Thoughts on polymers for the purpose of inducing vibrations in strings via friction

Edited: March 12, 2019, 9:47 PM · It's gonna be time to rehair my good bow soon, and I'm all out of horse tail fibres. I'm probably just going to invest in a big ol' bundle of hair this time, but I'm thinking about trying synthetics, too.
Apparently they've gotten quite good recently. People say they don't stretch out as much and grip just the same (better, even) like the real stuff.

Is it worth it?

Replies (41)

March 13, 2019, 12:40 AM · (... duck and run away...)
March 13, 2019, 12:54 AM · I'd be very interested to hear about this. I always assumed synthetic bow hair was crap, but it would be great if there was a viable alternative.
March 13, 2019, 9:25 AM · Last time I looked into this around the web, the one that stood out was a European product called Coruss, which many people seem to experience as acceptable, but you still hear of needing to use grippier rosin for a 'first layer'.
March 13, 2019, 10:11 AM · Newsflash: horsehair doesn't "grip." It doesn't have "little fingers" as is so often explained to the lay person or child. It's perfectly smooth and will make no sound by itself. Rosin makes the sound. I've heard (maybe a luthier can confirm) that instead the hair has pores which retain the rosin. If that's the case, then that could be the crucial difference: synthetic hair, if it lacks pores, may be unable to retain rosin for any length of time.
March 13, 2019, 10:40 AM · Well, yes, that's true.
But the fact that bows even have to be rehaired in the first place is proof that the horsehair is gripping something.
March 13, 2019, 10:42 AM · The key issue is how well the plastic "hair" holds the rosin. Once there is rosin "fused" to the hair and to the strings (by transfer from the hair) the basis for adequate friction is in place.

I have a couple of "Incredibows" (one each violin and cello) that come with permanently installed plastic "hair" for many decades. I initially felt that rosin did not last well on the plastic strands, but since then I have played a couple of orchestra rehearsals using my cello Incredibow on viola using "cello" rosin. There was no problem. Coruss sounds like a feasible solution if you want to reduce your future rehairing efforts.

March 13, 2019, 10:42 AM · There is already too much plastic in the world! Seriously.
Edited: March 13, 2019, 8:51 PM · I bet NOBODY has ever tried this before.

I agree partially with Scott. Horsehair does have surface structure akin to fish scales, but these features are extremely tiny (micron and below, visible by scanning electron microscopy) and it seems likely that if they have any function whatsoever in the bowing process, that function is probably to hold rosin maybe a little better than a perfectly smooth surface would.

There is really no such thing as a perfectly smooth solid surface but that becomes kind of a philosophical point that is not really useful here.

Synthetics can have similar surface features -- especially a "shark skin" that can arise in certain types of processing including the drawing or extrusion of fibers. Even some grades of polyethylene will do this. For most applications it's an undesirable phenomenon, partly because it's hard to control.

However, shark-skinning alone will not endear a synthetic polymer to rosin. There needs also to be some surface chemistry that is compatible with rosin (mostly abietic acid) to have really good adhesion. Again here horsehair has a big advantage because it has polar surface chemistry. It is possible to post-treat polymer fibers so that their surface chemistry is more compatible. Plasma etching could be among the possibilities, but I'd need to learn more about that. Plasma etching is used to prepare plastics for printing (items like snack-chip bags and such, I believe).

Finally, as if surface structural features and surface chemistry were not enough, there is the issue of physical stability, especially with respect to creep. Ever notice some folks are able to use their bows for years without getting a rehair, and their bow hair doesn't get all stretched out? Don't try that with polyester.

