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Changing bow balance by changing the wrapping?


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I have a violin bow that's tip heavy to me. The balance point is 197mm from the relaxed frog. Strobel's recommended "standard" of 185mm seems to work well for me with most of my bows. So I took the bow to a local shop to ask if they could change the current relatively light grip for a heavier one to move the balance point. I was told that "the balance is in the stick," and a heavier grip is not a useful solution.

Is this true? I thought that bowmakers choose a grip design as a final way to tweak the balance point. Are there narrow limits within which this works? I know that the bow would become heavier overall. Does a heavier grip make an inertial mass at that point that could upset the bow's performance?

What doth the experts say?

Edit: I should have pointed out that this bow I'm considering rebalancing is no handmade art object.

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...I took the bow to a local shop to ask if they could change the current relatively light grip for a heavier one to move the balance point...


You can experimentally move the balance point yourself by taping small weights (a coin, for example) to either end of your bow.  Once you find a weight that optimizes the bow for you, a competent bow technician should be able to add an equivalent weight in a more permanent manner.  It's easy to add (or subtract) weight from the butt end by changing the grip.  Changing the weight of the head end is harder.

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When I first started playing (as an adult), I  had an old German bow of no importance that had it's original tinsel wrapping.  I really liked the balance.  On the first re-hair, the guy I went to replaced the tinsel with silver wire because he felt the bow was too light. 58 gr. I think.  I guess he felt I was too inexperienced to have an opinion and didn't ask first.  Completely changed the feel and balance.  I was a bit upset.  Never liked it.  When it was ready for it's next re-hair I went someplace else and had the silver wire replaced with silk.  Balanced restored.  :)  I'm still using the same bow.



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The normal balance point of a full sized bow is 9.5 inches, but from the end of the stick (with the frog as far as it will go toward the tip).  I don't know how that fits with your measurement of 197mm from the frog.


If you can still get lead tape, perhaps from a golf pro-shop, it can be placed under the leather of a wrapping.  I suppose you can get it from Steve Beckley or Lynn Hannings, too.

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I still find the tape available at most sporting goods stores.


Just wrap varying amounts around the leather and see what you think.


It's kind of a diminishing returns deal. You may pile more and more tape on and feel like the balance is better but now the bow's too heavy and too much inertia. You can accomplish quite a bit with the garnish but there's limits.


For me, the holy grail is to get it all done in the wood. But usually I don't. Not that clever yet. 


Need more tip weight: try heavier tip material, like silver or slip a bit of lead tape under the plug. I've seen bows where there were solid chunks of lead in the head, or even the plugs made out of lead. At the tip, very small changes can make a big difference in playing.


Your situation, it's tip heavy: same deal but working at the other end.


Garnishes vary in weight: silk/tinsel...whalebone (faux)...silver wire (thin to heavier gauges and varying lengths)...lead tape tucked under the leather.


Don't forget the adjuster: a solid button is usually heavier than a three part one. I've switched out to a solid button a couple of times just for that reason. Made one pearl tiled button for bass which have yet to find a bow for. Pretty but just too light.


If your local shop is resisting you, try someone else because this kind of adjustment is done all the time.


Mostly, do try the experiment with the tape. And try it over several days with "fresh" fingers.


I would go more by what you find feels comfortable than a slavish devotion to numbers. I once blindfolded myself and shuffled a bunch of bows on my workbench. I played them and set them back down in order of which felt lightest and nimblest to me. Weirdly enough, the one that felt lightest was actually the second heaviest, it's balance in the middle of the field. Go figure.


BTW Some measure balance from the end of the wood of the stick, others from the front of the frog. That's the disparity you've noticed in the numbers.

