This started out as a build along, but then I realized that the bow was becoming a big pain in my butt so I'm just going through the process to build a simple self bow. So here's a quick run down of how to build a simple selfbow bow:
That's it. Now I'll walk you through with some more detail and pictures.
Stepİ I start by cutting a straight, knot free hickory tree (hickory being my favorite local wood- but please see "Bow Woods" for a better selection). I cut out a six foot section and removed the bark without harming the outside layer of wood. The outside layer of wood is going to be the back of the bow, and needs to be intact. Splitting it in half to get a nice clean stave to work with (if not two or more). You'll want to make sure that with white wood bows, unless you're going to back them, that the outter layer of wood is uniform and undamaged. The final bow will be much more durable that way.
Step 2 Once the nice, pretty stave is acquired, I go about laying out the profile.
For length: for most normal draws, between 64" and 70" overall is usually the best compromise of speed, durability, and ease of construction. For my 29.5" draw, I prefer bows that wind up between 65" and 69" between the nocks. Longer bows store more energy and are more stable, shorter bows have a better dry fire speed (efficiency) and require less wood and materials.
For width: If a bow is 2" at the widest part of the limbs, it will be able to tolerate a draw up to the specific gravity (if the SG is .55, the bow will be about 55#, if it's .8, the bow will be about 80#, etc.). With hickory being .7 to .75, I opt to go for full width. Lighter draw would be narrowed to 1 3/4" or even 1 1/2" for lighter bows with dense woods. You can use just about any wood if you adjust width accordingly.
Handle: This depends on your taste. I make my bows with a 4 1/2" long handle and 2 1/2" long fades. The wider it is, the more weight for stability but the harder to hold. I like 1" or so wide. For depth, 1 3/4" is the AMO standard, but a deeper handle allows for more wood to work with and a smaller handle allows less stress with a lower overall brace height. The more wood you have to work with on depth, the more stable you can make the bow. Fun part about wood bows is you can make them however you want (at least however physics will allow). Now, the most crucial part of the handle is the fades, the transition from the handle to the limbs. Your thickness must transition as your width changes. Same time. No final limb thickness ending before final width. This will be a blow up. The fades are not part of the handle, and shouldn't be treated as such. They are the transition from the handle, to the limbs. That is their function. As the handle starts to thin, it should become wider. Once it reaches limb thickness, it should be full width. A longer fade looks nicer and is easier to do. A shorter fades leaves more limb for work, but at the same time is under more stress. If you're using lumber, make sure that you make your handle a little wider than normal, and that the section of board under the riser block is thicker than the limbs!!!
----I want to take a quick moment to talk about D bows. These are bows that don't have a thicker, narrowed handle, but bend their entire length. This is the kind of bow you see Native Americans shooting in old paintings or the bow Robin Hood would have used. These bows are under alot less stress. Naturally, they're more narrow (usually 1 1/2" or less) and can be made shorter. If you have a splinter of a stave or need a really short bow, these are usually the way to go. Some folks find them a little harder to hold, being thin and wider, but they make great hutning bows. Made from dense woods or backed with sinew, they can be made as narrow as 1", so arrows will react the same from them as they would from stiff handled bows. Ipe, especially laminated with hickory or bamboo, Osage, juniper (especially sinew backed), elm, locust, yew, etc. all make great little D bows in a short order. I usually start my D bows at 1 1/2" wide over the full length, usually winding up about 1 1/4" to 1 3/8" in the middle 10-24". For thickness, start 3/4" in the middle tapering to about 5/8" thick at the tips. This is pretty thick for a short bow, so for shorter weapons you can reduce that 1/8" the entire length, or even 1/4" thinner if necessary. Bending these bows to make them reflexed, reflex-deflex, or whatever else can make these bows perfrom exceptionally well or make them very short and stand very long draws. So if ever you have a small good stave that you don't know what to do with, don't forget the simple D bow.----
I start with the width when I'm roughing out a bow. Not only do I bring it close to the final dimensions, but I also make sure the sides are flush and parallel. This provides a flat surface to draw out the final thickness on too. Thickness is adjusted for tillering, but normally I lay out a pyramid-ish flatbow with 1/2" thick the entire length of the limbs. You'll have a stout weapon here, but after removing wood from the inner section you should still have enough thickness to narrow the tips while keeping them stiff.
