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Bow building: some do’s and don’ts

Francois Squirra gives would-be bowyers some tips on the basics of bow building.

No modern bowyer would disagree with me that the wooden bow truly represents traditional archery. They would however argue that times have changed, and, as is the nature of time, moved on. The fibreglass-laminated bow of today is the flip side of the coin, the pinnacle of traditional archery. But that does not mean that the wooden bow has lost its place. In building any wooden bow we have to pay homage to technology. Just look at all the available glues for splicing together pieces of wood that would have become very short bows – or none at all. These glues also enable us to back wood that would not, on its own, be worth anything. Machinery and materials are freely available today. The internet also provides us with a “bundle” of information. But with all that, constructing such a bow still takes you on a journey through time, and for someone with an imagination like mine, into another world.

Here are some notes that might be of use to amateur bow makers like myself.

Hickory backings
Hickory is a very strong wood and it makes excellent backing material. During the tillering process you should sand down the hickory backing. If you leave it too thick – more than three millimetres – it can crush the belly wood. I obtained my backings from Jaco Wessels (www.timberpoint.co.za ) and Johnny Snyman (www.heartwoodbows.co.za ). These two master bowyers also don’t mind giving advice. In passing I must also mention another backing material that is worth trying and as old as history itself: sinew. Wow, this protein is excellent stuff and fun to work with. But discussing that would be an article on its own.

Belly wood
Osage is an excellent belly wood, but so is hickory and many others like ash, maple, beech, etc. The only problem with osage is that it is expensive, going for R700 to R1 000 per blank. I recently obtained a yellowwood board, and will try it out soon. But never be hasty, since time is relative. If you are in the mood for some fun, go to a hardware store which sells wood (not just pine). You frequently get good pieces of maple or ash, but keep an open mind. It is very amusing to see the puzzled look on the assistant’s face when you tell him you are going to make a bow out of this piece of wood. Most of these hardware stores will do the cutting for you, which will save you time. Again contact Johnny (084 534 2863) or Jaco (083 268 9671) for prepared pieces of belly wood.

A selfbow is supposed to be a bow made out of a single piece of wood, but the definition can be broadened to allow two billets, spliced together in the handle and/or backed with sinew. Constructing such a bow is a lot of fun and also a lot of hard work. But to loose your first arrow from such a bow is… I just do not have words for the emotions one feels when this happens. Especially if you are not showered in a rain of splinters. There are many excellent woods for such bows available in South Africa – eg ash, oak, and my current favourite, mulberry. The bow in the picture is one made from two mulberry billets which I made over a period of four months. So don’t be in a hurry to make one – take your time and enjoy every stage.

Thus far I have only used URAC 185 and Titebond 3 myself. I don’t think I will use any other glue. They are fairly cheap, not messy, and clean up easily. On the topic of glue, one should perhaps discuss the clamping of the belly and the backing. Firstly, before you even think about glueing anything, make sure the pieces fit together perfectly. Hold the pieces up to the sun and if you see no light shining through, then you are ready to start glueing. But do not start before you have cleaned the surfaces with acetone. G-clamps work well, but one should be careful to not clamp the parts too tightly so that the joint is starved of glue or the backing lifts up from the edges. You normally need about 20 to 24 clamps for a bow. Another possibility is to use pieces from an inner tube. Cut it into long strands about 25 millimetres wide. Now clamp the tube onto the belly/backing at one of the tips. Start winding it, under tension, towards the grip, clamping a new strand every 300 millimetres or as you need it. This works well for a straight bow. I’ve even used this method on my reflex mould and it works. It also prevents the backing from slipping from the belly, as it tends to do when you use clamps. Another miracle glue and one not many professionals bowyers are without, is a good quality “superglue”. So why should we amateurs not use it? I use it for small cracks and to glue on tip overlays. You can even glue yourself to yourself.

Another essential is some cling wrap to cover everything you do not want to glue to your bow blank. Otherwise you will end up with a weird-looking bow or something resembling a compound bow. Now that I mention it, that is perhaps how the compound started (I told you I had some sort of imagination).

Before we start, let us look at string. Please forget Dacron. It is not worth the trouble. It is difficult to do a Flemish string with it and your braced bow will not hold its brace height. You will agree with me later, when you have recovered feeling in your bow hand. Use Fast Flight. Most wooden bow limbs are too slow to do damage, and if you are in doubt, reinforce your tip. It looks good anyway.

I have adopted a way of tillering in which I’ve combined a couple of techniques. I first floor-tiller my bow. That means getting the limbs to bend when I push-pull the bow, depending on the desired draw weight. I then string the bow at a brace height of three to four inches and check to see that the limbs bend evenly. This is done by removing wood where necessary. It is important to “exercise” the bow every time you take off wood. That means drawing the bow 20 to 30 times, just to let the wood register the change. While you are still at the beginning, you can push-pull the bow a couple of times or use a slack string to pull down the limbs three to four inches. The tiller profile of your bow should be governed by the shape of the bow limbs. See the chapter on “Mass Principle” in the Traditional Bowyers Bible, vol 4. For a pyramid lay-out, which by the way tillers very easily, aim for a ridged handle section (even an inch past the fade-outs will do), the midlimbs bending evenly, and then again a ridged last six to eight inches toward the tips. Once I’m satisfied with the limbs bending equally, I leave the bow strung for four to six hours, after which I unstring it and leave it for a few hours to relax. Only then do I string the bow again and begin drawing it on a tiller stick, first going to half the desired draw weight and checking the limbs at that draw length to see whether they bend evenly. Then I go to three quarters of the draw weight and again check the limbs. One must remember to exercise the bow every time you take off wood. At this stage I again leave the bow strung for four to six hours, after which I pull the bow to full draw weight and check the limbs at that draw length. Now, if necessary, I carefully take off wood and exercise the bow about 30 times before moving on to the next inch. At this stage I take off wood with a small belt sander that I clamp in a vice, continuously checking the draw weight and tiller as I progress. Once one gets to 24 inches of draw, it is good to exercise the bow about 30 times before moving on to the next inch. Never stop praying. This way you will reach your desired draw weight at your desired draw length and your bow will be trained well. Aim about five to ten pounds heavier, because the bow will lose some weight after a couple of shots, after sanding down is finished. If the bow is too light you can shorten it if you want to, but a longer bow is a safer bow. And do not be discouraged by some string follow. Such bows usually shoot very accurately. Slow, maybe, but accurate.

I have given a summary on a few subjects that I have only started exploring. There are a great many aspects of bow building to be explored and discussed, but I hope this will already help some bowyers. And please, do not regard the above as law, but merely as guidelines. We are all unique persons, so develop your unique style of bow building.

May your bows always bend true.

Updated: Friday, May 20, 2011 10:17 AM



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