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.

Arrows from Planks

Dowel Cutter – A useful tool for large-scale production

A version of this post appeared here in 2012 but here is an update as prelude to a coming post.

I’ve been using a Veritas dowel and tenon cutter to rough out arrow shafts from planks.  Quite a while ago I posted about the jig I built for cutting the shafts and thought it might need some follow-up.  Although I didn’t have much in the way of appropriate wood available for arrows on the day the cutter arrived, I did have one well-aged straight-grained poplar board that had been set aside to age for arrows to experiment with.  The cutter, once set up, takes a piece of square stock of 7/16″ – 1/2″ and cuts it down to a 3/8″ dowel.

Looking through the feed end of the dowel cutter.

When the shaft comes out of the cutter it tends to start wobbling and the effect increases quickly.  The solution is to create some sort of guide for the shaft so I came up with wooden blocks, as seen below with slightly oversized holes drilled inline with the cutter.  There is a second identical block set back a few inches further to increase stability.  After the first few experiments I could really tell that the stabilized shafts were much smoother than the unstabilized ones.

Shavings as they exit the cutter.

The wood can be turned by hand or a wrench or, as in this case, it can be driven by a drill motor chucked with a square socket (not pictured).  The drill motor is not only faster but seems to cut smoother due to the high rate of rotation.

Before and after a light sanding.  Sharpening the blade reduced this spiral of fuzziness.

The above photo is blurry but the right shaft demonstrates the rough “fuzzy” state as they come out of the the jig and the left is after a few minutes with some 100 and 220 grit sandpaper.  They are subsequently burnished and await nock reinforcements as the next step.  After putting a better edge on the blade, the shafts come out a littler smoother but it really seem to vary with the type of wood being used.

Image from the English War Bow Society. Click the image to link to their site and find out more about English warbows.

I was able to turn out eight experimental shafts in a short time.  Two were rejected immediately as they has little kinks in the grain and two were rejected during sanding due to blemishes in the wood.  They’ll probably be okay for light weight kid’s bows but are not acceptable for heavy, fast bows.  The spine feels a little light to me but I’ll hold out to see what comes of them.  The goal is to create some fairly standard issue British war bow arrows and see how they perform.  Since I use wooden dowels to peg together many other projects, very few shafts have gone to waste since this purchase.

Note: many great arrows have been cut with the Veritas cutter since the original post in 2012 and I will do my best to continue documenting the work.

Updates to follow soon…

Arrowology

Some Thoughts on Making Arrows, an Underappreciated Art –

I have been making my own arrows from scratch for a couple decades (since 1987 to be precise) and thought I’d showcase some I have made over the past few years.  I don’t generally make them to sell and I rarely hunt these days but there is something very satisfying and meditative in gathering the materials and constructing something so practical, with such fine tuning and narrow parameters in functionality.  I learned many tough lessons along the way, having no actual teacher, but I gleaned all I could from the historical resources I could find.  Most cultures of the world have a martial tradition of archery and each have their advantages and limitations.

A set of seven hand-turned poplar arrows in the English tradition.

The poplar arrows above were made from aged, straight-grained wood that was split along the grain then turned in a dowel cutter.  The nocks are reinforced with Bois d’arc (Osage orange) wood for added strength.  The heads are conical bodkins, fletchings are prime turkey wing secured with glue and silk binding.

A “primitive” set of cane arrows with hardwood foreshafts tipped with a variety of point types.

Making matched sets –

I sometimes come across beginning arrow-makers (fletchers) who only produce “one-offs” without attempting a matched set.  This is fine as an experiment or as a learning tool but does not suffice for someone who plans to actually use them for precise or regular use.  The minimum I make is three but I try to produce arrows in sets of six or twelve.  Since the plank used for the the arrows above worked out to produce exactly seven shafts, I kept the group together.

I believe it was a writing by Arthur Young where I first learned that to have a truly great set that sometimes you had to sacrifice a few as imperfect.  With all the work that goes into an arrow, it is painful to cull one out but sometimes it must be done.  The weights may match, the spine may feel the same, but one may just not fly as perfectly from the bow as the rest.  In the past, I have marked these and they become stump shooters of ones that you don’t mind risking on a long or difficult shot.

Finding a perfect set of rivercane shafts can involve a lot of looking, sorting, and luck.  People who want to purchase these hand-crafted materials and products rarely appreciate how much work goes into just gathering the materials.  A dozen matched cane shafts may come from sorting a hundred plants, then aging, curing, and straightening before the arrow can even be started.

Rivercane (Arundinaria) arrows with reinforced self nocks.

Fletchings –

To produce enough fletchings for the above, one has to acquire three feathers per arrow, matched by side (all rights or lefts) and placement on the wing of the bird (e.g., second or third wing feather).  This could mean wings from seven to fifteen animals depending on how picky one is just to produce five sets of fletchings.

Antler point.

Points –

Finally, the points are considered based on the needs of the archer.  Will these be for hunting large or small game, target shooting, or just all around fun shooting?  I use bone, antler, stone, wood, and steel depending on the intended use of the set.  Although I purchase most of the metal points I use, a lot of time can go into making matched heads from natural materials.

More thoughts to come…

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.

bowyertools

The basic hand tools used on bow making.

 

Bamboo Arrow Instructable

I just posted a “how to” for bamboo arrows on Instructables.  It is impossible to teach a complete class in this way but I’ve done what I can.

fletchIf you have an interest in arrowsmithing, have a look by clicking the arrows above.

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) yahoo.com.

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 part 2

The winds slowed, the killer dust settled and I was able to get back to the bow.  A few minutes with the power planer took the rough shape down to a nearly finished product.  The calipers are useful and can save a lot of guesswork when making the same style bow over and over.

Above, the bow seen in its near-final form.

Despite the great labor savings that come from the power tools, wood is very organic and has character therefore need some finer, more controllable tools.  These are the two draw knives I use the most.

I took the limbs down til there was some little flexibility.  Probably in the 100 pound range but still too sketchy to put a string on.  As the day was drawing late I decided to rough out the grip and central riser area.  Surprisingly, this takes quite a bit of time as it needs to fit the hand well, and look pleasing.  It is difficult to get it “just right” in all dimensions as a tiny variance takes away from the symmetry of the piece.  This part is purely about looks.

Once the knife work is done, its time to move to the cabinet scraper.  Here are the two I use.  To keep a good sharp edge I switch between the two as one dulls.  The larger one is a standard Stanley cabinet scraper and the smaller is a Garlick of England.  The English one is much harder steel but more difficult to get a good edge when sharpening.  With them are the bastard file and file brush used to touch up the edge.

I hope to find time for the finish tillering sometime this week.

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.