Bows made from wood and other natural matierals have a romance and economy to them. Carrying a selfbow or sinew backed bow into the field with a quiver of well crafted wooden arrows in pursuit of big game brings about a feeling to which nothing else can compare. However, such weapons have limitations that many don't feel are worth that romantic nostalgia or low wallet-impact. For that reason, we breed the age old simplicity and reliability with space-age materials.
When I started building these bows I had a tough time finding much useful information, and most of what I found was lacking in basic layout. Hopefully this helps get you started, and if you become super successful... don't forget about me!
A quick run through of the basic steps in the process:
1. Obtain fiberglass, glue, wood, and laminations (if you're buying your lams instead of building them)
2. Build a form and hot box (if you don't already have them)
3. Prepare laminations (unless you bought them) and riser
4. Glue the bow up and put it into the hot box
5. Clean the bow up and rough out the shape
6. Tiller, sand, and finish
You're going to need a few things. Unlike selfbows and sinew backed bows, there's no getting around needing tools and good materials.
1... For limbs, I use hicory now because it's incredibly strong. Maple and cherry are some of the best for speed, but elm, walnut, hickory, white oak, locust, and the like all work fine. Bamboo is a favorite but requires certain procedural differences that makes them more expensive, and not all that extra in performance, if any. Frankly, the fiberglass is doing all the work so any hard wood with good grain should work about the same, more or less. If making a short bow, under 62", use a hardwood and avoid soft woods like juniper or yew. For fiberglass, you'll need actual BOW LAMINATION FIBERGLASS from Binghams, 3 Rivers, or Kustom King. Black and other color glass has three advantages over clear glass, at least for beginners: 1) the glass is usually cheaper; 2) the dark glass saves you money by allowing you to use whatever wonderful, rugged, cheap- yet plain- local domestic woods you have, rather than high priced exotics; 3) if you have any bubbles or flaws in the glue lines, you won't see them with dark glass, but they'd be ugly as sin with clear. Last but not least, I personally prefer the nice contrast that black glass gives to natural woods. I mean, if I wanted a bow to look just like a selfbow... I'd build a selfbow. However, it's entirely up to you, and clear fiberglass does make an attractive bow if you choose the right wood combinations.
The riser can be whatever wood you want. If it's a light or weaker wood, your best bet for strength is to use multiple laminations of the wood. I personally would never bother with a light wood, regardless of how attractive. Heavy, dense woods with nice colors are usually the best choice. My own bows feature the ever-available red oak for risers, a nice combination of weight, beauty, and economy that stains well. Use what you like!
-Files and rasps, and a handsaw or two (definately a sharp hack saw)
-Vice and/or several clamps
-Table saw and saber/jig saw**
-Belt sander/ Power sander of some sort**
-Spindle sander or spindle/drum sanding bit for a drill press (make sure the drum is at least 2" wide)
-Micrometers/Calipers, tape measure, and ruler/combination square*
*These are the most essential tool for building these bows, period. You have to be able to tell how the limbs are balanced before you glue up, if they're too far off you're going to be in trouble and most likely won't wind up with what you want. The only style you might be able to get away with it is a long, straight Hill style. Likewise, if you want any chance of even getting an idea what your weight might be, you need them.
**These tools are helpful regardless, but are only really necessary if you're doing your own lams. Careful work with handtools will give you a riser, especially if you're using a straight riser and not one with curves on the back as well as the fades (like a striaght bow or a longbow with slight R/D only in the limbs). However, gluing up your own bow like this doesn't really seem to me like actually "building" the bow, and is exactly what several folks say the Bingham's DVD's are. If you're looking to just glue up the parts and don't have the tools, then Bingham's will probably be a better bet than this tutorial.
Personally, if you are planning on doing more than a few bows for yourself and family, get a good bandsaw and drum sander. I got mine from Grizzly and they work great. Get extra blades and abrasives, and you're good to go. If you're only building one or two bows though, DON'T worry about tools. Just be willing to invest the time necessary to get it done right.
