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The word bow comes from the archer's bow. It's intial shape was like a small curved bow. Originally the bows were made in a luthier's workshop and it wasn't until the mid 18th century did it become a recognised craft in its own right. That is why today it is impossible to know the name of the famous bowmakers of the 18th century and all of those of the 17th century, who remain practically unknown. There exists, nevertheless, a classification of these ancient bows by trend and period. The majority of the modern bows are classified by the famous violinists who played them.
From the middle of the 18th century bowmaking became a craft in its own right. The archetiers began to put their signatures onto their bows and little by little evolved the shape of the bow to give it an appearance very close to that of the modern day bow. And so the tension in the rod was increased, making it necessary to increase the thickness of the hair all the more so since the new mechanical screw system was introduced, allowing more settings as well.
Thus all was in place for the French archetier Tourte to launch his revolutionary ideas, during his training to become a bowmaker in 1774. It was in the last part of the 18th century, in Paris that the bow was developed to resemble the modern bows we use today.
François-Xavier Tourte (1747-1835) was originally a watch and clock maker by profession. He is known as the Stradivarius of the bow because like this well known luthier, he vowed to dedicate his life to finding the perfect bow, by experimenting with its shape and trying different materials. From 1782, he had established the following principles :
- The use of pernamboc wood, from Brazil. After numerous tries he noted that its relation between the rigidity and weight surpassed that of other materials. As a result he could make very hard rods, which weighed very little.
- The crafting of straight rods, which were curved by heating it over an alcohol flame : made possible the continuity of the wood fibre and optimised the rigidity and weight. At the same time, the risk of breaking the rod was some what decreased.
- Designing the ideal line of the rod induced a better sound and made the bow easier to play : a concave shape, thinner from the base to the end of the rod. To optimize the balance, he used pieces of metal instead of ivory or bone, therefore reinforcing the bows weak areas.
- Finally optimising the hair and its attachment to the rod : he invented a 'spreader block' within the frog structure that fixes the hair in a flat ribbon, which thereby prevented it from tangling.
The hair used in a bow is taken from a horse tail of a stallion (the hair from a mare is damaged by urine), white hair is used more often (black is used for double bass bows).
Just until today the bows have not evolved a lot. It is to be noted that the recent development of new materials like carbon fibre has brought a certain revival to the profession: carbon fibre is very light and very stiff…