Everything you ever wanted to know about Rosin (for musical instruments!)

We’re guessing you play the violin, viola, cello or upright bass or at least have a keen interest. So, you’ll be familiar with the instruments, the bows, the strings, the pegs and fine tuners and soundposts. But what about the rosin? That hard, amber-like block you use on your bow never seems to get that much attention… which is a shame, because without it, nothing else works. So, let’s redress that balance

Join us as we dive into the world of Rosin

RosinPouringWhat is rosin made from?

The primary ingredient in Rosin is… Resin. Pine tree resin, to be exact. There are particular tree variants and particular locations in which pine trees grow that produce the very finest types of resin that help make the finest rosins, but for the sake of a basic understanding, rosin is, in large part, hardened resin from pine trees. However, there is a little more to it, as resin on its own is really rather hard and unforgiving. So a number of other ingredients are added to create what we all know as ‘Rosin’.

As an aside, rosin is also known as ‘colophony’ in historic circles or ‘kolophonium’ in central Europe and Germany. But technically, this term refers only to the resin part, not the finished ‘rosin’ product, although the words have become interchangeable in some instances.


What are the other ingredients in rosin?

Although the exact details will sadly have to remain locked in our secret recipe book - (which was started by Francis Hider back in 1890) - each rosin needs a certain amount of slip as well as grip depending upon the instrument, the type of string or the musical application.

The tree resins largely take care of the ‘grip’ part of the equation, but additional ingredients such as oils and waxes – sometimes derived from fossil minerals or sometimes from plants and vegetables – add the ‘slip’ and therefore much of the tonal control. Getting this balance just right is where things become really rather tricky, because too much slip or too much grip will result in an unplayable rosin and an unplayable instrument. And that’s of no use to any of us.


How is rosin made?

Hidersine rosin for violin, viola, cello or double bass is made in much the same way as it always has been. Ever since chemist and musician, Francis Hider, created his very first bass rosin blend back in the late 1800s, the goal has always been to create the best tools possible for string players.

In our workshops in Shropshire, mid-west England, we still blend the unique mix of resins, waxes, oils and secret ingredients by hand, then heat, pour, finish and package them all in much the same way as Mr Hider and his colleagues did, over 130 years ago. Although Hidersine are one of the world’s largest manufacturers of rosin, the production technique still requires a lot of human input and historic knowledge. 


Why do bows need rosin anyway?

If you have ever picked up a new violin or cello bow, right out of its case or box and tried to play with it, you’ll have noticed that it doesn’t really work. At all.

That beautiful horsehair is to all intents and purposes, smooth. So when it’s drawn across the strings, it glides smoothly… and silently. But that’s not good, as you need a little rough with the smooth to get a useful outcome.

By applying rosin to the bow, you’re coating the hairs in a carefully created, powdery, sticky substance designed to create friction and ‘grip’. So, when the hairs are drawn over the strings, they catch a little (grip) then release (slip), causing the strings to oscillate and resonate through the body of the instrument, creating the sound we all know and love.

Hidersine_Rosin.jpgHow much rosin should I apply to my bow?

There is no definitive answer to this as it depends on how hard you apply the rosin and for how long etc, and all players and teachers will likely have a particular rule or gut instinct that they would go by. However, perhaps a simpler approach is to understand when you have too little rosin on your bow, or too much rosin on your bow.


Do you have enough rosin on your bow?

If you find the bow slipping around a lot, not making consistent contact with the strings, we’d recommend checking that you have sufficient rosin on your bow, even if it’s just in certain areas. If your bow is not making much of a sound, or if your tone is really thin and perhaps a little whistly, then chances are, you’re probably lacking rosin, at least along certain portions of the bow hair.


But surely, I can’t apply too much rosin, can I?

Although there will doubtless be a point beyond which your bow hair will not take any more, too much rosin is not usually a major issue. You may find your bow feels a little hard to play with – just a bit too difficult to get a smooth note - and you’ll doubtless notice the clouds of dust being launched into the air with every stroke. If you do find that you’ve overdone it, assuming it’s within a reasonable tolerance, you can just keep on playing for a while, wearing the rosin away with use… or you can take your bow to a specialist and ask them to clean the hair. But to be honest, it is unusual to get this level of over-application.

As we’re talking about rosin dust:

Over a period of time, as you would have already noticed, rosin and rosin dust is transferred from the bow hair onto the strings, the body of your instrument and the bow stick too. It is good practise to wipe your bow, string and instrument with a microfibre cloth after each playing session. That way, you will stop excess build-up. But, if like the rest of us you tend to let things build for a while, at least try not to leave it too long. Rosin can really cake onto a surface and become very hard to remove if left for too long and even cause damage to the instrument’s varnish in extreme cases. You can use products like Mr Hider’s original Hidersol varnish cleaner or W. E. Hill & Sons’ Preparation Cleaner to remove rosin from your cherished instruments or take them to your local specialist and have them do it for you. This is always a good idea when possible.

