Re-hairing a Bow

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Bow Re-hair

Horse-hair only…and rosin

Bowed instruments have an odd dependency on animal fiber…they depend on the force of a tight, well-rosined horse-hair ribbon driving a tight, carefully tuned string. The resulting friction produces a pattern of vibrations in the string, which is transferred to the bridge, and thus to the soundboard of the instrument. The soundboard and the rest of the instrument dissipate the energy by radiating sound.

Some players are not very aggressive with their bow-strokes. The hair on their bows may last for many years without apparent deterioration. Others need new hair every six months, while still others, very aggressive, may only get a few weeks out of a re-hair.

As long as the only service needed is the replacing of the horse-hair ribbon, the job of re-hairing a bow is not too time-consuming. Very experienced bow-repair craftspeople can rehair a bow in 30 minutes or less. I have known people who could do the job in 20 minutes, and watch television at the same time. I am not one of those people. It takes me an hour, if nothing goes wrong, and I don’t watch TV in the first place, let alone while working on someone else’s bow.

Basswood blocks

Usually, I have to replace the tiny basswood blocks (wedges) that hold the hair in the tip and frog mortises. Cutting a tiny block of wood whose six sides are not parallel, but which is trapezoidal in two directions. and a parallelogram in the third, is tricky, especially when it has to precisely fit a cavity in a very expensive piece of exotic wood. (Most violin-family bows are made of Pernambuco, an endangered species from Brazil. A growing number is made from Ipé or Bloodwood…still exotic, but less scarce.) If the wedge is too tight, it could split the bow-head. Too loose, and the hair will pull out. The same problems exist when cutting the wedge for the frog, but it is a little easier in my experience…there are less angles to worry about.

The hair

The hair itself is fractious, tangling easily, untangling with great difficulty. It expands longitudinally when wet, and shrinks as it dries. I buy the hair in bulk: a one-pound hank looks like a whole tail of a horse. I cut just the right amount of hair from the hank, using a gauge to measure the quantity (some people count the hairs), then tie one end of the hair as tightly as possible with a very strong nylon thread. I trim the hair back, close to the knot, then singe the cut ends of the hair, next to the knot, to swell the ends a little, and finally work superglue into the swollen hair-ends and the thread of the knot, to make sure it will not come loose later.

The Procedure

I fit the bow-tip end first, trimming the wedge to a snug (but not really tight) fit laterally, and a quite snug, but not excessively tight fit longitudinally. (Remember: too tight, and you split the bow-tip…that is catastrophe!) I press the wedge into place with a narrow piece of maple that I keep for that specific purpose. Then I comb and re-comb the horse hair until there are neither crossed hairs nor any tangles of any sort. If I find kinked or damaged hairs, I remove them.

I dampen the hair, being careful to not soak the portion near the tip—I do not want any water to get on that wedge, or wick up into it. If the wedge swells and cracks the bow, it is my fault. I comb out the hair again, and match it against the frog mortise, with the frog adjusted as far forward on the stick as it will go. I use a watercolor pencil marker to mark the hair ribbon where I want the frog-end knot, then grip the hair carefully and keep the ribbon from twisting or changing angles as I tie the frog end knot. I then treat it exactly as the tip-end.

Remember to put the ferrule back in place before wedging the hair into the frog!  If I forget, then I have to remove the frog wedge, install the ferrule, and re-fit the hair into the mortise. Once all is correct, I install the frog on the bow, and partially tighten the screw, to tension the hair just a little. I re-install the slide and ferrule, then carefully spread the hair into a smooth, flat ribbon, and insert the comb into it from between the stick and the hair. I insert the hair spreader wedge between the frog and hair ribbon, with a tiny dab of hide-glue on the hair side of the wedge, forcing the hair tightly against the ferrule, and jam the wedge in place with the stainless steel comb.

If all went well, that is a finished bow re-hair. If there are stragglers—hairs that didn’t quite attain the same tension as those around them, it is possible to “flame” the ribbon. This is accomplished by re-dampening the hair, tensioning the bow, and very rapidly running the bow back and forth through the flame of an alcohol lamp. The heat of the flame will shrink the looser hairs to match the tighter hairs, and flatten the entire ribbon. Understand: if there are many loose hairs, or the ribbon has been twisted sideways or something, so that it will not properly tighten, then flaming will not make a good re-hair out of a bad job. For this reason, many bow-repair people will not admit to ever flaming the hair. But, done correctly, and under the right circumstances, I think it does no harm.


