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Primitive Bow Making – Part 4

February 15, 2009

You should now have a good shootable bow, so let’s just add a couple of little touches to finish it out, and then we’ll make a string.

To put an extra fine finish on your bow, use steel wool (Native Americans used fine sand sprinkled on a piece of damp leather) and rub both limbs down thoroughly. Try to remove every little scratch. A scratch may not look like much of a threat; but when a bow is at full draw, even the smallest imperfection may allow the wood fibers to begin separating. When wood fibers start to pull apart it is only a matter of time before the bow breaks.

When you have the bow as smooth as you can get it, rub more oil into the wood. You cannot overdo this. I have a small supply of bear grease that I use to oil my bows, but before I obtained it I used vegetable oil. The vegetable oil worked fine.

Although most Native-American self bows do not have grips on them, many modern shooters feel more comfortable if they do have a grip. A nice piece of brain tanned leather can be glued and stitched around the handle of your bow to form an attractive primitive looking grip.

And now to the question of bowstrings. Most surviving Native-American bows have strings made of sinew. Twisted rawhide was also used. The Cherokee, I am told, used twisted squirrel rawhide. Some Southwestern tribes used yucca fibers to make strings for their lighter weight bows (40 lbs. draw weight or less). All of these natural materials make good strings, but there is one problem with making strings of sinew or yucca. The fibers of both animal sinew and yucca fiber are shorter than a finished bowstring, so to make a string from these materials you will have to create a number of splices. The splices have to be off-set from each other to avoid weak spots, and the fibers must be spliced in only a few at a time in order to avoid thick spots in the string. All in all, it is a pretty complicated process to go through the first time you make a bowstring. For this reason I am suggesting that you use rawhide if you want to make a natural string or artificial sinew if you prefer a more modern material. Waxed linen can also be used to make a good string and was, in fact, the material of choice in Medieval England. Be aware, however, that many primitive competitions will not allow the use of artificial sinew or linen strings.

To prepare rawhide for string making you will need a dried deer hide with the hair and inner membrane removed. Lace the hide in a rack or nail it to the side of your house to dry so that it stretches tight and flat. Be sure to use a deer hide and not an elk hide. Elk rawhide is much weaker than deer raw hide.

It does not take much rawhide to make a string. A round piece about the size of a dinner plate will be large enough. Start at the outside of the piece of rawhide and cut a strip about 1/4″ wide completely around the edge. As you approach the point where you started your cut, angle in a little and keep right on going. Spiral round and round until you have reached the center of the hide. You should now have a very long, curving strip of rawhide. Soak this strip in water over night to soften it. A little stretching will straighten out the curves, and you will have a long piece of wet rawhide that you can start twisting into cordage.

If you are going to make your string from artificial sinew, all you have to do is cut four pieces of sinew that are three times the length of your unstrung bow.

Next time we’ll talk about how to actually twist up the string using a technique called the reverse wrap.

  1. Dave permalink

    Hi. Nice directions, easy to follow. I don’t know if I have the patience to make this bow. How does it compare to making a good cane bow? Can you make a 40 lb. cane bow that shoots straight?

    • Dave, you can use my directions for making a bamboo bundle bow and give it a try. Hard to say how many canes it will take to give you 40 pounds. Its going to depend on the size of the canes, the thickness of the cane walls, etc. etc. One quick way to bring up the draw weight of any bow is to cut the tips off and make the bow shorter. As for shooting straight, that usually has more to do with the arrows (or in my case the archer) than it does the bow. Good luck, and let me know how it turns out. Hank

      • Dave permalink

        Thanks Hank, Haven’t started a bow yet. Still philosophizing about it, LOL.

        I just got a gift of a straight blue gum sapling about 5″ diameter. Does blue gum make a good bow?



  2. Dave permalink

    Also, I have a bottle brush tree about 5″ in diameter. Is that a wood that is good for bows?

    • Dave, I am not familiar with either blue gum or bottle brush. I live in East Texas and they may not grow here, they may have a different local name, or I just haven’t come across them. Woods that I have personally built bows out of include bois d’arc (also called osage orange), hickory, elm, and juniper (locally called cedar). I currently have a couple of white oak staves, an ironwood stave, and a mulberry stave curing. Five to six inches in diameter is a good size tree for making a whitewood bow. You can make them from smaller trees but the back of the bow will have a pretty high crown due to the small diameter. Hickory is very good for a new builder because you can make every mistake in the book and still end up with a decent bow. One problem with hickory, elm, and juniper is that they tend to follow the string (stay a little bent after you unstring them). This can be eliminated by putting a sinew backing on the bow, but you will still have a decent bow even without the backing. I have a series of posts on how to sinew back a bow. It is always fun to experiment with different woods, and I have made several bows out of woods that I have no idea what they were. As long as a wood is not brittle after it dries, and as long as it will spring back with a pretty good snap, chances are you can make a bow out of it. If you sinew back it, I think you could probably make a bow out of balsa wood. Well, maybe not, but it might be fun to try. If you are making a first bow I would highly recommend hickory with elm being a second choice. Elm fibers are very twisted and interlocking making it somewhat hard to work, but this same characteristic also makes it a very durable bow. Two very good books with step-by-step instructions on bow making are “Bows and Arrows of the Native Americans” by Jim Hamm and “The Bent Stick” by Paul Comstock. The Comstock book is a self-published volume (about 50 pages) that my old survival mentor recommended when he was working with me to improve my bow making. This was over 20 years ago, but I imagine it is still available somewhere, maybe as a used book on Amazon. Good luck, but be careful. Bow making is highly addictive. Hank

  3. Dave permalink

    Thanks Hank, Great information. If I make a bow, I’ll certainly let you know. My only concern is about my having enough patience to make a bow. I love shooting, and I’m good at it. Better at it than woodworking!!! LOL

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