birth of a british longbow
It all began with a heavy section of Yew wood. This is the wood that traditionally was used to make a longbow of this type. Over 500 years ago this weapon was the deciding factor in many conflicts. In England any male over the age of 12 was required by law to spend time practicing shooting each Sunday. This to build a deep reserve of well practiced archers. The stave (what they call a timber that is to become a bow) I was to work with was harvested over a year ago, split, and seasoned right here in British Columbia. I chose it from more than a dozen other pieces leaned up against an old wooden trailer. I had signed up for a bow making class months ago with Jamie MacDonald at Ravenbeak Natureworks. http://www.ravenbeak.com He’s been making longbows for quite some time now receiving glowing reviews for his work. He also offers 3 day seminars in bow making. I’ve been itching to take a crack at making my own “bent stick” for some time now. I’ve been learning to make my own arrows over the last few months. Now was the perfect time to make my own bow to match.
Here are a few photos and a bit of a description. You can click on each photo for a larger image.
I used a draw knife and various other tools to strip the bark from the stave. I did cheat a bit by using a grinder fitted with a wire brush. It removed the bark much more quickly than me hacking away at things by hand. This is the first stage of removing material to find the bow inside the stave. 75″, just over 6 feet long. Big, heavy, wood.
The next step was to inspect the grain and features of the stave to plan the best usage of the wood. All trees will have curves and twists and knots. There’s no such thing as a perfectly straight piece of wood. Part of the charm of making a bow like this comes from all these features that make each bow unique.
After laying out the basic shape we start removing wood. Lots of wood. We were keeping things to hand tools as much as possible. Of course you could take to a band saw and rip right through much of this but the learning process is well served by moving slowly and getting to know the piece you are working with.
As a bit of a confession, I’m not well practiced in all of this sort of stuff. Sure I took shop class in school, and we always had a nice workbench in the garage and such but as you all know I sit in front of a computer most days. I think I do pretty well with tools for a casual craftsman but many of the other people along for this weekend were much more skilled than me in this area. A few shop teachers, professional carpenters and such. I learned so much from all of these people, not to mention Jamie, and am really grateful for all their patience in sharing tools and explaining things to me.
Jamie jumped in from time to time and moved me along in large leaps and bounds. Very happy to stand back and watch and let my hands and shoulders rest while he showed off the bow sculpting super powers.
We kept going and by the end of the day we’d made a good mountain of wood chips and moved things along quite nicely. My piece had a bit of a bend in it right around the handle. This section was arranged over a pot of boiling water and covered for about 30 minutes to steam and heat the wood. It was quickly blocked up, clamped, and allowed to cool. This straightened it beautifully and cleared the way for continued work.
There were two classes of yew wood available. Some of the pieces were old growth. These pieces had rich dark colour heartwood with relatively thin sapwood. Mine was from a second growth tree. Younger and faster growing, the grain isn’t quite as tight and the colour isn’t as dark. No big deal for me as this is my first attempt at making a bow. Notice the lighter wood on the upper part in the image below. This is the sapwood. It’s generally thicker on second growth trees as you see here. We actually thinned it out some to get closer to an optimal ratio of heartwood to sapwood. The sapwood ends up being the back of the bow or facing away from the archer. This is the softer springy part that stretches. It’s much more delicate and can be nicked or damaged rather easily. This is normally where a bow will fail if it’s going to I’m told. The belly of the bow or the part that is facing you the archer is the heartwood. This part takes the compression of the bending bow. We’ve removed well over half the bulk of the timber here. Dare I say this is starting to look like a bow?
All the work up to now has been just trying to reduce mass so we can get to the point where the wood can bend. We’re getting there now and soon it will be time to look and see the shape of things. Before this though the tips of the bow must be reinforced. The bow string wraps around the ends and if it’s not protected it can cut through the wood. We use some bits of horn for this. The tips were ground flat on a belt sander and the horn pieces were flattened and shaped as well. A good coating of super glue and they were assembled and put under pressure with a bit of rubber stripping.
After the glue set I ground these down on the belt sander and shaped them to allow for taking the bowstring. Lastly I used a carbide saw blade and small round rasp to shape the slots where the bowstring would settle.
Next was the moment I was nervously awaiting. Time to see how she bends.
This device is called a “tiller”. A long string is fitted on the bow. A scale on ropes running through pulleys allows you to stand back and pull to see the bow bends. I was going for a bow between 55-60lbs draw weight. The scale lets you know the magic point where you’re pulling that much weight. First just a few inches of draw and you hit the mark. Over and over you pull to exercise the wood and see how she bends. She’s a little stiff on the left. Lots of work to be done still. Remove more material in every smaller steps.
Keep on going. The tips are too thick, more passes with the spoke shaver or the rasp. Check it on the tiller. Remove more in this area, now more over here. Oh, stay away from this section it’s good. Check it on the tiller again. 63lbs at 28″. Very quickly it seems I snuck up on the point where everything was looking good. Take off a bit more here and a little there. A cabinet scraper takes off paper thin curls of wood. It’s getting very smooth and the wood smells heavenly. Now a good pass over the whole thing with the sander. 100 grit, then 180, then 240. Now all the little nicks and blemishes are gone. The wood is silky smooth absolutely alive in my hands and resonates as you work with it. I now understand how katana makers used to think a blade had something of a soul. A little bit of me has passed into the wood I think and I’m certainly covered head to toe in a little bit of the wood.
Go shoot it Jamie tells me. See how it feels. I grab several of the new arrows I recently made and head around back. Nock the arrow and open it up using the muscles in my shoulders and back. Heavy but really good. The string bites into my fingers and I let it roll off sending the arrow deep into the mound of earth. It’s perfect. No I don’t need to lighten it any. I love it just as it is. My first bow is almost finished. A few coats of tung oil go on. The wood takes it and the grain shows itself fully for the first time. Amazing. I still have several more coats to apply over the next few days. I look forward to going out to the range this weekend. Lots to learn still. Lots to learn.
Here are a couple of me shooting the new “bent stick”. Not quite taking it to full draw. I think I will take my time in working her up to it. Not to mention I need to build a bit more strength to shoot well. 75″ long and 63lbs draw weight. Not a small bow.
I can more fully appreciate the skill and efforts required to make such a thing. Incredible respect for our ancestors who did this work ages ago. I now have my own fully custom, hand made British longbow. Thank you so much to Jamie and all the people at Ravenbeak for letting me take part in such an incredible experience. Yes, very happy indeed.
One Response to “birth of a british longbow”