How to make a Bow
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Frugal Maniac Blog

How to make a Bow

This is from the book
HUNTING with the BOW & ARROW By Saxton Pope
Thought this was interesting and just wanted to share this, lots of info.
 
HOW TO MAKE A BOW
Every field archer should make his own tackle. If he can not make and repair it, he will never shoot very long, because it is in constant need of repair.Target bows and arrows may be bought in sporting stores, here or in England, but hunting equipment must be made. Moreover, when a man manufactures his bow and arrows, he appreciates them more. But it will take many attempts before even the most mechanically gifted can expect to produce good artillery. After having made more than a hundred yew bows, I still feel that I am a novice. The beginner may expect his first two or three will be failures, but after that he can at least shoot them.Since there are so many different kinds of bows and all so inferior to the English long-bow,we shall describe this alone.Yew wood is the greatest bow timber in the world. That was proved thousands of years ago by experience. It is indeed a magic wood! But yew wood is hard to get and hard to make into a bow once having got it. Nevertheless, I am going to tell you where you can get it and how to work it, and how to make hunting bows just as we use them today, and presumably just as our forefathers used them before us.Later on I shall tell you what substitutes may be used for yew.The best yew wood in America grows in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, in the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges of northern California. By addressing the Department of Forestry, doubtless one can get in communication with some one who will cut him a stave. Living in California, I cut my own.A description of yew trees and their location may be had from Sudworth's " Forest Trees ofthe Pacific Slope," to be obtained from the Government Printing Office at Washington.
My own staves I cut near Branscomb, Mendocino County, and at Grizzly Creek on the VanDuzen River, Humboldt County, California. Splendid staves have been shipped to me from this latter county, coming from the neighborhood of Korbel.Yew is an evergreen tree with a leaf looking a great deal like that of redwood, hemlock, or fir at a distance. It is found growing in the mountains, down narrow canyons, and along streams. It likes shade, water, and altitude. Its bark is reddish beneath and scaly or fuzzy on the surface. Its limbs stand straight out from the trunk at an acute angle, not drooping as those of the redwood and fir.The sexes are separate in yew. The female tree has a bright red gelatinous berry in autumn, and the male a minute cone. It is interesting that in bear countries the female trees often have long wounds in the bark, or deep scratches made by the claws of these animals as they climb to get the yew berries. It is also stated by some authorities that the female yew has light yellow wood, is coarser grained, and does not make a good bow. I have tried to verify this, but so far I have found some of my bear marked female yew to be the better staves.The best wood is, of course, dark and close grained. This generally exists in trees that have one side decayed. It seems that the rot stains the rest of the wood and nature makes the grain more compact to compensate for the loss of structural strength. It is also apparent that yew grown at high altitudes, over three thousand feet, is superior to low land yew.In selecting a tree for a hunting bow, the stave must be at least six feet long, free from limbs, knots, twists, pitch pockets, rot, small sprouting twigs and corrugations. One will look over a hundred trees to find one good bow stave; then he may find a half dozen excellent staves in one tree. There is no such thing as a perfect piece of yew, nor is there a perfect bow; at least, I have never seen it. But there is a bow in every yew tree if we but know how to get it out. That isthe mystery of bowmaking. It takes an artist, not an artisan.Before one ever fells a tree, he should weigh the moral right to do so. But yew trees are a gift from god, and grown only for bows. If you are sure you see one good bow in a tree,cut it. Having felled it and marked with your eye the best stave, cut it again so that your stave is seven feet long. Then split the trunk into halves or quarters with steel or wooden wedges so that your stave is from three to six inches wide.
