Monday, November 4, 2013

The Classic Board Bow....

Checking out the tiller on a D-bow.  This bow is being held upside down.

I made my first bow from a lumberyard board back around 1980.  Made of ash and if memory serves about 64 inches long; a simple bend-through-the-handle design or D-bow that worked for about 100 shots before cracking and splitting.  At the time I knew nothing about selecting the proper grain structure with boards and despite admonitions from various bowyers about never using kilned wood, I decided to literally give it a shot.  I didn’t try another board bow for over a couple of decades or at least until I read Tim Baker’s treatise on selecting boards for bows.  Another ash bow that worked okay but was a bit sluggish so from there it has been primarily red oak though I found a nice piece of hickory once and made a decent bow with that wood.  Red oak, however, is easily found at hardware stores and though it has problems with “follow” and can be slightly sluggish it nonetheless makes an adequate bow that is easy to construct and fun to shoot.  Of course, it helps if certain design elements are incorporated into the bow like keeping the near-handle section a bit stiffer and the tips quite stiff in order to alleviate follow where the bow remains slightly arched after shooting.

More testing. This bow has a handle.

I have built many modified D-bows with stiffer handle sections but lately I’ve built more bows with glued on handles or “risers” since that design helps to eliminate follow and makes for a very smooth shooting bow.  Mind you that the people who kiln boards for carpentry and cabinetry are not concerned with all of us amateur bowyers who want to tiller their boards and make shooting implements.  They are in the business of business which said another way—or at least in the modern capitalistic sense—means: Reduce costs and maximize profit.  So I suspect that the quality of kilned boards has diminished overtime.  This applies primarily to the big companies that produce millions of boards for mass consumption.  I’ve been told that the kilning process includes the use of chemicals that hasten the reactions but greatly destabilizes the wood.  I’ve seen boards that when sawed or whittled are powdery and despite proper grain structure are not suitable for any bow.  It’s best to obtain your boards from a mill that produces boards on site and does not use any sort of chemical additive or gas to hasten the kilning process.

Powdery fragments in this red oak bow caused by excessive chemically induced kilning.

The results of an over-kilned bow that despite excellent grain structure did not hold up to shooting because the fibrous inner-wood had been pulverized.

In my view the major mistake made by newcomers in making selfbows is impatience.  Unfortunately, this is somewhat promoted by the literature that often says: “You can make a board bow in a few hours and be shooting it in no time.”  I think that’s poor advice.  Newcomers need to go slowly and thus avoid critical mistakes.  The two worst mistakes are going too fast and thus creating “hinges” that effectively destroy the bow’s overall draw weight, and over-tillering that creates a bow of greatly diminished draw weight.  So my recommendation (even to experienced bow-makers) is be patient.  Go slowly.  Take your time.  Enjoy the process of making the bow and be observant.  I guarantee you that caution in the building stage will result in a much better shooting stick.

I’m testing out a new red oak board bow. Photos help you spot flaws.

I use a variety of tools but mostly I stick with rasps and crooked knives.  My favorite rasps are a farrier’s rasp and the Nicholson #49 and #50 woodworking rasps.  My favorite crooked knives are made by a guy named Longoria….need I say more.  I’ll also use cabinet scrapers but I’ve made dozens of bows (particularly bows fashioned from staves collected in the woods) using nothing more than a couple or three crooked knives.  Honestly folks, if you don’t know how to use a crooked knife then you have not given yourself the opportunity to explore woodcraft in a way that will give you great personal satisfaction.

Most selfbows these days will never taste blood.  They will however encounter many bales of hay and legions of Styrofoam targets.  Some people like golf and others go bowling.  Then there are all of us woods types who just want to build our own bows and then go into the backyard or find a deserted field someplace and spend an hour or two shooting.  It’s absolutely silent and the quiet enhances the experience.  Just you and your bow and a set of well-made arrows and a few bales of hay or even a cardboard box and that’s all you really need.  You built the bow using a board you purchased for less than ten bucks at the local lumberyard or hardware store.  You made your own arrows from river cane or perhaps stems of hardwood growing along the edge of the woods.  Your arrow-points are made of recycled steel or bone or maybe you’ve learned to knap chert or flint.  Maybe you’ll use B-50 string to make your bowstring and you’ll wrap your points and feathers with artificial sinew; or perhaps you braided a string with sinew or rawhide from last year’s buck or used some sort of cordage made from plant material.  Your feathers are from a turkey or even from an old plastic folder you saved from the office.  But the bottom line is you did it all yourself.  And if perchance you go into the woods come hunting season and bring home the venison to feed the family then good for you.  And again, you made everything yourself.  So afterwards you mosey on down to the local sporting goods store and after the clerk finishes his political rant (they all seem to do that) he asks you if you bagged anything this year.  Before you begin he interjects that he shot this or that with his thousand dollar custom rifle or fiberglass contraption with training wheels using a five-hundred dollar scope or red-dot apparatus and then he says, “Well, what did you use?”  And you coyly shrug and say, “Well, I used a five-dollar red oak board (or I cut a branch from the woods behind the house) and made a selfbow and then I went down to the garden store and bought some bamboo stakes and made a set of arrows and I made my arrow-points from some 16 gauge scrap steel I found and used some fletching from domestic turkey feathers.  And I figure the whole shebang cost me about twenty bucks or maybe a little less….”  And now watch the look on that guy’s face as he realizes he’s talking to one hell of a woodsman.  Of course, he won’t ever admit it.


  1. I have made a couple of board bows. The first broke about the midpoint of one limb. The second did not break, but was very weak. I was more successful with another, but nothing to compare to the guys on Primitive Archer or Paleoplanet.

    1. As I'm sure you know, grain structure is extremely important. Study the board from every different angle. How long were your bows? Were they bend through the handle or raised/fixed handle bows? I've had the best success with bows from 64 to 68 inches long. I've made both bend through the handle and fixed handle but lately I've made more fixed (non-bending) handles because I can bring the arrow closer to center.