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Chapter V
How to make a bow
Part 1 of 3

Looking for a book on how to make a bow and arrows?
Then also have a look at "The Essentials of Archery" by Stemmler or "The Flat Bow" by Hunt & Metz.

Every field archer should make his own tackle. If he cannot 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 of the 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 Van Duzen 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 so good a 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 lowland 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 is the 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 the gods, 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 the billet 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 burlap or canvas, and preferably saw the ends square and paint them to prevent checking. When you 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 in a shady place for a month, and it is ready for use. It will not be so good as if seasoned three to 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 have the cast of air-seasoned wood.

The old authorities say, cut your yew in the winter when the sap is down, or as Barnes, the famous bow-maker of Forest Grove, Oregon, used to say: "Yew cut in the summer contains the seeds of death." But this does not seem to have proved the case in my experience. I am fully convinced that the sap can be washed out and the process of seasoning hastened very materially 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 will cause the stave to bend backward toward the bark. Since your bow ultimately will bend in the opposite direction, this natural curve tends to form a straighter bow, or as an archer would 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 long may be used. It is necessary in this case to split it and join the two pieces with a fishtail splice in the handle. Target bows are made this way, to advantage, but such a makeshift is to be deprecated in a hunting bow. The variations of temperature and moisture combined with hard usage in hunting demand a solid, single stave. It must not break. Your life may depend upon it.

Before engaging in any art, it is necessary to study the anatomy of your subject. The anatomical points of a bow have a time-honored nomenclature and are as follows: Bows may be single staves, or one-piece bows, those of one continuity and homogeneity; spliced bows consist of two pieces of wood united in the handle; backed bows have an added strip of 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 concave arc, is called the belly of the bow. The opposite surface is the back. A bow should never be bent 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 finished with notches cut in the wood or surmounted by horn, bone, sinew, wooden or metal caps called nocks. These are grooved to accommodate the string. The spaces between the nocks and the handle are called the limbs.

A bow that when unstrung bends back past the straight line is termed reflexed. One that continues to bend toward the belly is said to follow the string. A lateral deviation is called a cast in the bow.

The proper length of a yew bow should be the height of the man that shoots it, or a trifle less. Our hunting bows are from five feet six inches to five feet eight inches in length. The weight of a hunting bow should be from fifty to eighty pounds. One should start shooting with a bow not over fifty pounds, and preferably under that. At the end of a season's shooting he can command a bow of sixty pounds if he is a strong man. Our average bows pull seventy-five pounds. Though it is possible for some of us to shoot an eighty-five pound bow, 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 the grain and the greater the specific gravity, the more resilient and active the wood, and stronger the bow.

Taking a yew stave having a dark red color and a layer of white sap wood about a quarter of an inch thick, covered with a thin maroon-colored bark, let us make a bow. Counting the rings in the wood at the upper end of the stave, you will find that they run over forty to the inch.

Ishi insisted that this end of the stave should always be the upper end of the weapon. It seems to me that this extremity having the most compact grain, and the strongest, should constitute the lower limb, because, as we shall see later on, this limb is shorter, bears the greater 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 its strength 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 a saw. Place one stave in a bench vise and carefully clean off the bark with a draw knife. Do not 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 the back of your bow. Now draw on the back an outline which has a width of an inch and a quarter extending for a distance of a foot above and a foot below the center. Let this outline taper 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 you will get a strong weapon.

With the draw knife, and later a jack plane, cut the lateral surfaces down to this outline. The back must stand a tremendous tensile strain and the grain of the wood should not be injured in any way. But you may smooth it off very judiciously with a spoke shave, and later with a file. The transverse contour of this part of the bow remains as it was in the tree, a long flat arc.

Shift the stave in the vise so that the sap wood is downward, and set it so that the average plane of the sap is level. With the raw knife shave the wood very carefully, avoiding cutting too deeply or splitting off fragments, until the bow assumes the thickness of one and one-quarter inches in the center and this decreases as it approaches the tips, where it is half an inch thick.

The shape of a cross-section of the belly of the bow should be a full Roman arch. Many debates have centered on the shape of this part of the weapon. Some contend for a high-crested contour, or Gothic arch, what is termed "stacking a bow"; some have chosen a very flat curve as the best. The former makes for a quick, lively cast and may be desirable in a target 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 by perfect gradation from handle to tip.

Where a knot or pin occurs in the wood, here you must leave more substance because this is a weak spot. If the pin be large and you cannot avoid it, then it is best to drill it out carefully and fill the cavity with a solid piece of hard wood set in with glue. A pin crumbles while an inserted piece will stand the strain. If such a "Dutchman" be not too large nor too near the center of either limb, it will not materially jeopardize the bow. If, in your shaving, you come across a sharp dip in' the grain, such that will make a decided concavity, here leave a few more layers of grain than you would were the contour even; for a concave structure cannot stand strain as well as a straight one; the leverage is increased unduly.