Do Bows Just Break?

May 2, 2011 at 03:25 PM ·

The bow was a $270 pernumbuco Guy Laurent from SHAR.  My student was very excited to have her first step-up, and she stored her violin and bow on a special hook on the wall when she wasn't practicing.  One day, she went to practice and found the bow hanging by the frog where she'd left it, with a broken tip.  No one in the household confessed to having handled/broken it when she was gone, and even if it had been knocked off the hook, it would have only fallen 3.5 inches to the wood floor.  One luthier suggested that it could have broken on its own, yet SHAR maintains that it was dropped and will not take it back. 

I'm curious: what are the odds that a new $270 pernumbuco bow would have a weakness in the wood that would cause it to suddenly break, even if the tension was off the wood?  Or is it more likely that a sibling broke it? 

Replies (49)

May 2, 2011 at 04:00 PM ·

It's possible that the wood had a crack or separation from a prior bump and  finally just let go.  It's also possible someone bumped it against the wall, or that a young sibling used it for a sword fight.

May 2, 2011 at 04:18 PM ·

Fortunately it is a very inexpensive bow, and repairing it is entirely possible, even easy, and she doesn't have to worry about lost value, as it isn't a big investment. Not like breaking the tip off a Pecatte...

My mom broke the tip on her bow, of about the same cost. Elisabeth repaired it and it works fine.

May 2, 2011 at 04:20 PM ·

 The special hook thing is an accident, waiting to happen, I think. Kids, by nature, tend to be a bit rough in handling things. Even the act of hanging it could possibly cause some kind of hairline crack that might just give way when the heater goes on in the middle of the night. Also, having the fiddle and bow out all the time -- I suspect that might make it more vulnerable to temperature and humidity changes in the house, and those are the things that cause cracks, etc. Of course, I suppose luthiers keep the fiddles out all the time so I could be mistaken. If it's out, I can't see how it wouldn't be fair came for every sibling in the house. It should not "just break." I saw for myself Shar's bows at their warehouse, and they aggressively set aside any and all bows that have even small problems. In other words, I trust their quality control.

May 2, 2011 at 04:21 PM ·

It's certainly possilbe it just broke, but very unlikely.

It might have had a weakness that Shar didn't detect before they sent it.  But most likely it was broken along the way.  There's no way to prove it came defective...

May 2, 2011 at 04:24 PM ·

I insist on putting instruments back in their cases for the very reasons Laurie mentions including the atmospheric aspects just to be on the safe side. Also dust and dirt accumulate crazy-fast when your instrument is out.

Violin shops have instruments out, but they also have humidity control systems--the whole shop is--or should be--like one big case.

May 2, 2011 at 04:42 PM ·

The odds of it spontaneously breaking, hanging by the frog from a hook, with all the tension released, are close to zero. A break due to a defect in the bow would have been much more likely to happen when the bow was under tension and being used.

May 2, 2011 at 05:39 PM ·

This is all good to know.  When I talked with one of the sales representatives at SHAR, I was careful not to accuse them of being unfair; they have usually given me very good service.  But it's also frustrating that if a sibling did it, no one is admitting. 

Bill, everyone I've talked to told me it was not worth fixing.

May 2, 2011 at 06:07 PM ·

I have personally fixed many broken bows that snapped at the tip, by gluing thin slivers of wood around and over the tip with super glue. The tip must first be cleaned to the wood so that the glue can take perfectly. The bows work perfectly and is as good as ever. 

May 2, 2011 at 06:56 PM ·

"But it's also frustrating that if a sibling did it, no one is admitting. "

Did I tell you about the time when I was a little kid, playing in the church parking lot, and accidentally threw a rock through one of the stained glass windows? I'd tried to make a sling, like the David and Goliath story, and it turns out that it takes some practice to know which direction the rock will go. LOL  I was about 180 degrees off!

When the broken window was discovered, people were horrified, and deliberate vandalism by some unspeakably horrible person was suspected. It seemed like a good idea at the time to try to steer clear of all that outrage, especially since I was the preacher's kid, and my mother had personally selected the decorative glass in the church. YIKES!

I think I was about 25 when I finally admitted it, and offered to reimburse them for the repairs. ;-)

May 2, 2011 at 07:20 PM ·

I had a similar experience when I knocked a cricket ball through the front window of our church. The following Sunday morning the 'dominee' (pastor) showed the ball on the pulpit and offered salvation for the person that own up to the dastardly deed. I did not attend the sermon for obvious reasons, never owned up and salvation has passed me by. 