 
Cut out the heart wood so that thebillet is about three inches thick. Be careful not to bruise the bark in any of these operations.Now put your stave in the shade. If you are compelled to ship it by express, wrap it in burlapor canvas, and preferably saw the ends square and paint them to prevent checking. Whenyou get it home put it in the cellar.If you must make a bow right away, place the stave in running water for a month, then dry ina shady place for a month, and it is ready for use. It will not be so good as if seasoned threeto seven years, but it will shoot; in fact, it will shoot the same day you cut it from the tree,only it will follow the string and not stand straight as it should. Of course, it will not havethe cast of air-seasoned wood.The old authorities say, cut your yew in the winter when the sap is down, or as Barnes, thefamous bow-maker of Forest Grove, Oregon, used to say: "Yew cut in the summer containsthe seeds of death." But this does not seem to have proved the case in my experience. I amfully convinced that the sap can be washed out and the process of seasoning hastened verymaterially by proper treatment.Kiln dried wood is never good as a bow. It is too brash; but after the first month of shade,the staves may be put in a hot attic to their advantage.In selecting the portion of the tree best suited for a bow, choose that part that when cut willcause the stave to bend backward toward the bark. Since your bow ultimately will bend inthe opposite direction, this natural curve tends to form a straighter bow, or as an archerwould say "set back a bit in the handle."If it is impossible to get a stave six feet in length, then a wide stave three and a half feet longmay be used. It is necessary in this case to split it and join the two pieces with a fishtailsplice in the handle. Target bows are made this way, to advantage, but such a makeshift is tobe deprecated in a hunting bow. The variations of temperature and moisture combined withhard usage in hunting demand a solid, single stave. It must not break. Your life may dependupon it.Before engaging in any art, it is necessary to study the anatomy of your subject. Theanatomical points of a bow have a time-honored nomenclature and are as follows: Bowsmay be single staves, or one-piece bows, those of one continuity and homogeneity; splicedbows consist of two pieces of wood united in the handle; backed bows have an added stripof wood glued on the back; and composite bows are made up of several different substances,such as wood, horn, sinew, and glue. That surface of the bow which faces the string when drawn into action, that is, the concavearc, is called the belly of the bow. The opposite surface is the back. A bow should never bebent backwards, away from the belly; it will break.The center of the bow is the handle or hand grip; the extremities are the tips, usually finishedwith notches cut in the wood or surmounted by horn, bone, sinew, wooden or metal capscalled nocks. These are grooved to accommodate the string. The spaces between the nocksand the handle are called the limbs.A bow that when unstrung bends back past the straight line is termed reflexed. One thatcontinues to bend toward the belly is said to follow the string. A lateral deviation is called acast in the bow.The proper length of a yew bow should be the height of the man that shoots it, or a trifleless. Our hunting bows are from five feet six inches to five feet eight inches in length. Theweight of a hunting bow should be from fifty to eighty pounds. One should start shootingwith a bow not over fifty pounds, and preferably under that. At the end of a season'sshooting he can command a bow of sixty pounds if he is a strong man. Our average bowspull seventy-five pounds. Though it is possible for some of us to shoot an eighty-five poundbow, such a weapon is not under proper control for constant use.Some pieces of yew will make a stronger bow at given dimensions than others. The finer thegrain and the greater the specific gravity, the more resilient and active the wood, andstronger the bow.Taking a yew stave having a dark red color and a layer of white sap wood about a quarter ofan inch thick, covered with a thin maroon-colored bark, let us make a bow. Counting therings in the wood at the upper end of the stave, you will find that they run over forty to theinch.Ishi insisted that this end of the stave should always be the upper end of the weapon. Itseems to me that this extremity having the most compact grain, and the strongest, shouldconstitute the lower limb, because, as we shall see later on, this limb is shorter, bears thegreater strain, and is the one that gives down the sooner.We shall plan to make the bow as strong as is compatible with good shooting, and reduce itsstrength later to meet our requirements.Look over the stave and estimate whether it is capable of yielding two bows instead of one.If it be over three inches