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One word—that’s all you need to know: PERNAMBUCO. Your bow needs to be made of pernambuco wood, or you do not have the bow quality you need.
Please note: If you are searching for a bow to go with a violin smaller than ¾, don’t worry about the bow too much. Small bows, regardless of what materials they are made of, don’t have the springiness or responsiveness of full-size bows. Just make sure it’s in good condition, and you should be good.
What is Pernambuco Wood?
Pernambuco (“pear-nahm-BOO-koo”) is a type of wood that grows in Brazil. It offers perfect resistance, strength, and springiness for violin (and all stringed instrument) bows. Pernambuco is an endangered species in Brazil, due to over-harvesting by the textile industry. This problem is not caused by violin bow makers, so you needn’t feel guilty buying a Pernambuco bow. If you want to help protect Pernambuco trees, this article is a great place to start.
Pernambuco bows can be purchased for as little as $100. In my other article, “How to Choose a Good Student Violin Without Paying Too Much”, I recommended a package deal from Southwest Strings, called the JuanQin violin package. That package includes a Pernambuco bow.
Alternatives to Pernambuco
One alternative to Pernambuco is a wood called “Brazilwood”, but I do not like bows made from this wood. They are not as responsive as Pernambuco bows, which tires out your hand faster and makes bow control more work. The tone they produce is never as smooth or rich as Pernambuco, and they are not as durable as Pernambuco, which lasts hundreds of years, if properly cared for. Brazilwood has more of a tendency to warp.
Brazilwood bows can be very inexpensive, anywhere from $25 on up. There is a wide range of workmanship on Brazilwood bows.
Another alternative to Pernambuco is the latest in synthetic materials, both carbon fiber and graphite fiber. These have been around since about the 1990’s, give or take, and they have been greatly improved upon with feed-back from musicians. These bows are very resistant to damage, and make great outdoor bows, or in areas where a wood bow could be damaged. I like these bows A LOT. The more you spend, the better the bow is going to be. They are very consistent from bow to bow (an advantage over wood….where 2 Pernambuco bows of the same price could sound as different as night and day). But again, they just aren’t as responsive as wood, and their tone is not as complex, but I like them better than Brazil wood, and they have some great advantages, namely their toughness.
Synthetic Bows cost anywhere from $200 to about $1,000, last time I checked.
A Little Trivia
Bows used to have ivory and whale bone on them, but as awareness grew about the killing of elephants for their ivory, and when whales were found to be endangered, bow makers quickly found that bone can replace ivory, and metal wiring and other materials could replace the whale bone.
When shopping for bows, you will notice price differences for things like “fully lined nickel frog”, “half lined nickel frog” or “mother of pearl Parisian eye.”
In a nutshell, you want a fully lined frog and a Parisian eye. A Parisian Eye and a fully lined frog are a plus, not for function, but because bows that have the workmanship to include a Parisian Eye and a fully lined frog are generally better craftsmanship and are BETTER BALANCED and have the appropriate weight for a bow. Nickel is an A-ok material, but silver is better and much more expensive.
What About Horse Hair?
Don’t settle for synthetic hair PERIOD, unless you have an allergy to the horse hair. Synthetic hair is not a good substitute for real horse hair because it doesn’t create the same friction on the strings, causing you to have to work harder to create the tone and volume you want.
Speaking of allergies, some people have allergies to ROSIN, which is made from tree sap. Supersensitive has come out with a non-allergenic, synthetic rosin. I have tried it out, and it is not at all as good as the real deal, but it sure helped one of my students who couldn’t play without sneezing until we switched him to this non-allergenic brand.