Weight and balance are crucial elements to the proper functioning of a bow for musicians, while for many dealers the most important factor in sales is the overall weight and the name stamped the stick. It is not unusual for lead to be added to bows, sometimes secretly to help sell it, other times on purpose to help it play better.
If you are a player, you want a stick that is neither so light that you can’t pull a sound out of your instrument, nor a bow that is so heavy it fatigues the hand and crushes the stings. In addition to good overall weight, you need a bow that is correctly balanced, so that bow isn’t too light or heavy at the tip (or overly light/heavy at the frog). A bow that is too tip-light and frog heavy will feel like it wants to fly away and loose contact at the end of the stick, forcing you to take corrective measures technically in order to keep the bow functioning effectively. A bow that is tip-heavy and frog-light may feel like it is easier to control, and in fact many younger players prefer a stick that is balanced toward the head, but it can cause pain in the hand and be reluctant to jump off the string.
The grip and wrap serve not only to protect the wood and provide a comfortable place to rest the thumb, but work as a counterweight to the tip. Different lengths of various materials provide differing mounts of weight to keep the bow balanced. However, some bows will never fall into the commonly accepted weight and balance ranges. If a bow is already light and tip light, there is very little one can do, because it is difficult to add significant amounts of weight to the tip. If a bow is very heavy and tip heavy, you can add more weight to the wrap, but the overall weight will end up too high to be practical. However, remember that there are plenty of bows that defy the norm and just work wonderfully despite the numbers.
Many dealers seem to have an obsession with overall weight – not enough of them understand the relation of weight and balance. If they have a violin bow, it must be 60 grams, for example. This attitude may lead some dealers to add hidden weight to bows in their inventory, like the lead in the bottom of the mortise in the picture above. The other consequence may be that they try to sell bows that are simply not functional.
The addition of a lead plug or lead inside a mortise is acceptable if it is disclosed and the price is adjusted accordingly downwards. The use of lead can also be a legitimate tool of a craftsman who works on bows. I use lead to help players who may have bows that are improperly weighted and balanced. The problem is when lead is hidden away inside the head or frog and the player doesn’t know.
I do many rehairs, and when I find hidden lead on a bow, I always inform the owner. It’s unfortunate that so many had no idea the lead was there.
Players – Ask if there is any lead in the stick or ask your rehair person to look in the frog and tip mortises. Always ask for the weight and balance point when considering a bow for purchase. A bow that needs lead to achieve proper weight and balance may still be a great stick, but it must be cheaper.
Dealers and Shop Owners – Realize that weight and balance go hand in hand. Don’t just buy a bow because of the name branded on it and add weight any way you can until it’s close to 60 grams. Reject bows that are light and tip light or heavy and frog heavy. If you want to sell a bow with lead in it, disclose it to the customer and price it lower.
Both – Some bows play fantastically “as is” despite the fact that they may be too light or heavy, or out of balance by traditional standards. Keep an open mind and don’t fix what isn’t broken.