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From Horse To Bow

by Mary VanClay

Though questions about the origins of “cat-gut” rarely come up in these days of synthetic strings, it is not uncommon for a customer to wonder about the history of the “horsehair” used for bows: Is it really hair? Does it really come from horses, and if so, what kind? What color should it be? And can anything definitive be said about its so-called “grab” or “bite”?

The answers to the first few questions are fairly simple. Though there is such a thing as “synthetic” hair on the market (we don’t recommend it, by the way), most bows are strung with actual hair from horses’ tails. Bow rehairers can choose from Siberian, Mongolian, Manchurian, Polish, and more recently, Argentinian horsehair; according to Joan Balter, a bow maker and repairer in Berkeley, California, stallion hair from Siberia is generally considered the best.

For various reasons, the kind of horsehair used makes a difference in the quality of the final product. Horsehair from animals in northern climates tends to be stronger, which Balter explains is nature’s response to coping with more frigid temperatures. The gender of the horse is also important; stallion hair is preferred because it is generally cleaner than that of mares, which tends to get hit with more urine spray.

Other factors that affect quality are consistency and color. Both players and bow makers value straight hair. “Hairs with irregular structures will cause weird, scratchy sounds,” says Balter. “It’s like hitting a pothole in your car.” Many bow rehairers prefer a white hair, particularly for violins and violas, because hair of this color is usually finer in texture. (There is, however, some disagreement about the extent to which color correlates with textural differences that affect sound.) Many bass and some cello players use the coarser black hair, which some say is “grabbier,” while others opt for a salt and pepper combination.

Horsehair is collected and processed in specific ways. Although some Chinese hair is cut from live animals, most hanks of horsehair are slaughterhouse byproducts, gathered from animals that have been killed for their meat, hide, and hooves. The hair is first cleaned with a mild soap or very mild detergent, then “dressed” for use in numerous products (which include baskets and brushes, to name a few items; bow hair comprises a relatively minor part of the horsehair industry as a whole). “Dressing” the hair involves gathering it up to make sure all of the hairs are approximately the same length; those that are too long or short are picked out, and the ends are evened up. At the same time, dressers check the hairs for straightness, strength, and consistency. Much of what constitutes high-quality hair depends on how it is dealt with at this stage. Hairs that are too short won’t fit into a standard bow, hairs with split ends will snap, and irregularities in the hair shaft can affect sound, so dressers must be selective.

Despite the fact that horsehair has generally been dressed once or twice before it comes into a bow maker’s shop, many makers and repairers like to do a third round themselves, depending on exactly what they’re looking for. According to Steven Beckley, a bow maker and supplier of luthiers’ products in Los Altos, California, “It’s a very individual thing, whether a rehairer does another round of dressing. It goes anywhere from people cutting a hank of hair off a bundle and putting it in your bow, to people redressing by about 30 percent.”

At the stage when bow makers start working with their clients, an entirely new set of considerations comes into play. “We start to talk about ‘bite’,” says Beckley. “This is a wonderfully subjective thing that’s tough to quantify. I think people’s perceptions of horsehair come from some drawings from the turn of the century, which have little arms and fingers coming out of horsehairs, grabbing onto your strings. When you actually see photos of magnified hair, there aren’t barbs at all. I think bite comes from the hair’s ability to hold rosin.

“After a rehair, one person will call me and say, ‘This is great hair, it has wonderful bite,’ while another will ask, ‘What do you have that’s better? This stuff is just too slick.’ Along with the individual interpretation of what’s going on, how people treat the hair is important. If it has too much oil, I don’t think it’s going to accept rosin well. If it doesn’t have any oil, it’s going to be like dry, damaged hair. So some of the myths about rehairing come from the fact that one player is wiping down hair and putting on rosin in a way that it holds, and another isn’t.”

Joan Balter says that there are a few things that players, especially beginners, should understand about bow hair. “Often students wait too long to get a rehair,” she says. “When you break a lot of hairs on the playing side, you should get the bow rehaired or it will warp, because all of the pressure is on one side and it pulls the bow around. That can cause permanent damage.” Balter also stresses that dirt and oil are rosin’s worst enemies, so to make a bow rehair last, players should keep the hair clean and refrain from touching it with dirty hands.

Lynn Hannings, a Maine-based bow maker, believes that the amount of hair really needed in a bow can be deceptive. “Players think that the more hair you have in there, the better. But the best possible sound comes from the smallest amounts of hair. Other-wise, you’re deadening the sound with layers and layers of hair.” Hanning emphasizes that for the student and professional alike, regular rehairs are an especially good idea for players living in a harsh climate. “The length of bow hair I would use for winter is much different than a rehair I do for summer. For winter I size it long, giving it the opportunity to shrink without doing damage to the stick. In spring I do the opposite, sizing on the short size, because I know that it’s going to be hot and muggy before too long, which will stretch the hair out.”

For further questions about caring for bow hair, contact your regular repairer.

Adapted from article in ©Strings Magazine. January/February 1995.

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