First, what kind of bow do you want to make? If you're thinking something curvey, well, that's what I'm building! If you're thinking a straight bow, like a Hill bow, or perhaps a bow with just a touch of R/D to the limbs, I want you to pat yourself on the back. Those bows are a hundred times easier, and though they don't perform as well on average in terms of raw FPS numbers, a proud papa or mama shouldn't mind if their darling isn't the best of the best. It'll serve you well never the less, and make you very proud.
2...You'll need a form. These are best built from laminations of plywood so that they're straight and won't warp as easily. I didn't know this until after I built my first one from a 2x6 my good buddy Art brought along. Luckily, this board was straight. You may or may not have the same luck. A warped form will result in a lesser bow. I replaced this form as soon as I knew better.
I got my shape by tacking a metal yard stick to the side of the board in two curves: one for the deflex in the grip, and one for the reflex in the limb. I figured the shape from my experience building selfbows (most folks have to build a number of forms- not just bows- before they get a good shape). I then copied the left side of the form exactly to the right. Looking back, I would have had better luck if I cut a template from corrogated cardboard and used this for the two sides- something you might want to try. Anyway, I cut it out, levelled it. I used the left over pieces of wood to make the top of the form, adjusting the inside for the riser. I used plywood along the sides to keep the bow nice and sandwhiched together (at least in theory). Truth is it never worked that well, and wound up getting in the way more than helping. After a couple tries I added holes for small clamps so it fit more nicely in the hot box. My new form pictured below is much better and easier to use. The bows are more accurate, straighter, and easier to lay up.
Here's the new form made from plywood. This one has no side panels to align the limbs, but is open to allow you to make sure it's aligned with your fingers- far superior. It's made from plywood with a slat of pine glued along the surface. The pine was softer and easier to work down to allow for perfect mating than the plywood, as well as being softer contact with the fiberglass- don't know how necessary it is though. The blocks on the sides are there to prevent the top pieces from sliding down the limbs out of place. The resulting bows from this form have perfect glue lines and no issues with string tracking.
You'll need to make a bow or two from a new form to see if there are any flaws and see which limb will be the top (the weaker one). If there are flat spots from the form (usually more pronounced when using the high-pressure fire hose method) you'll want to build them up with fiberglass or file them down. If no limb shows any strength over the other, you'll want to use slightly thicker lams for the bottom. Either is acceptable.
I start by ordering the glass and Smooth On EA 40. When ready for glue up (after running the wooden lams and checking to see how thick the limb-lam-bundle will be), I take two strips and cover the smooth sides with cheap masking tape.You'll want to make sure you do this, but after you get readings for thickness, or else you won't really know the exact weight you'll be getting. The tape prevents glue from showing up on the limbs when you're all done and gives you something to draw the outline on. Now take those two strips, pick one that insults your good nature, and cut it in half. It will be for the belly. Your glass should be all ready to go now.
For the wood, I get my hickory and oak and what have you from a local lumber dealer. After start up, you'll be looking at $60-100 a bow in materials, unless you really like fancy stuff. Cheaper than buying them, but don't expect glass bows to be as economical as selfbows. Sorry.
3... Binghams has charts on weight on their site, allowing you to get an idea of what thickness will give you what weight. If you're buying lams from a dealer, you can relax- talking with them will give you an idea of what you need. I really suggest a bandsaw here, safest and easiest way to do it, with a really good resaw blade. I cut four, three foot long laminations from a piece of maple so that they wind up roughly 3/32" thick each. I then put two of similiar thickness on my sled made from 1x2 red oak boards screwed to each other so that we have 3" wide 1 1/2" thick board that's nearly perfectly parallel. On the end it has a small lip made from left over lams. I then feed this into my 10" Grizzly drum sander slowly, VERY SLOWLY lowering the sanding drum about one quarter of a turn on the lowering wheel. I first aim to remove the saw marks. Then I measure the thickness, and begin to thin from there to get the right draw weight. Always use a good belt, the lams come out better that way.
