The science of wooden sticks

October 9, 2016 at 06:02 PM · I've been shopping for bows for a few weeks now, and find myself being perplexed as to why this problem isn't much easier to solve than it is.

There's obviously a highly personal dimension to it for many people, and some amount of mysticism and worship of ancient masters (so to speak), as there is for instruments, but perhaps more so because of greater supply and variability and less overall familiarity. Over-valuation of old works is to be expected due to limited supply of products compared to money, so is nothing out of the ordinary in itself.

What perplexes me beyond that is that the science of bow making hasn't apparently yet progressed to the point that it's well-understood and reproducible to the point of industrial-level mass production of items of various grades of quality up to and beyond the best hand-made bows.

(A similar argument applies to violins, but let's say that violins are much more complex, and no better material than woods has been found for them, so they'll continue to be highly variable individual crafts-pieces for the time being.)

There's a glut of garbage bows which are inflicted on beginners as a part of violin kits -- especially on adult beginners as they have longer bows which are more flexible -- as a symptom of this problem.

More advanced players find themselves being able to do no better than try as many bows as possible for themselves to find what works for them rather than being able to look for something which approaches a specific set of know standards. Searching by price and brand name or place or time of manufacture rather than performance (and price) metrics. And they find themselves looking at items of greater and greater cost in the process. Wooden sticks costing thousands of dollars should raise anyone's concern, not just non-musicians and affiliates.

With no disrespect intended to the many bow makers present and past who strive to produce the best musical instrument they can, and to provide for themselves and their families with the proceeds of their work, I don't understand why the science of wooden sticks, so to speak, has not yet been applied to the point where there is greater general understanding and capability.

So, please inform me if you will how I can understand bows better.

Replies (20)

October 9, 2016 at 06:37 PM · Why wouldn't that same concept of an obvious "formula" also apply to the violin itself?

One could suppose that by simply making careful measurements and building a violin "box" to the same dimensions, etc, etc, it would be a slam dunk, and you could crank them out no problem.

For whatever mysterious reason, it doesn't work that way.

October 9, 2016 at 07:04 PM · All because no two trees are alike........

October 9, 2016 at 07:14 PM · Strange complaint. The OP seems to take it as a personal affront that after a couple of weeks looking he or she hasn't found a satisfactory bow. Lengthy musings about economics (not science) ensue. We're told one should be able to search (on line?) by brand name and price, and find a bow conforming to an exact standard of quality. Like buying a fridge. But what serious player expects this? Your bow needs to suit your own playing technique and style. And the OP tells us nothing of his or her playing level, or what he or she finds lacking in the bows he or she has so far used. Instead we get a rant about the deficiencies of bow makers. If you want a better bow, this isn't the way to get help; teachers, friends, and shops can offer serious advice based on your own musical and budgetary needs.

October 9, 2016 at 07:49 PM · Bows are highly personal to the player. Give ten good violins to ten players and ask them to rank them, you will probably get a general consensus. Give them ten good bows and you may get ten completely different outcomes.

Trying bows till you find the one that you can use to express your musical intentions is the way to choose a bow.

Cheers Carlo

October 9, 2016 at 09:23 PM · I'd argue that we're pretty decent at industrial mass-production of bows these days when we're talking about carbon-fiber, but even in carbon-fiber bows where there is presumably maximal quality control and consistency, there are variations from bow to bow. You can generalize about a particular model of a CF bow, but you will feel and hear differences between different specimens of the same model. And while you can buy a good CF bow for under $1,000, the best CF bows still cost many thousands of dollars.

You can also buy excellent contemporary master-made bows for under $5k. You can even get some remarkably nice Chinese copies of great makers for under $1k.

But because pieces of wood are individual, and one of the fundamental skills of a bow-maker is to shape a particular piece of wood into the very best bow that it can be, wood bows are never going to be clones of one another. You can generalize a little bit about particular makers, but each bow they produce will be unique. The science of making a bow is rooted in understanding how to get a great bow out of a particular piece of wood -- with whatever characteristics are right for that wood. As far as I know, when you commission a bow from a maker, there is not a rigid order in the queue, because how a given bow turns out will determine which player it's likely to be suited for.

Because they're unique, and because every advanced player has differences in what they want out of a bow, the only way to pick bows is to try a lot of them.

October 9, 2016 at 10:23 PM · I have a Japanese friend who is a cellist. He is the head engineer for a prominent engineering firm in Japan. Think 787 carbon fiber wings and such...I asked him, last year, why not approach bows? As the Chief Engineer for the company, he has not only the skill and knowledge, but the weight to direct that such a project be studied and undertaken. His reply was that bows are much too complicated to replicate in this way and that he/they have already tried.

