Violin/Cleaning Bow Hair

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Question
Hi, David!

My question is:  How, and what's the best technique/solution for cleaning violin bow hairs.  I've seen a couple of videos on youtube.  Some use mild soap, and some use rubbing alcohol.  I've seem videos disputing each others techniques/solutions.  WHAT WOULD BE THE BEST, AND SAFEST WAY TO CLEAN BOW HORSE HAIR AND HOW OFTEN?  IF SOAP, OR ALCOHOL, WHAT KIND/BRAND? GIVE ME THE RUNDOWN.

Thanks,

Eddie Hodges
Philadelphia, PA  USA

Answer
Hi Eddie

The safest way is not to wash the hair. I'm not a big fan of cleaning bow hair, often, by the time it needs cleaning, the hair is in need of replacing. As hair ages (off the horse) it dries out and gets brittle, this is evident in bows that have been sitting for some time.

Alcohol will further dry out the hair and great care must be taken not to get it on the stick. Although most decent bows have no varnish, they can be French polished or just waxed, the alcohol can harm that finish. This is really only accomplished by removing the frog from the stick and allowing it to dangle. This can cause another issue of getting the hair tangled which can take some serious time and rack your brain trying to straighten out. If you do wash the hair, you also have to be careful not to get the wooden plugs in either end wet, or the plug will fail.  Trying to use a mild soap can lead to soap residue left on the hair making it very difficult to get the rosin to stick.

With either method you are wetting the hair which can cause the hair to shrink or stretch depending on the time of the year. Sometimes the hair can change unevenly, some stretching while others shrink - usually a problem with cheap hair. When the bow is initially haired, the hair is wet and let to dry naturally before the length is finalized.  If it changes too far in either direction, the hair could be so tight that it won't fit back on the stick, if too loose, it may not be able to be tightened. To me the only possible solution is to just use a comb and run it through the hair.  If there is some caked on grime, this may sometimes be removed by pinching and rolling the hairs between your clean fingers.

If you wash your hands before playing, the hair should not get too dirty by the time it is in need of fresh hair. If you play a lot and haven't broken too many hairs, then it may just need to be rehaired because of loss of playing qualities. The sound will get an airy-whispery quality to it when old and will be hard to rosin. If a lot of hairs have broken, even if the hair is relatively new, the loss in hair could result in the tension being pulled more to one side than straight.  This can cause warping to the stick and seriously effect the way the bow performs.

So in the end, it is possible to do more damage than good not saving any money or time and possibly doing some real monetary damage to the stick. The only way I can ever recommend this is to someone that is very far from a violin shop making it a true hardship. Obviously the finding of a good local violin shop is not the issue for you since you live in Philadelphia. Depending on how much you play, a rehair should be performed no longer than about every 2 years and I have had a number of clients where I installed new hair every 2-3 months.

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David Lashof

Expertise

I can answer questions on violin, viola, cello and bass making, repair and maintenance as well as supply general violin value ranges and information on instrument makers’ assuming the instrument's as labeled. I don't give values for modern makers as many of these modern makers are yet unknown to me. I can only give you feedback based on what information you give me, and no authority on the instrument can know every maker's work that ever lived. I have access to many books on makers and auction prices on over 25,000 makers, as well as having 36 years of experience with selling and appraising violins. Without having the instrument in hand, any estimate over the internet is just a guess as the label inside an instrument is more often wrong than right, so just having that information is not very useful. Pictures can sometimes be helpful but only so much, as the "feel" of the instrument along with small clues in workmanship and varnish cannot be seen in pictures. Any pictures should be high quality close-ups of the top and back. Additional photos of the front and treble side of the neck are also useful. It is always best to have an instrument seen in person at a violin shop that does appraisals. I can also provide advice on bows, rosin, strings and other string instrument accessories. As I am now retired, I have no bias towards selling anything; I only wish to share my knowledge and experience by providing information for those that may be getting confused by misinformation, misdirection or conflicting statements. (While I have seen many thousands of instruments and have performed numerous appraisals; if I have not evaluated an instrument in person, any information I set forth in an opinion is just that, an opinion based solely on what you have provided. Thusly, no financial decision should be based on that opinion, but rather, further investigation should be performed by having the instrument examined in person.)

Experience

I am a retired violin maker and repairman with 35 years experience having worked in Chicago and Maryland at 5 different violin shops and music stores including the first violin repairman at William Harris Lee in Chicago, the head repairman at Weavers Violins in Maryland, and in my own shop of 25 years. I have made 160 instruments and have restored countless professional level and student grade instruments. I am an accomplished violinist having performed with semi-professional as well as amateur groups although I haven't played for years and mostly stay away from questions about playing. I have taught violin making and restoration to about 20 students; three of which have gone on professionally and now have their own shops. I know violins from playing, selling, repairing, making and teaching.

Organizations
Violin Society of America (VSA). American String Teachers Association (ASTA)

Education/Credentials
I graduated from the prestigious 4 year Chicago School of Violin Making in 1981 under Master Violin Maker Tschu Ho Lee. I also studied with violin maker Willis M. Gault in Washington DC from 1973-75, who was the former owner of the oldest known example of an instrument from the modern violin family, an Andreas Amati Viola.

Awards and Honors
2008 Chester Petranek Award for service to the music community. ASTA award for service. Top All Expert in Violin for 2014 and 2015.

Past/Present Clients
I have worked with many professional musicians from DC area Symphonies as well as players from all over the US. Here are just a few, Leonard Slatkin - Former conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. Doris Gazda - Nationally renowned string specialist and composer. Bernard Greenhouse, Tanya Anisimova - Internationally renowned Solo Cellists. Jody Gatwood, Mark Pfannschmidt, Lori Barnet, Doug Dubé, Judy Silverman - National Philharmonic Orchestra. Robert Blatt, David Hardy, Glen Garlick - National Symphony Orchestra. Eddie Stubbs, Brendan Mulvahill, Nate Leath - Professional Fiddle Players. David Basche, Pat Braunlich, John Knudson, Romano Solano, Ed Ferris, Fred Lieder - freelance musicians.

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