May 2, 2011 at 07:29 PM ·

Hi Emily,

The fancy people think it isn't worth fixing. Simple folks like me can fix it easily. Remember the bow I fixed that was splintered in the middle? Works fine. Tips are easy by comparison. Heck, you mail it to me and I'll do it for $30 sight unseen, plus shipping :-)


Andre:  LOL salvation and cricket. I wish you many sixes.

May 2, 2011 at 07:35 PM ·

Bill, where's your story about being dishonest when you were a child? :-)

May 2, 2011 at 08:50 PM ·

Haha David! I put 12 baseballs through the windows in our house--I guess I pulled the ball a lot. Mom was so frustrated with my father's inability to keep up, that she hired a man, and while he was on window, say, #8, I knocked another one out. Unfortunately I was unable to lie about it!

Only lie I ever remember really was when I pissed in a bourbon bottle owned by a man we all hated. My friends and I and my brother all did it together. He drank the whole bottle, too! Never did tell him. Sweet revenge.

May 2, 2011 at 09:56 PM ·

Epoxy and fiberglass tape can be used to easily repair a bow that has broken with a split tip. I did such a repair on a Pfretzschner bow I had - worked out fine. I used a bit of superglue to put the tip back together first - so it would hold during the rest of the repair.

If the break is in the stick portion itself - then it is a real problem.

I have seen bows snap from too much hair tension - the cases I remember occurred in heated or cooled rooms with dry, conditioned air. In such situations, the hair tension should be monitored for at least the first 15 minutes after tightening.



May 2, 2011 at 10:06 PM ·

Ahem, Andrew, where's your confession of an evil childhood deed?

May 2, 2011 at 10:30 PM ·

Thanks Bill, I will let them know about the repair possibilities. 

I got caught most every time I did something wrong.  First time I stole something, which was in kindergarten, it was the neighbor's iris petal--cupped it in my palm and tried to walk past my mom through the front door.  When she asked me what I had in my hand, I thought she was omniscient.  I had to personally apologise for plucking the purple petal, and that put an end to my stealing.

We used to sneak into the church and play hide and seek in the darkened sanctuary, and play in the baptistry.  But nothing ever got broken.  The only thing I really ever feel guilty about lying about was breaking my toe in seventh grade.  I told mom I tripped, but really I kicked a railroad tie in a temper tantrum for being locked out of the house.

May 2, 2011 at 10:33 PM ·

May 2, 2011 at 10:34 PM ·

Actually, come to think of it, I put a crack in my first violin because of a temper tantrum.  I used to throw tantrums when I couldn't get something right.  In that case, I just never showed anyone the crack, and everything was fine.  I still have that violin, actually. 

Actually, come to think of it, I still break things in tantrums, too.  I broke my mp3 player in a tantrum on the treadmill in January.  George bought it for me for Christmas.  I told him I just dropped it.  He wonders how I manage to go through equipment so fast.  Headphones, computers, cameras, phones...

May 2, 2011 at 11:23 PM ·

Thanks, Emily. I have some better childhood deception stories to tell (better than my last one) but I may need to wait until things ramp up ( or down) to that level. ;-)

You haven't broken George yet, have you?

May 3, 2011 at 03:34 AM ·

I thought the "David-and-Goliath/Who-broke-the-stained-glass-window?" story was priceless!

George seems to do just fine breaking all by himself.  I keep telling him he should've come with a warranty.  By the way, he just finished asking me what I want for my birthday.  Bearproof, nothing...  Whatever it is needs to be Emilyproof.   Why, I scared a grizzly out of my pigeon coop once with my temper.  But that's another story...  Heheh.

Oh, and in the future, I will remember these stories when selecting bows for students.  Carbon fiber is looking like a better option all the time.

May 3, 2011 at 05:28 AM ·

Speaking of bear-proof... any word on your case?

May 3, 2011 at 08:20 AM ·

Rumor has it it's packing up for a trip across the planet...  :)

May 3, 2011 at 01:03 PM ·

David - too subtle for me!

The bow did come to me at no cost other than in trade for my vintage (1956) JBL stereo speaker system (I guess that's really not "no cost.") Anyway, I wasn't about to put any money into it. It probably already had an invisible repair when it was given to me.

My granddaughter (an adult now) has enjoyed using that bow for the past 6 years; it works as well as ever and the repair is not visible more than 2 feet away, since the clear epoxy and tape are transparent and the original color of the bow comes through.

I only suggested this approach for a cheap bow (even though the Pfretzschner probably is not a cheap one).



