Cleaning A Cello Bow: From Stick To Hair

closeup of cello bow on cello

There are two types of people when it comes to cleaning a cello bow. Team Yes says it’s easy to clean bow hair and should be done occasionally. Team No says don’t ever touch the hair on your bow. So who is right? Both. You can learn to clean your bow hair like a professional. And if you aren’t comfortable with doing it, you shouldn’t touch your bow hair. How’s that for fence riding?

Clean a cello bow by first wiping the bow stick, tip, and frog with a microfiber cloth dipped in warm soapy water. Clip off any broken hairs. Then, wet a second cloth with denatured alcohol and rub up and down the bow hair until rosin buildup has been removed. Loosen the frog and allow a day to dry before running a fine-toothed comb through the bow hair to separate the hairs.

Take extreme care not to get alcohol on the bow stick as it can remove or damage the lacquer. It will take a fairly substantial amount of rosin to re-rosin your bow after cleaning. Several dozen strokes should get the job done. You should also take care not to touch your cello bow hairs with your fingers after you have cleaned your bow. The oils from your hands will prevent rosin from sticking to the bow hairs.

That’s the short of it but you should really read on for the full step-by-step instructions!

How To Clean A Cello Bow

Parts of a cello bowCello bows need to be cleaned on occasion to rid them of rosin and the oils, skin, and dirt that we leave behind on the bow. The bow stick, tip, and frog should be wiped down daily to help slow the buildup of these foreign substances. But over time they will build up and rosin will begin to clump on the bow hairs and it will need to be removed.

Despite the fact that most of us shower regularly, the human body does shed a surprising amount of skin and oozes a good amount of oil called sebum. We spit, cough, secrete, drip, wipe and sluff. Every two to four weeks we shed our entire outer layer of skin. Something in the neighborhood of 35,000 skin cells per hour! Now imagine playing Mozart’s Requiem with an orchestra of 80 people. That’s 2.8 million skin cells floating around and landing on your cello bow and cello and mixing with your sweat. You’re gonna wanna wipe that off.

A daily routine of wiping your cello bow’s stick, frog, and tip before and after playing will help keep rosin and other gack from building up on the bow. But no amount of wiping will prevent buildup over time and you find that your cello bow will need to be thoroughly cleaned from time to time.

To Clean Your Cello Bow (not including the bow hair), You Will Need:

  • A clean cloth,  microfiber cloth
  • 1 cup warm water with a couple drops of dish soap

Steps To Clean Your Cello Bow

  1. Start by dipping the clean cloth into the soap and water mix.
  2. Wring out the excess water.
  3. Thoroughly wipe the cello bow’s stick, frog and tip paying close attention to the areas where your hand touches the bow and frog.
  4. If some persistent rosin or gack remains, use a cello cleaner and polish like Hill & Sons Varnish Cleaner to remove the remaining rosin.
  5. Do not use alcohol based cleaners on the bow. It can remove or damage lacquer.

Once the stick is adequately cleaned it’s time to move on to cleaning the cello bow hairs. This is a delicate operation that requires a bit of a deft touch. Individually, cello bow hairs are fragile and can break easily.

To Clean Your Cello Bow Hair, You Will Need:

  • fine tooth combA clean microfiber cloth or similar soft, lint-free cloth
  • A water dampened cloth for emergencies
  • A kitchen towel or plastic trash bag
  • Denatured alcohol. Do not use isopropyl or rubbing alcohol. They contain small amounts of oils that will prevent rosin from sticking to the cello bow hair.
  • Nail clippers or sharp scissors
  • A fine tooth comb

Steps To Clean Your Cello Bow Hair

Before attempting to clean the cello’s bow hair take steps to protect the stick from the alcohol. Place a dish cloth or plastic bag between the bow hair and the stick. Again, alcohol can remove or damage lacquer. Have a cloth dampened with water at the ready so that if you do accidentally get some alcohol on the bow you can wipe it off immediately.

  1. Tighten the frog.
  2. Use nail clippers or sharp scissors to flush cut any broken hairs.
  3. Place the cloth over the mouth of the denatured alcohol and thoroughly wet an approximately silver dollar sized area. It should be thoroughly wet but not so much that alcohol can be squeezed out causing it to drip.
  4. Fold the wetted area over the cello bow hair.
  5. Gently wipe from the frog to the bow tip several times.
  6. If rosin remains on the bow hair, rewet a new section of the cloth and repeat until the hair is clean.
  7. Once the cello bow hair is clean, loosen the frog and set aside for 24 hours.
  8. With the frog loose, gently pull a fine tooth comb through the bow hair several times until the hairs are no longer clumped together. Take care not to touch the bow hair with your hands.
  9. Re-rosin your bow. The clean cello bow hair will be resistant to accepting the rosin at first and may take as many as several dozen strokes. We prefer D’Addario’s Natual Light Rosin.

Why Does Cello Bow Hair Break?

Put simply, it’s because it’s literally made from hair. And hair is weak and breaks easily. The typical cello bow contains about 250 hairs, so a few broken hairs here and there is to be expected. The more vigorously you play the more hairs you are likely to break. Dry weather can affect it as well. You are likely to break more hair on your cello bow in the winter than in the spring because the lack of humidity will shrink the hair. Or you may have just accidentally caught your bow on something that broke some strings like the edge of your case or a music stand.

Other common issues can be over-tightening of the bow, too little rosin on the bow hairs, and age. Luckily, there are simple solutions to these issues. Loosen the frog when you are done playing, use plenty of rosin, and re-hair your bow about every 12 months or so.

However, if under normal playing conditions you are breaking many hairs you probably have a deeper issue that very well needs to be addressed. You may have a string that needs to be replaced, the environment may be causing your cello bow to be too tight, or you could even have an insect problem.

The most important thing you can do to preserve your cello bow hair is to loosen the frog after each playing session and store safely.

How Often Should A Cello Bow Be Re-haired?

For the most part the answer depends solely on the cello player. How often, how long, and how vigorously you play are all factors in how long cello bow hair lasts. Additional factors are environment, how much rosin you use, and personal preference.

There is also the quality of the bow and the bow hair to take into account. High quality bow hair has a shorter life expectancy and will have to be replaced more often. And a cheap cello bow can be replaced for less than the cost of your average re-hair. You can find beginner cello bows on Amazon for under $30 and your average re-hair runs in the ballpark of $50. Keep in mind, if you’ve played enough to need a re-hair on a $30 bow it might be time for an upgrade.

Your cello bow hair should last you in the ballpark of 12 -24 months. For cellists that play daily for at least an hour, you may need to have your bow re-haired in as little as 6 months and a hobby player may get away with waiting several years between re-hairs.

In Conclusion

As always, the best way to keep your cello bow clean is to wipe it down well before and after every time you play. This prevents the build up that requires more frequent cleaning with soap and water or cleaners and polishes.

Secondly, you should store your bow safely while it’s not is use. If you’re looking for a cello case or bag, or other cello supplies, check out our recommended cello gear.

Make sure to check out our other articles on cleaning and taking care of cellos too.

Happy playing!


An ardant fan of acoustic music, I played the clarinet in high school band and even competed in Disneyland. As the son of a music teacher, I know firsthand the importance of keeping instruments clean and maintained. I now enjoy sharing information with others and providing answers where I can.

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