Choosing a good violin bow is essential but can be very confusing as well. Before you step into a violin shop or hit the buy button, there are a few factors you should consider first.
Types of Materials:
The three basic materials used in bow sticks are brazilwood, pernambuco, and carbon fiber.
Brazilwood is a generic name given to several kinds of tropical hardwoods used for inexpensive bows. It comes from Brazil as well as other tropical countries. Brazilwood violin bows are suitable for beginning or possibly early intermediate players.
Pernambuco is the best wood for violin bows. It is both lightweight and strong, allowing for the wide rang of motions necessary to play the violin. It is from the Caesalpinia echinata tree in Brazil.
Due to environmental degradation, pernambuco is now scarce, and as a result, the government of Brazil has put severe restrictions on the export of this wood, making it rare and expensive.
Carbon fiber is a material that has gained popularity in the past decade for use in violin family bows. These bows are typically sturdier than wood bows, and react very little to changes in temperature or humidity.
Many people swear by these bows and higher quality models have been said to be comparable to pernambuco bows. Carbon fibre has the added benefit of not warping like organic materials. Carbon fiber is also durable, and at its price range represents a good value.
The esteemed American bow maker Morgan Andersen tells us that a suppler bow will have a smoother, fuller sound. However, if the stick is too soft, the sound can lack clarity and definition. A stiffer, stronger bow will give a brighter, more focused sound. Sometimes, an overly stiff bow can produce a rough, edgy sound.
The average weight of a violin bow is about 60 grams (a viola bow is 70 grams; a cello bow, 80 grams).
Make sure that any bow you buy is not warped, as this can negatively affect the balance. You can check for this by holding the bow in front of one eye and looking down the stick from frog to tip.
Round or Octagonal?
The great French master makers rarely made octagonal bows. Even today, most top makers produce predominantly round bows. With two bows made from the same wood, the octagonal shaft will be stiffer. Some octagonal bows are quite stiff, creating a hard, one-dimensional tone, lacking nuance. Some of the German commercial-bow producers make a round and octagonal version of the same bow, the octagonal being a bit more expensive. I think this has added to the myth that octagonal bows are better.
Round bows are less stiff than octagonal bows, allowing for greater control. However, this is all dependent on the player; some people prefer the stiffness of octagonal bows.