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Primitive Bow Making – Part 1

January 25, 2009

I have had a couple of people express some interest in primitive bow making which is a long-time hobby of mine. This is the first of a series of posts that I’m going to do on bow making and arrow making. This will comprise a total of about nine posts. I usually try to vary the topics that I write about, but this really needs to be posted as a series and in order; so if this isn’t a topic that appeals to you, please accept my appology in advance. I will return to other topics as soon as this series is through. So if you’re still with me, let us begin………….

In primitive times, when people lived close to the earth, any individual could produce the ultimate weapon of his or her culture, the bow and arrows. The ability to produce powerful, reliable, and accurate bows and arrows was a skill that meant meat on the table and protection for one’s family and clan; and not just by the native people of the Americas. The bow was developed and played a major role in cultural evolution on every inhabited continent in the world except Australia. The bow is the natural weapon of choice of anyone who is living off the land. It can be made entirely from native materials and manufactured using only stone tools. Of course we won’t go quiet that primitive, but you will be able to produce a high quality bow and arrow using nothing more than an ax, a knife, a drawknife, and a wood rasp.

The first step in building a good bow is to select the proper raw material to work with. There are several good bow woods that grow in East Texas, including Bois d’arc which is considered by many to be the best, but I am going to strongly advise you against using bois d’arc for your first bow. Bois d’arc is very difficult to work with, and the least mistake in construction will cause the bow to shatter under use. I have been making bows for many years and just two weeks ago I had a nice bois d’arc bow blow up in my hands. On close examination I had left a tiny cut (really more of a scratch) across the back of the bow when I was removing the sapwood, and in time this weakness allowed the fibers to separate and the whole growth ring let go snapping the bow limb like a pencil. It’s a shame to think of the hours of work that go into a bois d’arc bow only to have it splinter in your hands. If this were my first bow I don’t know if I’d every even try to make another one.

For your first bow you really should use one of the white woods; hickory, ash, elm, or white oak. I always recommend hickory because you can make every mistake in the book and still end up with a good, serviceable bow. It may follow the string a bit (that means it still stays a little bent even after you take the string off) but it will make a strong and dependable shooter, capable of downing a whitetail with ease.

So let’s get out in the woods and collect a good tree to make our bow from. Since it’s Winter time and the sap is down, this is an ideal time to cut bow wood. But, what are we looking for? Well, there are three main qualities that we want to consider. First, the tree needs to be relatively straight; second, the tree needs to be as knot and scar free as possible; and last the tree should be from five to eight inches in diameter. If you can find the perfect eight inch tree, and if you can do a perfect job of splitting it into staves, you can make four bows from this one tree. Yea, I’ve never done it either.

I usually cut my hickory from a place in the woods where the trees grow close together. This makes them grow tall and straight in an effort to reach the sunlight, and it also reduces the number of limbs found on the lower trunk. This also does the least damage to the forest since you are thinning trees that are already over crowded. Cut the tree with an ax or chainsaw as close to the ground as possible, then cut as long a straight section as you can. If you are only going to make a four foot bow and you have eight feet of straight tree trunk in front of you, cut all eight feet. There are so many things that can go wrong. There may be a hidden knot under the bark, or a bad twist in the grain, or the ends might split badly while you are curing the log. It’s just a good idea to have as much wood to work with as you can. And by the way, don’t waste the rest of that tree. Take it home to burn in the fireplace, or better yet use it to barbecue or smoke jerky.

Once you have collected a good log it is time to take it home and let it cure. There are many theories as to how to cure a log and how long it should take, and bowyers love to argue about these things; but let’s keep it simple. If you cut your hickory in the winter when the sap is down you will probably be safe to go ahead and remove the bark for curing. The bark should peel off easily in long strips. You want to remove both the outer and inner bark, and be sure not to cut or otherwise damage the wood itself. This is very important since this outer layer of wood will be the back of your bow (the part that is away from you as you are shooting), and any cut in the back of the bow can lead to breakage when the bow is placed under stress.

When the bark is removed, stand the log as nearly vertical as possible in a dry, covered storage area. You don’t want the log to dry out too fast as this will lead to checking (splits in the log that run in the same direction as the grain), so it’s best to avoid storing your log in a heated or air-conditioned area or in a really hot place like an attic in the summer time.