How to apply rosin to the bow:

Firstly, may we recommend this video made by virtuoso and professional educator, David LePage.

Some people rub the rosin along the length of the bow, and some others draw the bow across the rosin, but whichever way you view it, it’s important to apply rosin to the full length of the bow, not leaving any gaps. Plus, when applying to a new bow, don’t go too heavy, applying too much from the outset. Give the bow a few passes on the rosin, then test the full length of it on the instrument before applying again only if really required.


How long does violin, viola, cello or double bass rosin last?

Some people claim that Rosin has a 'use by' date, but we prefer to see it this way: As explained previously, all rosin requires grip and slip. That slip element is very important as it gives the playability to the otherwise very sticky, grippy resin element. As rosin ages, it gradually dries through evaporation of the naturally occurring liquids, and this is especially noticeable with harder, light rosins commonly used on Violin or Viola. As this natural evaporation occurs you will find that your rosin may begin to crack of its own volition and may also appear more and more dusty. This is just a sign of the rosin gradually drying and is an unavoidable reality.

Although the rosin will still basically function, you will find that your level of control will diminish somewhat. As explained elsewhere, differing levels of ingredient create hard, soft, dark and light rosins and when slightly softer, they offer a little more control. Therefore, when a hard rosin dries and becomes even ‘harder’, the level of string control will decrease.

Beginner players may not notice the difference, but the more accomplished instrumentalist may question why their instrument doesn’t feel ‘quite right’ sometimes… and it may just be something as simple as the rosin having dried a little too much.

What is difference between light and dark rosin?

Light and Dark Rosin differ in 3 main ways:

  • Grip Profile – Light rosins generally offer more consistent grip, but allow less subtlety than generally softer, darker rosins.
  • Sound Characteristics – Light Rosins generally help produce a sound with more initial attack, whereas darker rosins offer a broader range of tonal variation.
  • Appearance As the name suggests, a Light rosin is usually lighter coloured than a dark rosin. Usually due to the recipe ingredients and cooking method too.

 Light and Dark

What are the features of a ‘Light’ Rosin?

Light rosins are typically harder mixes of rosin which are referred to as 'light' due to their frequent semi-transparent Amber colour. These ‘light’ rosins generally perform better when used for the thinner strings found on Violin and Viola. They are also well suited to warmer, temperate climates as they have a higher ‘softening’ point so are less liable to lose their structure in extreme heat.

There are some 'light' rosins available for Cello, but these are still a little softer than 'Light' Rosin for Violin or Viola. The light / hard – dark / soft rule is somewhat relative to the instrument to which it is applied.


What are the features of a ‘Dark’ Rosin?

Dark rosins – sometimes called ‘Deluxe’ rosins or ‘Black’ rosins - tend to be a little softer than their ‘lighter’ siblings with the darkness of colour a combination of ingredients and cooking method. Often considered the ‘high-performance’ or ‘professional’ choice, dark rosin often lends a little more control to the player, opening more dynamic possibilities whether used on Violin, Viola or Cello.


Should I choose a different rosin depending on my local climate?

If you live in a temperate part of the world – such as Northern Europe - you have the luxury of choosing any rosin you fancy without having to worry too much about climatic issues. If however, your home town experiences more extreme heat or cold, you may want to choose a little more carefully.

Light Rosins tend to be harder than dark rosins overall. That hardness translates into a higher softening temperature. Therefore, in areas of extreme heat, a harder rosin would be a wiser choice for you. If however, your locality is often very cold, you may find that an already hard, light rosin is more difficult to apply by its nature, and a dark, softer rosin will perform better for you overall.

It is worth noting however, most players have no problem with their rosin choice and their climate, and even in areas of extreme temperature – whether hot or cold – rosin maintenance is quite manageable because instruments are kept in controlled environments for their own safety, and of course the rosin is generally in the case too. So, protecting your instrument also protects the integrity of your rosin.

With a great many homes, schools, rehearsal rooms and performance venues equipped with climate and sometimes humidity control, the light / dark rosin consideration can be more often a tonal choice than a climatic necessity. The exceptions tend to be Double Bass rosins, certainly the DB or 4B bass rosin types. These rosins use much higher levels of waxes, oils and other ingredients that create a much softer blend favoured by many bass players. This is why Hidersine make 3 distinct variants of DB and 4B bass rosin: Cold Climate, Temperate and Warm Climate. 


RosinSmalWant to know more? 

Read about 'How To Choose The Best Rosin for your Violin, Viola, Cello or Double Bass'

View the full range of Hidersine Rosin and W. E. Hill Products 

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