Whether you have been playing the violin for years or are picking it up for the first time, knowing how to clean the hair of your bow is an important step to keeping your bow in perfect playing condition. Over time, dust and oils will accumulate on the bow hairs, causing the bow to lose its ability to grab the strings and effectively diminishing the quality of tone.
To clean your bow hair, you simply take denatured alcohol applied to a soft cloth, place the cloth around the hair and slide it up and down a few times. Brush the hair gently with a fine-tooth comb. Allow it to dry for 24 hours before reapplying rosin.
As simple as it sounds there are some important steps to take to ensure that you don’t ruin your bow while cleaning it. The rest of this article will break each DIY step down and provide some useful tips to keep your violin bow in tip-top shape.
Note: some violinists say that if the bow hair is old enough to need cleaning that it should just be replaced anyways but , of course depending on your bow, it’s probably more cost effective to clean the hair instead.
Cleaning Your Violin Bow Hair DIY Step-by-Step
As mentioned above, it doesn’t take a lot to give your bow hair a deep clean. The materials you will need are:
- Denatured alcohol
- Microfiber cloth or soft paper towel
- Fine-toothed comb
Once you’ve gathered those three items, here’s how to clean the hair on your violin bow:
- Tighten the hair a bit under tension, just tight enough to keep the hair from sagging close to the bow. You can also remove the frog from the bow if you want a bit more room to work with. Just make sure that you don’t twist or bend the hair at the frog or tip. It should be laid flat. Either way will work fine, whatever you are most comfortable with.
- Apply denatured alcohol to the soft towel. A generous pour, but not dripping wet.
- Wrap the cloth around the hair, making sure to not touch the stick of the bow with the alcohol, it can cause damage to the finish.
- Gently slide the cloth up and down the hairs a few times until it is visibly clean. If it has been a while since your bow hair has been cleaned, then you may have to repeat this step a few times with new alcohol-soaked towels.
- Comb out the clumps with the comb or toothbrush. This helps separate the hairs from being a clumped together mess and primed for rosin.
- Allow drying completely. This could take anywhere from a few hours to 24 hours to fully dry. Waiting 24 hours is always a safe bet.
- Re-Apply your rosin. It may take some time to build up a new layer of rosin after doing a deep clean. The fresh hair has a harder time picking up the rosin. Usually, 100 or so passes will do.
Pro Tip: Prime your freshly cleaned bow hair by rubbing crushed rosin into the hair first. This will make it easier for your regular rosin to adhere to the hair.
How to Know When It’s Time to Clean Your Violin Bow Hair
This all depends on how well you keep your bow in good condition and how often you play.
The hairs will grab onto dirt and oils from your hands, which will be visible discoloration and build upon the hairs, this affects how the bow sounds when brushed across the strings.
Deep cleaning should be done once a month or so, whether you DIY it or take it to a professional.
How to Extend the Life of Your Violin Bow Hair
There are a couple of simple techniques that you can perform to ensure that your violin bow hairs stay in great condition.
- Once a day, tighten the bow as normal and apply an even coat of your rosin. The main tip here is applying the rosin evenly all over and in between the hairs, as well as the right amount (which will be unique to everyone).
- After every time you play, wipe off the excess rosin with a microfiber cloth or soft towel. Using a toothbrush can also help to remove clumped rosin.
It might seem like a pain at first, but, as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
When Should I Take My Bow to a Professional for Cleaning?
Overall, this is mainly a personal preference, if you are uncomfortable cleaning your bow yourself, take it to a professional.
However, if you have unique and delicate bow hair, or the bow is an antique or has other significant value, then take it to a professional. No need to risk it!
The cost to have a professional clean your violin costs about the same as a violin lesson, about $50 or higher. Often people will pay to have the hair replaced instead of cleaned since it’s in the same range ($50-$100).
How Long Does Violin Bow Hair Last?
The longevity of your bow hair goes hand-in-hand with regular cleanings, as well as how often you play your violin. The better you take care of your bow, the longer it will last.
For the average student, you may have to re-hair your violin bow every few years or so. Whereas, professional musicians and avid students may have to re-hair their bows more often than that.
When Should You Replace Your Bow Hair?
As mentioned above, when to replace the bow’s hair is entirely dependent on the player. Some experts recommend replacing your bow hair every six months or so, ideally at the beginning of summer and winter.
This is because the bow hair is extremely responsive to the humidity in the air. As it turns out, bow hair is historically used on ships to measure rapid changes in humidity. With the change in weather and stress from playing, the hairs can break. Typically, there are about 150 to 170 strands used for violin bows, so a couple of these breaking isn’t the end of the world.
But as time goes on, more and more will break, either on one side or the middle. Signaling you that it is time for a re-hair.
Pro Tip: Do not pull broken hairs out, trim them as short as possible. The mounting at the top and bottom can come loose if pulled.
Also, if it’s a cheap bow, many violinists will simply replace the bow since beginner carbon fiber violin bows can be as cheap as $35 on Amazon.
How Does Humidity Affect Violin Bow Hair?
During the summer or warm and moist conditions, the bow hair will stretch. Then the opposite, or shrink in dry, cold conditions.
The hair can shrink upwards of an inch between these seasons and, if not properly cared for it will lead to major damages to the bow.
Are Horses Killed for Violin Bows?
The horsehair that is used for violin bows is typically harvested after a horse is slaughtered for meat or put down by a veterinarian.
Once harvested, the hair is then sold to luthiers to make the bows.
There are synthetic bow hair options these days, but they still don’t hold up as well as the horsehair, nor produce the same sound quality. However, they are technically the only “animal friendly” option since you often can’t guarantee the hair came from a euthanized animal instead of one slaughtered for meat.
What Kind of Horsehair is Most Popular for Violins?
White hair from white horses is the most popular with violin players. The hair is highly scrutinized and the best, longest strands filtered out to be made into bows.
The highly sought after horsehair is from horses that live in colder climates, like Canada, Mongolia, and Siberia.
Learning to clean your violin bow hair yourself may not always be necessary, and you could easily have a professional do it for you, but it is a crucial step in prolonging the life of your violin bow hair. Not cleaning the hair will lead to the bow sounding worse and cost you more out of pocket!
Check out our other articles on cleaning or taking care of violins, or visit our recommended violin gear page.