May 3, 2011 at 02:18 PM ·

 I never had a bow break on me even though there have been times where I did stupid things with my bows. Once I was practicing too close to a ceiling fan and BOOM!!!! It didn't break. In fact I had a hard time finding a nick even though I was devastated looking like crazy for one.

I did however leave a bow for re-hairing and the Luthier informed me later that the bow was broken when he came back from lunch while it was drying. I feel certain that he messed up, first of all by leaving the bow alone while it was drying and secondly by having it too tight, but I can't prove it. He fixed the bow but it's a Pfretzschner and the value is like 20% of what it was. Fortunately it is still a great bow and I have it for my use and not as an investment.

May 3, 2011 at 02:34 PM ·

Gil Shaham admits to using his bow and rosin as a bat and ball when he was a kid -- broke the bow, and told his parents he'd sat on it!  :)

May 3, 2011 at 04:41 PM ·

Tip can break pretty easily while under tension.  I've seen it happen a few times when bows have been dropped from seemingly harmless heights.  I had a bow that was passed on to me that had been dropped and professionally repaired.  Well, I too dropped the bow, and it snapped again.  I knew the stick before it was dropped the first time.  It belonged to my sister.  It was never the same.  I tried to make the second repair myself, but it seemed best to retire the wood. 

While the bow is a nice step up from the $40 dollar fiberglass bow, or Brazilwood "outfit" bow, at $270, it's still relatively inexpensive.  It could be repaired, but I don't think it will ever be "right".   Might be a hard lesson, but I don't think I'd bother throwing money at it. 

I have two words:  Carbon Fiber.  They are a great alternative for students and pros alike.  Students especially.  Very consistent, reliable, and not prone to breaking the same a way a wooden stick is.  I'd like to think I am past the student level after playing for 35 years.  I love my Coda GX.   While it's true a wooden stick can impart character to the player's tone, there's something to be said for playability and purity.  It does what I need it to do, and does it well!  There are cheaper alternatives to the GX that would certainly match the price point and requirements of the student.

May 3, 2011 at 05:56 PM ·

The two carbon fiber bows I tried out in the same price bracket were completely flavorless as far as tone goes.  The more expensive of the two was pretty tidy and would function every way you needed it to, but it added little to the sound, which is why I chose the pernumbuco for her instead.  At least in that bracket, I could really tell a tonal difference between CF bows and wooden bows.  But if I'd known what was going to happen, of course I would have told her to get a CF bow.

May 3, 2011 at 06:14 PM ·

I had my cello bow break at the tip when I was in my teens. I was practicing 3 and 4 part struck chords at the time ...  My parents got a replacement, a new German pernambuco bow that I have been using ever since. I believe it cost about £15 in the mid '50s.

A couple of years ago I noticed that one of my two inexpensive CF bows that I use for practice and folk was developing an unhealthy looking bulge just short of the tip when I tightened it. It was about 2 years old. I took it back to the dealer who took one look at it and said it was on the verge of breaking. Not only that, but he'd recently had a few other bows of the same brand returned with the same problem, and one had actually broken. He gave me a replacement (a different brand, obviously ) which I've been happy with ever since. It goes to show that things can sometimes go wrong in the manufacture of CF bows, and it must have been a bad batch that my dealer received. 

May 3, 2011 at 07:21 PM ·

I'm sure CF can be prone to breaking, but there is a much smaller chance.  I know Coda guarantees their bows for life.   I've been known to tap on a few cymbols with mine during live performances (not the brightest idea, actually), and it has held up fine, save a few scratches.  I wouldn't expect a guarantee in that instance since I have used the bow in a way that was not intended, but it is a testimony to their strength.

Emily, I agree, at that price point CF bows are relatively sterile compared to wood, but they do handle well and will still allow the student to progress.  Most kids are clumsy and some adults never outgrow that trait.  Some players are simply hard on their gear. 

I have tried several modern Brazilian bows in that price range and even higher.  While very good, I don't feel they handle as well and the consistency just isn't there.  You are absolutely correct when it comes to having personality, or warming up the tone.  In which case, the wooden stick usually comes out ahead.  When I bought my GX, I tried at least a dozen or more wooden bows that were in the GX price range.  Only one bested it regarding playability AND tone.  Another came close, but no cigar.  There is nothing like a good wooden bow, that is a fact, but in the hands of a novice or intermediate player, CF gets my vote.

Heck, I used a fiberglass Glasser right into college.  As you know, those don't hold a candle to CF, but CF bows weren't common then.  My professor also owned the violin shop in town and assisted me when it came time to "upgrade".  The "upgrade",  wasn't.  The lifeless noodle marginally improved my tone, but did absolutely nothing for my technique. Let's face it, control and technique are everything when it comes to the right hand.  I would have LOVED to own a CF bow back then!