March 13, 2019, 10:47 AM · I've used a couple of the synthetics for street musicians and touring musicians with pop groups. In the case of the buskers, tone is not an issue and longevity is. With the touring musicians, they play through pickups and tone is controlled by the sound person, also longevity and consistency from climate to city to hot and cold rooms is important. They have liked the synthetic hair. Every single well-trained classical musician who I have attempted to sell the synthetic hair to have returned asking to have the bow haired with real hair. Tone is the issue, not playability or response, in their opinion.
March 13, 2019, 10:52 AM · I think the need to be rehairing one's bow all the time is overblown. Unless one is breaking a lot of hairs, which I don't, then I think thorough cleaning of the bow hair is a good alternative for most people. I also wonder whether gentle rubbing with a mild abrasive (200- or 320-grit garnet sandpaper comes to mind) would help refresh bow hair after cleaning. I just wonder whether it might exfoliate a little or something. Probably I need to think about this more but I also just might try it. Maybe not on my Peccatte.
March 13, 2019, 11:53 AM · Paul, sounds like you are treating rosin sticking to hair like topcoats/varnish sticking to the previous surface/base by creating small scratches. In that case, I would recommend 0000 steel wool.
320 grit is too rough IMHO, and finer sandpaper will quickly clog with rosin. There can be a coating/oil on the steel wool though that could cause its own problems. After all is said and done I think its simplest to lasts about 2x that of strings, and the cost is actually a little less. I think I'll pass on the experiments.
March 13, 2019, 12:04 PM · I agree with Jean. Would you rather see Mongolian fields with herds of horses, or fields of oil derricks and refineries?
March 13, 2019, 12:40 PM · Engaging in a wee bit of abstract thinking, I'll go look at wildlife on an as-needed basis, and be glad for the oil derricks every time I engage in the modern lifestyle made possible by them (including the ability to travel and see the specific form of wildness which most pleases me.)
March 13, 2019, 2:21 PM · Andres, if we continue on the current track there will be soon be only zoos left where you can practice your wildlife hobby.
March 13, 2019, 4:46 PM · "There is really no such thing as a perfectly smooth solid surface but that becomes kind of a philosophical point that is not really useful here."

It's not philosophical--just a physical description. Rosin is what produces vibrations, not the hair. I assumed you've tried bow hair with no rosin? The question is simply whether another material will retain the rosin.

March 13, 2019, 6:09 PM · Cotton, I suggest you check out Norman Pickering's studies on bow hair and rosin. He looked at this years ago.
March 13, 2019, 6:20 PM · Paul - that was a very interesting post on rosin-hair interaction physical/chemistry. I wish you would expand it and pen a blog on for future reference (and searchable)...
March 13, 2019, 8:47 PM · Elise you're very kind, but for a blog post I'd need to make a much more scholarly effort, finding what's in the literature and so on. I've got enough of that to do in my day job! :)
March 13, 2019, 8:49 PM · Arnie, I appreciate the suggestion of steel wool. I may try that too. And thanks for the reminder to degrease it first -- I didn't think of that. My idea was to clean the bow and THEN abrade it. This should side-step the clogging of the abrasive with rosin.
Edited: March 13, 2019, 8:57 PM · The amount of polymer used to make bow hair would be so small compared to other uses of plastics. Less than one percent of the total mass of the stickers that come on your fruit. People need to maintain a sense of proportion. Jeff said he'd rather see a field of horses than oil derricks, and I sympathize. But horses need to be fed, and the production of animal feed carries a very high carbon footprint, and then they emit greenhouse gases (CO2 and worse), and the processing of the hair consumes not only fossil fuel (potentially more petroleum than the weight of the hair itself) but also water. One needs to think more broadly of larger systems. To do otherwise is myopic, and willful myopia is indistinguishable from dishonesty.

Paper or plastic?

March 13, 2019, 9:57 PM · Scott, you can try rubbing a cake of rosin across your violin strings, but I don't think it's going to sound so good.
Edited: March 14, 2019, 11:17 AM · That's like saying you can't finish a table with a lump of garnet. So obviously it's not the garnet in the sandpaper that's doing anything. But wait! Abrasives like garnet and corundum have been supported on various backings -- paper, cloth, mesh, etc., all to useful effect, even though paper remains the gold standard. So maybe it's the garnet after all.
March 14, 2019, 12:09 PM · Well, it's a no-go on synthetics this time. I emailed Sound Choice Violins with an order for one hank of their Coruss hair and they never replied. They really don't want to take my money, it seems.
March 14, 2019, 2:40 PM · Part of this might be electrostatic binding of the hair to the rosin.
An efficient way to demonstrate charge is to rub a silk scarf on a amber or glass rod. Silk is mostly high-sulfur protein, like hair. amber is very old and dry tree sap, like rosin.
March 14, 2019, 3:03 PM ·
Is there much of a price difference between synthetic hair and a good grade of horse hair?
March 14, 2019, 3:14 PM · The synthetic hair is the same price, but only because they know vegans and other crazies will buy it anyways. It's definitely cheaper and easier to make.
Edited: March 14, 2019, 4:13 PM · "Vegans and other crazies" is a bit pejorative I think. There's something to the arguments, I think, that animals raised for food and other by-products are not, in general, treated too well, and that their carbon footprint is very large. I'm neither a vegan nor a vegetarian but I do admire those among my friends who stand for these principles. I don't know about the horses from which bow hair is taken -- how well they are treated and so on.

