With all the problems surrounding the use of ivory or mammoth for headplates, one obvious solution is installing a silver tip. A metal tip is obviously not ivory and has historical precedent – Hill bows come to mind as well as the work of a number of French makers.
An article entitled “What’s the Alternative” from the October Strad Magazine Accessories 2014 Supplement does a good job reviewing all the alternative tip materials, but it also it shows the wide range of opinion and concerns of makers and restorers. Of course, getting people in my field to agree on anything is like herding cats. (Btw I’m mentioned briefly in the article. The fame is going to my head).
There are numerous alternative materials available to modern makers and repairmen that will work just fine – meaning that they will protect the tip of the bow, help reenforce the head around the mortise, provide proper balance, and make it across borders safely. It makes sense that people on my end of the violin business tend to think more of numbers and technicalities than the more common sense issues of function that players must consider.
It is true that it is much more difficult to get silver to adhere well to wood, but the fact is that it is not impossible. Yes, Hill bows traditionally used pins to keep silver headplates secure, but that is a practice that no self-respecting bow maker or restorer would do today because of the danger of cracks. I simply use super glue and use what I call “faux pins”. These pins go through the silver and into the ebony layer underneath, but don’t touch the wood of the head. I find that this really helps the silver tip to stay securely fastened to the head of the bow. There are also a wide range of glue types and epoxies available to the makers and restorers of today.
The next objection is the of weight change and the effect of a silver tip on the balance of the bow. It is absolutely true that silver is heavier than ivory, but has anyone actually measured the weight and balance point differences? Well, I have. For example, a silver tip, 0.6 mm thick, 23mm long and 10mm at its widest, with the mortise cut out, weighed 0.7grams, while an ivory tip of the same dimensions weighed 0.4 grams. How much did 0.3 grams move the balance point? It moved 1.5 millimeters or about 1/16 of an inch.
As an experiment I took a bow that weighed 60 grams and had a balance point of 9.5 inches as measured to the end of the wood at the button and had several highly accomplished professional violinists play it. Next, I stuck a 0.3 gram piece of lead tape to the head of the bow and had them play it again. The universal comment was that the 1.5mm movement of the balance point had a nearly unnoticeable effect on the playability of the bow.
The truth is that is you really wanted to be a perfectionist or you have a super-sensitive player when adding a silver headplate, you could easily add 0.3 grams to the grip and wrap to balance out the stick (Elizabeth points out in her comment that this is not quite right. MORE weight needs to be added at the end of the stick to properly balance out the bow – ES). I have also found that very thin silver eliminated any measurable differences in weight with the ivory tips. However, a silver tip may not be the best choice for a bow that is significantly balanced towards the head and already quite heavy.
Another argument I ran into when discussing this issue with colleagues at the last VSA convention was that installing a thinner headplate would reduce the overall height of the head and therefore have noticeable (and possible negative) effects on the bow’s playability. It is important to understand that most older bows do not have their original tips and therefore it is very difficult to determine how thick an original tip would have been on any given stick. Replacement ivory headplates appear in many different thicknesses – some paper-thin, others oddly thick. However, we’re talking about a height difference of a fraction of a millimeter.
Does overall head height have a role in the playing characteristics of a bow? Without a doubt. How does the difference of less than a millimeter in height effect those characteristics? I don’t have any evidence yet, but my educated guess is that it is negligible.
So go ahead musicians – get a silver headplate. Bow makers and back-room bow folks, have no fear, it’ll be just fine.