If the wood is dry and sound, this should yield a stout weapon, even more so if the belly is tempered or the bow is backed with sinew. Starting out with a dense wood or plenty of width will help make sure you have plenty of weight and don't come out too light.
Another benefit to having the limbs so thin and wide is that now the bow will dry much faster. A sharp cutting tool like a hatchet or drawknife will cut through green wood like a hot knife through butter. Putting the almost final dimensions bow in a hot box or out in the sun and wind at that point will allow the stave to dry much faster. Woods like hickory and elm are great for this, but Osage, locust, and mulberry should be sealed with shellac to prevent checking. You can go from tree to bow in about a month or two, rather than having to wait a year or more for the entire stave to dry before working it.
Thickness should be drawn out and roughed in, and constantly monitored by running your fingers along the length. You want a smooth, even taper without high or low spots. If you can achieve that, you're on the right track for a durable, well tillered bow. Low spots are what break bows and make kids bows from what would have been a hunting bow. Avoid them!
Step 3 At this point, it's wet and ready for drying. Being roughed very close to final dimensions and debarked, the bow blank will dry very fast. Before we get to drying let's go back over what we have:
A hardwood flatbow. As long as you can make it for the given situation, maybe a little longer in case you want/need to shorten it later (let's assume
I use a hot box, which is just a plywood bow that's six feet long, one foot square, with three 60 Watt bulbs and an emergency foil blanket lining. Placed in there, I leave it for about a month to dry out. Nothing fancy. A moisture meter would do well to help check, but I don't like the stupid little prong marks. You can weigh it, watching until after a week it won't lose anymore weight, but I don't have such an accurate scale that reads in that range, or you can do what I do: watch the wood. Dry wood isn't as good as seasoned wood, so it won't be perfect, but dry wood will react to files, rasps, and drawknives just like seasoned wood. The stave will be much lighter in the hand, and won't want to stay bent if you give the limbs a big bend and hold them there for a little while (likewise, the limbs will be very stiff compared to when you started). Once it appears to reach this point, an extra week will be enough to make sure. Any time more than that and you're safe. Hickory works best at this, and most white woods work well, but be sure that if you use such an aggresive drying method with a softer wood, that you allow a few days to a week to make sure it's not too dry.
Step 4 With the stave thus dried, you can feel safe in narrowing the outer limbs, adjusting for any twisting you can at this point. Try not to move the tips too far to one side and lose thickness as a result if your stave has a high crown. Starting in the middle of the limb, I tapered straight from 2" wide six to eight inches from the fades down to about 3/8" at the tip. You can see that it's starting to really look like a bow at this point!
Step 5 With the bow roughed out and ready to be made into a working weapon, this is the point where I usually straighten it out and induce bend. You'll want to start by floor tillering, that is, pushing the tips of the bow against the floor one at a time to watch for stiff spots (scraped down) or stiff limbs (entire limb scraped down). To induce bend you can either steam it or use a heat gun, or grease the bow up and bend it over a fire (very effective by the way!) Since my bows are a bit heavy and long for that, I like the heat gun. Below is a reflex-deflex form, just two blocks screwed onto a 2x4 with clamps. Very simple. You'll want to bend it slightly past where you'll want it to end up.
To steam a bow, put a put of water on to boil, place the suspect spot on top of it, and cover with tin foil. Allow to steam for 30 minutes to an hour, with more time for more extreme bends or thicker wood. It's really simple. Once it's steamed, immediately clamp it down and let it sit for a day or so.
R/D bowReflex tips
You can temper now or after you've tillered the bow, but I'll tell you how to temper now. Before I tempered using a heat gun, but that eventually killed the poor thing. Now I use a hot plate. Positiong the tillered bow about 1" or so from the plate set on high, I carefully watch it as I let the heat rise up and harden the belly. You want the belly to turn a dark brown and the back to become too hot to touch (don't worry about a little smoke, that's normal.) It normally takes about thirty minutes to an hour per limb, so don't start if you don't have the time to devote to it. You can also suspend the bow over bed of hardwood coals, primitive style, which works well once you get used to it. For my best tempering results I tiller the bow out and make sure it's at the weight I want and then temper before shooting the bow in, but many have built exellent bows tempering earlier (say before tillering). I'd make sure the limbs are at least even with the long string however.