wide, and straight throughout, then rip it down the center with asaw. Place one stave in a bench vise and carefully clean off the bark with a draw knife. Donot cut the sap wood in this process.Cut your stave to six feet in length. Sight down it and see how the plane of the back twists.If it is fairly consistent, draw a straight line down the center of the sap wood. This is theback of your bow. Now draw on the back an outline which has a width of an inch and aquarter extending for a distance of a foot above and a foot below the center. Let this outlinetaper in a gentle curve to the extremities of the bow, where it has a width of three-quarters of an inch. This will serve as a rough working plan and is sufficiently large to insure that youwill get a strong weapon.With the draw knife, and later a jack plane, cut the lateral surfaces down to this outline. Theback must stand a tremendous tensile strain and the grain of the wood should not be injuredin any way. But you may smooth it off very judiciously with a spoke shave, and later with afile. The transverse contour of this part of the bow remains as it was in the tree, a long flatarc.Shift the stave in the vise so that the sap wood is downward, and set it so that the averageplane of the sap is level. With the raw knife shave the wood very carefully, avoiding cuttingtoo deeply or splitting off fragments, until the bow assumes the thickness of one and onequarterinches in the center and this decreases as it approaches the tips, where it is half aninch thick.The shape of a cross-section of the belly of the bow should be a full Roman arch. Manydebates have centered on the shape of this part of the weapon. Some contend for a highcrestedcontour, or Gothic arch, what is termed "stacking a bow"; some have chosen a veryflat curve as the best. The former makes for a quick, lively cast and may be desirable in atarget implement, but it is liable to fracture; the latter makes a soft, pleasant, durable bow,but one that follows the string. Choose the happy medium.The process of shaping the belly is the most delicate and requires more skill than all the rest.In the first place you must follow the grain of the wood. If the back twists and undulates,your cut must do the same. The feather of the grain must never be reversed, but descend byperfect gradation from handle to tip.Where a knot or pin occurs in the wood, here you must leave more substance because this isa weak spot. If the pin be large and you cannot avoid it, then it is best to drill it out carefullyand fill the cavity with a solid piece of hard wood set in with glue. A pin crumbles while aninserted piece will stand the strain. If such a "Dutchman" be not too large nor too near thecenter of either limb, it will not materially jeopardize the bow. If, in your shaving, you comeacross a sharp dip in' the grain, such that will make a decided concavity, here leave a fewmore layers of grain than you would were the contour even; for a concave structure cannotstand strain as well as a straight one; the leverage is increased unduly.The following measurements, with a caliper, are those of my favorite hunting bow, called"Old Horrible," and with which I've slain many a beast. The width just above the handle is 1-1/4 by 1-1/8 inches thick. Six inches up the limb the width is 1-1/4, thickness 11-1/16.Twelve inches above the handle it is a trifle less than 1-1/4 wide by 1 inch thick. Eighteeninches above the handle it is 1-1/8 wide by 7/8 thick. Twenty-four inches above it is 15/16wide by 3/4 thick. Thirty inches above it is 11/16 by 9/16 thick. At the nock it is practically1/2 by 1/2 inches.Having got the bow down to rough proportions, the next thing is to cut two temporary nockson it, very near the ends. These consist in lateral cuts having a depth of an eighth of an inchand are best made with a rat tail file Now you can string your bow and test its curve.Of course, you must have a string, and usually that employed in these early tests is verystrong and roughly made of nearly ninety strands of Barbour's linen, No. 12. Directions formaking strings will be given later on.It is difficult to brace a new heavy bow and one will require assistance. In the absence ofhelp he can place it in the vise, one of those revolving on a pivot, and having the stringproperly adjusted on the lower limb, pull on the upper end in such a way that the otherpresses against the wall or a stationary brace, thus bending the bow while you slip theexpectant loop over the open nock. Or you can have an assistant pull on the upper nock,while you brace the bow yourself.In ancient times, at this stage, the bow was tillered, or tested for its curve, or, as Sir RogerAscham says, "brought round compass," which means to make it bend in a perfect arc whenfull drawn.The tiller is a piece of board three feet long, two inches wide, and one inch thick, having a Vshapednotch at the lower end to fit on the handle and small