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What is the "currently relatively light grip" on your bow? Typically silk, tinsel, whalebone, thin silver, thicker silver, gold tends to be the progression from lightest to heaviest, although there are some variations there as well. It is quite common for silver to end under the front of the leather. On many student bows it is often a cost cutting measure, but on better bows that tends to be an intentional decision for the sake of weight and balance. Lead can be added under the thumb leather in just about every case, the exception being whalebone as the thumb leather becomes almost comically large at that point. Suggesting that it just can't be done, or that the balancing process is entirely in the stick and not at all influenced by the winding is suspect information.


Whether or not adjusting the winding would be a cost effective idea is up for debate. Depending on what you are looking to transition to and what the bow maker intends to charge for it, they could be looking at it as something they would not consider a wise economic decision. The train of logic being that the money spent on a new winding would be better invested into a new bow that better suits your needs, particularly as you have identified it is not an exceptional bow. If you like how it plays and sounds otherwise, it could be a decision you would like to make though. 

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I have had the lapping changed to silk or tinsel on a number of old French bows. Many are sold with wire lapping to get them to the "ideal" weight for sale. The new balance point with the silver wire was not what the maker had in mind when making these bows. They nearly always play better with the lighter lapping.

Cheers Carlo

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Mostly windings are chosen in order to bring the weight of a bow into the range which will cause a buyer to feel comfortable.

For a long time bows have been assessed "by the gram" - teachers in particular often have very closed minds about what is a suitable weight for a bow, although this is a parameter that is easily manipulated.

I have noticed that it's always the first thing people want to know, yet if you put a bow in their hands and they just play it, very few have any notion of its weight, while the balance can be immediately sensed. How strong the stick is across its entire length is also a big factor, and a superb maker can produce a light bow which is strong everywhere.

The weight in grams is an easy number, and it provides an illusion of objectivity.


Balance point measurements taken from the end of the adjuster are pretty pointless, since the balance point is only relevant to a bow under tension, and the amount of stick behind the frog varies enormously.


if a bow is tip heavy, I don't really believe that changing the lapping to something heavier will fix this - the lapping is so close to your grip that it can't cancel out the real distribution of weight in the stick in a dynamic state (in other words it may feel better when you're holding it to assess its balance, but it will probably play just the same). But if it helps you relax with the bow and feel more positively towards it, then it's worth doing!

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Martin, would you mind elaborating about your "real distribution of weight in a dynamic state" and what it implies for a bow maker?


I ask because I've struggled to wrap my head around what's actually going on when we play and what makes one bow work and another not.


We're taught a very static concept of weight and balance, the "see-saw" paradigm.


I come from an aviation background. With planes balance is crucial to stability, stall recovery characteristics and flight control effectiveness. There's a couple of frames of reference you can use to visualize the situation. The easiest, like with the bows, is the see-saw. Make the center of lift of the wings the fulcrum and the center of gravity the plane as a whole on the forward side of this fulcrum is balanced by the downward "lift" of the tail surfaces on the back side. Only thing is, it's not real. The "dynamic" (i.e. airborne) plane pivots about it's center of gravity and the wing and tail exert rotational moments about that cg. And they're in constant flux from control inputs and fuel burnoff.


We do the same simplification with bows.


I agree, measuring from the button never made a lot of sense to me. When we grip the bow, the fulcrum is pretty much at our thumb so measurement from that point seems the most realistic...for a static bow.


And most realistic would also to be with the hair at playing tension rather than with the frog full forward.


But you can get into vagaries like "Italian" vs conventional grip (thumb in the throat of the frog vs. on the stick just in front of the thumb projection) or "what constitutes playing tension" which can vary from player to player and even from situation to situation with the same player or what's the current stretched state of the hair. So maybe you do need to establish an arbitrary "ground state" that's not dependent on player whims, and so maybe an argument for frog full forward.


But we're still talking see-saw here.


When we're playing there's another point, call it fulcrum or moment, in the mix: and that's where the hair meets the string. Even on the sloping strings of my instrument, the bass, the string is supporting a considerable portion of the weight of the bow (and my arm). Holding the bow in position on on the string feels like less effort than holding it horizontal in mid air. We pivot about this point when making string crossings. And our will is focused at this point as we draw the bow.


