To make bows, we need materials which possess particular qualities. We choose our materials according to the type of bow we wish to make. Overall, the bow is a spring, which needs to be elastic but also dynamic, so that it can stretch to absorb the potential energy of the draw, but rebound powerfully, transferring that energy to the arrow. When making a bow from a single piece of wood, called a selfbow, you need wood which is tension strong, primarily, as most breaks are tension breaks, where the back fails and tears open. Ideally, the wood will be compression strong as well. When making laminates, a bowmaker can combine different types of material to capitalize on their strengths: a tension strong wood (or bamboo) backing a wood which resists compression. Adding sinew to the backs of bows increases the tensile durability, and enables us to use compression strong woods and really push them to their limits. Using sinew with woods like osage and yew enables you to make long-draw shortbows of surprisingly high draw weight; the long draw increases accuracy, while the small size of the bow makes it maneuverable on horseback or while hunting afoot or in a stand. Horn is a greatly resilient material, and the horn strips which we use as the belly of composite bows are extremely compression resistant. Wood, horn, and sinew: these will be our materials throughout this blog and through the whole journey of bowmaking. But first, we have to get some.
You can see that for any type of bow we choose to build, we will face particular challenges. With the selfbow, the challenge is to match bow design to the wood on hand and its properties; knowing how, comes with experience. When making laminates, the challenge is about producing components with good gluing surfaces, making jigs or forms which are square and true, and combining woods in correct proportions to achieve desired results. Composite bows take the challenge of these two bows to a whole new level, wherein three completely different materials—horn, sinew, and a wooden core—are glued together to take maximum advantage from the qualities of each. We need to know what kind of bow we want to make before we begin acquiring materials. Once we have that figured out, we can choose what to bring in for the work.
There are a number of ways for modern man to obtain whatever material he requires. In ancient times, except in cultures with well-developed trading systems, a person had to work with what was available to him locally. These days, many people like to limit themselves to precisely that: they cut wood indigenous to the region where they live, and use that. They don’t make trips to the lumber yard to purchase pieces of the South American rainforest. They don’t bid on ebay or trade on archery forums. Rather, with axe and saw they obtain what they require, and with patience and effort they refine it.
I use both methods. When I’m working steady and the cheques are flowing in, I have no qualms about turning the wheel and paying for shipping for material I cannot otherwise get. For example, water buffaloes don’t grow in Canada, and so in order to make composites, I must ship in the material from Asia. I could, I suppose, hunt the bighorn sheep and use its horns instead. At least, the wood for the cores of those composites comes from local forests. The sinew comes from locally slaughtered, organically raised cattle; the glue comes from that. I often regard myself a raw materials processor first, only after that a bowmaker. One day I’ll go get a bighorn sheep and see what I can do with that.
To begin with, let’s look at what it’s like to import materials from afar.
To be honest, I have spoiled myself in the past, and ignored the abundance of good bow wood growing near home. I am guilty of importing staves and dimensional lumber of osage orange, through sheer covetousness. Further, I have spent good money on a split of red elm, because I have heard great things about it as a bow wood, only to screw up in milling it and waste a bunch of it. I once even imported pacific yew from Washington, when I was a noob, not knowing exactly how close I was to simply cutting some down myself. That was not money well spent. That happens, sometimes, especially to halfwits like me. Shipping in material is dicey, because sometimes you get crap, such as logs and staves full of knots, bug holes, deflex, or deep drying checks; or milled lumber with terribly corrupted grain; horn so pitted that it’s garbage. But that’s the gamble that you take. Some of the osage I have bought or traded for online has been awesome stuff. All of the water buffalo horn I’ve gotten has yielded me one good strip from each, plus useable scraps. However, I imported gemsbok horn once and not only was it brittle, thin, and 6 months late, it reeked like it had been stored in a vat of urine. Not a good buy. Again, it’s a gamble, but in most cases I have been satisfied.
On the other hand, good bow wood grows everywhere. If I lived in Arkansas, where I could walk the hedges with a chainsaw and pick and choose through the osage, would I import yew? Probably. A stick or two. But you bet I would have a garage full of osage staves for myself, to make bows with and for trading. Currently, I have a garage full of yew and black locust, for those are great bow woods that grow where I live. I would never import a whole tree of black locust! But I was able, at the tail end of winter, to get my hands on a truck for a weekend, and since black locust grows like crazy here, I very happily felled one and brought home 6 six foot logs. About twenty staves. This is obviously one of the main benefits of going local: for the price of gas you get a whole tree. Compare that to shopping online, where you get a stick or two for double or triple your gas money.
Don’t be shy to ask for something you want. If you walk through a city park and see a yew tree with awesome straight branches growing out of it, ask the park superintendent for permission to prune a couple. I find people often respond to this question with a question of their own: “Why, are you making a bow and arrow?” That’s the case when I ask for yew, because yew is famous for that. Recently, the groundskeeper at a local park took down my requirements over the phone and cut me 5 branches of what is either taxus baccata (English Yew) or taxus hicksii (hybrid yew). He made it seem clear that I shouldn’t ask again, but he was nice enough about it otherwise.
A year and a half ago I flew to England to get married, and went out of my mind with boredom, waiting for my fiancee each day while she was off at work. The laws required that I be in the country for some time before the ceremony, and being prohibited from finding work there and having little money, I got very bored. However, my bride took me on a walk one day, and as we entered a little churchyard in the outskirts of York, I found about a dozen big old yew trees, gnarled and twisted but with a few suitable branches. I got the vicar’s name off the sign, called him, told him who I was and asked for permission to carefully prune a few branches. He cheerfully agreed, informed the groundskeeper so the man didn’t get a shock, and told me to send anyone his way who thought to question or prevent me. My mother in law and I picked it up together, and I ended up making her a lightweight english longbow before the time came to leave.
Sometimes, you can get whatever you want just by asking.