The Art of Re-cambering a Bow

This article is intended to present an introduction to the process of re-cambering (sometimes referred to as re-curving or re-springing) of bows of stringed instruments. It refers to the restructuring of the curve which all bows have, and has a direct impact on the tonal and technical possibilities of the bow.

Unfortunately for the player, a limited understanding of the true function of the curve has forced us to make do with having to play bows, which all too often fall short of their potential. Rightly balanced, the bow is a tool, which one uses not only to draw sound, but also to express and articulate the music. It is important that we consider how to bring our bow to optimum playing condition, and if there is any aspect of adjustment most worthy of consideration it is certainly the question of camber. In fact, the more beautiful the bow, the more it’s potential when perfectly cambered.

Naturally, there are many factors which decide the quality of the bow, the most important being the choice of wood and the makers art and skill in fashioning the stick. Every maker will have their own preferred dimensions/proportions, and style of camber.

Yet when we talk of older bows, it is a different story. We will rarely see a bow of more than fifty years old with the maker’s original curve.

Given that the average bow is played by an orchestral musician for many hundreds of hours in one lifetime, always under tension whilst being played, and under occasional extremes of temperature, it would be asking a miracle to expect to find an early French bow with its original camber. Such bows do exist as the rarest of collector’s items and their uniqueness and value usually ensures that they will seldom be played.

Thus remains the question of what happened to all our bows and their camber over time. The answer of course is that they have been mostly re-cambered (though not always), unfortunately in some cases, far from satisfactorily.

Although there’s no excuse for a poor choice of wood, lack in either the bowmaker’s skill or the player’s technique, a badly re-cambered bow can be an unnecessary handicap.

By winding the button clockwise, the frog moves further away from the head and stretches the hair, whilst exactly the same degree of tension passes through the stick, causing it to straighten out somewhat.

Of course, although the most basic function of the stick is to provide a pull on the ribbon of hair, (which in turn will pull on the strings), it must be realised that the same degree of tension will also pass through the stick itself.

It is the way in which this tension passes through the stick, which determines most of the technical and tonal qualities of a bow.

Although choice of wood and dimensions used are other important factors, as we examine the question of camber more closely, we can discover that there are some basic principles at work here. We can, through combination of theory and practice, realise that the tension on the stick will pass more quickly through a relatively straight area and tend to fall on any area which contains a greater amount of curve.

The effect of the former will be to make the stick less responsive, and of the latter, to make the stick more alive. When we work with this basic formula, we can then begin to address such questions as homogeneity and tone.

Unfortunately it is very often the most beautiful, rare and valuable of early French bows which can be found in an unbalanced state of playability. Yet these are the bows which have the highest tonal and technical possibilities. Suck a stick, fashioned from a more flexible piece of pernambuco* will tend to produce a warm, rich sound with an abundance of overtones.

When harmoniously cambered, all the wonderful qualities of bow will become available for the player to experience.

An imbalanced camber may produce any of the following effects in a bow:

  • Instability or nervousness in one or more areas of the bow.
  • Difficulty in making spiccato with ease.
  • A sense of ‘jumpiness’ which the player will often be working to control.
  • The bow is too slow of fast in response to pressure.
  • A lack of articulation (or ‘bite’), either throughout the bow, or in a specific area.
  • A sense of disjointedness, as if the bow is subtly split into different segments.
  • A tone which is ‘held down’ or over-focused.
  • A sound which is lacking in a more colourful, free open and projective quality.
  • A sound which lacks focus or definition.
  • A sense of ‘laziness’, either generally or in a specific area of a bow.
  • A sense of stiffness in one area of the bow.
  • The bow does not cling or grip the strings as well as it could.

When we come to discussing the qualities of a bow we are dealing with very subjective questions, and this is precisely what can make things so difficult. In the normal course of stringed instrument study it is very understandable for the player to say ‘it’s me’, when referring to problems of a right-handed nature, and omit to address at least periodically, any possible shortcomings of their bow. Very often these can be dealt with through the process of re-cambering.

When the proper adjustment of the camber is overlooked it is always the player who suffers, often trying to make up for the shortcomings in his or her bow by making unnecessary changes in their bowing technique. Such changes may help them to work with a badly adjusted bow, but later when a finer tool comes their way these may prove to be parasitical elements in their technique which will have to consciously be dropped.

In re-cambering an old bow there is an element of risk involved. A certain degree of heat must be introduced to the wood to effect a relatively small re-arrangement of fibers, and this must be done under strictly controlled conditions. In some cases rather many questions may have to be answered before one begins, to ensure the greatest safety and produce the desired result.

Re-cambering Baroque and classical bows

The question of re-cambering earlier bows becomes more complex, simply because the concept of the shape of the curve is different from the Tourte model. The diversity of design in the baroque and classical periods might cause us to overlook importance of the question of camber, but this would be to the detriment of the musician and the music. Every design will have its own unique characteristics for musical interpretation, and the curve should be regulated to serve the musical ideal for which the bow is intended, as well the more personal needs of the player.

The type of curve needed for an early Monteverdi bow is not so obvious since we have only artist’s representations to go on. All the bows portrayed are under tension, and it is only when this tension is relaxed that we are able to see the actual amount of camber held in the stick. It is for this reason that many bowmakers and musicians have assumed that there was no camber in such a bow, since we do not have even one original bow in its relaxed state to examine. I believe that the optimal curve to be that which facilitates the expression of the music in all its stylistic details.

Although we have numerous examples of later baroque and transitional bows which are still with us, it would be far from reasonable for us to assure that the curve if each has retained its original shape. Therefore we must try to understand and be sympathetic to the composer’s intentions as well as the needs of the player. Bow makers certainly have a lot to learn from musicians who have a deeper understanding of the musical idiom at play, and the curve is a very powerful means of influencing the playability of a stick. It is through this collaboration between player and bowmaker that we can re-create bows which are not only historically correct in a visual sense, but are also ideal tools for musical expression.

The subject of re-cambering has been surprisingly neglected, considering its effect on both the technical and tonal possibilities of a bow. It is a subtle and complex matter, calling for the kind of experience and insight which a bowmaker/restorer obtains through extensive study, experimentation, and contact with the musician. From the humblest to the most sophisticated of bows, it a matter worthy of any player’s consideration.

*the wood from which most bows since Francios Tourte are made.

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