I’m entering the final stages of bow no. 3, I have the graduations dialed in nicely and have to make a decision as to keep it octagonal or round it out.
The length of the violin bow can take on many shapes: Round/Oval, Octagonal, Half-Round/Half-Octagonal, Triangular-ish. The two most popular being round and octagonal. At the shop when I’m showing bows, a lot of people ask me the difference between the two and want to know which is better. This is a complex issue and requires a complex response.
I’ve heard such things from players that “octagonal bows are better”, this is a gross generalization just as “violins with one-piece backs are better”, “all French violins sound nasal”, and “over the tailpiece mounted chin-rests sound better”. If all of these were true, wouldn’t all bows be made octagonal, and all violins would be made with one-piece backs, no one would buy French violins, and if anyone could listen to a recording and tell me which chin-rest or end-pin the musician is using I’d give them $1,000.
All finely made bows start off octagonal. In most models, the butt-end of the stick will remain octagonal to which the frog is attached, no matter if the length of stick is round or octagonal. The facets and lines down the length of the stick allows the maker to orient the curve and graduations quite accurately with just the use of small hand planes. It usually is at the final stages in which the maker decides to make a bow round or octagonal. To make a stick round, the maker will plane the edges of the octagon to create 16 even facets and will go at the edges again to create 32 facets. They will then draw file and sand the stick round. This has been the preferred method for most antique french bows as this process can go extremely quick as well as hide some imperfections. This is great for the old Mirecourt makers/shops which pumped out thousands of bows a year. To finish a stick octagonal, each facet must carefully be gone over, the integrity and eveness of the octagon is kept the entire length of the stick. Each facet is sanded with sanding sticks keeping the edges of the octagon sharp. This adds a tremendous amount of time to the finish, but can be spectacular when it is executed well. This finish time was reflected into the price of many German bows in the early 1900’s. Catalogues would list octagonal bows of the same model level at higher price. Thus begins the myth that octagonal bows must be better because they cost more.
I’ve also heard that round bows have a round sound and octagonal bows have an edgy sound. I just find this humorous. Modern bow makers take a much different approach to making then those of the past. There are some fantastic makers that only take commissioned work, as in they make a bow on the request of a client. They will work with the player individually, have them play some fine bows, get a sense of what the player likes, what their instruments sounds like, and what the player wants out of the instrument from that new bow. They will then pick out a stick or two from their collection of fine and rare pernambuco that they feel they will be able to work down into a masterpiece that the client will find delight in. During the making process, curve will constantly get touched up, the graduations adjusted according to flex and deflection in the stick. The piece of wood demands as much from the maker as the maker demands from it. There are many calculated decisions that will be made in order for the bow to play a certain way. For example, to get two theoretical bows to play exactly the same, it is most likely that the two sticks will end up with different graduations and curve.
So I guess what I’m trying to get at, is that most makers care less about round or octagonal and are more focused on what will make the bow play, sound, and respond the best. In my experience, you make a bow round to show off the wood, or you make it octagonal to show off the work. Also, with my limited skills of playing, I do have to say that I have found that some octagonal bows possess more lateral stability but not always. However, to generalize and say that one shape is better or that one sounds or plays a certain way, negates all of the hard work and decision making that the maker put in to get a specific functioning design.
In the photo above, I’ve decided to make this bow octagonal, and am touching up and finishing the facets with a file plane. I’ve made this decision by how the bow feels and plays in its current states as well as with the aesthetics of this octagon. If I feel that it would sound, play, and look better round, I would have done so. If I feel that making a bow out of toilet paper and paste would make it sound and play better, you bet I would try to do so.
If you are shopping for a bow, I wouldn’t limit yourself, but try out as many different bows as you can and find the best fit for you and your instrument. New, old, German, French, British, American, you name it, as long as its pernambuco, you are heading in the right direction!