Up to a certain level of bow, it has been done, but so long as fine bow makers have access to fine materials, those bows will continue to have character and characteristics unattainable by CF and other synthetic substances, and the same goes for instruments. ALso, if you get a dozen CF bows from the same maker, of the same model, you will probably be shocked at how different they sound and play, even though the manufacturer has striven for uniformity.

We can ct scan these items and replicate them to the thousandth of a millimeter, but they still don't sound/function the same. That's the art part.

October 10, 2016 at 05:01 AM · Thanks for your comments and replies, and bearing with my admitted rant and somewhat inflammatory subject heading.

CodaBow advertises their bows as "handcrafted in the USA", so I'm not entirely surprised that there is sample variation, as there would also be in the horsehair and even application of rosin. At some level, there will always be sample variation, as the universe doesn't conform to theoretical niceties and there are limits to what we can achieve. But given some variation doesn't mean that it's entirely variable and unpredictable or that there are no dimensions of specific control and optimisation.

"But because pieces of wood are individual, and one of the fundamental skills of a bow-maker is to shape a particular piece of wood into the very best bow that it can be, wood bows are never going to be clones of one another."

That statement also implies that there is some standard of measure, some reference to what might constitute the best bow. There is implicitly in the discussion and valuation some notion of one bow being better than another, but no clear notion of what that might be without reduction to whatever the player finds to be best. I suppose if we have a set of skilled bow makers and interpreters, and another set of skilled players, some sort of symbiosis might arise to produce the best bows to the degree possible and understood in the context as long as the groups are working with each other even if it's done without the aid of hard science, but I'm not sure that's optimal or I understand why bendy sticks are hard to engineer.


October 10, 2016 at 05:13 AM · Don't confuse “complex” with “complicated.”

October 10, 2016 at 05:22 AM · Bows are an artisan craft. There's no more than objective "best" than there is an objective "best" in, say, a fine gourmet meal. There are some elements that people can agree on, but also enormous subjectivity that comes from personal taste.

To continue the analogy, there's quite a bit of science in food these days, just like there's quite a bit of science in bow-making. But there's also artistic choice. Furthermore, you know you're working with a tough cut of meat, for instance, you are going to choose a different preparation than if you were working with something that was fatty and tender. What comes out at the other end is still delicious -- but different.

If you play carbon-fiber bows of the same model, you will feel the similarities (assuming you're a skilled enough player). There's enough consistency for that, and that CF bow has been engineered to satisfy a player looking for a particular something that this model has been designed to achieve. If you want to buy more or less off-the-shelf, you can be fairly certain that a particular CF bow specimen is fairly representative of the model, even if there are individual specimens that you might like slightly more or less than others.

Wood doesn't have the same consistency, so there's more variance in a maker's bows. You can still generalize a bit about a maker's tendencies, and certain makers can have a distinct feel that you might like or dislike, but it won't apply to 100% of their bows, especially if they vary what they make depending on the proclivities of the player who has commissioned the bow.

We can all agree on the basic characteristics of a good bow, just like we can probably agree on the basic characteristics of a good meal, but after that we're in the realm of taste. You might prefer the steak. I might prefer the lobster. One isn't objectively better than the other.

October 10, 2016 at 05:55 AM · I'll bite -- the steak, no lobster for me, thanks. But in the category of steaks, there is also a notion of grading and quality. And sub-categories. So let's say filet mignon then -- French isn't it? The quality of filet mignon I might get in say Red Lobster is objectively worse than one I can find elsewhere, even though I might not know the specific attributes to measure yet. Moreover, the chef who prepares the better steak knows something about what makes some steaks better than others, and doesn't leave it to the whims of his clients, be they from Red Lobster or elsewhere. So while steaks cannot be directly measured and compared against lobster (at least usefully), there is scope for specific and understood optimisation within a subcategory once identified, and in order to make an improvement, there not only needs to be ability, but a specific understanding of what is better within that category. If not, then it's a matter of luck or variation of taste if you will, not an exercise of skill as such.

October 10, 2016 at 06:56 AM · A famous bowmaker I know had just had a bad experience with a young player who had rejected, one by one, a number of new bows he had made for her. "I'm sorry, you are going to have to make me another one" she said for the nth time, but he finally opted out. Enough was enough.

Ultimately the player has to adapt to the bow. Failure to develop this ability leads to the situation where no bow can be "right". Maybe we need a scientific calibration of each player before he/she troubles the dealership/maker. Establishing the Universal Standard Bowstroke (USB) might be a start. THIS aspect "has not yet been applied to the point where there is greater general understanding and capability."

BTW I own 6 fantastic bows by this same famous maker - all different !!!

It might interest you to view this link to the Lucchi Meter, which "..measures the acoustical properties of materials and indicates the level of elasticity."

