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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section VIII: Of Yew Trees, Yew Bows, &c, &c
Section VIII
Of Yew Trees, Yew Bows, &c, &c
Part 3 of 3

Revenons a nos moutons. Let us again hear Roger Ascham, who next informs us that the Romans entertained a predilection for the yew; and, tell it not in Gath I attempts to confirm his assertion by a blundering quotation from Virgil. This dweller in academic halls, who, in his preface, seems to regret that he had not composed the "Toxophilus" in Greek or Latin[30], is convicted of a classical mistake by the author of the "English Bowman"[31]

Taxi torquentur in arcus,

writes this ancient pedant, quoting the Georgics, 2d Book, line 44.

Ityræos taxi torquentur in arcus,

says Roberts, and he says rightly. However, "fair play is a jewel all the world over," according to a venerable adage; and candour demands we should notice an error of which, oddly enough, Roberts himself is guilty in his note on this same passage. "Vegetius," says he, "speaks of the wooden bow, with a preference in comparison of other bows, as follows:-- 'Prope tertia vel quarta pars juniorum quæ aptior potuerit reperiri, arcubus ligneis sagittis que lusoriis, ad illos semper exercenda palos.'"[32]

Now the Roman expresses no such partiality, as every one will readily see. He merely asserts that wooden bows and plaything arrows will do well enough for the butt practice of an awkward squad of boys.

But Jocosé hæc. Roberts was, nay perhaps is, a right good archer, and his book the best among our slender stock of toxophilite literature.

"A good bow," continues Ascham," is known by the proof. If you come to a shop and see one that is small, long, heavy, and strong; lying straight, and not winding or marred with knots, buy that bow on my warrant. The short grained bow is for the most part brittle." He here compares yew with itself, of which the heaviest kind makes the best bows; a stave taken from the bole of a tree considerably outweighing one of the same dimensions from its branches.

"Every bow is made of the bough or plant of a tree. The former is commonly very knotty, small, weak, and will soon follow the string.[33]

The latter proveth many times well, if it be of a good clean growth; and, if the pith is good, it will ply and bend before it breaks. Let the staves be good and even chosen, and afterwards wrought as the grain of the wood leadeth a man, or else the bow must break, and that soon, in shivers. This must be considered in the rough wood. You must not stick for a groat or two more than another man would give for a good bow; for such an one twice paid for is better than an ill one once broken. Thus a shooter must begin, not at the making of his bow like a bowyer, but at the buying of his bow like an archer. Before he trust his bow, let him take it into the fields, and shoot with dead heavy shafts. Look where it cometh most, and provide for that place, lest it pinch and so frete. Thus, when you have shot him, and perceive good wood in him, you must have him to a good workman, which shall cut him shorter, and dress him fitter, make him come round compass every where."

The following inference may be drawn from the above passage. A new bow was anciently kept in an unfinished state until the purchaser made his selection, and ascertained by trial its merits or demerits, for the course here recommended by Ascham would ruin, instead of improving one of Waring's highly finished productions. Roberts thinks the passage, "make him come round compass every where," implies that a self-bow was thus formed in the back as well as in the belly; but I would suggest "every where" must be interpreted to mean from nock to nock; a precaution of course not accurately attended to in the rough unfinished article. In Ascham's time, as at present, they made the back nearly, though not quite, flat, and such wee the form of a bow about three centuries old, which I had once an opportunity of inspecting. This curious relic of our forefathers' archery, measuring exactly six feet in length, probably possessed a power of seventy pounds: I say probably, for we did not attempt to bend it. It was yew of course, and the fine silky fibres, which might be distinctly traced from horn to horn, left little doubt of its foreign growth. The horn tips were split by age, and, owing to decay of the glue, had nearly separated from the wood. Its handle of purple velvet was elegantly braided with silver lace, so that the original possessor seems to have been some person above the common rank. There were indeed some small knots or pins scattered over its surface; for a bowstave entirely free from them is of very rare occurrence. These, conformable to the plan recommended by Ascham, were all carefully "raised." Not, however, in little smooth wart-like excrescences such as we sometimes remark upon Waring's best bows, but large square lumps, which gave the weapon a most singular appearance. It had also another peculiarity. Besides that prominence in the centre, without which no bow can be considered perfect, there was a gentle swelling at the back for about four inches above and below the handle, and I consider this formation to have been universal in the ancient self-bow, although neglected at the present day. In Dr. Grew's "Rareties of Gresham College" are mentioned, among other foreign implements of savage warfare, "A West Indian bow, arrows, and quiver." "This bow," says Dr. Grew, "is made of ash[34], near two yards long: in the middle, not an inch broad, but high-backed and bellied; viz. above an inch, as our bows: between the middle and ends of a far different shape; viz. above an inch and a half broad, and not above half an inch thick."