For a 60# bow of my design here, I need total limb thickness of about 0.360". A 50# bow needs 0.330", a 70# bow needs 0.390", and a 40# bow needs 0.300"... see the pattern? Get it close, the variation of a pound or two usually isn't enough to worry yourself, especially considering sanding the sides of the limbs can account for up to 3#, and trapping can lower you another 3#. It always makes me wonder about some people who need bows built to the exact pound. Life seems too short to be so anal. I do it for customers, but on my own bows I just go for close.
I'm using parallel lams here. Tapered lams will give you more bend in the tips, more tip movement, which might give you more speed, but requires buying some tapered laminations and then using those to taper a larger board to attach to your platen. It can help, but any experience with making wooden pyramid bows can help you figure out how bending the limbs can get the right bends with untapered limb thickness. Straight bows work fine with parallel lams too. Not having a sander this really put me off of building glass lamianted bows for a while but a SHARP jointer set very fine can work, and I have seen several people set up jigs to just run their lams against a drum or belt sander to remove wood, which is what a drum sander does for you anyway. With those methods the final outcome with the laminations is on you, much more so than a drum sander. However, if you're looking to make more than a few bows you'll need to get a drum sander.
The only thing left to do to the lams is run the ends of the lams at an angle on the belt sander so they'll sit together at a 45* angle or so on the back of the handle. You can have them butt up against each other, but any slight flaw will be more ugly than with an angled splice. You can see a picture of this below, where I'm finding gaps with the riser seated. If you're interested in detail control, glue the ends of the lams together so the won't come apart. Once I have the limb laminations all ready, it's time to get that riser finished up.
Originally I had two lams run up on the belly side of the rsier, but having all the limb lams on the back of the riser makes for a much more durable and reliable bow. The wood doesn't experience any initial stress for no reason, and the glue up is even a little easier. You need to be much more mindful of matching the thickness of the lams, larger variations can cause ugly gaps. It's up to you if this method is worth it, as some people don't like the wood all on the back. Personally I find the new method more attractive, and even one failure from the old method was one more than I want.
For the riser, you need flat surfaces for good mating and smooth transitions for the fades so that you don't have gaps. I wish I could tell you where to find info on printing off a nice riser template and one for a form... but you're just going to have to do a little work for yourself here. The best way to make getting the right amount of curve in the fades is just make the fades long enough and not very dramatic. My fades are about 4" or so on my laminated bows. Copy the curve, if your bow has any bend through the riser, and then mark out how high and long you want the riser block- not the final riser. From that point just connect it to the curve of the form however long you want the riser to be (16"-20"). My risers are 18" long. Just think "gentle curves" and you'll be fine. Below is a picture of my riser blank and that should give you an idea of what all my gibberish was getting at.
I picked up an oscillating combination spindle sander/belt sander a while back and made my life a million times easier. Until then I had the worst trouble working the fades down by hand, not only gettung the curves right but also keeping all the lines parallel and perpendicular. For one or two bows this wasn't a big deal but bow after bow it started to get old and inefficient. Not only does this sander now make everything a lot easier when making the riser, but it also helps shaping the handle, building the form, and just about anything that needs to be square for gluing. In short: it's bad ass if you treat it right, even if it's made by Rigid.
When you first cut the riser out it should be pretty rough. Not quite so if you use a bandsaw rather than a saber saw, but still not perfect. At this point you'll want to use the belt sander, drum sander, and files to remove any high points so that when you dry clamp the bow up there are no gaps. That means the ends of the riser fades will be paper thin, the fades and outsides will be very smooth and flat, and it will all look very clean. Finding where to file and/or sand away is only possible by clamping the bow up and seeing how it all fits. More proffesional set ups will require less work, but anything using several thousand dollar machinery had better....