I prefer to rosin the bow as soon as the hair is dry, and try it out on an instrument. Some customers, however, are very particular about which rosin is used, and prefer to rosin it themselves. It is good to ask ahead of time, and avoid misunderstandings.

Different strokes…

Not all hair is the same. Coarser hair is usually used for bass and cello bows than that which is ideal for violins. Different colors (natural, of course, not dyed) tend to have different characteristics, as well. Some players prefer black hair for bass bows. An experienced craftsman knows what hair is best for each job. An experienced player knows when the bow/hair/rosin combination is “just right.”

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Wood choices–Natural Treasures

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What are the wood choices, in Lutherie?

Maple, Spruce, Willow, European, Domestic, Red maple, Big Leaf maple, Sitka spruce, Englemann spruce

Wood Selection: Where does it come from, what kind is it, and does it matter?

Treasure does grow on trees!

Traditionally, violin-family instruments have been made from maple and spruce, pretty much exclusively, though there are relatively rare counterexamples–a viola made of poplar, or willow; a bass made of willow, etc. A large number of scrolls were carved of pear-wood.

Usually, though, the scroll/neck, back plate, and ribs/sides are made of maple, and the belly, or front plate (soundboard) is made of spruce. The bassbar is also spruce, as is the soundpost, which is sometimes called the soul of the instrument. The fingerboard and other fittings are usually made of Ebony, which is an extremely hard, dense, jet-black, exotic hardwood. It is really only available through import. I would like to explore other options, but, for now, Ebony is the best choice. Linings and blocks are typically either spruce or willow, though there is no hard and fast rule on the wood for linings.

So…what do I use?

So far, I have used exclusively maple and spruce for the body of the instrument, but have experimented with a variety of maple species, and three different spruce species. I have a large billet of American Black Cherry from which I hope to make a cello (Back, neck and ribs), someday soon, as a friend, Oded Kishony, has made a very good cello of cherry. (He did warn me, however, that, though its tone was superior, it was difficult to sell; orchestra people are very serious about tradition…)

Paul Schuback and other master makers have taught me that, while domestic maples are fine for larger, deeper-toned instruments, European maple is superior for violins. No one denies that some very nice violins have been made of American maples…they simply recognize that European maple has the edge, as far as violin tone is concerned. I cheerfully bow to their wisdom, and will probably make most violins of European maple or Red maple, from now on. Red maple, from the eastern USA, seems to most closely match European maple.

Here is the Red maple from which I made my #10 instrument (a violin):

This is Michigan Red Maple from Elon Howe. Pretty stuff.

Big Leaf Maple

Violas, celli and double basses are another story. Big Leaf maple is somewhat softer, and lighter, but sometimes very beautiful. Evidently its different physical characteristics make it ideal for larger instruments and thicker graduations. Here is a Big Leaf maple log that was given to me, and which is destined to become violas, celli and basses:

This log was given to me by Terry Howell, a local land owner and logger. He graciously dragged it out of his woods, cut it into lengths that were manageable, and loaded it onto a trailer with his front-loader. Thanks, Terry!

Here’s what a piece of it looked like, inside, when I split it:

I split some off, to look inside…this piece became neck billets. (The goop on the end surface is a wax sealer, so that the wood will not crack while drying.)

Incidentally; if you have wondered why it is called “Big Leaf” maple, take a look at this:

That is an honest 17″ wide Big Leaf maple leaf. They are not all this big, but no other maple comes close.

Willow for blocks and linings

And here is where I get Willow for blocks and linings: I watch for when people lose large limbs in wind or snow storms, and ask if I can remove them. This one was full of a honey-bee nest, but it is good wood.

Willow log for linings. A limb fell during a windstorm..turned out to be hollow, and full of honeybees. They were gentle little folk, though, and did not offer to harm me.

Here’s what’s left of the nest, still in the tree.

The nest was pretty exposed after the limb fell– I hope they were able to rebuild elsewhere. Good little insects to have around.


So far, I have had to purchase all the spruce I have used. There are some nice stands of Sitka and Englemann spruce here in the Northwest. I hope to go on a “Spruce Safari” someday, and bring home a prize log. 🙂 But I’m getting older, and logging isn’t easy. We’ll see.