It is rather curious that a bow, once in my possession, and decidedly the best I ever handled, should have been distinguished by this peculiarity in a very remarkable degree. It was procured, together with a bundle of reed arrows nearly the same length, from a Demerara Indian chief. Jet black and glossy, like the complexion of its original master, the wood resembled ebony, thickly marked with veins of deep crimson. For any mark within seven score, a better certainly never drove arrow into target.

Every one who has spent an hour in looking over the "Toxophilus" must be aware it is a sort of archer's catechism, carried on between a master of the art and his pupil. One writer only, however, has succeeded in this mode of conveying instruction; and certainly a more delightful treatise than his, upon a most delightful art, never proceeded from mortal pen; I mean the contemplative man's recreation, by amiable old Isaac Walton. But Walton's mind was imbued with the true spirit of poetry, and an unaffected love for the whole range of external nature: in this the great charm of his book consists. Ascham, on the contrary, who evidently had not one poetical feeling in his composition, writes like a dry, unimaginative pedant. Walton pours forth his simple melodies, seated among the wild thyme, on the banks of his favourite trout stream. The branches of some spreading oak wave over him, while, to use his own expression, "the clouds rain May butter," and the storm-thrush whistles her shrill, long-drawn notes above his head:--

The woodwele sang and would not cease,
Sitting upon a spray.

"With the making of a bow," says Ascham, "I will not meddle much, lest I may be thought to enter into another man's occupation." Without troubling myself whose peculiar vocation it might be, I confess to having made, first and last, a great many; and for the benefit of archers who reside at a distance from the metropolis, in a country abounding with yew, and who know the use of a carpenter's tool-chest, I shall give the result of my experience, at the risk of being considered a most irregular practitioner by the Worshipful Company of Bowyers. The habit, nay almost necessity, of making my own fly-rods, in this land of trout fishing.[35] led to the other; and both have proved a most agreeable resource on many a wet and dreary winter's day.

Besides the pleasure of knowing he is laying up a stock against that season returns, when meads are damasked o'er with daisies, and

The jocund merle perched on the highest spray,
Sings his love forth, to see the pleasant May,

the archer has the advantage of being able to construct bows: of great strength, and to work up yew plants of singular and eccentric growth, many of which will catch his eye during a woodland ramble; and they often turn out bows as excellent in shooting as their form is picturesque. In the selection of wood, the principal thing to be looked to is the getting it clean, and free from knots: a tree not entirely bare of branches to the height of six feet from the ground will assuredly have a pin at the place where each branch is lopped off. Perambulate, therefore, the woods and copses of your neighbourhood with a hawk's eye, and, for a private mark, put a deep notch in the bark of such saplings as please you. Good archer's yew has generally a fine smooth bark, of a reddish grey hue; and the freer it is from excrescences, the more safely may you build expectations upon it;--I say expectations, because no wood promises so fairly and turns out more deceptive when cut open. There are also other external defects, by being aware of which the amateur bow-maker will save himself much disappointment and waste of labour. Hollows in the bark, filled with black decayed matter, indicate unsoundness within. Rough cankerous swellings, or windgalls, as the wood-cutters term them, are equally suspicious. Choose something as clear as possible from these blemishes, and where they are inevitable, cut your wood so that the part destined to form the back, be as free from knots, &c. as it will allow. Let all or most of the defects be in the belly of the bow; on the good wholesome principle of keeping your enemies always in the front.