October 10, 2016 at 01:19 PM · J Ray, for you personally, it might be useful to understand a bit more about your bow search, what you're looking for, and what your experience has been, in order to better understand where your comments are coming from.

Most players can agree that there are a bunch of things that a good bow ought to be able to make it easier to do:

  • Draw smoothly from frog to tip, and vice versa, with a feeling of smoothness and balance, including when the stroke is "zoomed" from end to end at speed.
  • Play an easy legato with inaudible bow changes.
  • Articulate at the start of a passage.
  • Hide the articulation at the start of a passage.
  • Articulate well anywhere in the bow, including at the tip.
  • Spiccato, sautille, ricochet, up-bow and down-bow staccato.
  • Be easy to manipulate, such as with fast circular retakes at the frog.
  • Switch easily between different types of strokes.

Then we get into the more subjective bits:

  • Ideally, the bow should be a good tonal match for the particular violin that it's going to be used with -- nice set of overtones, good volume, and a palette of color shadings.
  • The balance-point should be comfortably placed; the actual balance-point varies with the player's body, but the end-result should be neither too high nor too low.
  • The stick should be at the right level of stiffness for the player's technical approach. Stiffer sticks that hold up better to more pressure are currently more popular.
  • The bow should be at a comfortable weight for the player. Some players prefer heavier or lighter bows. There's an "ideal" weight range but how heavy a bow actually feels is as dependent upon balance as the actual weight -- a more tip-heavy bow will feel as if it's heavier in the hand.

A sufficiently skilled player can tell when they are trying a high-quality bow, but not necessarily the right bow for them or their violin. Sometimes the player needs to adapt their technique to the bow, and they'll have a preference for how much they want to adapt. Too different and the bow will likely be rejected by a player.

Also, realistically, you end up trading off aspects against one another because few bows do absolutely everything well.

October 10, 2016 at 01:44 PM · In the violin world, mysticism is considered inherent in the tools of the trade, so any scientific approach is doomed to failure.

Certainly, the violin is a complex dynamic system, so one might understand why it can be so resistant to rational analysis.

The bow, OTOH, is really just a simple sprung stick. These types of mechanisms have been analyzed and designed for years. If makers suffer from wildly varying results, it is because they are more enamored of the mystical craft of bow making rather than the rational science of the device.

Applying some science to the selection of a bow, the two primary things one is interested in is the

1. Overall weight of the bow, and

2. Springiness when tensioned to a typical hair to stick distance.

They way bow selection was explained to me is to take the bow and tension it so that when executing typical martele and colle strokes, you just avoid the stick striking the hairs/string. This should leave observable curve in the stick so that you get an increasing springiness as the hairs deflect.

Next, execute rapid bow stroke techniques while observing bow much pressure you need to get the strings to articulate and sound fully. To heavy a bow and you have trouble achieving speed. Too light a bow and you might need too much pressure to be comfortable.

Finally, if spiccato/sautille are in your repertoire, see if the bow lets you execute it comfortably. If not, the bow probably suffers from a weak spring rate. This can be due to a weak stick, poorly curved stick, or insufficient number of hairs.

What the community needs to do is make a list of weights and spring rates of bows that professional players deem superior. This will give buyers a quantitative range of performance parameters to look for in a bow.

Retailers and makers can then brand their bows with this information. This is very similar to the current state of tennis racket marketing and design. There are a handful of scientific measurements one can choose from depending on the type of stroke and game the players has or wishes to achieve.

October 10, 2016 at 03:53 PM · I think that your bow choosing criteria should be exclusively about personal preference and perhaps price. Many will slander inexpensive bows, even though some are as good as the name brand bows they boast. However, there is an accurate agreement among most that bows in cheap violin outfits are junk. On carbon fibers, I think that they are better than those garbage outfit bows, but lack the detailed tastes on many musicians/luthiers. I have one, it does the job.

October 10, 2016 at 03:54 PM · To clarify, personal preference includes traits mentions by Lydia and Carmen.

October 10, 2016 at 04:36 PM · Science might be a wrong title.

It is rather the art of bow making.

If you are in fact asking for advice in bow selection, Lydia has already given you a few useful tips.

I would add that one first have to visually inspect the bow, in particular:

0. no cracks, repaired or not

1. the camber, with bow hair relaxed and tightened (bow resting on the frog, observed from side)

2. straightness (bow in the same position, aligned with the table's edge and observed from above)

3. balance point; place the bow on your finger and see where the point is

4. The tapping test: hold the bow as if you are about to play, open your left palm and let it face the ceiling; tap the bow's tip on the open palm and feel the vibrations; if no vibrations, the bow is dead. After awhile you will be able to tell the speed (frequency), response, etc.... all by sensing it with your bowing arm.

