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Chapter V
How to make a bow
Part 3 of 3

The best protection for bows seems to be spar varnish. This keeps out moisture. It has two disadvantages, however; it cracks after much bending, and it is too shiny. The glint or flash of a hunting bow will frighten game. I have often seen rabbits or deer stand until the bow goes 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 drab color. 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 trimmings and cord handle. After it is dry, give the wood a good soaking with boiled linseed oil. Using the same oiled cloth place in its center a small wad of cotton saturated with an alcoholic solution of shellac. Rub this quickly over the bow. By repeated oiling and shellacking one produces 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 final polish with a woolen cloth.

When on a hunt one should carry a small quantity of linseed oil and anoint his bow every day or so with it. Personally I add one part of light cedar oil to two parts of linseed. The fragrance 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 a friend; it is your companion in arms.


Where 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 pig-nut or 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 be found slow and heavy in cast and to have an incurable tendency to follow the string. It will need 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 are among the many woods from which bows have been made.

With the exception of lancewood, lemon wood, or osage orange, which are hard to get, the next 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 straightest grain. 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 straight-grained hickory 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 place them together. With a series of clamps compress them tightly. In the absence of clamps, a pile 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 of the 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. Several coats 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 in the matter save the mechanical factors involved. These only add zest to the problem. A true archer must be a craftsman.


A bow without a string is dead; therefore, we must set to work to make one.

Sinew, catgut, and rawhide strings were used by the early archers, but have been abandoned by the more modern. Animal tissue stretches when it is put under strain or subjected to heat and moisture. Silk makes a good string, but it is short-lived and is not so strong as linen.

A comparative test of various strings was made to determine which material is the strongest for bows. Number 3 surgical catgut is apparently a D string on the violin. Taking this as a standard diameter, a series of waxed strings of various substances were made and tested on a spring scale for their breaking point. The results are as follows:

    Horsehair            breaks at 15 pounds.
    Cotton               breaks at 18 pounds.
    Catgut               breaks at 20 pounds.
    Silk                 breaks at 22 pounds.
    Irish linen          breaks at 28 pounds.
    Chinese grass fiber  breaks at 32 pounds.

This latter, with similar unusual fibers, is not on the market in the form of thread, so is of no practical use to us.

We use Irish linen or shoemakers' thread. It is Barbour's Number 12. Each thread will stand a strain of six pounds; therefore, a bowstring of fifty strands will suspend a weight of 300 pounds.

A target bow may have a proportionately lighter string than a hunting bow because here a quick cast is desired; but in hunting, security is necessary. We therefore allow one strand of linen for every pound of the bow.

This is the method of manufacturing a bowstring as devised by the late Mr. Maxson and described in American Archery. Some few alterations have been introduced to simplify the technique.

It is advisable to take the threads in your hands as you follow the directions.

If you propose making a string for a sixty-five-pound bow, it should have about sixty threads in it, and these are divided into three strands of twenty threads each. Start making the first of these strands by measuring off on the bow a length eight inches beyond each end--that is, sixteen inches longer than your bow. Double your thread back, drawing it through your hand until you reach the beginning. Now repeat the process of laying one thread with another, back and forth, until twenty are in the strand. But these must be so arranged that each is about half an inch shorter than the preceding, thus making the end of the strand tapered.

When twenty are thus stroked into one cord, they are heavily waxed by drawing the strand through the hand and wax, from center to the ends, each way. Now roll the greater part of this strand about your fingers and make a little coil which you compress, but allow about twenty-four inches to remain free and uncoiled. Thus abbreviated it is easier to handle in the subsequent process of twisting it into a cord.

Make two other strands exactly like this, roll them into a compressed coil and lay them aside. Now to form the loop or eye it is necessary to thicken the string at this point with an additional splice. So lay out another strand of twenty threads six feet long. Cut this into six pieces, each twelve inches in length. Take one of these and so pull the ends of the threads that they are made of uneven length, or that the ends become tapered. Wax this splice thoroughly; do this to each one in turn.

Now pick up one of your original strands and apply to its tapered end and lying along the last foot of its length one of the above described splices. Wax the two together. So treat the two other strands.

Grasp the three cords together in your left hand at a point nine inches from the end. With the right hand pick up one strand near this point and twist it between the thumb and finger, away from you, rolling it tight, at the same time pulling it toward you. Seize another strand, twist it from you and pull it toward you. Continue this process with each in succession, and you will find that you are making a rope. By the time the rope is three inches in length, it is long enough to fold on itself and constitute a loop. Proceed to double it back so that the loose ends of the strands are mated and waxed into cohesion with the three main strands of the string. Arrange them nicely so that they interlace properly and are evenly applied.

Now while being seated, slip the upper limb of your bow under your right knee and over the left, and drop the new formed loop of your string over the horn nock. Begin again the process of twisting each strand away from you while you pull it toward you. Continue the motion until you have run down the string a distance of eight inches. During the process you will see the wisdom of having rolled the excess string up into little skeins to keep them from being tangled. Thus the upper eye is formed. At this stage unwind your skeins and stretch the string down the bow, untwisting and drawing straight the three strands.