notches on its side two inchesapart, for a distance of twenty-eight inches. These are to hold the string.Lay the braced bow on the floor, place the end of the tiller on the handle while you steadythe tiller upright. Then put your foot on the bow next the tiller and draw the string up until itslips in the first notch, say twelve inches from the handle. If the curve of the bow is fairlysymmetrical, draw the string a few inches more. If again it describes a perfect arc raise thestring still farther. A perfect arc for a bow should be a trifle flat at the center. If, on the otherhand, one limb or a part of it does not bend as it should, this must be reduced carefully byshaving it for a space of several inches over the spot and the bow tested again.Proceeding very cautiously, at the same time not keeping the bow full drawn more than asecond or two at a time, you ultimately get the two limbs so that they bend nearly the sameand the general distribution of the curve is equal throughout.As a matter of fact, a great deal of experience is needed here. By marking a correct form onthe floor with chalk, a novice may fit his bow to this outline.The perfect weapon is a trifle stiff at the center and the lower limb a shade stronger than theupper.The real shooting center, the place where the arrow passes, is actually one and one-quarterinches above the geographic center, and the hand consequently is below this point. Yourfinished hand grip, being four inches long, will be one and a quarter inches above the centerand two and three-quarters below the center. This makes the lower limb comparativelyshorter, so it must be relatively stronger. Your bow, therefore, when full drawn should besymmetrical, but when simply braced, the bend of the upper limb is perceptibly greater thanthe stronger lower limb.You will find the bow we have made will pull over eighty pounds, even after it is thoroughlybroken to the string. It is necessary, therefore, to reduce it further. This is done with a spoke shave, a very small hand plane or a file. Ultimately I use a pocket knife as a scraper, andsandpaper and steelwool to finish it.Your effort must be to get every part of the wood to do its work, for every inch is underutmost strain, and one part doing more than the rest must ultimately break down, sustain acompression fracture, or, as an archer would say, "chrysal or fret.""A bow full drawn is seven-eighths broken," said old Thomas Waring, the Englishbowmaker, and he was right. Draw your bow three inches more than the standard cloth yardof twenty-eight inches and you break it. It is more accurate to say that a full drawn bow isnine-tenths broken.It is also essential that the bow be stiff in the handle so that it will be rigid in shooting andnot jar or kick, which one weak at this point invariably does.A bow should be light at the tips, say the last eight inches, which is accomplished byrounding the back slightly and reducing the width at this point. This gives an active recoil,or as it is described, "whip ended." This can be overdone, especially in hunting-bows, wherea little more solidity and safety are preferable to a brilliant cast. And so you must work and test your bow, and shoot it, and draw it up before a full length mirror and observe its outline, and get your friends to draw it up and pass judgment on it. In fact, while the actual work of making a bow takes about eight hours, it requires months to get one adjusted so that it is good. A bow, like a violin, is a work of art. The best in it can only be brought out by infinite care. Like a violin, it is all curved contours, there is not astraight line in it. Many of my bows have been built over completely three or four times. OldHorrible first pulled eighty-five pounds. It was reduced, shortened, whip ended, and workedover again and again so to tune the wood that all parts acted in harmony. Every good bow isa work of love.Your bow is now ready to shoot, but let us weigh it first. Brace it and put it horizontally in the vise with the string facing you. Take a spring scale registering at least eighty pounds andcatch the hook under the string. Draw it until the yardstick registers twenty-eight inches from the string to the back of the bow. Now read the scale; that is its weight.As a matter of convenience I have devised a stick that facilitates the weighing. I take adowel and attach to one end by glue and binding a bent piece of iron so fashioned that theextremity serves as a hook to draw the string and the bent portion permits the attachment ofthe scale. The dowel is marked off in inches so that one can test different lengths of draw.With the bow in the bench vise, this measure hooked on the string and resting on the bow atthe arrow plate, the scale is hooked in place, the dowel drawn down to the standard lengthand the registered weight read off on the scale.If you still find that your bow is too strong for you, it must be further