Rosin by Bob Smakula

Rosin is made from the sap of pine trees. Live trees are wounded, and the sap is collected for processing. The larch conifer is used most often for violin rosin, but only a small portion of all collected pine sap finds it way to the musical world.

Most rosin in its basic form is similar. Manufacturers add compounds to tweak rosin for particular fiddlers’ needs. Dark rosin has tar added to make it softer, which makes the rosin stickier and suitable for colder climates. A small amount of beeswax is sometimes added to help lessen the harmonic squeak caused by static electricity. Gold is the latest in rosin additives. The advertising for one of the companies that manufactures gold-impregnated rosin reads, [Gold] “suspends the rosin particles in much the same way the precious metal suspends calcium deposits in arthritis sufferers taking gold injections. The results are… consistent positive grip with virtually no dust, hiss, or gritty sound.”

There are dozens of bowed instrument rosins on the market. The wholesale company where I do a majority of my purchasing lists 27 different violin rosins in their catalog. This doesn’t include the rosins marketed for cello or bass players. With the plethora of rosins available, where does the fiddler begin selecting a rosin that meets his or her needs?

Ranger Bob is here to help! I conducted a comparison test of 12 different rosin types.

In an effort to be consistent, I ordered a handful of new bows. I wanted all thebows to have similar weight and have fresh hair on them. The comparison tests were to differentiate tonal qualities and bowing effort attributed to each rosin.

Rosins 1 through 8 were tested on K. Muller pernambuco bows weighing 61 to 62.5 grams. Rosins 9 through 12 were tested on Glasser Fiberglas bows haired with genuine horse hair. The two different bows were used with the appropriate rosin: the pernambuco bows were used with the more expensive designer rosins, while we used the Glasser bows with the student rosins. As daunting as this task was, I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. I asked one of my favorite fiddlers, Jimmy Triplett, to help me navigate this ocean of rosin.

Rosin is usually packaged two ways: a round cake glued to a cloth wrapper or a rectangular cake glued in a wood trough. Sometimes manufacturers add a cardboard or plastic box.

The following comparison chart lists the brand, the list price (though the street price can be about 20% lower), and the packaging.

#1. Knilling Dark, $6.25, cloth wrapper, good bite and tone.

#2. Hill Dark, $9.95, cloth wrapper, good grab and fine tone. Most fiddlers I know have been using this rosin for years for good reason.

#3. Knilling Light, $6.25, cloth wrapper. Brighter sounding than Knilling Dark. Almost, but not quite, harsh.

#4. Pirastro Gold Flex, $19.95, cardboard box. A precise feel with clear quality tone that was consistent in a wide range of bowing intensity.

#5. Motroya Gold, $18.95, cloth wrapper. A muted tone that Jimmy didn’t like. I thought it was average. A few people that I have talked to about this rosin have noted that it is hypo-allergenic so folks with rosin allergies can still play the fiddle.

#6. Pirastro Oliv, $16.95, cloth wrapper in a light weight cardboard box. A dark rosin that had almost the same characteristics of Pirastro Gold Flex.

#7. A.B. Dark, $6.95, cloth wrapper. A fragile delicate tone. Jimmy remarked “slightly wimpy.” I noticed less amplitude from both our fiddles.

#8. Thomastik, $11.95, plastic box. The winner of our innovation in packaging award. The rosin is held in a butterfly looking holder that holds two separate cakes. This ergonomic package’s claim to fame is that one side is dark and one side is light. Our sample had two cakes of light rosin. The tone was good but it did not grab as well as the others.

#9. Sherman Dark, $3.95, wood trough with cardboard cover. Mellow and clear especially compared to it’s brother #10.

#10. Sherman Light, $3.95, wood trough with cardboard cover. Metallic and harsh.

#11. Super Sensitive Light, $3.95, wood trough with cardboard cover. Bright and loud, almost harsh.

#12. Paganini, $4.95, cloth wrapper in hard plastic box. Nice tone, but did not grab as well as the others.

After trying all the rosins, we both agreed that the Pirastro Gold flex and Pirastro Oliv were our favorites. In a second blind test we used my last two K. Muller bows to see if our impressions were the same. This time the Oliv rosin came out slightly ahead of the Goldflex, the Goldflex sounding slightly harsher on the different bow.

As subjective as this experiment was, we did conclude that, yes, to our ears the two Pirastro rosins were our favorites. The best bang for the buck award goes to the Knilling rosins. The easy to find and popular Hill dark is always a safe choice

The surface of new rosin always has a shiny glaze that is hard to get started on bow hair. I have seen many fiddlers take their pocketknife and scratch deep grooves in the rosin cake to reduce the glaze. A kinder, gentler, if not less messy approach.

Thanks to Jimmy Triplett for his assistance in preparing this article.

Bob Smakula is a musician and resident of Randolph County, WV. He is the proprietor of Smakula Fretted Instruments specializing in the restoration and sales of vintage stringed instruments.

THE OLD-TIME HERALD WINTER 1997/’98

Contact Bob at bob@smakula.com

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