Offcuts: How to Put New Hair on a Violin Bow By: Don Heisz

What’s a violin without a bow? A fancy ukulele. A guitar for a lemur? An expensive backscratcher?

My experience of bows is extensive, starting from my early childhood, when I wanted to be Robin Hood. Of course, that’s the wrong kind of bow for a violin. I know that. But I don’t have any experience with those at all, so I will briefly discuss what I do know.

I used to make my own bows and arrows when I was very young. They were normally nothing capable of doing any damage. I would find an appropriate-looking stick and put some twine on it and then shape some other sticks to be arrows. They might have pierced a block of butter at close range.

Eventually, though, I started to see that my designs were insufficient, so I set about to make a better bow and arrow. I found some very springy wood and spent time shaping it to actually be able to string it and have some real thwang to the twing. (Those are sound effects, if you didn’t recognize them.) Then I tried to figure out how to make an arrow that could actually stick into something.

I wanted to make stone tips for the arrows, but every time I tried to fashion one, it either broke apart completely or didn’t break at all. So, I gave up on that. I turned to something I would continue to turn to from that point on. Sheet metal.

Sheet metal is wonderful. With a pair of snips, you can cut out whatever shape you want. So, I cut out a fine arrowhead and tried to fasten it to a stick. As you can imagine, the arrowhead was shaped like the classic arrowhead and, since it was made of sheet metal, it bent as soon as it touched anything. And, when it didn’t bend, it turned sideways on the tip of the arrow.

Undaunted, I fixed that problem. I realized that I could make the metal pointy and then wrap it around the tip of the arrow. I discovered that worked very well.

The very first time I strung that improved arrow and pulled back to let it fly, the tip slipped in front of my thumb just as I let go of the string. It was sharp, I can attest to that. It almost completely tore off my thumbnail. It took months to grow back.

I doubt I can have such an experience with a violin bow.

This bow is nowhere near as old as the violin it accompanied, but it was every bit as useless. Almost none of the horsehair (that’s what’s on a violin bow) was unbroken. Handling it made more break, actually.

Not that I want to handle horsehair. This little project caused a nice rash on my wrists, since I am quite allergic to horses. (Actually, I think the hide glue has quite a bit of horse in it, too, since I was reacting to that, also.)

As is plainly seen, the hair is attached differently at each end. One end has a tension adjustment. I assume it is wise to relax the tension on the hair while the bow is not in use.

The other end features a little wooden plug that holds the hair in place.

I wisely bought two new bunches of horsehair, in case I messed up. It comes with one end tied. The other end will need to be cut to length and then tied.

The adjustable end came apart easily enough. A little piece of plastic readily slid out (I think it was a little deformed.)

That revealed a screw with a washer that held one end of the hair.

The hair slips through a little metal collar and a small wooden wedge holds it in place. Once the screw was removed, I pulled the hair out and the wedge fell out on its own. Then the collar slipped off. Trying any other order would likely damage something.

The little wooden block at the other end had some tiny holes in it. I momentarily thought I might be able to pry it out using those holes.

But that would not be a good idea. I used the hair to pull the wood out. That is, I pulled on the hair and it eventually pulled the wood out. I think the holes were the result of someone using an awl or punch to push the block in.

Of course, I saved the little block and the wedge. Those things could be remade easily enough, but I saw no reason to do so.

Then it came time to put the hair in. And I suspect I didn’t do it quite the way I was supposed to. I started by putting it in the adjustable end first. I think it would have been easier to put the other end first. But it all worked out.

The end of the hair is tied when you buy it, but it needs to be sealed a bit better. In the following photo, you can see a lump of rosin that was in the violin case when I got it. That is for rubbing on the hair to make the bow work better. I used it to seal the end of the hair. I took a lighter and melted some of the rosin and dipped the end of the hair into it. I did that a few times until I was satisfied.

So, I slipped the metal collar over the hair, shoved the hair into the adjustable slide, replaced the screw and washer, thus holding the hair in place, replaced the collar, drove in the tiny wedge that held the collar in place and also firmly secured the hair, then put the plastic cover back. I was very pleased with that until I started working on the other end.

First, I had to cut the hair to length. That proved best done by first tying some string around it. So, I did that. Then I tried to seal that the way I did the other end. No amount of melting and dipping would work. For some reason, it became impossible to get any of that rosin on that end of the hair. So, I got fed up and made a little crucible out of aluminum foil.

Then I melted the entire lump. That filled the air with a wonderful scent. Well, it filled the air with a scent. Actually, it smelled pretty bad. But it was very melted and that’s all I cared about.

Then I could dip the hair in and it was immediately sealed properly. I decided to keep my aluminum-foil-bound rosin in case I need to do something similar. (I’ll find it in 10 years and wonder what it is.)

Then I wrestled the wooden block into place. It would be easier to fasten this side first because you can do it without having the hair in the way. I mean, if I have to do this ever again, I will do the fixed end first and then do the adjustable end. I’m pretty sure that’s the genuine correct way to do it. As usual, I just got ahead of myself.

And then it was done. The violin needs strings, of course. It would also help if I knew someone who could play it. Next time, the final wrap-up.