. The CodaBow is a popular, professional-quality name brand of carbon fiber bow which we are pleased to offer at Kennedy Violins. We carry the CodaBow Prodigy, CodaBow Luma, CodaBow Diamond NX, CodaBow Diamond SX, and CodaBow Diamon GX.
Higher-quality bows, like violins, usually have higher-quality and more durable fittings that reflect the craftsmanship of the bow:
Grip: leatherette (textured or smooth vinyl or plastic), genuine leather, snakeskin, lizard skin
Winding: whalebone, nickel-silver, silver, gold
Tip: white plastic, tagua nut, ivory, mammoth ivory (a legal alternative to elephant ivory)
Frog: plastic, wood, ebony
Plate: mother of pearl, abalone, ivory, mammoth ivory
Hair: synthetic, genuine horsehair (white and/or black)
Half or Full Mounting
What is a half-mounted or fully-mounted bow? On a fully-mounted bow you can see the thin stripe of a smooth metal plate between where the frog is connected (or mounted) to the bow, allowing a smooth fit and protection for the wood as it slides back and forth when the bow is tightened and loosened. A half-mounted bow lacks the metal plating, resulting in raw wood on wood between the frog and stick that may wear over time. Half-mounted bows do not have a ring around the pearl eye of the frog, while fully-mounted bows will have a ring around the pearl eye.
When choosing a bow, you’ll typically want to try it (such as with our in-home trial program!) to test the bows comfort for you as a unique player. Consider factors such as weight, balance, bounciness, response, and even length, which can vary (especially for bass bows). Try different bow strokes such as spicatto, staccato, and long tones to assess the bows quality and comfort in your own hands.
Give us a call at 1-800-779-0242! At Kennedy Violins, we want to make sure you know what you’re buying before you buy it with a commitment to answer your questions with honesty and professional know-how. So go ahead, check out our selection of quality bows . . . especially now that you know just what you’re looking for.