Seize them now three inches below the lower nock of your bow. At this point apply the short splices for the lower loop. They should be so laid on that three inches extends up the string from this point and the rest lies along the tapered extremity. Wax them tight. Hold the three long strands together while you give them final equalizing traction. Start here and twist your second loop, drawing each strand toward you as you twist it away from you until a rope of three inches is formed again. This you double back on itself, mate its tapered extremities with the three long strands of the string and wax them together.

Slip the upper loop down your bow and nock the lower loop on the lower horn. Swing your right knee over the bow below the string and set the loop on this horn while you work. Give the string plenty of slack.

Start again the twisting and pulling operation, keeping the strands from tangles while you form the lower splice of the string. When it is eight inches long, take off the loop and unroll the twist in the main body of the string. Replace the loop and brace your bow. This will take the kinks from the cord. Wax it thoroughly and, removing the lower loop, twist the entire bowstring in the direction of the previous maneuver until it is shortened to the proper length to fit the bow. Nock the string again and, taking a thick piece of paper, fold it into a little pad and rub the bowstring vigorously until it assumes a round, well-waxed condition.

If the loops are properly placed, the final twisting should make one complete rotation of the string in a distance of one or two inches. A closer twist tends to cut itself.

If, by mistake, the string is too short or too long, and adjusting the twist does not correct it, then you must undo the last loop to overcome the error. The fork of these loops is often bound with waxed carpet thread to reduce their size and strengthen them. The whole structure at this point may be served with the same thread to protect it from becoming chafed and worn.

The center of the string and the nocking point for the arrow must now be served with waxed silk, linen, or cotton thread to protect it from becoming worn.

Ordinarily we take a piece of red carpet thread or shoe button thread, about two yards in length, wax it thoroughly and double it. Start with the doubled end, threading the free end through it around the string, and wind it over, from right to left. The point of starting this serving is two and one-half inches above the center of the bowstring.

When you come to the nocking point, or that at which an arrow stands perpendicular to the string while crossing the bow at the top of the handle, make a series of overlapping threads or clove hitches. This will form a little lump or knot on the string at this point. Continue serving for half an inch and repeat this maneuver; again continue the serving down the string for a distance of four or five inches, finishing with a fixed lashing by drawing the thread under the last two or three wraps.

A nocking point of this character has two advantages: the first is that you can feel it readily while nocking an arrow in the dark or while keeping your eye on the game, and the other point is that the knots prevent the arrow being dislodged while walking through the brush.

We have found that by heating our beeswax and adding about one-quarter rosin, it makes it more adhesive.

In hot or wet weather it is of some advantage to rub the string with an alcoholic solution of shellac. Compounds containing glue or any hard drying substance seem to cause the strings to break more readily. Paraffin, talcum powder, or a bit of tallow candle rubbed on the serving and nocking point is useful in making a clean release of the string.

So far as dampness and rain go, these never interfere with the action of the string. A well-greased bow will stand considerable water, though arrows suffer considerably.

Wax your string every few days if in use; you should always carry an extra one with you.

Strings break most commonly at the nocking point beneath the serving. Here they sustain the greatest strain and are subject to most bending. An inspection at this point frequently should be done. An impending break is indicated by an uneven contour of the strands beneath the serving. Discard it before it actually breaks.

By putting a spring scale between one of the bow nocks and the end of the string, the unexpected phenomenon is demonstrated that there is greater tension on a string when the bow is braced but not drawn up. A fifty-six pound bow registers a sixty-four pound tension on the string. As the arrow is drawn up the tension decreases gradually until twenty- six inches are drawn, when it registers sixty-four pounds again.

At the moment of recoil, when the bow springs back into position, this strain must rise tremendously, for if the arrow be not in place the string frequently will be broken.

The tension on the string at the center or nocking point during the process of drawing a bow--that is, the accumulated weight--rises quite differently in different bows. The arrow being nocked on the string, it is ordinarily already six inches drawn across the bow. Now in the same fifty-six pound bow for every inch of draw past this, the weight rises between two and three pounds. As the arrow nears full draw, the weight increases to such a degree that the last few inches will register five or six pounds to the inch, depending on many variable factors in the bow.

The gradient thus formed dictates the character of a bow to a great extent. One that pulls softly at first and in the last part of the draw is very stiff, will require more careful shooting to get the exact length of flight than one whose tension is evenly distributed.

Reflexed bows are harder on strings than those that follow the string. A breaking cord may fracture your bow. I saw Wallace Bryant lose a beautiful specimen this way. One of Aldred's most perfect make, dark Spanish yew and more than fifty years old, flew to splinters just because a treacherous string parted in the center. Sturdy hunting bows are not so liable to this catastrophe, but be sure you are not caught out in a game country with a broken string and no second. You will see endless opportunities to shoot. Wax is to an archer what tar is to a sailor; use it often, and always have two strings to your bow.