The Great Ferrule Debate

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Note: This is an older article that exists only on my website.

As a self-employed bowmaker with years of experience, having rehaired untold thousands of bows and dealt with scores of demanding string musicians, I certainly could be referred to as a seasoned pro who has seen it all, but there is one topic which, when it rears its ugly head, still manages to make me grit my teeth in angst – the “Poofed Ferrule Controversy”. I’ve been confronted on numerous occasions by players and even dealers who insist that any freshly rehaired bow with the flat side of the ferrule anything less than perfectly flat has somehow been damaged and/or is the result of the efforts of a woefully inept craftsman. While I would be a fool to say that I haven’t seen horribly executed rehairs, where ferrules are entirely overstuffed with tangled masses of crossed hairs as well as an entire host of other atrocities, I must take a stand for my fellow dedicated craftsmen when I declare the concept of “puffed-up” ferrules to be mainly the result of the combination of a paucity of decent rehairs with an almost complete lack of knowledge on the part of musicians of how a bow is constructed and rehaired.

The ferrule is the metal piece, shaped as a half circle, that sits at the tip of the frog and serves to both strengthen the somewhat fragile wood in the tongue and keep the hair spread evenly in a fine ribbon. The baroque bow and many transitional bows had neither ferrule nor pearl slide – the hair emerged from the frog unprotected and ran down an open channel in a narrow bundle before emerging from the frog’s tongue on its journey to the tip of the bow. The hair was held in a rather narrow ribbon only by the walls of the channel in the frog. Modern music and the techniques needed to play it demanded a new bow with a concave camber and a frog with a ferrule and pearl slide behind it to better keep the hair in place when performing the new bow strokes.

The ferrule is made by soldering a half round sheet of silver to a flat sheet of silver, so that there are two invisible seams on either side. In a new bow, after the ferrule has been trimmed and cleaned up, the tongue of the frog, which is made of ebony, is then shaped to fit the ferrule. With a replacement frog for an older bow, the difficulty is increased because the ferrule must be made to fit the existing tongue. Silver comes in several different purities as well as many different thicknesses. Due to different factors, such as metal content and heating, the silver may be softer or harder. When making a modern bow, I can make sure to pick a stronger, thicker piece of silver for the flat portion of the ferrule because that part will not be backed up by the ebony of the tongue and is therefore more prone to bending when subjected to pressure. Older bows are a mixed bag and we can’t control how thin or thick or soft or hard their ferrules may be. Dominique Peccatte violin bows have ferrules seemingly as thin as paper.

How is that ribbon of hair actually held in place inside the ferrule? It stays in place thanks to a fitted a wooden wedge, so that the hair is spread wide into a ribbon which sits between the flat portion of the silver ferrule and the wedge. This wooden wedge is in turn held in place by the ebony of the tongue above it as well as the curved silver of the ferrule on top. This wedge is usually made of a slightly softer wood like willow so that the hair can press into it and stay in place as the musician uses the bow. This wedge must fit into the ferrule very precisely, because if it is too loose the ribbon of hair will bunch up in the center and the bow will not function correctly. Because of this concern, most bow makers use a single drop of glue to hold the wedge in place. However even this can fail if the wedge is subjected to very dry humidity and it shrinks.

We have the following factors: metal of various thickness and strength, a narrow slot for the hair to be held in an even ribbon necessitating a well-fit wooden wedge and finally the mass of hair itself. What happens when the hair is sandwiched between the wedge and the silver in such a manner that the hair remains in its proper position and doesn’t bunch up or push in even with steady strong pressure? Some of the hair gets pushed into the softer wood and is locked in place while some of the hair, backed by the wedge, pushes out, exerting pressure on the flat sheet of silver. The result is well executed rehair and a potentially “poofed” ferrule – depending on the thickness and hardness of the metal.

Would you rather have a flat ferrule and potentially failing rehair or a slightly pushed out ferrule and an excellent, reliable rehair? Add to that the fact that no bow loses or gains value due to an “original” or “replacement” ferrule and I believe my point is well made. The shape of the replacement ferrule as well as the thickness of the metal is determined by how the frog was made – it must conform to the ebony to fit properly. So a well-made replacement ferrule must by definition look like the original. This is why value is not affected – the same goes for replaced pearl eyes or slides. Can ferrules be damaged? Certainly – but the damage occurs slowly over time as the result of routine usage and maintenance. Sometimes the seams can come open, but these can usually be resoldered. Bows and violins are functional tools that have working parts which wear out and must be replaced or repaired as responsibly as possible until they are no longer functional – that’s just how it is.  Everything wears out with usage over time, moving from a condition of order to disorder.

