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HomeSurvivalHuntingBow and Arrow

Making the Bow And Arrow

by Tom Brown, Jr.

For me, there is no greater pleasure than being able to make things for myself instead of running to a store whenever I need something. Hunting equipment need be no exception. I believe that the true essence of the hunt is heightened when one must track then stalk the animal, and further enhanced when the hunter has made his own bow and arrow.

There are numerous types of bows and arrows that can be purchased but none so personal and fine tuned as one that is made with your own hands. Each bow is different, whether you use the short and highly reflexed sinewbacked bow in the style of the plains Indians, or the long recurved bow of the eastern woodlands Indians, or you may incorporate styles, as the bow you make is very personal. This difference is what makes writing an article on making a bow and arrow difficult.

I have made many different bows, but through trial and error certain hunting techniques, terrains, weather conditions, and numerous other variables, I have come up with the bow that best suits me. By conveying the descriptions of the various types of bows I use, I hope that through your own experimentation, visiting museums, and field work, you will be able to use these same methods in creating a bow that fits you and your hunting technique.

Please keep in mind that I am not discussing the making of a survival bow and arrow using primitive equipment. Survival bows are of a different technique and design that allow the survivalist to make a strong bow quickly and one that is used primarily for close range hunting. What I will be covering are techniques used in making the long term bows that take much time and effort, not to mention an artistic touch, but will out perform store-bought bows because they fit you.

I have a few different types of bows to fit my hunting needs. I am a tracker, stalker, close-range hunter and I prefer a bow that is recurved like an eastern woodland but smaller, with sinew backing for strength and snap. A small bow is excellent for stalking through heavy brush and getting close, tight shots. In rainy weather I am forced to use a longer recurve bow with a plant fiber bow string to resist the dampness. And when I bow fish, I prefer a long self bow.

In this article I will describe each of the bows, the materials, preparation, and techniques. I will also cover how to make various arrows to fit the bows you have made, and describe how to fine tune a bow so that it fits your hunting style and personal touch.

Nothing teaches as well as experience, so jump right in, make a few mistakes, and keep after the art until you have mastered it. For further reading, I recommend American Indian Archery by Reginald and Gladys Laubin, published by University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. I personally feel that this is one of the best books on the market. Laubin has refined his skill to a level of art that some of us can only dream of achieving.

The best woods for a bow are Osage orange, yew, ash, or hickory. In some areas of the country honey locust, mountain mahogany, and juniper were used. Generally, the different woods used by the native Americans were native to the various geographic regions in which they lived. If one of these woods do not grow in your area, you should be able to obtain most of these through a specialty hardwood dealer. My preferred bow wood is Osage orange, then yew, though for the long recurve or long bow I prefer white ash.

When you harvest the wood, you should look for a stave that will be about 5 1/2 feet long. If you are cutting a tree, look for one that is 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 inches in diameter, free of knots, blemishes, and very straight. If you are cutting a sapling, it should be I inch in diameter, 5 1/2 feet long, free of knots, blemishes, and very straight. I prefer to cut my saplings in February when the sap is down. Remember that the wood is a gift from the tree and the Creator, and should be taken with respect.

I then season my wood by keeping it in a wood shed until spring and then moving it indoors until it has seasoned at least one full year. Keep the stave in a cool, dry place during the indoor seasoning process. Once it is seasoned it is then time to remove all the bark.

Do not carve away the bark as you would peel a carrot, but scrape it off holding your knife at a 90 angle. This will prevent you from slipping and cutting into the wood itself.

If you are using a sapling, carefully split it down its full length. You may sometimes get two bow staves from a single piece. I don't trust splitting and would rather carve away, using a draw knife, until I have my desired thickness. Bows made from saplings will have a semi-circular cross section when finished.

If you are using a small tree, split it carefully in half, then in half again. Some of my instructors get four bow staves out of a 3-inch tree but, once again, I do not trust my second split and usually finish the job with a draw knife. Bows made from a small tree will usually have a rectangular cross section, or a slightly curved rectangular cross section.