Now it’s just a matter of waiting until the log is cured. But how long is long enough? Another source of argument among bowyers. The Turks aged their bow wood for five years, but who wants to do that? There are many who would call this hearsay, but I believe that you can make a serviceable bow from hickory that is dried for one month. I have even made bows from hickory that was fresh cut and they turned out OK. Maybe not great, but who wants to eat wood rats for a year while you’re waiting for a bow stave to cure. Bois d’arc, on the other hand, must be cured for a minimum of six months and it’s really better if you can cure it for a year.

So go on out and cut a good log and set it up to cure, and in the next post we’ll split it into staves and start shaping a bow out of it.

16 Comments
  1. Ethan permalink

    I know this is a very old post, but I have a question regarding it. Could yaupon holly be used to make an effective bow if I find a piece that’s a good size?

    • Ethan,
      Yaupon is pretty brittle when it dries. I wouldn’t make a bow from it unless it was backed with sinew, and then it still might not work. There are better woods to use. I always recommend hickory for a first bow as it is very forgiving of mistakes in manufacture. Yaupon does make excellent arrows.
      Hank

      • Ethan permalink

        Thank you, sir. The reason I was asking about it is because holly is one of the most abundant hardwoods around my house while others, like maple and hickory, are harder to find that would be a good size or quality for a bow. Thank you, again for the advice though. Anytime I start working on a bow I always come here and read your blogs about it

      • Thanks for reading and good luck with your bow building.
        Hank

  2. Hi,
    I have almost no experience in bow-making but I would like to start. Do you know of any trees that I could find in Australia that produce good bow wood?

  3. Frank katarincic permalink

    hi. my name is frank. i live in sudbury, ontario canada. i was wondering if birch wood would be ok to try my first bow. ive never made one before and there is an abundance of them here. thank you. Frank.

  4. albert permalink

    I had just cut a limb from bodark hope I spelled that right how long before I can start on it cause im hoping to finish before Cherokee national holiday for corn stalk shot

    • Albert,
      Most people say bois d’arc should cure for at least a year. You can cut that time down a little if you immerse the log in water for a month or so to help leech the sap out. I would definitely not try to make a bow unless aged at least 6 months. Patience is the main ingredient in bow making.
      Good luck,
      Hank

  5. Zech Hall permalink

    I’d like to know if Sourwood will work for making a wooden bow

    • Zech,
      Soyrwood is not native in my area, and I have never worked with it. I have read that it makes a decent, if not outstanding, bow. I believe that one of the main uses of sourwood is to make very durable arrow shafts. If I had a stave I would sure give it a try, and if so, I would make a fairly wide flat bow in the 5 foot long range. Use the outside of the log, white wood, for your back. If you make one let us know how it turns out.
      Hank

      • Zech Hall permalink

        Well it is 3 inch in diameter and 4 inch inch going another way should i risk it and split in two for two bows or just don’t

      • Zech,
        I’m at a disadvantage here never having worked with sourwood. Does it have a fairly straight grain like hickory or juniper, or does the grain twist a little like iron wood or elm. If you want to get two staves the ideal would be if you or a friend had a band saw that you could use to saw it into two equal halves. Personally, if couldn’t saw it, and being unfamiliar with the grain pattern, I would make one bow out of it. With a log that small in diameter the grain wouldn’t have to be off by much and you would end up with no usable stave. By making only one stave you know that you will have at least one usable stave. Good luck
        Hank

  6. Nat Hart permalink

    Hank,
    I still have the stave of Osage Orange I got from you over a year ago. Haven’t had the courage to cut on it yet. I did go out right at a year ago and cut some “branches’ off an Osage. had them in a hot shed for a year. I cut a 1 1/2 inch round branch down to make a bow out of half of it leaving the middle part mostly intact. On the back side you can see the pith center where it comes out of the full thickness handle. The arms of the bow, however, have no pith. All I have done on the face is take the bark off. It is very similar to that short bow I made out of the mulberry I got from you. However this one isn’t a stave and I am not using the heartwood. This one is pretty much just a whittled down branch. Do you think that might work for a decent bow or most likely will break?

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