PS – If any player believes that a bow with a less than flat ferrule plays poorly because of it, I’d love to hear from them!

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Refelections on Rehairing and Craftsmanship

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Last week I went off on one off my periodic rehair trips, this time to Cincinnati.   I do these working visits as a service to musicians who feel they may have difficulty accessing decent bow-work and as a kind of professional outreach which advertises the shop and what it represents.  I usually bring along some bows and instruments for sale as well.  These trips also give me the opportunity to have a beer or two with old colleagues, reconnect and compare notes.

There I was in a friend’s workshop with my little portable rehair “kit” doing about 15 rehairs a day, with no time to even stop for a bite of lunch, feeling somewhat overwhelmed and vulnerable.   I got to thinking about the fundamentals of rehairing, craftsmanship and the tenets of good business practice.  Those thoughts during those two insanely busy days are what have inspired this essay.

The main concept I want to emphasize is that rehairing is a service job.  It is not a fine art, although it certainly is a difficult craft.  There are certainly many ways of rehairing, but I for one don’t care which method is used, only that the result is good.  One must also realize that there is no single perfect rehair – customers have different expectations and preferences.  Because of this, it may take several rehairs before you and the customer can find the best result. Getting to know customers is important when doing rehairs.  Relationships take time as does building a successful bow business.  This is why doing a quick rehair trip in an area where you don’t know people can be perilous.

When I first started down the bow-work road, a more experienced professional in the field who worked only on violins expressed his fear of doing rehairs.  He said that one bad rehair or one failed plug could sink your reputation and ruin your career.   He regarded the whole thing as a high-wire act with little reward for the danger.   Often rehairs are done at shops by an anonymous, underpaid and often only partly trained employee, so the shop owner can blame any problems with a customer’s bow on someone else.  However, if you are a one man shop specializing in bow work, there is nowhere to hide and no one else to blame.

This is why changing bow hair is a service job, like a car mechanic.  The nature of the bow is that something will go wrong eventually.  It’s not a matter of if but when.  A person doing rehairs will see a customer and their bow three, maybe even four times a year.   The frequency of rehairs statistically increases the possibility that a wedge will fail, a knot will slip, a plug will pull out, the hair gets too tight/loose, or that some other small, yet important detail will just not meet the needs of the player.  It’s true that once the bow leaves the shop we have no control over how well the hair is rosined, whether the player over tightens or forgets to loosen the stick, if they play aggressively and break hairs, or if they keep their instrument and bow in overly dry or humid conditions.  However, it’s much smarter to take responsibility for one’s work than to place the blame on the player.

Some people take a long time to do rehairs, which is fine, but I do them quickly and have a high volume, which is necessary if one is to make any money at all doing this for a living.  When I first saw how Yung Chin was working when I visited him in the late 90’s, I knew I had found a way of rehairing and of doing business that suited me.  I offer clients same day rehairs at a price that is lower than most of the rest of the country.   I always tell new customers that a free lengthening or tightening of the hair is included (I build this into every rehair), that if they don’t like the hair I always have at least one alternative for them to try (at no additional charge), and that if they have any issues or concerns at all that they must feel free to contact me.  I’d rather have a customer return for a quick easy fix than feel stuck with something they don’t like.  In fact, most of my oldest customers are folks for whom I had to adjust or redo something.  Standing behind my work is very important to me and I’d rather spend 15 minutes redoing a rehair for free than lose a customer forever.  It’s amazing how many shops don’t get this.

One needs to develop a thick skin to specialize in bow work and rehairs.  It can be too easy to get carried away with your own importance or go the opposite route and take each and every issue that will inevitably come up personally.  Finding a good balance between self-worth and humility can be difficult when you work with your hands.  Some customers will come down on your for no apparent reason, or blow small issues out of proportion.  A musician’s bow is a highly personal item of so much importance, that some seemingly over-the-top reactions can be forgiven or at least better understood.   Many issues are the result of misunderstanding and/or lack of knowledge – here I work hard to educate and empower my clients.  I also want to say here that I have been on the receiving end of much thankfulness and generosity on behalf of my customers.  I have learned so much from them.  If you run your own business and work to build good relationships, you will weed out those who just will never get what you are doing, meet amazing people and advance your knowledge and happiness profoundly.

And please know that whatever you do, if your work in a service industry, you will run into problems. The trick is not to let problems take over by developing a way of running your business that quickly handles objections and complaints and realize that no matter how serious you are about doing the best work you can do, not everyone is going to like it.