What drives up the cost of horse hair is embodied in Jeff's question: the phrase "good grade." Like everything related to the violin, the devil is in the details. But then you think also about the number of violin bows out there and our frantic urges to get them rehaired more often than is probably necessary, and you might end up with a great deal of demand too.

March 15, 2019, 3:16 AM · Distributor article:

March 15, 2019, 12:44 PM · Since the topic is synthetic polymers, I'm wondering if anyone has ever experimented with the idea of using a polymer ribbon instead of a bundle of individual fibers.
March 15, 2019, 1:45 PM · Imagine a bow that you'll never need to rehair, never needs adjusting, always has the correct tension and is light as a feather.It won't break if you drop it. That's the incredibow. I'll admit the name probably doesn't do it any favors. It sounds like something you see on an infomercial. The counterpart instrument could be called the "Wonderfiddle". Aside from the name it is a very playable bow. The tone will never sound as good as a wood bow IMO.
Based on that bow I believe the plastic hair should be a worthy option if you don't mind a tone with slightly less warmth on violin. I can't comment on the cello version.If you're mic'ing up or electrifying your violin in a band it goes well there because the tone isn't as important. In fact this is where I seen it used. The fact that they are hard to find on ebay should say something.

If you have the jig to hair bows I would be tempted to try it on a standard bow....and I'm not horsing around about it.Possibly a wood bow would give it more warmth.Maybe somewhere in between??

Edited: March 15, 2019, 3:16 PM · I experimented with a product called IncrediBow, which is an extremely lightweight carbon fiber stick and synthetic (non-replaceable) hair.

I thought the whole thing was impressive. The synthetic hair was a little more naturally grabby than horsehair so it didn't need as much rosin.

Based on that experience I could definitely see synthetic hair working on standard violin bows.

The thing is, horsehair is not expensive so there may be no cost advantage to the synthetic hair. So the only reason to do it would be for performance reasons.

I'm already sold on carbon fiber being superior generally to wooden bows (and I'm talking about high quality carbon a la Arcus). Maybe in a few years we'll be saying the same thing about polymer strands vs horsehair.

March 15, 2019, 7:27 PM · We shall see.

The Coruss people responded; should finish my order soon (they're sooo slow with their emails). When I get to stringing my bow with it, I'll make a follow-up post.

March 16, 2019, 6:05 AM · Interested in hearing about your results.
March 16, 2019, 1:01 PM · Just for reference for the thread:

March 19, 2019, 9:38 AM · FYI I hear there are Mastodons thawing out in Antarctica.They are like hairy elephants you know.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Probably not.Did you think that I might think you would think this? Probably not.

You want an incredibow demo? I'll post one.You be the judge. That will let you hear how the synthetic string sounds .vs a run o' the mill wood bow using stallion hair.

March 19, 2019, 12:28 PM · As far as I know, there were never any mastodons in either Australia or Antarctica.
Edited: March 19, 2019, 1:24 PM · The value of theories seems to be based on who came up with it. One such theory is that Antarctica was once a tropical place millions of years ago based on findings there under the ice. Yet another theory is that plate shift moved the continent to where it is today from a once warmer more tropical clime.Mastodons appear to have been better equipped for colder weather.

Recent stories from there get much weirder fast even aside from the typical YouTube conspiracy stuff. It's a place that's out of sight and out of mind making it prime for anything covert. I'll hold off on that for now since this is primarily a violin forum :)

I do wonder how horse hair was determined to be the best compared to anything else.

Edited: March 19, 2019, 1:39 PM · Timothy, Maybe you are thinking of parts of Siberia where Woolly Mammoths and Mastodons have been discovered, thawed out in the tundra.
March 20, 2019, 11:11 AM · Jeff, I was under the impression they had found Mammoths and Mastodons there until Paul corrected me.. I had been investigating some of the mysterious things going on in Antarctica and so it was on my brain at the time.

There's a whole lot of ice in Antarctica, so I believe there is the possibility that they are there and we haven't found them yet. Global temperatures seem to be slowly creeping up causing unprecedented ice melting. Even so, I doubt Antarctica will be melting in large amounts any time soon. Though ice melting seems a bit scary to me, one benefit might be a better glimpse into the past. No telling what we might find. Anything in the ice that died of a cataclysmic event and didn't readily decompose is waiting to be discovered intact. Another interesting thing I read is they are crossing DNA found in Mammoths and using it to fertilize
elephants in the hopes of reviving the species. Of course I read it on the internet with nothing to back it up.

March 20, 2019, 12:21 PM · So the archeaologists may be loving Global warming....
March 20, 2019, 12:48 PM · Timothy, I believe Paul mentioned Australia and Antarctica, not Russia.

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