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After you have made your initial split or have shaped with the draw knife, it is important that you never carve on the stave again. Carving tends to cross out some of the grain and makes the bow prone to splitting. Further shaping will be done with scrapers, abraders, and sanders.

Now you are ready to make your bow. It's a good idea to ask the bow stave what type of bow it wants to become rather than you making it what you think it should be. In other words, take into consideration grain, wood quality, and general growth patterns to help you decide how to shape the bow.

Generally speaking, a wide, thin bow is the best for softwood because it will resist cracking. I find that softwood tends to splinter a little easier than hardwood bows. Hardwood bows can be a little narrower and thicker because they are less brittle. If you are going to sinew-back your bow it makes little difference which one you choose.

When I make my bows, I never rely on tape measures and calipers for I do all my bows by feel. I have learned to use the simple measurements of my hands. I measure the limbs of the bow by what feels good to me, and also what feels good for the wood. Everything I do is by touch, eyesight, and inner feeling. The dimensions given in this article are by no means law, but just a list of averages to help you in making your first bow. After you have made a bow or two, you will begin to rely on your inner feelings and eyesight measurements, thus producing the bow that is as personal as your picture.

The Long Bow, Self Bow, or Straight Bow

No matter which name you use, they are all generally the same style and made in the same manner. The same techniques for making the long bow will apply to the beginning of all other types of bows, no matter what the shape or finished design. Keep in mind also that a bow can be made by splicing two staves of wood together where the handle will be, but that technique is not my preferred method.

The first thing I do is to decide what type of bow shape I want to make. Is it going to be wide and thin, or narrower and thick? Next I find the center point of the bow and from the centerline measure out 3 inches to one side and 3 inches to the other.

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In this article I will be discussing a bow which is 5 feet long and made from ash. You may make them any length from 3 1/2 feet long to over 6 feet long, depending on your preference. The stave will be 2 1/2 inches wide and I inch thick.

Once I have marked off my hand hold area and know my general shape, I then begin to thin out the limbs of the bow. Starting from the outside of the hand hold lines and using a bastard file I begin thinning and tapering the bow from about a 5/8 inch thickness near the handle to a 3/8 inch thickness at the tip. What I am trying to achieve is a smooth, even tapering. The width should also be slowly tapered from 2 1/2 near the handle to 1/2 inch at the tip. Take care not to get carried away and try to taper the limbs like a storebought fiberglass bow, as this will give you a lack of strength (see illustration). The back and sides of the bow should remain as flat as possible.

I then begin to work the handle and this becomes a matter of personal preference; in order words, what feels good to you. The handle has to be thinned in width and in thickness until it fits your hand comfortably and also allows you room to place the arrow. I never put an arrow guide or ledge on my bow as I prefer to use my hand as most native Americans did (see illustration).

Once the handle is comfortable and all the lines and tapers are relatively smooth, it's time to finish off the bow with a finer file such as a mill file. Then the bow should be tested to see if the limbs pull evenly. This is accomplished by tying a string to the ends, placing your foot on the handle of the bow and pulling upwards slightly. Be careful not to pull the ends up more than an inch as this may only cause splitting if the limbs are not even. If you find that one limb pulls easier than the other, carefully abrade away the belly of the stronger limb, using a small mill file until they pull evenly. Once you have made the preliminary adjustments, sand the entire bow smooth.

To finish the bow, it must be oiled with fat or brains to keep it supple and semi-waterproof. The native Americans used bear or deer fat that had been rendered and was applied warm. Deer brains were also used after being warmed up slightly, as you do in brain tanning of leather. The bow was then set close to a fire to warm the fat and drive it deeper into the wood. My personal preference is to mix rendered fat and deer brains and apply the mixture warm, then set high above my wood stove to drive in the oils. Once this is done, the long bow is ready to shoot, but go easy at first. Sometimes, no matter what we do, the bow will snap, through no fault of ours but because of inconsistencies or flaws in the wood. There is nothing more to do but try again.

