Welcome to the other New World – but Don’t Expect a Warm One – Oil-Derived Hair and Bows
The Quest for Artificial “Horse Hair”
The first “new materials” product for bows I became aware of was artificial “horse hair.” Of course, the very thought is now ridiculous. Still, for some bizarre reason, around the 1960s, the developed world was itching for “new things” – nylon shirts and bedsheets, flimsy plastic furniture, and uncoated aluminum saucepans, all now rightly condemned to the dustbin of history.
Better Living through Chemistry
To satisfy this perceived need, manufacturers experimented with varying degrees of success. DuPont came out with “Synhair” in the early 1970s, a nylon hair-like fiber.
Nylon, as a material, had only been around for 30 years. I reckon someone in their R&D department was a violinist. Otherwise, the development cost would have been prohibitive given possible minimal sales in a market that was (and continues to be) very conservative.
It has to be mentioned that at the time, real horsehair was spiraling up in price due to the skilled labor involved in sorting it into tails suitable for our use.
Synhair, Environmental Impact, and Mother of Toilet Seat
Synhair, which left the market in the mid-1980s, remains the best of its type despite more recent attempts by others to make similar fibers. Most of those stretch far too much, even if they do take rosin, or they reject rosin—or both.
It’s also the very opposite of saving the planet – nylon “hair” will not biodegrade and requires irreplaceable fossil fuel to make it. In contrast, horses are terrifically useful even before we take their tails.
Some European bows from the 1950s/60s have slides made from an acetate version of pearl – nicknamed “mother of toilet seat” – that has an unfortunate habit of warping over time. Fun fact: if you attempt to work these, the smell is disgusting!
Glasser Fiberglass Bows
I’ve covered the English version of a cheap student fiberglass bow in part 5, a horror story that nearly ruined the image of English bow making, such was its reputation among players and teachers. A fiberglass bow stick was patented in the USA in 1965 by Glasser and achieved modest sales (indeed, they are still in their catalog currently), but it was no replacement for wooden sticks.
Carbon Fiber for Bows
When fiberglass’s younger pretender – carbon fiber – appeared, more enlightened makers gave “plastic” another try. The thought hurdle you have to jump is that carbon fiber was first used in applications where lightweight strength was needed. My first encounter with it was its use in high-performance model airplanes to replace balsa in the late 1970s.
Pernambuco, the winning wood for cello bows, has a similar density to water and often sinks in it – the polar opposite of balsa – so what can be done? The trick is to put weight into the mix of resin that holds the carbon fibers together, and that is wonderfully controllable – not just its mix but its distribution along the stick.
Early Makers of Carbon Fiber Bows
However, all three were priced to compete with most “upmarket” pernambuco bows, especially the Bennigsen. With few purchases, Bennigsen disappeared from the marketplace before 1990, and the “Spiccato” rights were passed to another maker. Only Berg (made by Duff) is still going; as I write in late 2022, though, the website has disappeared.
None of these makers realized then that, to appeal to buyers, there had to be a price advantage. Generally, classical musicians are a conservative breed.
Claudio Righetti in Verona, Italy, having worked with pernambuco, developed his own line of carbon bows, distinctive by being very thin behind the head; they work well. Sadly, he died from years of inhaling pernambuco dust, not helped subsequently by the epoxy resins used with carbon fiber.
The latest arrival on the “new bow” stage is Arcus, a German company. They major in lightweight sticks, which will (in my opinion) ultimately be their downfall, though the bows are exquisitely made.
CodaBow appeared on the market in the early 1990s with a wide range of both nickel-mounted and silver-mounted carbon fiber sticks. The sticks graduated in quality according to their price, though the cheapest are still excellent players. Unsurprisingly, CodaBow swept the market.
The company is based in Winona, MN, where the sticks are made and the complete bows assembled; the frogs are made to CodaBow’s designs by Paulus in Germany.
The more expensive CodaBows rival wooden bows, costing at least three times as much. Even the early ones have the advantage of containing no customs-unfriendly parts, at least as of late 2022. In my opinion, they are the certain winners of the “replacing wood” competition. They are usable, different, affordable, and maybe actually better than many wood bows. I wish I’d had one when I was a student; I have one now.
Traditional Bow Makers
Unfortunately for “traditional” bow makers like me, who work in small studios with minimum tooling, making carbon fiber sticks is impossible. Their manufacture needs a small factory, and the tooling costs are massive. The sticks are cured in electrically heated aluminum molds (“cauls”) which are made for only one type of stick camber and thickness; a change to either will involve making a whole new mold. This encourages the one criticism of such bows, in that every player’s bow is the same; there is no choice to suit an individual’s requirements.
There are still the “awkward materials” challenges to overcome – ebony is preferred for the frog, with pearl decorations. It is questionable how much longer those materials will be available or legal. Coda has developed a bow that, despite having silver mounts, has a frog made of “Xebony” (a mixture of organic fibers and resin, colored to imitate ebony) and no pearl. The bow is fully “legal” worldwide, so they name it their “GlobalBow.”
It is so important for young players to be able to travel anywhere without hassle that such equipment is vital, as without political backup, they can’t fight the system, and few makers seem to be providing such items.
What questions do you have about cello bows or bow making?
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