All stringed instrument players know the importance of a good bow. But how do carbon fiber bows stand up to Pernambuco, Brazilwood, fiberglass and composites?
The history of fine violins, violin making – and violas and cellos for that matter – is rich with craftsmanship applied to all-natural materials, varying types of wood, horsehair and natural varnish to be specific. So it may seem almost heretical to talk about manmade materials such as carbon fiber for use in fine music.
Chalk it up to human ingenuity that, sometimes, what is manufactured from minerals and other resources can serve an artistic purpose. This is not to say that carbon fiber bows are perfect substitutes for wood bows – they are not – but for several reasons the manmade material is embraced by serious musicians, either as their primary bow or as a backup for certain kinds of playing.
Ask around at your preferred violin shop – they may well have clientele who use wood and carbon fiber, depending on the occasion. Even the most traditional violin maker will stock these carbon fiber bows in their shops.
Here are the advantages carbon fiber bows have over their wood (Pernambuco, Brazilwood) and other synthetic material (fiberglass or composites) counterparts:
Sound – Serious musicians almost universally prefer the Pernambuco bow for a richer and more nuanced timbre or resonance. But some will keep a carbon fiber bow for outdoor playing, or for playing within a large orchestra; they save their wood bow for chamber music where the violin, cello or viola voice is more pronounced.
Sturdy yet lightweight – As a manmade material also used in sports (e.g., carbon fiber tennis racquets), it should be obvious that carbon fiber bows can stand up to rigorous handling (e.g., travel). They are also considered strong at the tip and some prefer it altogether for playing.
Resilient to humidity and humidity changes – Organic materials such as wood will expand and contract, depending on the relative humidity of where it is. This is a problem for musicians who might travel from arid Los Angeles to perform in humid Washington, DC, or from climate-controlled rehearsals to outdoor events on sultry summer nights. A wood bow would expand with humidity, requiring adjustment of string tension – but a carbon fiber bow would be unchanged.
Reasonable cost – Expect to pay about $300 for a carbon fiber bow, give or take. The price is largely stable because it doesn’t depend on rare wood availability.
Sustainable – Both Pernambuco and Brazilwood come from Brazil, but deforestation there has severely cut the supply of the former and had the effect of driving the price up. Brazilwood is a term for a range of woods and as such they are in greater supply. Purchasing a carbon fiber bow could be considered an act of preservation of the Pernambuco tree (note: the Brazilian government is working to save the species).
Not to be confused with fiberglass and composites – These are the lowest cost types of bows, encouraged for beginner students or more casual players.
Factors affecting the choice and preference for a bow type include the instrument itself and the musician. Darkness and lightness of sound, speed of play, weight and balance all factor in. The best advice is to try both wood and carbon fiber bows to get a sense of the differences and similarities.