Back to the bow. At this point, once I take it off the form, I file it down so the edges of the back and belly are smooth and rounded. I remove the tool marks now, while the weight is still high and I can afford to do so. The sooner it starts looking like a bow, the sooner I start babying it. I also round the handle off, unless it's not deep enough for the kind of handle I want, where I'd have to glue something on to build it out. Usually getting it looking nice before serious tillering is the easiest way to make sure you don't lose alot of draw weight afterwards when you start sanding more seriously. If the wood is flawed and needs more securtiy, you can glue on a cloth or rawhide backing at this point. Such bows cannot be tempered afterwards though.
On to the tiller. For nocks I cut pin nocks, which is just making a small shoulder at an angle to hold the string. Since I hate to make nocks, this was perfect.You'd be surpised how narrow a little shoulder you need to actually hold a string tight on the limbs.
Now, for tillering.I start by floor tillering, which is just bending the bow tips against the floor to feel how heavy the limbs are and to watch for stiff or weak spots. Using a string long enough to put on the nocks without bending the bow and a tillering stick (a 2x4 with a notch to hold the bow and notched on the sides to hold the string). I also use a second string to simulate a bow string and make it easier to see the difference in bends. Small bends at first. What I'm shooting for is smooth, even bend with no hinges and the top limb a tiny bit weaker than the bottom one. Three under shooters will want the limbs closer to even. If you got it close in floor tillering (which is good reason to go slow and carefully), it should already be pretty darn close!
Starting with the long string, begin to bend the limbs toward brace height. Mark stiff spots and file the limbs down at that point (same goes for thick spots, file them down too.) This is pretty simple, and if you play it by thickness as much as by appearence (your eyes can play tricks!), you'll wind up with a very nice bend in a short time. Go slow. A second string to simulate a bowstring will help. Likewise, as long as you're not trusting your eyes, mark 10" and 20" from the ends of the handle onto the limbs. Measure from these marks to the simulated bow string. Compare the limbs to each other using these marks. I like 1/8" to 1/4" difference in my bows, with the stiffer limb on the bottom. Likewise, if a bow has a longer limb, I like that to be the top.
Once you reach what would be brace height, brace it up. If it's too strong to brace, evenly file down the whole limbs (actually, you can leave the tips thicker/stiffer for a better shooting bow later). The first brace is usually the best time to make sure the bow isn't too heavy. Overstressing the bow this early will cause lots of set or even failure. Once it's braced, continue tiller just as you had before until the braced bow is now drawing to about 16".
At this point, you'll want to start using a scale to tiller for "No Set Tillering". Mark thick spots, but don't file them yet. Instead, pull the bow, with a scale, to 16" and read the weight. Now let it down and pull it to 17". Check the weight and let it down. Draw again to 16". Is the weight the same as it was before? If not, then unstring and remove wood from the high spots you marked. Now, mark any spots left and redo this exercise. If the weight at 16" remains the same, let down and redraw to 18". Let down and check at 16".
Keep doing this, taking it one inch farther each time and then rechecking the weight at 16". Any time the bow starts losing poundage, touch up stiff spots or stiff limbs. If the limbs are perfeclty balanced (keep an eye on that too), but still losing weight, then the wood isn't dense/elastic enough to withstand that weight. File the whole limbs down. A little weight loss isn't bad, and is actually expected, but more than 3#-4# is not so good.
Once you reach full draw, check your weight and shoot it a little. If it's lighter, or you're intending to temper it anyway, I'd do that before shooting. Temper your bow and let it sit to rehydrate. Gently ease it back to full draw, even going through the tillering stick if you have to. Shoot it some, making sure to note the amount of handshock and the draw weight. If the bow starts losing weight (which, if you followed the "No Set Tillering" properly, it shouldn't) then chuck it back in the hot box immediately and let it dry out. moisture is a jerk about causing set.