Yes, the picture is crooked, in case you were wondering. Several of them are. It's hard to take pictures one handed in a poorly lit shop. So sue me.
4... Now, at this point so long as your lams are parallel and your riser fits, it should all fit together fine. Ha! Best to do a dry run, clamping everything up before epoxy makes things permanent. If there are any flaws, take care of them now. If you can, it's also best to take one last check of the limb thicknesses. Are they even? Are they what you want? You have four lams of wood, possibly more. That means you should be able to adjust the order and placement to fine tune the balance. Oh, and now's a good time to mention that unless it's a straight bow, making the limbs the same length will make your life a lot easier.
Man that old form looks stupid now. Well, it's time for the glue up. Sorry, no photos to help with this. It's a sticky mess. I use two equal globs of resin and hardener of Smooth On. If you use a stick to smear the lams, you'll use less glue, less waste, and tighter glue joints. Warm the glue before applying, it goes on better. How do you make sure your globs are equal? You don't. That's why you make sure there's more of part A than B. Why? Because it still works well that way. Apparently a 2:1 mixture by weight makes a stronger, more heat resistent bond. Not sure it's really work the extra materials, but we know that if you have more of part A than B nothing bad will happen. So that's what I take advantage of here. What's really important here is that we know the glue will be stronger than the wood we're using, so that's not what you should worry about as far as failures go.
With the lams set out on a board for you (kinda like they are in the picture above where the lams are set out) I start with the back piece of glass and lather it with glue using a a thin wooden slat (or a big popsicle stick). It's just like butter two pieces of bread before you put the butter sides together. Both sides, remeber. It's sticky, but simple. Glue is applied by "scraping" the epoxy down the lam with the edge of the slat. A thin, but complete, layer on both lams is enough. Lots of glue doesn't do any good squeezed out on the sides of the bow.
You'll want to put the whole bow together like this, outside your form of course. If you're building a straight bow, the only real issues you'll see are that the belly lams are a little up. If you're building a hybrid style like this, you'll see that it wants to go everywhere! Now, regardless of style putting a small C clamp on the ends of the limbs to hold it together and to prevent lam slippage later will save you alot of trouble at first. Now stretch a piece of seran wrap out on top of your form bottom. Put the bow on the form and wrap the edges of the seran wrap up around the bow, or put a piece over the top of the bow. The prevents the bow from becoming part of your form. Once wrapped, clamp the riser down first, making sure it's perfectly centered (both the riser center and the lam skive). This keeps it all centered later too. After that, move along the limbs clamping everything good and tight while making sure that the bundles are all stacked up together, no sliding side to side. Now, less radical bows are much easier to glue up... obviously. There's less trouble by far. But regardless of the style, it makes life alot easier if you have an extra set of hands around for your first few glue ups. After a couple you'll be able to do it yourself without issue. Practice makes perfect and all that good stuff.
Once all clamped, move it to your hot box (unless you're using heating strips). Mine is built from 1/2" plywood, 1' x 1' x 6'. It's lined with 3/4" insulating foam and has three light sockets. For glass bows, I use three 90-100 Watt bulbs. I drilled a small hole on the end and inserted a digital turkey thermometer. Works farely well. Before the box never got much above 110* and therefore had to wait 12 hours or more to cook a fiberglass bow, but now hits in the 150-180* range needed to cure the Smooth-On within a few hours or so. Heat strips cure bows even more quickly but are very expensive. After a few years a hot box will warp a form, but it's cheap plywood and should be no real nusiance. Switching these bulbs out for two 60 Watt bulbs I can still use the box to cure selfbows as well. They say that the glue cures at 150* in six hours. That's what they recommend. You can cure it in one hour at 180*, but I prefer to go by what they suggest, even if it takes longer.
Yes... it's another crooked picture.
