Archery has been a favourite of mine for as long as I have been strong enough to pull back one of those kids' bows you see in sporting sections of your big box stores. I learned on a longbow, and have shot one ever since. Something about the mechanical advantage in compound bows steals the appeal from me, and even the occasional recurve sets me astray.
Bowyering, or the art of crafting bows, is something that I always wanted to try my hand at, and it finally came time to get down to it. Having little to no idea what I was doing, I have since made two more building on what I learned from the first one, and I might try to make a composite of some kind in the future. As simple as it is, there is something mystifying about turning a piece of wood into such a powerful tool.
As with all good things, this began with a trip to the hardware store. Initially, I intended to make the bow from hickory, but after sorting through the ten or so 1x2x6 and as many 1x2x8 boards, none of them were satisfactory. All of them were either cut the wrong way so the rings would lift and it would rip itself apart when drawn, or the grain was the farthest thing from straight. Unfortunately, most wood of that size is meant to be seen, which means it is more appealing with interesting grain patterns and knots. Both of those things are less than optimal for bows, although it can be done.
Instead of the hickory, I sided with red oak. This one is the best I could find, and while not perfect, it will do. The cut of the wood leaves the grain running off the sides, and it is a little warped. This 6' board cost about $4 after tax and came pre cut and plastic wrapped by the manufacturer. Other retailers sometimes sell it by the foot, and is typically more expensive, sometimes as much as $2.50/foot.
I also marked that side with the chalk line on it as the back, so I work only on that side. By leaving the front factory finished, it will not need to be touched until the backing goes on and also reduces the chance of introducing cracks and splinters to the surface in an effort to make it plane.
The rough shape here leaves the board at half an inch wide at the tip, tapering to the full width over 18". The combination of the shape and tiller can allow the length of that taper to move closer and farther away, but I liked how this looked so it was relatively arbitrary, bearing in mind that the dimensions will change once I smooth things out and begin tillering.
Here's what she looked like after cutting one end. Note the jagged splinters and ugliness of the once straight line. This was all taken care of with the plane, but remembering what it looked like here makes me amazed that it turned out as well as it did.
Same thing to the other side, and it started looking somewhat bowlike. At this point, I was about four hours in, not including the time at the hardware store wandering around looking for wood.
This is the stage where I really regret not using the plane to to the work. Cutting thin pieces across a long section is unpleasant at best, and at worst leaves the cut twisted. Because of the way I was cutting, the blade cut at an angle and left the top side wider than the bottom. With the plane, this is more difficult (again relatively) to do, since it is lying clamped to something.
In the second two I later made, I planed the whole thing, clamping it to the workbench and taking slow passes until it was straight and symmetric. Others use rasps and scrapers, which are nice but not as fast. Later, I'll use a file to smooth the edges and take out the lines and slight corners left by the plane.
The next thing I did was take a triangular file and cut a notch about 3/8" in from the tips to use as a temporary knock, finished with a round file and brought down the sides at an approximately 45 degree angle towards the centre. This is when I realized I had no strings I could use or materials to make them. I was forced to use some random braided synthetic string I had lying around, which worked well enough to be getting on with. Only thing is, it was a gamble as I did not know if it would stretch or not. I'm still not sure if it did or not...
I took, in all my glorious preparations for this, the only bit of 2x4 longer than a foot that I had on hand. It is a little shorter than the 30" I made this bow to draw, but as with everything else, I improvised. I cut a slit in the middle on the top for the string to sit in, the other end placed on the bow's handle. With the string, there is a slipknot in one end and another somewhere along the way towards the other. I tied it so it was about a foot longer than bow itself, so there would be minimum bending when the board was wedged into place.
Backing can be anything really, from other woods like bamboo or hickory to silk and fibreglass and horn. I decided to use a combination of sheetrock tape, for the bottom two layers, and a coarse linen for the top. The reason for this is sheetrock tape is cheap, easy to find, good for the job, and easy to work with. The linen is to make it less ugly.
Another half hour later, and on went the linen, same as the others. This took a little more care, as the fabric is porous and likes to grab the less-than-cured glue over the sheetrock tape and wreak havoc. It doesn't matter if the edges are clean, as long as it covers the entire face. After it dries, it will be cleaned up.
This is it when the fabric went down. Note the glue saturating through to the surface. This is good, because it means there will be a better bond than between just the surface and the layer below it. The only thing is, I had to make sure the whole thing looked like the parts in the centre, which meant I had to add more glue and press down. Watch out for it lifting back up, as the top is now sticky and looking for something to grab.
Since the backing covered the knocks I cut in earlier, it was back to the round file to clean it up. These will eventually be carved away entirely as the tips are formed, the working knocks cut about an inch farther down. On the third one I made, which was significantly heavier draw weight (upwards of 70#), I saved the knock on the top limb for use with a bow stringer.
Squared and levelled, I gradually decreased the length of the string until it was a nice, gradual arc without any flat spots. At this time, I shortened the string so it would sit on the bow at about 3/4 brace and drew it back to 27 or so inches. After a few flexes and deflexes, I braced it to full and drew to the 30" I was going for. Didn't break.
I've only shot it with the yellow braided string I used in tillering, but it shoots fast and fairly smoothly. There is more spring and power behind it than the other 30# red oak bow I have that I did not make, although near the end of the release it slows down just a hair more.
All in all, it was a great experience, and will certainly not be the last.