Wood vs Carbon Fiber Violin Bow: What’s the Best to Buy?
For centuries wood was the ONLY material available for making violin bows
Only in the last decades we discovered the possibilities of carbon fiber
Buying a bow is something very personal and just as important as buying a good violin
Your personal preference is very important. Some like a very jumpy and lively bow, because it’s more agile. Others like a ‘calmer’ bow that easily plays long even notes and doesn’t play you. Read my article about what to play when you’re selecting a bow for yourself. You might also like my other article with 19 (general!) checks to buy a violin bow.
There’s not ONE carbon bows feeling or sound vs ONE wooden bow feeling or sound
When reading the following keep in mind that wooden as well as carbon fiber bows are available in a variety of characters, feelings, makers, types and price classes. I’ll dive deeper into that below.
Now let’s dive into the differences between wood and carbon fiber, so you can find out what’s best to buy for you:
You might think violin bows are made of wood, because it was the best material
Nope! It was simply the ONLY available material for centuries
Mainly pernambuco wood was very popular, because it’s light, stiff and flexible.
Currently pernambuco is an endangered tree
Pernambuco is not allowed to be chopped down anymore! Wooden bows become lower and lower in quality and higher in price.
Besides the prices going up and up, there are some downsides to pernambuco and wood in general:
- Wood reacts to changes in temperature and humidity by expanding, contracting and/or warping
- Over time the shape of the bow can lose it’s camber, making lots of bowing techniques very hard to impossible
- Wooden bows are fragile and can break more easily than carbon fiber (for example a snap at the tip when it accidentally falls, which recently happened to the concert master of the orchestra I play in. Yup, in the dressing room right before a concert… ouch!)
- Decent resonance, but not as good as high density carbon fiber (more on that below)
The other wood used for bows is called ‘brazil’ which doesn’t mean much and can be any kind of wood used in cheaper bows. The price is lower, but the downsides of wood are even more applicable to this lower quality wood.
However since 1900 there’s an entirely different problem with wooden bows…
The REAL reason why wooden bows are becoming less and less popular
A short history of violin bows
The wooden bows that are still widely used today stem from a time when pure gut strings with NO windings were played. The first steel strings were made at the end of the 19th Century, when metal windings became available which allowed to play much more powerful. They became necessary because concerts were no longer played in the small halls of the nobility but in the new large public halls that were being built in the western world at the time. Steel strings became possible only with the technological advances at the end of the 19th Century high tensile steel wires became available.
These new strings were much heavier than gut strings and allowed a much stronger technique. While pure gut violin strings can stand a force of only 2 Newton (200 grams), metal wound strings can take about 3 Newton. But that was not what the Tourte bows were designed for.
When gut strings were replaced by metal winded strings around 1900, violinists had to make up all kinds of work arounds to perform the bowing techniques they want
Soft bows with hard strings… very difficult!
All through the 19th and 20th centuries great efforts were made to develop a stronger bow. Vuillaume developed a metal tube bow of wich his workshop made and sold several thousand pieces and was also the preferred bow of Nicolo Paganini. This and later metal bows proved to be too fragile because the walls were only paper-thin.
Luckily in the last decades there’ve been some very interesting developments in carbon fiber
We can make bows that are lighter, stiffer and better resonating than was ever possible with wood
A tube made from high-density carbon fiber could provide significant improvements over pernambuco.
Not ALL carbon fiber bows are better than wooden bows!
Some carbon bows are made for 25% out of carbon fiber. The other materials are mainly epoxy. That doesn’t resonate well and causes a dull sound lacking badly in overtones.
Good quality carbon fiber bows are made for around 60% of carbon fiber and offer much better resonance. They offer better quality bows for a lot less money than wooden bows. Think of brands like CodaBow, JonPaul and Müsing.
Only high-density carbon fiber bows, with 80% carbon fiber like Arcus bows, offer better sound and playability than pernambuco. They offer something extra and special above wooden bows.
Ideal weight of a violin bow
A violin bow with a clip in frog like those used until the early 19th Century weighs only about 40 grams. Its agility allows Bach and Mozart to be played with the appropriate delicacy. The heavy romantic Tourte bows ended up with a weight of about 60 grams. The ideal weight that allows a violinist to play the entire repertoire is half way between the two extremes, at around 50 grams.
We think a light bow is weak and wobbly. With wooden bows we are used to compromise between light and wobbly or stiff and heavy. With carbon fiber we can make bows that are light AND stiff, making it easy to perform all bowing techniques and all repertoire.
General characteristics of carbon fiber violin bows:
- Great value for money compared to wooden bows. Below $ 100 you can have a decent bow like this one and for around $ 1,000 you can get an all round performance bow, like this one. This is unthinkable with wooden bows.
- They won’t expand, contract, warp or break as easily as wooden bows. They are much stronger and less influenced by temperature and humidity.
- You don’t lack character or feeling. Carbon fiber bows come in just as much types and classes as wooden bows.
- Higher range carbon bows like Arcus offer a combination of resonance, weight and stiffness you can’t find in wooden bows. This makes jumping bowing techniques, arpeggio’s and fast string crossings much easier.
Yeah, Zlata, this theory all sounds nice, but I want to hear it before I believe it!
As a curious classically trained violinist I wanted to put all this to the test
I’ve tested and reviewed carbon fiber violin bows from $ 29 up to $ 8,000 and everything in between by the brands Fiddlerman, CodaBow, Müsing, JonPaul and Arcus. Yup, all the big makers and innovators! (and a random eBay bow)
I hired a cameraman and found the amazing concert violinist Giedrė Mundinaitė-Leenhouwers (who has an exquisite bowing technique and a great nose for good bows) available to demonstrate and discuss all of these bows.
The result is a beautiful e-book with tons of information, reviews and demonstration videos. It