5... Fresh from the box, it seems ok. All things considered, it came out suprisingly well, especially for one of my earlier examples. Off the form the bow comes. First thing's first and that seran wrap needs to come off. I just use one piece stretched over the form.
After that, I use a belt sander to clean up all the excess epoxy, rough edges, and ugliness of uneven lams. Since switching to the new form I have far fewer issues with uneveness and mess. I also know that one limb will always be the top, the other always the bottom. So I rough the riser out when I do the limbs, and tiller from there.
Once it's rough-cleaned a little, I go about laying out the width. I want to leave the inner limbs stiffer, so they don't narrow. So starting 10" from the fades, I use a yardstick to trace lines to 3/8" wide tips. I originally would leave them 1/2" wide and grind them down to true the ends, but sanding the outer limbs below the nock and above the parallel section was enough to clean any wiggle up.
I then rough the bow on the bandsaw, but it eats blades. Choose one blade just for fiberglass, it won;t be any good for anything else. You can use a sabersaw here too, or even a hack saw and file. It's not so important how you do it at this point, as the finese work is done later with files and sanders. Just go slow and be careful.
At this point the tape can come off if it's pretty scuffed and torn. I've come to like leaving it until it's time to sand for finish. Glue on the outside of the limbs is the result of using too much glue, one of my early flaws. You can also clean the limbs by spraying them with a little WD40 and wiping them with a cloth rag. This is how I remove stubborn tape adhesive.
A NOTE OF CAUTION. Fiberglass is nasty caustic stuff, as is the epoxy. Wear eye protection, a respirator mask, and a long sleeve shirt. Don't breath the dust! Between ear plugs, glasses, a breathing mask, a special shirt, and gloves if you need them it might seem like a huge pain for a little dust. This stuff will do bad things to your lungs.
It's at this point that I make sure the width is true. The belt sander is a champ here, but honestly a good fine wood file works really well too. Here the better your form and glue up the less issue. My new form has me spending almost no extra time on this compared with my old one.
Like I said above, with a good form you should know which limb is the tip before you bend the limbs, and can rough the handle out when you do the limbs.
Now it's almost time to start bending. First I file the edges of the glass to remove the sharp edge and reduce chances of splinters lifting. I'm not too familiar with fiberglass, but it doesn't seem to do well without some sort of nock protection. At first I just used hardwood overlays at first, and they worked alright if you glue a couple pieces together, especially with Dacron strings. Oak and anything harder will work. I now only use Phenolic though.
There are lots of ways you can do the tips, and the one most folks like to do is put a big long overlay on, round the end of the limb and file two grooves on each side one inch down. Now, there are plenty of fellows out there who can do magic on a bow limb tip with a file and create some real beautiful nocks that way... but I'm not one of them.
The way I do my nocks is pin nocks. I measure down 5/8" or so on the back and 1" or so on the belly. I cut from one line to the other on the sides of the limb with a hacksaw and pop the end out with a knife. A few passes with a file cleans it all up. A little shoulder does alot to hold the string on there, but mine seems particularly small because the tips are still extra wide in this picture- an old example of too many precautions. You can see the basic shape, a little rounding goes a long way towards finishing it out. One last little trick is to put grooves on the back of the notches. Using a file I just drag the edge down from the bottom of each shoulder towards the base of the pin. A few strokes and a little cleaning up and you have two channels that will help the string run into the limb and want to stay on alot more than it would want to come off, as well as not cutting your bow string.
These pictures are of my old nocks. A little wider, and pretty ugly to me now. I now cut the nocks to final width from the start so they no longer look so bulky and unappealing like the one above at any point during construction. The grooves on the belly side are also extremely pronounced now, and the nocks are over-all more appealing. Man those old ones are UGLY!!!!
Anyway, on to tillering...