In some ways I almost prefer buying the spruce– I can ask for exactly the grain-count I want, and the age (since cutting) I want, and, if I care to drive to the warehouse, I can sort through the stacks and get the exact look I want. But I pay for those privileges, and it is tempting to just find a great log, cut it up myself, and save the money. 🙂 Spruce is nearly always the first choice for soundboards, from violins to pianos, because it has the stiff, lightweight characteristic that resonates best to produce the sound. (A vibrating string by itself makes very little noise…amplified by a spruce soundboard, it can fill a room, or even an auditorium.)

Other Tonewoods

There have been makers who have (quite successfully) used other woods to build instruments. The grip of tradition is strong, however, and makers frequently have a tough time selling instruments that are NOT made of Maple and Spruce. I am willing to try other woods, but if, for example, someone wanted a fiddle out of Zebra-wood, while the idea is intriguing, I can foresee problems, and I would probably want my money up front. The instrument would doubtless be beautiful, and might even play well, but I see it as a risk I am loath to take. The labor is my most costly investment, and it is the same whether I build the instrument of traditional woods, or non-traditional. If I can’t sell it, then I have lost my time and effort, not to mention the cost of the exotic wood. As I mentioned earlier, Oded Kishony made a Cherry cello, and, while the tone actually turned out to be superior, the cello was very difficult to sell. Tradition matters, even today. Pine has sometimes been used for soundboards…even Western Red cedar has occasionally been used. But there is a reason everyone comes back to spruce– it works the best, as a rule. Plenty of counter-examples, I know, but they are in the extreme minority.

There are makers who use Walnut, Western Red Cedar, Pine, Douglas Fir, Pacific Redwood, Cypress, and a host of exotic woods. No problem…but I am at an age where I can no longer afford to take unnecessary risks. I really prefer the traditional woods, anyway. However, I may do some experimentation on the five-string fiddles. Wandering outside the “orchestral sphere” sets one free to experiment a little more.

A friend (Cliff Stansell, of the Pistol River Trio) has recently suggested that I try a fiddle of Port Orford Cedar. It’s nice stuff, and I may give it a go, but it will be a five-string fiddle, whose target market is not nearly so attached to tradition. There are five-string fiddles made of many combinations of exotic or domestic woods. He also asked about a five-string fiddle with an Oregon Myrtle back, sides and neck, and Port Orford Cedar front: it could happen…it surely could. 🙂

(Later Edit: the Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar five-string fiddle turned out very well, and plays superbly.)

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So–What’s a Luthier, anyway?

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What is a “Luthier” (definition)? What is “Lutherie”?

 So…What IS a Luthier?

The old French word simply meant “a lute-maker”. And his business was called lutherie.

“Loot-yeh” is pretty close to the French pronunciation. We Americans have a cheerful disregard for the pronunciation rules of the languages from which we borrow our vocabulary, so we typically pronounce it “Loothy-er”. The work of a luthier, lutherie, is usually pronounced “looth-er-y”

What does it mean Today?

The meaning has shifted, over the years, to cover the builders of all  stringed instruments. Lute-makers are still luthiers, but so are guitar-makers, ukulele-makers, mandolin makers, and, of course, violin-makers. Violas, basses, cellos, five-string fiddles and dulcimers are also made by luthiers.  Banjos, pianos, violas da gamba and harps, among others, are also built by luthiers. And the process of building and/or repairing stringed instruments is also called “lutherie”.

Usually when one is looking for a luthier, they are not looking for someone who made one guitar for a summer project, or something of that sort– they are looking for someone who is at least a competent worker, and who can reliably repair an instrument, without further damage. That takes some training and experience.

Some people have the privilege of attending a full-time, extended training program, or serving a term as an apprentice, under a master maker. This last is still likely the best training, although some fine schools are now available.  Some cannot take the time from their established responsibilities to go away to school for an extended period, and learn from books, and/or piecemeal from a variety of teachers.

Workshops are now available in many parts of the United States, wherein one can begin to learn the skills to make guitars, violins, bows, etc. (Incidentally, one who makes violin-family bows is called an “archetier”… another French word.)

Some Violin Lutherie schools:

North Bennett Street School

Chicago School

Salt Lake City school

University of New Hampshire

Redwing college

Some Guitar Lutherie schools:

Galloup school: My son graduated from this school– I can recommend it.

Roberto-Venn school: I have heard good things about this school too.

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