May 3, 2011 at 10:17 PM ·

" I could really tell a tonal difference between CF bows and wooden bows.  But if I'd known what was going to happen, of course I would have told her to get a CF bow."

1. Carbon-epoxy can break, too.

2. Repairing the wooden bow isn't a big deal.

Please don't add to the carbon atmosphere ;-)

May 3, 2011 at 10:45 PM ·

"1. Carbon-epoxy can break, too.

2. Repairing the wooden bow isn't a big deal.

Please don't add to the carbon atmosphere ;-)"


1. Didn't say it couldn't. Nice to have a guarantee if it did.  ;-)

2. Maybe not.  Still cost money to have it done by a pro.  Throwing good money to an inexpensive bow that has instantly been devalued by virtue of needing repair, doesn't make much sense to me. 

I know the last comment was least, I hope it was!


May 3, 2011 at 11:06 PM ·

Cheap bows don't devalue from being broken. They are cheap and worth about what, 30% of the purchase price, the moment you drive them off the lot...


Haha tongue in cheek, NOT...necessarily, unless you drive a Prius;-)

May 3, 2011 at 11:23 PM ·

Ok, I'll bite.  30% devalued by "driving it off the lot".  Subtract another 20-30% since it's had a repair, and no guarantee it will perform as well as it did when it was new. That's one heck of a depreciation if you ask me. What's the bow worth now, after repair, $125? The archetier charges...(educated guess here) a 100 bucks or more to make the repair?  Way I see it, you're nearly out the entire cost of the bow at this point.  If this was a car, an insurace company would consider it totalled.

I don't drive a Prius.  I don't chop down rain forests either. 

May 4, 2011 at 12:04 AM ·

@Emily Grossman "The two carbon fiber bows I tried out in the same price bracket were completely flavorless as far as tone goes."

That suggests to me that such a bow (tone-neutral) would be useful for comparing the tonal qualities of violins.

May 4, 2011 at 02:44 AM ·

Actually, that's an interesting thought, and probably correct if you are only interested in the tonal quality of  the violin.  If you are shopping for a violin, though, you would want to try them with the bow you intend to use with it, as the two need to be happily married.

May 4, 2011 at 02:48 AM ·

Haha not 30% devalued--70% devalued = 30% of purchase price. In other words, simply buying a cheap bow, you already "ate it".  'Tis cheaper to spend $50 to $100 repairing a bow than it is to spend $275 to buy a new one. Either way, you are out the money, but out less with the repair.

Even "expensive" instruments will cost you dearly if you want to sell them. Dealers won't buy them at retail. You are lucky if you can get 70%. Fractionals, 50% is a good deal.

May 5, 2011 at 09:18 AM ·

Unfortunately it happened to me .......with a rather expensive bow, too. Just opened the case one day and there it was ...broken at the tip!!!!. I had been using the bow probably for  a couple of years. I can only assume that the bow had been dropped or knocked (or by me or the previous owner) and one day just gave out. I was rather upset by the whole thing (since I had already bust up my Hill by dropping it in orchestra rehearsal) For myself I have been using CF bows ever since !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

May 5, 2011 at 12:00 PM ·

A bow tip can break by continually over-stretching the wood over a period of time. If the width of the gap between the stick and the hair is twice the width of the stick in the middle then the tip is already under too much tension. A slight knock can then deliver the last rites.   

May 5, 2011 at 01:33 PM ·

 well, here is one experience.

my kid used to play a bow.  she accidentally dropped it here and there, never broke it during the drops.

then one day, she was doing some heavy attack to the string near the frog,,,all of a sudden, the tip broke at that usual spot, midway in the head.

not a valuable bow.  hate to throw it away.  looked into the proper repair (cut a slice off and insert a wood splint)  that is needed and decided that it is not worth the bother.

so i used some crazy glue and it held.   the bow is retired but not discarded.

i highly suspect those prior drops have set up for the eventual crack.

thinking back,  the incident happened during the spring when humidity surged.  who knows if the change of water content inside the wood played a role,,,

May 7, 2011 at 03:25 PM ·

Al could be right about the humidity thing, atmosphere changes etc. I did actually get the afore mentioned bow repaired ..precisely in the way you mentioned. It never got used again, until recently when I gave it to my daughter, whose teacher was complaining about the quality of her CF bow. So I dug out the repaired article and teacher was happy all through winter ...and then just a couple of weeks ago, he, as he is prone to do, grabbed her violin to demonstrate a particularly vigorous section of her Viotti concerto .... 'with the usual "NO NO NO like this!" and SNAP!  I wish I could have been there! The bow is now back with the bow repairer, who is fortunately a friend of ours, ...apparently the wooden splint thingy he had put in before is still there, and the break is actually not even in the same place!! I guess it may end up in the graveyard. Unfortunately I have now lost my favorite CF bow to my daughter (teacher happy again) and will be looking for another for myself .............

