Prepping Bow Staves

After you have carefully selected the tree, cut it down, and (hopefully) had time to age the wood it is time to prep the bow staves. 

Prepping bow staves is a fair amount of work but made easier with the right tools and a little experience.  The examples below aged for nearly seven years in a dark, dry barn.  These are nearly all hickory and therefore, are generally easy to split if the grain is respected.  I use an old froe, mallet, and hammer for most of my splitting and only resort to steel wedges or power tools in rare, generally green cases.  As most of the staves that I cut personally are 6’6″ – 7′ long, this is the time when they are sawed to a rough length; generally 65 – 70″.  They are left long initially to account for any splitting of the ends that occurs during the drying process that will interfere with the finished bow.

Splitting hickory.

These staves were massive and can generally be made into two or three bows in the end;  two from the outer portion and one from the inner.  This isn’t always true for some older hickories as the heartwood “sets” and becomes dark and brittle.  Taken in a deep valley, this tree was large enough and fast growing so doesn’t seem to be a problem.  It is difficult to tell from the photo above but this is an extremely large piece of wood.  It was weighed a few days after felling at 79.5 lbs.  It was weighed again, just prior to splitting, almost seven years later at 48 lbs.  That is nearly 30 lbs (5 gallons) of water that evaporated.

A clean break with the froe.

The above photo shows the froe in use, prying the two halves apart without much effort.  Once started with a mallet in the end, it is just a matter of prying and moving down the staff.

I was doing these rather quickly and didn’t even move to my work shed for the process as they would be loaded up almost immediately.

The staves can now be safely de-barked and are generally ready to be roughed out, a relatively easy task on hickory, but not so with Osage orange (photo below).  Osage needs to be shaved down to a single layer within the wood.  In this case about a half inch inside the bark to find a suitable growth ring.

Osage orange, showing the contrast between the new and old growth.

One of the troubles with Osage orange wood is the transitional new growth on the outer (back) of the stave, visible as the white rings.  This wood is not useful for bow making and needs to be cleanly removed down to a single growth ring.  In the case above, several old growth rings will be removed as well as they are inconsistent and pinch out on the right side of this stave.  It is generally wise to choose one of the thicker rings to serve as the back as it is under a lot of tension during the draw.

New bow blanks stand next to a full-size stave as they are roughed out.

This is about half the useful bow staves made in a single run with a “whole” stave on the right to show how they begin.  This one weighed about 80 lbs green but only about 50 lbs dry.

On to layout and the next steps.

Trade Card from a Bow and Arrow Maker

An advertising card from when people appreciated hand made archery equipment.  No training wheel, gizmos, releases, or sights.  There is no date on the image but I suspect that late 18th century or early 19th century would not be too far off.  Apparently javelin throwing was in vogue at the time as well.  Now we have television, video games, and the internet.  I feel fortunate to live at a time when primitive technology is making a resurgence.  We felt very alone 20 years ago doing these things but an upside to the world-wide-web is connecting people with so much to teach each other.

Click the image to access the British Museum page for this item.

Tools of the Bowyer

I have been working on a bow-making tutorial for quite a long time now.  Trying to be as explicit as possible while not dumbing everything down is a tricky narrative to follow.  Just gathering the appropriate images of the process is time-consuming and difficult but truly, a good image is worth a thousand words.


The basic hand tools used on bow making.


Winter Count Bow Makers

Thanks to those who participated in our bow making class this year.  I failed to get many photos so if anyone would be willing to share theirs with me, I would be most grateful.  Email me at zcoyotez (at)

We made very traditional flat bows.  This is a straight-forward, predictable design that is easy to tiller and makes a fine shooter.

I use a minimum of tools, relying primarily on the axe, drawknife, and spokeshave for the heavy work with rasps and cabinet scraper for finishing.

It is a little more difficult to teach such a hands-on skill to groups, as opposed to individuals, but the class seemed to go very well.  The point was not to just make a bow but to learn enough of the concepts that everyone in the class should be able to go home and make more without much guidance.  A key to the success is using good staves to begin with.  There is enough to learn without added problems of twists and knots in the raw material.

All of the bows were successful and I hope will bring happiness for years to come.

Hickory Bow

The next hickory bow.  I have a barn full of aged staves languishing that need to be made into bows.  Today the weather was good and I had some free time so I jumped on the opportunity to get back into production.  Over the last three years I’ve only made about one bow per year as commissions.  That’s the result of abstract (albeit interesting) work cutting into an honest living.

Above are a couple hickory staves cut from the old tree farm in Missouri.  This tree was as near perfect as possible so I intend to get bows from both inner and outer portions of the trunk.  The few bows made from this tree already are fine shooters so my hopes are high.

Although I will be using power tools for much of the roughing out, old-fashioned methods are at least as fast at this stage.  The froe is a handy tool that any green wood worker should have.

This stage is a bit of a break from tradition for me.  This bow is sort of a test in speed and efficiency as I don’t have a lot of leisure time in my week currently.  This stave was split from a larger piece and, as consequently there is some tear-out between growth rings.  The rough back is the cross-over between rings that will need to be smoothed to a single, perfect growth ring before finishing.  As it was very close to perfect, I skipped this normal step and began to roughly mark out some landmarks of the final bow such as the center of the bow, handle, limb width, etc.

The lath I use to mark a clear center line.  I have markings and distances marked for various length bows.  I find a flexible lath and a good eyeball to work better than a chalk line on the curved and undulating surface of rough wood.  This stave is an excellent teaching example as it has almost perfectly straight grain.  The sketch on the bow back is an idealized version of the finished product.  During the shaping process, knots, wavy grain, and twists are taken into account.

It is apparent here that the bow has progressed.  To speed the process, I sawed away much of the excess down to an approximate shape for the finished bow.  Final shaping a tillering commence.  Most of this will be done with a draw knife, spoke shave, scraper, and rasps.

This hickory has been air dried on the high plains of New Mexico for much of the last seven years (damn I’m old) and is extremely hard and dense.  Sharp tools are essential at this point for precision and control.

Lots of shavings like the one above will be generated tomorrow as I ran out of light today.

A note on the the bow itself.  The design is a classic flat bow with consistently tapered limbs.  Although, like many bowyers before me, I experimented and tried many designs over the years, I am returning to basics for the present and a design that has worked for thousands of years. More to follow tomorrow.

In the mean time, here are a few other more recent bows I’ve made.  Most of these are are probably posted around the site already.