Later in this article we will be discussing the sinew-backed bow. Sinew can also be applied to this bow using the same method. The sinew will keep the bow from breaking, improve the snap and cast, and add pulling pounds to the bow. I suggest very strongly that all your bows be sinewbacked, which will increase its longevity.

Recurved Bow

To add more snap and cast to your bow and make its performance more volatile, you may want to add a recurve to your bow. This is quite easily accomplished and adds tremendously to your bow's performance.

Make the bow as you did when you made your long bow and stop just before you put on the fat and brains, the usual finishing process. What you are going to do now is bend in the recurves at the ends of the bow, usually the last 6 or 7 inches.

Using a pot of boiling water, immerse one end of the bow, up to about the 9 inch mark, and let it sit for 2 1/2 to 4 hours. I use my wood stove and add humidity to the house at the same time my bow is cooking. While the bow end is in the water, I cut out a curve pattern on a 2 x 4 piece of scrap lumber (see illustration).

Once the bow end is removed from the kettle, I then place it onto the form and clamp it down. The best way to accomplish this is to clamp the tip of the bow first, then using the bow as a lever, slowly bend the bow back over the form. The finished set will be clamped in two places and it is a good idea to place a small square of wood between the clamp and bow to keep it from getting dented.

At that point, when the one end is clamped, I begin to boil the other, repeating the whole process. I then allow the bow to dry for a day in a warm, dry place.

The next step is to remove the clamps and fine-tune your bow. This is accomplished by removing a little of the belly wood just before the recurve. I usually take off 1/16 to 1/8 inch of wood from the curve to 6 inches back. I find that by doing this the bow has better snap with very little jolt. Some authorities say that it also keeps the recurve or ears from snapping off. (Please keep in mind that the tips curve out over the bow back.) Once your bow is fine tuned, you can either sinewback it or finish it up the same way you did the long bow.

If you want to go further, you can add a reflex to your bow by simply bending the back of the bow at the center. Heat the center of the bow over a steaming kettle for two hours or more, lay the back over a small log, and stand on the ends until cool. This will produce a back curve or reflex, adding even more cast and snap to your bow. This should be used if you are making a bow short like the plains Indian bows (around 40 inches long).

Sinew-backing Your Bow

As I mentioned earlier in this article, sinew-backing can be done on any bow and it will improve the bow's performance, longevity, and prevent breakage.

The two necessary ingredients needed to sinew-back a bow are sinew (the leg and back tendons of animals), and hide glue (the glue made from hide shavings and hooves of animals).

I prefer the leg sinew of deer or elk, but I have found horse, goat, and moose sinew just as good. To obtain the sinew, simply remove the sinew (tendon) bundles from the leg and back of the animal. If you aren't a hunter, contact your local animal rendering service or slaughterhouse and arrange to buy some. Usually they will just give it to you and be convinced you are strange.

Prepare the sinew by removing the clear sheath that holds together the bundles and set the bundles high over your stove to dry. When dry, pound the bundles with a wooden mallet or soft rock over a board anvil. This pounding process breaks apart the bundles into fine threads of various lengths.

To prepare the hide glue, put bits of rawhide, hooves, hide scrapings, and chopped dew claws into a pot of water and boil for several hours. You may want to skim off the oils and debris that bubble up on top to give a finer consistency. After several hours of boiling you will end up with a thick, gooey mass called hide glue. Another alternative is to buy commercial hide glue at your local hobby shop and try that. I prefer to make it myself, as store bought lacks the aesthetic value of homemade.

I first prepare the back surface of my bow by scoring it with a hard abrasive rock. This gives the sinew plenty of nooks to seep into and take hold. I then paint the bow back with a light mixture of hide glue and water (preferably distilled water). If you feel that you may have gotten hand grease on your bow back, you can lightly sponge it off with a detergent and water mixture, then let dry. Next apply the hide glue/water coating.