5. Tighten and relax the hair; the frog should move smoothly and the screw should give medium resistance. Too loose or too tight, jerky moves, frog not stable - discard.

If and only if the bow passes the above steps, move on to the list Lydia provided. One has to have a decent bowing technique in order to perform this test.

If and only if the bow passes all of the above tests (performs well and feels like an extension of your arm), focus on the sound properties. Here we enter a quite subjective area and basically match bow with the instrument. Note that even the best bows may not be the match for your violin. This step is probably the most frustrating, especially if you are quite happy with performance and subjective feel.

In essence, one starts with 10 or more bows and eliminates the losers at every step. Once discarded, do not look back! If none of the bows satisfies ALL criteria, find another maker / dealer and start again. Repeat until happy.

October 10, 2016 at 05:39 PM · Rocky and Lydia. Great posts!

Regarding the straightness of the bow. There is a fashion in London for professional players to request a "bias on the player's side" when getting a rehair. This deliberately creates a slight bend in the stick to the left when looking down the stick. The theory is that it adds strength to the stick, and the bow is straightens when played. I tried a rehair like that once, but found it a little disturbing. It was an interesting experiment, but not for me.

Pinned bows can be a way for those on a budget to get a bow above their purse. If the price is sufficiently low, and the repair is done well, it can be worth looking at. Sure, you are not buying an investment, but you can find a good stick for very little. I once picked up an early Hill bow with full stamp at auction, for tuppence and three farthings. It played like a dream. A student of mine was very happy.

In my opinion, stay away from CF bows. They can do a lot well but the bottom line is the sound not the same as good wooden bow. Ok for students and those on a budget. Some pros use them for pit work or outdoor gigs. I bought one myself for that purpose some time ago as I didn't want to risk any of my French bows, but soon got rid of it as the sound was inorganic. I use one of my Hill bows for that purpose now.

Cheers Carlo

October 10, 2016 at 06:50 PM · Can we remember that while the stick provides continuity and dynamism, it is the moving rosin that actually makes the sound, and the horsehair which keeps the rosin in a nice traight line!

To compare two bows, shouldn't they have been haired from the same horse, at the same time, with exactly the same amount of the same rosin?

October 10, 2016 at 07:00 PM · I think some violins are more picky about bows, tonally, than others. On my previous violin, many bows sounded good and the shadings were relevant but not a prime factor in selection. On my current violin, bows hugely alter the sound, and sound became my initial filter for whether or not a bow should be eliminated.

If you look at CF bows, you will also find that there's a starker tonal difference. Some CF bows will just sound cruddy on a particular violin -- harsh, usually -- though this is unique to each specimen, rather than being true of a model in general. So if you are trying CF bows, the feel may determine whether or not you like bows of this model, but the sound will probably be a first-pass filter for whether or not a particular specimen is acceptable.

As I've mentioned before, I own a perfectly decent CF bow, a JonPaul Avanti. It's probably a useful illustration of the difference between a good bow and a great bow. It does everything on my list decently. The better of my other two bows (antique French) does these things effortlessly (and the lesser of them does many of them well, trading off agile manueverability for less power) . The CF bow is passable but it's just... not that much fun to play with. And of course it's not in the same league tonally.

Weights and spring rates just aren't sufficient to determine the characteristics of a bow. It's a whole-stick thing. Even tiny changes to the camber can make a big difference in how the bow plays.

October 11, 2016 at 02:22 PM · "The bow, OTOH, is really just a simple sprung stick. These types of mechanisms have been analyzed and designed for years. If makers suffer from wildly varying results, it is because they are more enamored of the mystical craft of bow making rather than the rational science of the device."

Your reductive description belies the complexity of the mechanics necessary for even one bullet point on Lydia's list. (That has a nice ring to it. "Lydia's Lists" should be a permanent page on!)

You can't determine simplicity v. complexity without taking function into account. A sprung stick for the purpose of shooting an arrow is relatively simple because the function is well known and solvable. Not so much when you try to describe all the interactions of a bow with a fiddle (each with its own unique complexities and responses,) not to mention the action of the arm/hand (the function of which varies according to the individual player) that wields it, and the musical purpose.

But what's more, just to highlight an added dimension of complexity, unlike bows for shooting arrows, violin bows are required to perform opposing functions, namely, to sit on the string, smoothly and without quivering, if you draw it one way, and to bounce and jump, in a controlled fashion, when drawn another, and to switch between those functions immediately and effortlessly, all from a deceivingly simple, tapered, cambered, flexible, sprung stick.

I would argue the bow is as complex as (perhaps more than) the violin, if less complicated. It's myriad functions are definitely not reducible to a few numbers. From what I understand reject rates are rather high (you can't easily predict what the blank will do once cut,) even for master makers, which would add to the cost.

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