Is this the dynamic you're speaking of?


From personal experience:


When I'm carving the head and think I'm getting close to finished, I've try wrapping a small bit of lead tape around the shaft just behind the head and play to see it's effect. If the bow isn't improved by the weight, I take that as permission to carve a little more off to try for a better balance (my bows always feel tip heavy to me). But if it plays better with the lead, I figure it's time to stop.


What I've noticed is that if I don't have enough weight in the tip, the tracking and turnaround at the tip suffers and also I lose some of the "thump" in the spiccato that us bass players like.


Too much and my right hand, especially the tendon of my index finger, feels stressed.


Regarding total weight: if I've gone too far trying to lighten the stick or make it more supple, and I've lost sound, If I add weight in the garnish, I can recover a fair amount but not all of the lost sound. But again, too much added weight and it feels ponderous and even muffles sound.


So the lesson I take from this is that just like a luthier values a bit of "heft" in a plane to reduce chatter and "let the tool do the work", the same goes for bows. Any sound not drawn by the weight of the bow on the string has to be supplied by your muscles, with accompanying fatigue and tightness.


But too much and inertia becomes your enemy both in starting and reversing the bow as well as in string crossings when you're rotating a more or less massive flywheel.


Am I looking at this wrong?


Again, the holy grail for me is to have all the playing characteristics in the wood: your "light bow which is strong everywhere."


I'm not there yet.

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As far as how you go about measuring the balance point, there seem to be two main camps. The one that I am more familiar with is to measure from the end of wood at the button end, to where the bow balances, with the frog in the forward position. That measurement in North America tends to be in inches even though most other measurements in bow making tend to be metric, because players who have a desired balance point in mind are most likely to know their number in inches. The reason for the frog being in the forward position is that it will be the most consistent/repeatable placement of the frog regardless to the length of the rehair. The advantages being that it is a fairly common way to measure the balance point, (again, from a North American perspective) it is measured the same for every bow, and the numbers are pretty easy to remember. 9 1/2" for violin and viola bows tends to be pretty typical, depending on the cellist they tend to prefer something in the 9 1/2 - 9" range, and bass is all over the place, much like many of the other measurements on basses and bass bows.


The second method of measuring from the thumb projection to the balance point takes into account variables such as a model with a frog mortise cut a little farther in either direction, or if the frog is a different model with a longer/shorter overall length, etc. I have not encountered that method as much in North America, but that could have more to do with the limited exposure I have to bow makers than its prevalence. 


I agree that balance point measured in either fashion does not paint the full picture. As a bassist who plays German bow, there can be a huge difference in feel depending on how a bow is mounted. Some makers make their German bows without a winding at all, and some make them with quite heavy silver windings. Regardless to the balance point, I have yet to find a German bow with a winding that I like in my hand. It inevitably feels as if there is too much weight in front of my hand. A bow without a winding is balanced with the weight of the stick, frog, and button instead of the addition of a winding and the distribution feels much more natural to me, as the weight at the frog end is in or behind my hand instead of in front of it. 


How a bow reacts while playing becomes a much more complicated equation than balancing it on your finger and measuring from there to your desired landmark. The bow has to be in a state of motion in order to create a sound, and that motion continuously changes how much bow is on either side of the string. I am guessing there is a way to scientifically observe and measure exactly what is happening when a bow is being played but from the perspective of a player, it either feels right or it doesn't. Some players use balance point as a qualifier when shopping for a bow because they have a particular number in mind that has worked for them this far, much like some players use weight, round vs. octagonal, silk, whale bone, silver, gold, or no winding, colour or species of wood, and a whole host of other characteristics. While I have known a number of players with a list that significantly narrows their options, I have yet to meet a player who does not let the feel and sound of the bow factor into their evaluation of it. A player who likes their gold mounted bow is not destined to like all gold mounted bows, but the weight of a gold winding in relation to their hand could be a large part of that preference. 

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