I keep my hide glue in a water bath on the stove so that it is hot to the touch. I find that if it is at room temperature, it works gummy and sets up too fast. I also find that the drying time varies. I first wet the sinew then place it into the hide glue to soak, a few strands at a time. Starting at the center of your bow and working outward, place on a strip of glue-soaked sinew evenly. The glue should not be oozing from the surface of the sinew but pressed out between your fingers when removed from the pot. Make sure that you stagger your sinew application, especially when using short leg sinew, to avoid any seams. Make the sinew application took like a mosaic, even, and cover the entire back surface of the bow with the sinew glue mixture. I keep applying sinew all the way to the tips, then over to the belly side for about 2 inches. Once the bow is sinewed, I stop and let it dry, and then put on 2 or 3 more coats. I then let the entire bow dry for 3 to 6 weeks.

Some people apply powdered clay as a final coat, or even powdered sea shells, but this is mostly cosmetic. Some people even apply glued rawhide to the belly for cosmetics, but I am a naturalist and am not looking for cosmetics. These practices do aid in preparing the surface for painting if you are so inclined.

After the bow is dry, I shoot it a few times at half draw to see if I need any more fine tuning. If you find that you need more off the one limb, simply file it away. Sinew can be worked with a file also.

Finally, the bow is finished with a rendered fat or deer brain's mush the same way as I described for the long bow. This time, however, I do not place the bow near the fire for deep penetration. Some native Americans would finish their bow by glueing on a snakeskin to further protect the bow from weather. Always oil your bow twice a year to keep it in good shape.

As time progresses you will find that the sinew continually pulls against the belly of the bow, producing a backward curve. Usually, after a year passes the sinew will have pulled all it is going to. So expect it.

Bowstrings

Bowstrings are made using the reverse-wrap method of making cordage that I described in Mother Earth News Volume 79, 1982, only you will be using sinew in most cases. For bow string, what I do is a double-reverse wrap. By reverse wrapping more than ice the length of the bow, then loading the cord in half again and reverse wrapping it, you will have a very strong and durable bow string. . Plant fibers can also be made into bow strings the same way, but they are pot as good. Plant fiber bow strings, however, will not stretch like sinew bow strings in foul weather. Velvet leaf, dogbane, and nettles make good bow strings for wet weather purposes.

Arrows

Now, to go with your self-made and very personal bow, you are going to need arrows that are just as personal. Cherry, service berry, cane, reed, ash, dogwood, cedar, and high bush blueberry are some of the best woods to use for an arrow shaft. Select 1/2-inch diameter 3 foot shafts from straight saplings that are virtually free of knots and collected during the winter, when the sap is down.

Bundle the saplings together into tight bundles, tied every few inches, and season the same way you did for your bow. Reed and cane should be collected at the end of the growing season, just after they turn brown. Reed should be spread out flat to dry and not bundled. (More about reeds and cane later on.)

After the shafts have seasoned, scrape off the bark the same way you removed the bark from the bow stave, by scraping and not carving. For a 5 foot long bow, arrows are cut and measured from the tip of your fingers to the arm pit about 30 inches. For a shorter bow your arrows will be about 25 inches. Smooth the shafts down to 1/4 or 5/16 inches in diameter using coarse sandpaper and working down to a fine grit sandpaper or emery cloth. Once smooth, grease the shafts with rendered fat and let them heat by the fire to drive in the oils.

The shafts are then straightened, simply by heating them by the fire and bending them straight at the curves until cool. Sometimes it is necessary to use an arrow straightener for stubborn curves. An arrow straightener or arrow wrench is made by drilling a hole through a deer antler that is just a bit larger than the diameter of the shaft. The straightener is used by placing the hot arrow through the hole and using the antler like a lever to bend out the curves. But be careful to select the straightest shafts you can find to prevent straightening trouble. The finished product will be as smooth, straight, and dowel-like as a store-bought shaft.