reduced. Begin all overagain with the spoke shave and the file, trying to correct any inequalities that may haveexisted before and reducing it to what ultimately will be sixty-five pounds. Put on the stringand weigh it again and again until you get the weight you want. If you have reduced it toomuch, cut it down two or four inches; it will be stronger and shoot better. All yew bows tend to lose in strength after much use, and your new one should pull fivepounds more than the required weight. If a bow is put away in a dry, warm place for severalyears it nearly always increases in strength. In our experience one in constant use lasts fromthree to five years. The longer the bow, the longer its life. Some, of course, break or come togrief after a short period, others live to honorable old age. Yew bows are in existence todaythat were made many thousands of years ago, but, of course, they would break if shot. Manybows over one hundred years old are still in use occasionally. I have estimated that theaverage life of a good bow should exceed one hundred thousand shots, after which time itbegins to fret and show other signs of weakness.Keeping in mind the idea of making your weapon as beautiful, as symmetrical and resilientas possible, free from dead or overstrained areas, work it down with utmost solicitude until itapproaches your ideal. Smooth it with sandpaper; finish it with steelwool.Now comes the process of putting on the nocks. A bow shoots well without them, but issafer with them.From time immemorial, horn tips have been put on the ends of the limbs to hold the string.We have used rawhide, hardwood, aluminum, bone, elk horn, deer horn, buffalo horn, paperfiber or composition, and cow's horn. The last seems best of all. From your butcher secure anumber of horns. With a saw cut off three or four inches of the tip. Place one in a vise anddrill a conical hole in it an inch and a quarter deep and half an inch wide. This can be doneby using a half-inch drill which has been ground on a carborundum stone to a conical pointthe proper length. In this hole set a stout piece of wood with glue. This permits you to holdthe horn in the vise while you work it.After the glue has set, take a coarse file and shape the horn nock to the classical shape,which is hard to describe but easy to illustrate. It must have diagonal grooves to hold thestring. The nock for the upper limb has also a hole at its extremity to receive the buckskinthong which keeps the upper loop of the string from slipping too far down the bow whenunbraced.The nocks for hunting bows should be short and stout, not over one and a half inches long,for they get a lot of hard usage in their travels. They should also be broader and thicker thanthose used on target bows.Two nocks having been roughly finished, they are loosened from their wooden handles bybeing soaked in boiling water, and are ready for use. Cut the ends of the bow to fit the nocksin such a way that they tip slightly backward when in place, but do not attach them yet.
At this point we back the bow with rawhide. Ordinarily a yew bow properly protected bysapwood requires no backing; but having had many bows break in our hands, we at last tookthe advice of Ishi and backed them. Since then no bow legitimately used has broken.The rawhide utilized for this purpose is known to tanners as clarified calfskin. Its principaluse is in the manufacture of artificial limbs, drum heads and parchment. Its thickness is notmuch more than that of writing paper.Having secured two pieces about three feet in length and two inches wide, soak them inwarm water for an hour.While this is being done, slightly roughen the back of your bow with a file. Place it in thevise and size the back with thin, hot carpenter's glue. When the hide is soft, lay the piecessmooth side down on a board and wipe off the excess water. Quickly size them with hotglue, remove the excess with your finger, turn the pieces over and apply them to the bow.Overlap them at the hand grip for a distance of two or three inches. Smooth them out towardthe tips by stroking and expressing all air bubbles and excess glue. Wrap the handle roughlywith string to keep the strips from slipping; also bind the tips for a short distance to securethem in place. Remove the bow from the vise and bandage it carefully from tip to tip with agauze surgical bandage. Set it aside to dry over night. When dry, remove the bandage andstring binding, cut off the overlapping edges of the hide and scrape it smooth. Having got itto the required finish, size the exterior again with very thin glue, and it is ready for the finalstage.The tips of the bow having been cut to a conical point and the nocks fitted prior to thebacking process the horn nocks are now set on with glue; the ordinary liquid variety will do.Glue a thin strip of wood on the back of the bow to round out the handle. This should beabout one-eighth of an inch thick, one