May 7, 2011 at 04:49 PM ·

Perhaps I can add something here too. Aside from my other activities I also founded Italy's first mail order stringed instrument supply company (in 1988), and we sell student bows too.

What happened about a year ago is we started to receive similar complaints of bows "just breaking" at the tip. We keep statistics about these things and the number of complaints was much higher than average over period. In addition, and most importantly, they regarded only bows from a certain manufacturer. 

To this day we don't know the exact cause of the bow tip breakage epidemic, but we suspended purchases from that supplier and stats went back to normal. So my guess is it could depend on a certain quality of material or it's ageing process.

Cheers! Dimitri

May 7, 2011 at 05:59 PM ·

Thanks for the info, Dmitri.  After giving it a lot of thought and interacting with the family members, I really don't think anyone broke it.  I think it just broke.  I think a humidity swing or heat source probably came into play, since this is the time of year when bows and violins have to make the biggest climate swing.

Speaking of other activities, I made it out to the mountains yesterday for the first time this year.  Most of the snow is gone (not in the mountains, though), and the ice went off the lake today.  Three more weeks of lessons, and then it's off to summer!  I can't put in words what it feels like to see green pushing out of the soil and smell the sap rising when the sunshine hits it.  The sun set at ten o'clock last night.

Maybe I'll blog about it.  Haven't done that in a while, ha.

May 7, 2011 at 07:12 PM ·

Dimitri, did any of these bows break while they were just sitting in inventory, with no tension on them? I think that's roughly the scenario described in the original question.

Emily, if the bow was left under tension, and there was a large humidity drop which caused the hair to become much shorter, then yes, it could spontaneously break. It could also spontaneously break just from normal tension, but it's much more common for this to show up when the bow is also being played. Stress in a bow is close to zero when the hair is relaxed, compared the huge stress under tension. In use, the bow is under even more stress. That's why any weaknesses usually manifest when the bow is actually being used.

May 7, 2011 at 07:41 PM ·

My bow that 'just broke' had been in the case over-night, hairs loosened off (not big-time loose tho') really was quite a shock at the time .... no-one to blame it on, or suspect!!

May 7, 2011 at 09:25 PM ·

Sometimes, some good detective work by someone with a lot of repair experience is needed to know what really happened. For instance, I've seen numerous "spontaneous" cracks in violins, with a large impact dent nearby.

Violins can break from nothing more than extreme humidity fluctuations. Bows, normally, will not, if the hair is completely loose.

May 8, 2011 at 02:20 AM ·

I have to remind my students all the time to loosen their bow hair when putting things away.  I wouldn't be surprised if the bow hair was tight.  But this is speculation.

May 8, 2011 at 02:31 AM ·

 teresa,  sorry to hear about your bow's second misfortune.  but at least it suggests that the splint repair is actually stronger than the original wood:)

perhaps some wood or batch of wood have more latent and hidden fracture lines near the bow head...freaky!

where i live in the northeast usa, during spring, when heat does not automatically turns on anymore, but air condition does not kick in yet, we are truly at the mercy of the outside weather.  i remember one week we had rain 5 days out of 7.  my kid's violin sounds different.  i bet the bow wood always soaks up more water.   IF there is a hidden fracture line inside the head area, the structural torsion within the head due to change in water content may push things over the edge.

i think emily's suspicion that the bow hair might be tight sounds reasonable.

May 8, 2011 at 05:47 AM ·

David, none of the bows were found defective in our inventory, and we also tighten the hair of each one prior to sale to check for problems (sticking frog, warped stick, hair coming out, etc.) to make sure.

But our clients reported that they broke in the space of a few weeks/couple of months without any human intervention.

Of course, one has to trust that the client is telling the truth and that their kid didn't simply whack the bow or drop it. We asked for each bow back and couldn't find any evidence of foul play, so the clients got a new bow each.

However, like I said it was the sudden rash of such occurences that led us to think that there was a recurring manufacturing defect of some kind. That of course is something only we, as retailers of the product, would know about. The end user would not have enough info to come to the same conclusion.

May 8, 2011 at 07:37 AM ·

--which is what we also concluded.  They had the bow inspected by a luthier in Anchorage, who said it was impossible to tell either way.

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