Never fell yew or any other wood in the summer season, but only during November, December, and the two following months, whilst the sap is down. Summer timber, besides being subject to the dry rot, will be much longer in seasoning.

For a self-bow, it is of little moment if the tree incline naturally in the direction which the bow will follow when strung, provided it is not at the same time cast, or twisted to the right or left. Should the wood be green, strip off the bark, and then get a muster roll of all the old wives in your village, who, "fruges consumere natæ," purpose heating their ovens during the ensuing fortnight. Make your bow stave circulate among each of these successively, and when the loaves are removed, and the warmth has considerably abated, let it occupy their place until "all is cold."

Having thus given it what Ascham calls the "requisite heatings," defer his "plenty of tillerings," until a fairer opportunity. Saw off from either side as much as will reduce it in breadth to nearly the substance you intend your bow shall possess at the centre of the handle. Should the yew be already seasoned, the above-mentioned process must be dispensed with, as well as what follows; if not, let it lie, thus reduced in quantity, upon the bacon rack within the influence of a kitchen fire, in amicable confraternity with hams, bacon, chines, walking staves, hunting poles, fowling pieces, hedging bills, seed pods, angling rods, and other "miscellaneous items," as George Robins would style them, which usually crowd that indispensable fixture of a rural mansion. There let it remain six months at least, before the work is farther proceeded in.[36]

After sawing off two pieces from the sides, you will observe the heart to be of a reddish purple colour, the outside being protected by a stratum of pure white wood. A portion of this sap must be left for the back of your bow. Where the tree measures full four inches in diameter, with a stem straight and upright as a butt shaft, carefully split it down the centre by means of wedges. You may thus get two self-bows out of it; but when grown in a wavy or serpentine form,--and such pieces sometimes make very beautiful looking bows,--this is not so practicable. If the stave be perfectly straight, you are at liberty to select, from the two opposite sides of white wood, the one which presents the cleanest and smoothest surface, as well as the most regular thickness throughout. If, on the contrary, it have the natural curve alluded to above, the convex side only will serve, how inferior soever it be to that you are compelled to cut away.

I omitted to mention, until now, that the smallest collection of tools requisite for this work, consists of a large and small saw, a long plane, a smoothing double-ironed ditto, one fine and one coarse rasp, and a steel scraper. You must also have a glue-pot, suspended in a hot-water kettle, and filled with a mixture composed of isinglass, spirits, and common glue. A small carpenter 's bench, about seven feet long, but not more than fourteen inches in width, and provided with a wooden screw or vice, will give great facilities to every stage in the process of bow-making. Having screwed your stave to the bench with the back uppermost, work that with your file, then with the scraper, and lastly with sand-paper, until it is rendered as level as the growth of the piece will admit. Measure and mark the exact centre with a pencil line, then, having reversed its position in the screw, turn up the belly, and proceed to work upon the handle, the top of which must be fixed about an inch above the middle mark, towards the upper horn. Be very careful how you execute this part of the business; for should you cut away too much, the whole is marred beyond redemption. According to the intended power of the bow, leave plenty of wood in the handle, which should be rounded in the belly part only, and fall away with a gradual slope towards either arm.

Having proceeded to your own satisfaction thus far, lay the bow upon the bench on its side, and make a slight notch in the centre of each extremity, and two others at equal distances from it, to mark the proper width of the part destined to receive: the horn tips. Plane away with an almost imperceptible slope, until the ends are reduced to about half the width of the centre. If it be perfectly straight, the belly may be rounded and sloped off, with a smoothing plane; should it bend and wind, that tool will be useless, and the business must be patiently executed with coarse and fine files. When the wood has been of the latter description, I found the operation much facilitate<] by cutting into the belly with a hand-saw at intervals of about two inches, and then striking out the pieces thus separated with a chisel and mallet. But this must also be executed with care and judgment.