inch wide and three inches long and rounded at theedges.Bind the center of your bow with heavy fish line to make the handgrip, carefullyoverlapping the start and finish. A little liquid glue or shellac can be placed on the wood tofix the serving. Some prefer leather or pigskin for a handgrip, but a cord binding keeps the hand from sweating and has an honest feel.The handle occupies a space of four inches with one and a quarter inches above the centerand two and three-quarters below it. Finish off the edges of the cord binding with a band ofthin leather half an inch wide. This should be soaked in water, beveled at the edge, sizedwith glue, put around the bow, and overlapped at the back. I also glue a small piece ofleather on the left-hand side of the bow above the handle to prevent the arrow chafing thewood at this spot. This is called the arrow plate and usually is made of mother-of-pearl orbone; leather is better. These finishing pieces are wrapped temporarily with string until theydry.The bow is then given a final treatment with scraper and steelwool and is ready for thevarnish.The best protection for bows seems to be spar varnish. This keeps out moisture. It has twodisadvantages, however; it cracks after much bending, and it is too shiny. The glint or flashof a hunting bow will frighten game. I have often seen rabbits or deer stand until the bowgoes off, then jump in time to escape the arrow. At first we believed they saw the arrow;later we found that they saw the flash. Bows really should be painted a dull green or drabcolor. But we love to see the natural grain of the wood.The finish I prefer is first of all to give a coat of shellac to the backing, leather trimmingsand cord handle. After it is dry, give the wood a good soaking with boiled linseed oil. Usingthe same oiled cloth place in its center a small wad of cotton saturated with an alcoholicsolution of shellac. Rub this quickly over the bow. By repeated oiling and shellacking oneproduces a French polish that is very durable and elastic.Permit this to dry and after several days rub the whole weapon with floor wax, giving a finalpolish with a woolen cloth.When on a hunt one should carry a small quantity of linseed oil and anoint his bow everyday or so with it. Personally I add one part of light cedar oil to two parts of linseed. Thefragrance of the former adds to the pleasure of using the latter.When not in use hang your bow on a peg or nail slipped beneath the upper loop of the string;do not stand it in a corner, this tends to bend the lower limb. Keep it in a warm, dry room;preserve it from bruises and scratches. Wax it and the string often. Care for it as you would afriend; it is your companion in arms.SUBSTITUTES FOR YEWWhere it is impossible to obtain yew, the amateur bowyer has a large variety of substitutes.Probably the easiest to obtain is hickory, although it is a poor alternative. I believe the pignutor smooth bark is the best variety. One should endeavor to get a piece of second growth,white sapwood, and split it so as to get straight grain.This can be worked on the same general dimensions as yew, but the resulting bow will befound slow and heavy in cast and to have an incurable tendency to follow the string. It willneed no rawhide back and will never break. Osage orange, mulberry, locust, black walnut with the sap wood, red cedar, juniper, tan oak,apple wood, ash, eucalyptus, lancewood, washaba, palma brava, elm, birch, and bamboo areamong the many woods from which bows have been made.With the exception of lancewood, lemon wood, or osage orange, which are hard to get, thenext best wood to yew is red Tennessee cedar backed with hickory.Go to a lumber yard and select a plank of cedar having the fewest knots and the straightestgrain. Saw or split a piece out of it six feet long, two inches wide, and about an inch thick.Plane it straight and roughen its two-inch surface with a file. Obtain a strip of white straightgrainedhickory six feet long, two inches wide, and a quarter inch thick.Roughen one surface, spread these two rough surfaces with a good liquid glue and placethem together. With a series of clamps compress them tightly. In the absence of clamps, apile of bricks or weights may be used. After several days it will be dry enough to work.From this point on it may be treated the same as yew. The hickory backing takes the place ofthe sap wood.Cedar has a soft, lively cast and the hickory backing makes it almost unbreakable.This bow should be bound with linen or silk every few inches like a fishing rod. Severalcoats of varnish will keep the glue from being affected by moisture or rain.Since both woods are usually obtainable at any lumber yard, there should be no difficulty inthe matter save the mechanical factors involved. These only add zest to the problem. A truearcher must be a craftsman.

11 Comments to How to make a Bow:

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