Step 6 Time to fine tune that bow. Handshock is the result of a bow that has too-heavy tips. Narrow them short of causing them to bend too much. My favorite nock size is a little under 5/16", even on bows going up to 75#. Don't just look at the tips, but the entire outer third of the limbs. File the sides down until you start seeing a concave or "Eiffel Tower" taper to the tips. Go as light as stiffness and taste permits. Most longbows have a little bump, however, so don't expect too little handshock at first.
Another thing to do now is to adjust the arrow pass thickness. If you have a very narrow handle, there's not much you can do, but wider handles allow a little variation (except D bows, these cannot be narrowed muc at all). I like to narrow mine to the point where a bareshafted arrow matching the rest will shoot straight to the center of the target at 20 yards or so. Sorta like adjusting the rest on a compound or fiberglass recurve.
Once your bow is done and shooting, you may find the weight is still not what you want. If it's light, your best option is to shorten the bow. I don't like flat bows shorter than 64" nock to nock unless I use a thin bublous handle, so I don't have alot of room to shorten usually, but removing 2-4" from each limb can boost weight considerably, if you started off long enough to do so. Another option is to shorten it, and then back it with sinew. A shortened, sinew-reflexed bow can draw 5-25# more than it had before, depending on how much you shortened it. The reflex and sinew should help the now shorter bow store a similiar amount of energy. Tempered bows, yew bows, ipe bows, and Osage bows stand piking (shortenning) better than others.
Sometimes wood or bows just don't work out. At times bad wood just won't work, and you get alot of string follow (distance the tips sit back of the straight plane, towards the archer). Likewise, at times we're just in a hurry or not paying attention, or jsut starting and don't know any better. If you get less than 2" of string follow, you can consider this bow a success. If you 1" of string follow or less, you can consider the bow a grand success! Lower brace heights, longer and wider limbs, tempering and more careful tillering all lower set (total amount of unbraced tip movement). If you start out with reflex, and end up with reflex, success! Watch for wet wood and tiller carefully, and you should have no issue making a good bow.
Step 7 For finish, wood stains, leather alcohol dies, and various paints or backings can be used to spruce up a bow. I like Minwax wood stains (ebony and walnut being my favorite). Three coats usually produce a beautiful finish. You can use cut in shelves if you like, which should be cut after tillering, or use a glue on shelf of leather, cork, wood, or antler. Leather is my favorite. For finishes, Tru Oil, Spar Urethane, and more flexible Polyurethanes all make excellent finishes. Many thin coats are better than just a few thick coats. Shellac is also an excellent finish.
A new finish I've started to enjoy using is paraffin. Paraffin is canning wax and can be found at any store that carries masonry jars. Paraffin requires that the bow be bare, as anilines will bleed through and stains will seal the wax off. Just heat the bow up (like in a hot box) and melt the wax into the bow with a heat gun. When the bow will drink no more, let it cool. Rub off the excess. Paraffin takes almost little time to apply, no time to dry, is very cheap, easy to use, and is extremely effective at preventing moisture from causing trouble. Up keep should be maintained by using a paste made by dissolving paraffin shavings in lighter fluid.
Once the bow is finished and dry, I let my bows sit braced for four to eight hours. After that, I unstring them and check the string follow. If there's not alot of set at this point, at least no more or only slightly more than it had accumulated during tillering, I let it sit for half an hour or so and check the draw weight. This is the weight and draw length I write on the limb.
Handle grips, limb wraps, strike plates and decorations can be completely up to you. Whatever suits your fancy. I like leather grips and jute cord wraps, and occasionally drawing or adding limb wraps. Snakeskins are attractive, and lots of faux pattern materials available from fabric stores can make a bow extra special. Whatever looks nice to you. If you want snakeskins, those are best applied before the finish, same with sinew. Sinew bows are especially susceptible to moisture, so snake or fish skin covers are usually best for protection.
There you have it! For more info, look into The Traditional Bowyer's Bibles vol. 1-4 and Primitive Archer Magazine and primitivearcher.com. Also feel free to email me wth questions. Good luck!!!