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Making your own bow – Part 1: The tools and materials for a self-bow

Cleve Cheney, game ranger, hunter, bow enthusiast, and wildlife expert, presents the first of a series of articles on how to make your own bow and arrows.

Basic tools for making a self-bow, different types of wood cut, choosing the correct cut> Basic tools for making a self-bow, different types of wood cut, choosing the correct cut

A modern compound bow is an awesome machine. Split limbs, cams, limb savers, fibre-optic sights, fall-away rest, hi-tech string, stabiliser, trigger release, carbon or carbon/aluminium composite arrows travelling at speeds in excess of 300 feet per second. And yet...

The very high-tech nature of modern archery equipment is what, for many, detracts from the sport. It reminds us too much of the complexities of modern-day life and society. It is also true that the more complex a machine is, the more chance there is of something going wrong with it.

These are perhaps some of the reasons why many archers are turning to the satisfying simplicity of primitive archery – a bent stick, a piece of string and wooden arrows, fletched with feathers. Uncomplicated, uncluttered and beautiful. And there are few things in life that can bring more satisfaction than making this "primitive" equipment yourself.

The smooth, flowing lines of a primitive bow, whether it be of recurve or longbow design, are undeniably pleasing to the eye. They may not shoot an arrow as fast as a compound bow, but in the hands of a practiced archer they can be just as effective. The largest of African game – including elephant and buffalo – have been taken with primitive bows.

It is a common misconception that primitive archery equipment is not very "technological". The truth is that the art of bow and arrow making is highly complex and requires great skill. The primitive bowyer (someone who makes bows and arrows) also had to know how to manufacture glue and sinew and often had to possess flint-knapping skills with which to manufacture broadheads. In this series we will look at what tools you will need, how to select materials, and how to put it all together to make your own bows and arrows.

We will look at how to make a "self-bow" and how to make a recurve bow with composite materials. To begin with we must look at the tools and materials we will need. The tools, apart from the luxury of a belt sander, will be fairly basic.

Tools and materials

Building your own bow can seem a daunting task. What tools to use, what glue? What about choice of wood and tillering techniques, all compounded by a nagging doubt in your own woodworking skills. Start out by deciding that you are going to have fun and half your worries are over.

Let's start at the beginning by looking at what tools and materials you will need.

  • A sawn plank of wood of your choice for the bow – this is referred to as the stave – about 50 millimetres thick, 75 millimetres wide and 1,73 metres long (depending on the length of bow you desire).
  • Cedar shafts (for arrows) – or optional wood of your choice – about 760 millimetres long, plus feathers, sinew and broadheads.
  • A spokeshave (we will describe this later on).
  • A wood rasp and a few assorted bastard files, plus 3, 4, and 5-millimetre rat-tail files.
  • A roll of Dacron string and some serving.
  • Sandpaper – coarse to fine grit.
  • A tillering stick (we will show you how to make one later on).
  • A piece of SA pine about 25 millimetres thick, 100 millimetres wide and about 1,8 metres long, plus some nails (you will need this for making a string jig).
  • Feathers for fletches (these are available commercially or you can get some from a turkey farm).
  • Some tanned leather for covering the bow handle (optional).
  • Varnish (polyurethane).
  • Backing material and glue (optional).
  • Nocks (available commercially or you can cut nocks into the arrows).
  • A wood plane.

The stave

If you buy a plank from a sawmill or timber merchant, be sure to specify that the board is "plain sawn" and that it is free of knots and defects. Plain sawn staves are the best for making bows.
When looking end-on at the rough plank you will be able to see the grain direction of the wood relative to the sides and surfaces of the plank.
Once you have the rough stave cut out, plane it square on all sides or have it passed through a thicknesser.

Choice of wood

There is not much known about indigenous woods for making bows. Wood from the bushwillow (Combretum appiculatum) has been used with some success although it is difficult to find staves long and straight enough. The San bushmen used wood from Grewia spp. (commonly known as the raisin bush or "rosyntjiebos" family) for making both bows and arrows. There are undoubtedly many indigenous woods that will work but you will have to experiment. If you do not wish to experiment (and considering the costs involved in terms of time and money), and want to save yourself a lot of trouble, start your bow-building attempts using proven woods – most of which are exotic.

A list appears below:

  • Red elm – can be used in both longbows and recurves with good results. Is attractive and has good recovery speed. Modulus of elasticity is 1,54.
  • Honey locust – relatively heavy and hard. Can have attractive colour and figure. Modulus of elasticity is 1,63
  • Black locust – an excellent wood for bows. Not very attractive. Modulus of elasticity is 2,05
  • Osage orange – has excellent recovery speed. It has a bright orange-yellow colour which darkens with age. Modulus of elasticity unknown.
  • Maple – a suitable wood for bows and can be very attractive. Light coloured. Modulus of elasticity is 1,83
  • Black walnut – a good bow wood. Dark colour. Modulus of elasticity 1,68
  • Yew is a good wood for making longbows, but not recurves.
  • Bamboo is also good for longbows, but not for making recurves.
  • Hickory makes good bows.
  • Ash and oak make good bows.
  • Other woods which have been used with success – especially as full-length laminations – are zebrawood, canary wood, bubinga, cocobolo, and purpleheart.

Dimensions of the prepared stave

If you cannot get hold of these woods locally you can order a variety of bow-making woods from Bingham Projects Incorporated in the USA. They provide an excellent service worldwide.

You can experiment yourself with different woods. It is important that the wood have a high elastic modulus, which means it recovers quickly to its original shape when bent. Some people refer to this as the "springiness" of the wood. It should also be straight-grained.
In the next article we will look at how to work the wood to create a self-bow.


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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