Bow making Basics
I remember making my first bow as a kid. I found a branch on the ground under the black oak trees that grew in our yard. There was a windstorm the prior evening and branches were everywhere. I found one with a bend and tied on a string. Then I grabbed a smaller, straighter branch. I placed this small branch on the string and shot it. It actually worked! The arrow went ten feet — I was thrilled. Retrieving the arrow, I tried shooting again. There was a loud “Snap!” All that hard work down the drain. So much for my first go at bow making.
What is it that attracts people to want to know how to make a bow and arrow? Is it a skill that is in our bones? Does it trigger some fascination that is irresistible? I believe so.
So how do you make a bow? My brother Tim and I just finished a sweet class at Twin Eagles Wilderness School in Sandpoint, Idaho. If you weren’t able to join us there, here’s an overview…
Select your wood
My first attempt at bow making was actually not that far off. It begins with your Kamana skills — knowledge of place. In general, the hardwoods of your area are a good starting point. Beyond being hard, the wood needs to be elastic, not brittle. Woods can be hard and brittle. So how do you know?
You can walk outside, find some local trees or shrubs, and start bending wood. Or you can try some research first. Find out what the natives of your area used. You might have heard of these two classic North American bow woods: osage orange and Pacific yew. For a long time these were the only woods that people thought would work for bow making.
You can actually make a bow out of any wood. The more ideal woods will be much more forgiving, though. Here’s a list to help you get started:
- Pacific Yew
- Osage Orange
If you live in the land of hardwoods, you can see from the list that there is a bounty of woods from which to choose. If you live in the West or the desert, you have fewer bow making choices. Where I live, Pacific yew, a tree that needs mature forest in which to thrive, is present in limited quantities. We have plenty of forest, but mature forest is rare.
Once you have decided which species you are going to use, you’ll need to find a specimen to harvest. I have had good luck with finding large branches or trees that split into a V-formation. If you are able to locate this V, you can harvest a stave without killing the tree. A bow stave is your base material for what will eventually be your bow.
The ideal beginner’s bow making stave will be straight and over four inches in diameter. The larger the diameter of the branch, the flatter the back of the bow will be (the part of the bow facing away from you when you draw it). More details on the importance of this to come.
The other characteristic to be aware of is twist in the bow. This can be hard to assess, but you should try anyway. Examine the bark and see if it spirals around the tree. If it does, this will not be a good bow stave. Your goal is to find a straight tree or branch, twist-free, that is as tall as you are. Taller is better; shorter can work.
Make your cuts and now you have a bow stave! At this point, you have some options.
Prepare the stave
The traditional process is to immediately coat the ends of the stave with varnish or glue. This will prevent it from drying too quickly — allowing the wood to season without the ends cracking. Now set your stave in a cool, dry spot under cover. Let it season for at least a year.
Yeah, you heard that correctly. A year.
Why so long? The wood needs to season fully before any stress is placed on it. If green (unseasoned) wood is bent, it will hold the memory in the bow. To see an example of this, take a green branch from a tree. Bend it close to the point of breaking, then let the wood go. You will see an “elbow” in the wood. This would not be good. The elbow creates a weak spot that will always be present in the wood’s memory — a likely spot for future breakage.
When people hear about needing to wait a year for the stave to season, they often get disheartened. When you’re excited to go out and try something and someone tells you to wait a year, what do you feel like doing? Perhaps looking for something else to put your energy into…
Alternatives to harvest
No need to despair. There are other ways to acquire a bow stave. You can easily purchase one online. There are several online stores that sell quality, seasoned bow staves for around $60 plus shipping. Another source is eBay. Be wary of wood that has been recently cut. It will be more expensive to ship (because it will be heavy), and you will end up in the same predicament of needing to wait until it is seasoned.
The cheapest option is to go to a specialty lumber shop and find a straight-grained wood. Try a one-inch thick piece of hickory. In general, hickory is the least expensive, most reliable wood. You can then cut that wood by hand, or, if you have a bandsaw (the creme de la creme of a bowmaker’s tools), you can rather quickly turn that lumber into a bow blank.
Seasoning on the Fast Track
Seasoning will go much faster if you rough out your recently harvested bow stave into a bow blank: a piece of wood that looks like a bow, but doesn’t bend like a bow. To do this, you will hand-split your bow stave. This allows you to assess your stave for any twist. Ideally your wood will split straight as an arrow (pun intended). If it has a little twist you can manage. But if there is significant twist (more than 20 degrees from tip to tip) you might have firewood instead of bow-wood. You can troubleshoot this to an extent, but the process is not beginner-friendly.
If your piece is straight, it’s time to rough it out. Use a drawknife, or, if you are experienced and cautious, use a bandsaw. Caution: bandsaws can turn your bow into kindling in the blink of an eye. Using a drawknife is an excellent skill to have in your back pocket. It’s satisfying work.
Remove the bark first. If you do this at the right time of year, you can simply peel off the bark. If not, use a drawknife and remove the outer bark and cambium only. The cardinal rule of bowmaking is to treat the back of the bow like a newborn baby.
Next, you’ll carve the bow (see illustration). Shape the handle to be 4 inches long in the center of your bow, about 1½ inches wide by 1½ inches thick. At each end of the 4 inch handle, taper out sharply to the widest part of the bow, the beginning of two limbs: a top limb and a bottom limb. A good width near the handle of each limb is 2 inches. Now, taper both limbs from that 2 inch beginning to ½ inch wide at the tip of the bow. Leaving the handle as is, on each limb remove wood from the belly of the bow (the inside, or side facing you when you draw the bow). Take each limb down to ½ inch thick.
You now have a bow blank. If your bow wood is green it will season much quicker. If you’re in a warm, arid environment, it can take as little as a week — a vast improvement over a year. Once your wood is seasoned, you’re ready to take it to the next level: tillering.
The tillering stage begins the real art in bowmaking. And… is beyond the scope of this article. Check back soon for stage two.
The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible, by Steve Allely, Tim Baker, Paul Comstock, Jim Hamm, Ron Hardcastle, Jay Massey and John Strunk