Bow Making

Here are a bunch of pictures of several hunting bows that I’m working on.  They are all made from pieces of black locust wood that I harvested when I was in Michigan.  They are all going to be self-bows, which is a bow made entirely from a single piece of wood.  They are all going to be flat-bows, which are more wide and thin rather than a long-bow which is narrow and fat.  I chose to make flat-bows because they are less prone to breakage, are easier to make, and can shoot arrows faster and more accurately than a long-bow.  I’ve read a couple of books on primitive bow making, and there is A LOT of stuff involved in making a good bow.  I’m not going to go into it in huge detail for the sake of avoiding confusion.  Basically, I’m shaping a piece of wood into a deadly hunting weapon.  That being said, I have never actually hunted successfully before, but I have killed many animals that I have raised as livestock and have eaten them, so someday I will probably go hunting and hopefully be able to kill an animal and use it for food and for other things.  Taking the life of another being is not something that I take lightly, but something that I do and will continue to do out of necessity so that I can eat something very healthy that I had a relationship with and cared for and had a deep respect for.

On to the pictures…

This is what the ends of the pieces of wood look like at various stages of progression on the way to becoming a bow.  The stave on the right has had the sapwood removed, which is the layer of wood beneath the bark and the vascular cambium.  So, what is left is just heartwood, or the wood in the heart or center of the tree.  The stave on the right has also had some extra heartwood removed from the center or the bottom as it is oriented in the picture.  You can see the growth rings pretty clearly and you can also see three splits in the end, which is not good, I later had to cut off about an inch of wood to get past where it was splitting.  The stave on the left has been shaped into a bow, but still has some sapwood on it, so that is the next stage in progression from the raw stave on the right in the above picture.  The piece in the middle of the picture is almost a completed bow.

This is a more zoomed in picture of the stave on the right from the first picture.

This is a more zoomed in picture of the stave on the left from the first picture.  You can see the difference in color of the sapwood on the right and the heartwood on the left.  It is mostly the darker yellow heartwood with a small amount of lighter colored sapwood.  In black locust, the sapwood is very soft and very weak, thus not good for a bow; the heartwood is very hard and very strong, thus good for a bow.  Black locust also has an advantage of being very rot resistant so you don’t have to take as good of care of a bow made from black locust because if you get it wet or accidentally leave it out in the weather for too long, it won’t rot quickly.  This wood has been used for fence posts for a very long time because it takes soooooooo loooong to rot.  I’ve heard of posts lasting upwards of 80 years in the ground.

This is a picture of the middle stave from the first picture.  The sapwood has been removed and it has been roughly shaped.  All that remains to be done is do more fine shaping and then remove wood from the bottom of the bow as oriented in this picture until it bends evenly and is the right strength of bow that I want.  A stronger or heavier bow will in general shoot an arrow faster and farther than a weaker or lighter bow, but will be harder to shoot accurately.  Hunting large game animals requires a bow to shoot an arrow fast and accurately, so there is balance that must be struck to be able to get both of those characteristics in a bow.

This is a picture of a stave in a vice so that I can work on it.  A vice is a nice convenience that primitive people didn’t have.  They would have had to make something similar out of wood or they would have had to find a tree with the branches just right so they could wedge it in place to work on it.

This is the same stave as the above picture, and you can see how the surface facing upwards is pretty rough, this is the side that would be facing me if I was holding it to shoot it.  Most of the wood is removed from this side when making a bow.

Another view of the same stave.

Here you can see the process of working the back of the bow.  The back is the side that faces away from you as you hold it in shooting position.  The back is also the part of the stave that was towards the outside of the tree.  The back of the bow is under a lot of tension what the bow is pulled so it needs to be as strong as possible.  The back of the bow is ideally one continuous growth ring all along the length of the bow.  In order to get to one continuous growth ring, first the sapwood needs to be removed and then sometimes a couple of heartwood growth rings needs to be removed to get to a good, solid growth ring for the back of the bow.  What you see in this picture is a smooth surface other than the two knots that are towards the right.  Knots represent weak spots in the bow so a little extra wood needs to be left on top of knots to strengthen those spots.  The tree worked really hard to keep itself held together, so working the back of the bow and taking off growth rings is hard word, and a lot of care needs to be taken not to go too deep, or else you have to start over with the next growth ring down.

This is the back of the bow with one continuous growth ring along the entire length of the bow.  The surface is pretty smooth without even sanding it.  The back of the bow is worked to this point with a dulled draw knife.  It needs to be dull so that it doesn’t dig and cut into the wood it just peels and pulls and scrapes the wood away from the growth ring that then becomes the back of the bow.

This shows I worked around a knot to leave a little bit of extra wood on top of it to strengthen it.

Starting to look like a bow now.

This is the area that will be the handle.  I’m making this bow so that it doesn’t bend in the handle so that it is more comfortable to shoot.  It looks rough on the sides because this shaping is done with a rasp, which is a file specifically made for wood.  Primitive peoples didn’t have rasps either, they are sweet tools.

This is a look at the side of the bow.  The thicker part is the handle and then it thins out toward the left.  The handle is thicker so that it doesn’t bend, only the limbs of this bow will bend.

This shows a comparison between a raw, basically unworked stave on the left and a stave that is almost finished into a bow.

This shows the next step, which is cutting nocks in the ends so that a string can be attached and the finishing work can be done to “tiller” the bow so that the limbs bend evenly along their length and so that both bend the same amount.

This shows the nocks from the other side of the bow.  They taper toward the middle of the bow so that the string doesn’t get abraded from use.

This shows three different pieces.  The one of the bottom is almost done, The middle one still needs a lot of wood removed and the top one is basically unworked.  This shows the backs of all three.

This shows the same three pieces, on their side.  You can clearly see the general shape of what a bow would look like from the bottom bow.  The handle section in the middle is thicks so that it doesn’t bend and the limbs are pretty thin and even along the length so that they bend evenly.  The bottom bow in this picture will take me at least another full day of work to get to the point where I can shoot it.  If all goes well, it’ll be done soon and I’ll be able to shoot for the first time….  oh wait, I still need to make arrows.

This whole experience of making a hunting bow has been really great.  I’ve learned so much about the qualities and characteristics of wood and I’ve gained more patiences and my craftsmanship skills have gone way up.  Also, my appreciation for what it takes to make a weapon to hunt has gone way up.  It would be really easy to go to the store and buy some fancy fiberglass bow and arrows and go kill something, but going through the hard work of making my own is giving me a greater sense of what it takes to survive if there is no store.  I don’t know if I’ll live to see a day when that happens, but I guess I feel a little better knowing that I’m a tiny bit closer to being able to thrive in the event that it does.  Even putting that all aside, its really fun and rewarding to make something useful from scratch.

I hope this has been as educational for you as it has been for me.  If you have any questions, or if any of this didn’t make sense, let me know so that I can edit it to make it more understandable.  Also, if you live near me, come over and I can show you all this stuff in person.


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