Lastly, procure a piece of any kind of common timber about four feet long, six inches broad, and three deep. Cut a large notch in its upper end, sufficient to receive the whole of the bow handle, and about eight and twenty inches below (the usual length of an arrow) make a smaller one, similar to that in the stock of a child's cross-bow. This instrument is the "tiller" alluded to by Ascham, and is used to ascertain if the bow bend equally in both its arms. You should leave the stave a little longer than it is ultimately intended to be, that the two notches made for the tillering cord may be cut away, before putting on the horns. Brace the bow, fix the handle in that part prepared for it, and draw down the string to the notch, until the whole resembles a huge cross-bow ready charged. Whilst in that state, you can judge of the defects, and remedy them accordingly, until, after repeated trials, the bow being found to "come round compass," you put the last polish to it with coarse and fine glass-paper. The village butcher will supply the horn tips, which should be chosen of a jet black colour; and, by the help of a vice and files, you may be indebted to your own ingenuity for a very elegant ornament to the ends of your bow. When bored with a centre bit, and roughly modelled into the intended shape, soak them in boiling water, which, by softening the horn, makes it adhere more closely to the wood? and then glue them on. It is best to polish them after they are fixed.

The choice of the material for the handle is a matter of fancy. Green or red worsted lace, velvet, damask silk, plush, leather, are all used for this purpose, and all answer well. However, I think the first has the neatest appearance. A breadth of four inches and a half is amply sufficient, and the bow should be first strongly whipped with twine. If green or red lace be preferred, it is proper to bind in about half an inch with the twine at the commencement, which will secure one end; and, having first well moistened the surface of the handle with hot glue, wind on the remainder closely and evenly, securing the last inch of the lace, by drawing it underneath the three last turns with a noose of string, and confine it, until the glue is set.

The bowyers may laugh, as I have already observed; but, follow my directions in the main, and you will have a very respectable self-bow.

It is unnecessary to describe the formation of a backed one. With only one or two exceptions, I never knew anything satisfactory result from this sort of handicraft; so the archer's best plan will be to purchase from a respectable maker. I never saw any two-piece bows which could rival Waring's; but Wrigsley of Manchester, if he be still living; Ainsworth of Walton le Dale, Lancashire; and an individual at Wrexham,--his name I forget; but, in allusion to his two-fold vocation, he, like Caleb Quotem, may justly sing or say

I'm parish clerk and bowyer here,--

all deserve the archer's patronage.

Various kinds of hard and elastic timber, the production of the East and West Indies, South America, and Africa, known by the several names of topaz, lancewood, cocos, ruby, tulip, fastic, &c., make excellent backed bows. The Islands of St. Vincent and Tobago, with the British settlement of Demerara, have several species of trees, which, when cut up, afford wood of a deep red and black colour. The best proof of its fitness for the purpose is, that the natives themselves make their bows from it; and whoever has the good fortune to be master of one of these Indian snake like weapons, will join me in commending their quickness of cast, and fine form, considering the makers possess only the rudest implements, or rather, as we should say, no implements at all.

Bois de lettre, as the French settlers term it, is the heart of the Dolcabolla tree, a wood highly esteemed by the tawny archer of Guiana. The black spots which appear thickly scattered over its rich ruby-coloured ground appear rather as a painted imitation, than the work of Nature's hands; and when carefully polished, these bows have a very elegant appearance, but owing to its great scarcity--a small portion only being procurable from each tree--they are rarely seen, except in a chieftain's hands. Superior courage and bodily strength form, among the red men of the forest, the sole qualifications of a leader, where that office is not hereditary; and, truly, all specimens of the Dolcabolla bow, which I have seen, must have belonged to men well entitled to the distinction, for they were full ninety pounds' power, and measured seven feet, at least, between the nocks. They have, besides, iron-wood, red and black; the netergo, of a dark purple colour when newly cut; snake-wood, copic-wood, guiapariba, a Brazilian tree, called by the Portuguese pao d'arco, or bow-wood, &c. &c.; but none of these have yet been tried by the archers of England. It may be useful to know that when, from the increased power of his drawing arm, a Demerara Indian bow is no longer equal to its owner's strength, an artificial back will render it again serviceable.