The next step is to fletch the arrow. I find that a 6-inch long fletching, trimmed to 1/2 inch in height is ideal, and very closely resembles the native American type of fletching. For this turkey tail feathers are the best, though in a pinch any tail feather from a medium to large bird will do.

Carefully cut three fletches from the tail feathers by cutting along the median line of each feather. Carve away the pitch and crop the feather. This is a good time to trim the feathers to the proper height so that they are all the same size and shape.

The fletches are carefully held in place on the thicker end of the shaft, and the front is wrapped tight with leg sinew. Some people temporarily hold the feathers in place with a pitch or diluted hide glue to free the hands. Sinew is applied by first preparing it into threads, as you did for your bow back, then wetting with saliva. The sinew is then wrapped on evenly and snugly. The saliva and sinew method forms its own glue and does not have to be tied. This wrapping is almost transparent, lays close to the shaft, and tightens up as it dries.

The back of the fletching is wrapped up to the base of the nock location. I then abrade in a U-shaped nock with a small rat-tail file until it ends on the top fletch sinew wrap. This way, the nock is supported by the sinew and prevents the string of heavy bows from splitting the shaft. Take care that you knock in at the proper position to allow two feathers to pass the bow side evenly in flight.

Arrow tips vary with location, laws, and terrain. A survival arrow tip can be made of fire-hardened wood, bone, antler, stone, or metal. In my state it is illegal to hunt with anything other than a razor steel broad head. Steel heads are easily cut out with a jig saw and filed to sharpness. Take care to make the proper base so that the arrowhead can be firmly wrapped onto the shaft, and small enough so as to not weight down the tip of the arrow.

Bone arrowheads can be made almost as sharp and as deadly as steel broadheads, and the same shape. just use the cannon bone from a deer; split, and file to shape and sharpness.

Stone arrow heads can be made from flint, chert, jasper, quartz, obsidian, and even glass. This method of stone working and knapping would take a whole other chapter to cover and cannot be treated in the. scope of this article. However, stone heads can be just as sharp and deadly as steel when made in the proper way.

Reed

Reed shafts are made virtually the same as hardwood shafts with the exception that they have to be cut specially. Cut the nock end about 1/2 inch from the joint and insert a small wood plug that will be filed to hold your nock. The wood shaft can be glued in place or sinewed. The head end is cut 2 inches from the joint and a 4 to 5-inch wood shaft is sinewed or glued into the reed, buttressing up against the joint on the inside. The overall length of the arrow will vary according to your bow size, the same as a wood shaft arrow, and they are both fletched, nocked, and pointed in the same way. (Reed shaft arrows are the lightest and fastest arrows I have ever seen.)

TvIII-1pg08.jpg (7486 bytes) Conclusion

I have not gone into the history of bows nor into much detail about the various bow styles of the native Americans. The styles, type of woods used, and arrows are as varied as each tribe. By no means believe that the native American archer was primitive, but rather highly sophisticated and accurate.

Before the white man and his tools, the native American painstakingly abraded away and sanded his bows with stone tools or scraped with bone and flint chips. The finished product was just as beautiful and serviceable as any bow and arrow made with modern tools. Certainly, the process took a lot longer, but time was not important to the Indian.

Bows also have a background in Europe, China, and, of course, the famous Turkish bows, and it is probably one of the most effective hunting tools the world has ever known. Bows are silent, accurate, and test the hunter to his full skill and allow him to reach his fullest potential as a person well equipped to manufacture his own equipment. A nice skill to have when prices are soaring, especially on the hunting market.

I believe that bow hunting, with a homemade bow, brings that hunter closer in harmony with the natural world.


From The Tracker magazine, 1984, published by the Tracker School.
For more articles from The Tracker magazine, visit the Tracker Trail website.

For more material by and about Tom Brown Jr. and the Tracker School visit the Tracker Trail website.