With the nocks cut and the limbs cleaned up it's time to look and see how it bends. A lot of folks just string glass bows up, which is what I do now with a nice heavy bow string. Another option is to put a long string on the bow and clamp it tightly in a vice, belly up, which is what I did when first experiementing with a new form. Between the uncut riser and the long string I prop a stick about 18" long and this simulates being braced. I like to see which limb is showing any stiffness over the other: that's the one that will be my bottom limb. In the picture you can see how care in making and gluing the lams pretty much gives you the tiller you want right off the bat. This is just a quick check before I jump into shaping the riser. I now shape the riser at the same time I do the tips, or just before, but it all amounts to the same.
I like a narrowed grip with a crowned shelf and a straight grip with a locator. I usually transfer the location of the shelf, locator, window, etc. onto a blank handle from a finished bow. Making the first one really isn't too hard, just mark what will be the handle, and work up. Mark out your shelf and window and you're done. I cut mine out at first but have since switched to files and chisels in addition to using the saw for some. In no time at all the handle starts looking really good. Once it's to shape, it's time to finish tillering. Make a bow string and get ready for the magic....
6... Brace the bow and grab a ruler. Measure the gap between the string and the inside of the limb where the fades in the riser end. Now measure the bottom gap between the string and limb at the bottom of the fades. The bottom limb should be 1/8"-1/2" stiffer. I perosnally prefer a 1/4" - 3/8" tiller difference. Even is usually ok, and best for folks shooting three fingers under. If one limb is too stiff, narrow it or carefully sand the glass. This isn't recommended unless you have to though, as sanding may ruin the fiberglass-to-core ratio. For me, it's a no-no. If the bow's draw weight is just a little too high, narrow the whole bow about 1/8" or so. If the bow is too light, you can take an inch or so from each tip and bump the weight about 4#. Just make sure you don't cut it down to where the tips are behind the back of the handle. The performance trade off for draw weight at that point won't be worth it. I will not cut a bow down when it's part of a formula like this for weight, because it messes with the balance, tiller, and timing of the limbs. On a bow-to-bow basis that's fine, but not when you're making many of the same style or for sale, especially when people specify a desired length.
Something to watch for here is the tiller. If your bow bends very hard at one point in the limbs, especially outside of the fades, the core will be unable to deal with the stress. You need an even curvature without hinges. Narrow, trap the back, or thin (which I suggest against if at all possible), those sections of the limbs that are too stiff in relation to the weak area. Many people use tapered lams to avoid this issue, I use very narrow limb tips. This gives me the desired shape and lower mass.
Once you get the bow strung and begin tillering, now's also the time to deal with alignment. With the bow strung, look down the limbs. Holding the back perfectly horizontal, see if the tip aligns in the middle of the limb. If it leans to one side, sand the other side. So if you look down the back of the bow and the top limb tip is leaning to the left side, you sand the right side of the limb. Do this on both limbs. A little sanding at a time will have the limbs balanced and tracking down the center with no weak spots. That is the goal of tillering a glass bow.
Awww... it's a bow! Time to shoot it. A few arrows through it will give you an idea if anything needs adjusted. Now it's time for lots of sanding, burnishing, and some finish. I've been using a coat of spar urethane from a can, then sprayed. I'm looking into attractive finishes that are more durable- also that dry faster. Spraying is your best bet regardless of what you use.
This bow finished out at 55# at 28", 65.5" nock to nock. It's for my brother, and the last bow I needed to shorten from 66".
As I get more experience building these things I'll be able to fill this build along out with more pictures and details and simplify everything to make it neat and concise. I'd also like toe eventually add a second group of pictures showinga newer bow, so that folks can see the difference between "then and now." Though not easy at first, building one of these bows isn't impossible or truly that difficult. The building process isn't nearly as peaceful or enjoyable as a selfbow, but it's straight forward and simple- but easy enough in its own right and very quick. Depending on your finish and style of glue ups, you can build a bow in a week, usually closer to two when you take your time. Best of luck!
Closing photo of my brother with his new bow.