In Hindostan and its dependencies, there are the tabulghu, teak, and janlot, an excellent wood,- much used by the Cingalees of Ceylon. They have likewise the lontar, or ton of Western India, a species of palm, dark, hard, and tough, the nibung, or true mountain cabbage tree, possessing similar properties; the jack or nunghu of a yellow tint; lastly, the timaka, capable, like the jack, of receiving an exquisite polish.

Apropos of polishing; I will say a word or two on the most approved method of keeping a bow in good case. Your thorough-bred archer is not merely ambitious of being a marksman; the perfect condition of every part of his shooting tackle[37]

will occupy a reasonable portion of his time. Ascham recommends a bow to be frequently rubbed with a waxed woollen cloth (a care never to be omitted after shooting) till it shines and glitters; which, in time, forms such a hard slippery polish, that the weather will not injure, nor any fret or pinch be able to affect it." Sir John Smith's receipt for the same purpose --viz., a mixture of tallow, wax, and rosin--is a very excellent one. But that solution of gums in spirits of wine, generally known by the name of French Polish, proves, I think, far superior, being thoroughly water-proof, and, as the mode of applying it is somewhat peculiar, a word or two of instruction may not be superfluous. If the bow has been previously rubbed with a wax cloth, cleanse the surface by washing it with spirits of turpentine, this done, wipe with a morsel of sponge, or flannel dipped in oil; enclose a small quantity of cotton wool in a bit of flannel, and dip its surface, first in oil, and then in the polish, previously poured out in some small shallow vessel; rub it upon the wood, until nearly dry, and continually renew the oil and polish, until a fine clear lustre appears on the surface of your bow. This operation may be continued as often as you think proper; three or four times, however, are generally found sufficient. Remember that the wood need not be oiled more than once.

Every archer keeps his bows in bags of green baize, sometimes enclosed in additional tin cases. Many have also a wooden cupboard, called an ASCHAM, in honour of the learned individual whose name it bears. The common height of this contrivance is about eight feet; its breadth and depth two. A board pierced with round holes, sufficient to receive a few dozen arrows, occupies the lower part in front, forming a kind of quiver, which extends, however, only half the depth of the Ascham, so as to leave sufficient room for the bows, which are placed behind. A drawer, three inches deep, occupies the top, to hold strings, with sewing silk, and wax for whipping their centre; white kid or chamois leather to bind the eyes and nooses; scarlet or green riband for tying the string to the upper bow horn; spare arrow piles[38], horns, and all the other little nicknacks of an archer's gear. Suspended around the sides within, on a number of small brass hooks, are the belt, brace, shooting glove, and several pairs of six inch pasteboard butt marks painted and gilt. The whole is, of course, secured by a door, which should always be kept locked. When of a rich green colour, and emblazoned with the owner's armorial bearings, and the pattern of a riband corresponding to his arrow-mark, the Ascham is a rather ornamental piece of furniture in an archer's hall: where numbers appear ranged on either side of the apartment, proudly surmounted by shields, banners, and trophies, all tinged with the glories of a western sun, they are pre-eminently so. Truly, I pity the man who retires from such a spectacle, uninfluenced by the magic of the scene, or unshackled by a vow to invoke Waring's assistance, ere the lapse of another day. Insensible to every romantic impulse, he can be estimated but as a "clod of the valley;" or, like the unmusical savage denounced by Shakspeare, as one whom Nature has expressly destined for deeds of

Treason, stratagem, and spoil.
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