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Making your own bow – Part 2: working the wood to make a self-bow

In part 2 of his series on making your own bow and arrows, Cleve Cheney describes the working of the wood to make a self-bow.

The stave must be allowed to dry and cure thoroughly. When you buy wood from a timber merchant this has already been done for you.

Now before you start working the wood you must understand some wood physics and this is where the skill of "reading the wood" comes into effect.

When a bow is bent there are three major stresses placed on the wood fibres. The side facing away from the archer (called the back) is under tension and the side facing towards the archer (called the belly) is under compression. See figure 1. The other major stress force on the bow limbs is a twisting or torsional force.

Wood has good compressibility characteristics and catastrophic structural failure is less likely to occur than when the wood is subjected to the tearing apart of fibres under tension. Figures 2 and 3 explain why a wooden bow will break on the belly side.

To avoid breakage through tensile stresses, the bowyer must pay very close attention to the back side of the bow. He has to remove wood until there is a single growth ring running the entire length on the back side of the bow. It takes great skill to do this and to be able to read the grain of the wood correctly. If there is more than one year-ring layer on the back side, it is precisely at this point that structural failure will occur.

If you look at the back of the bow and see grain lines running as shown in figure 4 on the left (these are layers of year rings) then there is a good possibility of structural failure at one of these points – especially towards the centre of the bow, where tensile forces are greatest. The back of the bow should look like that shown on the right in figure 4.

It is sometimes workable if there are two or three growth rings appearing towards the top and bottom third end of the stave, where stresses are far less than towards the centre. It is sometimes difficult in close-grained woods to work the entire length of the bow down to a single growth line. The process requires considerable skill.

We need few tools to make a primitive self-bow – that is one of the attractions of primitive archery. See figure 5. In addition a drawknife, shown in figure 6, is a very useful tool that you can make yourself.

We know now that we must reduce the back of the stave to one continuous growth ring. It is not critical if there are a number of growth rings on the belly side as this is the side under compression. If you are working with raw wood (ie not a plank that you have bought from a timber merchant), there are slightly different techniques when working with different woods, but we are working towards the same result. For hickory, ash, and oak, once the bark is removed with your drawknife (spokeshave), the back is ready for the bow-making process.

Black locust and osage orange must be prepared differently. They must be reduced to inner growth rings – usually just above, or in the case of osage, into the heartwood. This is often the case with woods that have a lighter (and generally weaker) sapwood (outer layer) and a darker heartwood. Removal of the outer layers is generally accomplished with the drawknife and sandpaper. The back of the bow must end up in excellent condition – any blemishes such as nicks, scratches, gouges, or knots will cause the bow to fail.


About the Author

Cleve Cheney

Cleve Cheney

Cleve Cheney,  hunting and environmental editor of Africa’s Bowhunter is a very well known figure in bow hunting and in conservation circles in South Africa. Cleve Cheney has been in conservation for 27 years, of which 20 years were spent with the National Parks Board – most of it in the Kruger National Park. During the time spent in the Kruger National Park Cleve culled no less than 50 elephants with a rifle and he has hunted most African game during culling operations.

Cleve has also been an avid bow hunter for 22 years and he has an extensive technical knowledge on bows, arrows and broadheads. Cleve is also an accomplished bowyer and has built many recurves over the years. He began offering bowhunting education courses more than 15 years ago. Until recently, Cleve was a lecturer at the South African Wildlife College where was a lecturer and instructor. He has a diploma in Nature Conservations and a MA degree in animal Physiology. Over the years Cleve has written more than a hundred articles on tracking, hunting, survival skills, and bow and rifle hunting. He started an 18 month long professional hunters course at the SA Wildlife College where he trained the first group of professional hunters.

Cleve has trained many bow hunters and his educative articles on how to hunt African game, as well as many other articles on different aspects of archery bow hunting an bush skills has been published in Africa’s Bowhunter, Game and Hunt magazine, Universal Hunter and many other magazines. He has been the lead article writer for Africa’s Bowhunter for more than 14 years.

His book on tracking, The Comprehensive Guide to Tracking: In-depth information on how to track animals and humans alike, is probably the most in-depth study on this subject available. For those who want to learn more than the basics, this book is a treasure trove of tracking information, insights, methods, and knowledge. The book is divided into logical sections: teaching yourself to track; understanding wildlife behavior; identification of tracks and signs; gait patterns and pressure release; blood trailing; tracking specific animals; track, stalk, and approach; bird, reptile, and invertebrate sign; man tracking; and dangers in the bush.


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