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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Warped, Bent, and Twisted

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Recently a spate of customers have been tightening up my bows, holding the frog end up to their eyes and squinting skeptically down their lengths.  A couple bow shoppers have even told me they really liked the bows they were trying, but were “concerned about warping”.  Is it a mini-epidemic, the vector being a teacher, an old wives tale or maybe some other shop filling their heads with semi-truths in order to get them to buy something else?  It’s hard to say, but the truth is that questions of straightness and twist are serious and can sometimes cause performance problems in bows.  However, not all issues of warping need to be addressed, because the bow plays just fine as is.  So how does one tell if they have a real concern or not?

Bows begin life as square tapered sticks that are planed by hand so that the shaft is as straight as possible.  Next, the corners of the square are knocked down and an octagon is formed.  The bowmaker can sight down each facet of the octagon to check if the bow is bent or twisted.  The bow is still oversized, so that after it is heated over an open flame or other heat source and bent into its proper camber, the maker can plane out any deformities created in the process.  If the stick is still too heavy or too stiff, the octagon is then rounded from the handle on.  The end goal is a strong yet flexible bow that is sprung into a powerful curve, yet is straight and not twisted.

However, I see bows that never started out life perfectly straight, where the facets of the octagon undulate like waves down the length of the stick while others have distinct kinks in them and many that are simply gently curved to one side or the other.  If the bow was made crooked, meaning the defect is actually carved into the wood, it will be impossible to ever straighten it completely.  However, it still may play beautifully!

Wood reacts to repeated usage as well as its surrounding climate.  Over time many bows end up with a gentle curve into the string due to the way they are used.  Violin and viola bows are generally pushed away from the player as and can develop a mild right hand bend, whereas cello bows are pulled towards the player and move to the left.  Many rehairers also put more hair and slightly greater hair tension on the playing side of bows for better performance.   Some bows are therefor completely straight with no hair tension, but have tips that move towards their playing sides when tightened.   Humidity and dryness play an important role as well.  With greater dampness in the air the bow tends to droop and the hair gets loose.  In drier climates, the bow curves upwards and the hair can get too tight.  Bows can also lose straightness or become twisted in such situations.

 

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Violin bow bent into the string.   Not necessarily a problem.

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Violin bow bent away from the string.   Potential problem.

Twist is when the bow is out of alignment with itself.  The bottom of the frog and the bottom facet of the stick need to be on the same plane as the bottom surface of the tip.  If you put a bow on a flat surface, so that the bottom of the frog is touching, take a look at how the tip is touching.  Is is flat, in full contact with the surface or is only a corner touching?   Bows can twist into or away from the string.  Over time it is more natural for the head to twist slightly into the playing side.  Another way to check for twist is to hold the handle of the bow so you can look down at the top of the stick above the frog.  Center the wood of the stick on the black ebony of the frog then look up at the tip without moving your hands.  You will see if the head is twisted on way or the other.

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Checking for twist, step one.

 

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Looking up at the tip, checking for twist part two. Tip twisted to the right or into the string.

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A bow with no twist.

When trying a bow for sale, the first and most important thing to do is check is the bow’s playability and tone-compatibility with you and your instrument.  I’ve outlined in previous essays how to test for a bow’s ability to perform a smooth draw from tip to frog as well as its ability to jump up off the string and return.  Also a consideration of weight, balance and condition (hidden damage, cracks etc) must be undertaken –  covered in other essays on this blog as well.   If you note a playing issue and you’ve eliminated other considerations, then take a look down the stick to check for warping.   If you detect no performance issues in the bow and really like it, don’t fixate on whether the shaft is perfectly straight.  Don’t fix what isn’t broken.  If you do detect a playing issue you suspect is due to a bend or kink, realize that a competent bow person can straighten your bow for you with relative ease – ask to have the issue fixed and try it again before you reject the bow completely.  Pernambuco was chosen as the best wood for making bows not only due to its tonal quality and strength, but because it is easy to heat the wood, bend it and have it remain quite stable over time.

My bottom line:  A crooked bow is not always a problem and is certainly not the end of the world!