A longbow is the essence of elegance and simplicity. It works with only three items: a bow, a string and an arrow. Building a longbow pays tribute to many generations of archers who have fed their families and made war using only this simple equipment.
“A longbow also eliminates complications,” Drew Turner said. Longtime readers of American Frontiersman might remember Drew Turner from the premier issue in which Drew shared his passions for making dugout canoes. “I have no excuse for not killing a deer except that I missed. Technical equipment is not part of the equation. I have to depend on myself.”
But Turner doesn’t stop with making bows, he gets everything necessary from nature. His bow strings come from deer sinew, he knaps flint and chert into points, makes arrow shafts from river cane and ties everything together using the same methods that the Native Americans used centuries ago.
Drew doesn’t just use his creations to shoot at stationary targets. He uses the completely hand-made combination to successfully hunt deer, hogs and small game. Four years ago, he completed the final part of the circle by making hunting gear from deer he killed with his bow and tanned. His buckskins would be the envy of any mountain man who reads American Frontiersman.
“Using a longbow and wearing buckskins, I can sneak up within a few feet of deer without being detected,” Drew explained. “People think it’s amazing when I suddenly appear out of the trees in my buckskins. Both deer and humans usually have no idea that I am within miles.”
Getting people interested in making traditional weapons is part of Drew’s passion for the bowmaker’s art. He often helps new bowyers construct their first bow.
“Every bow is different, there is no cookie-cutter approach to bowmaking,” Drew explained. “Each one is a learning experience. Each bow is made from different wood, has a different draw set up for the needs of that shooter. From tree to bow usually takes 30 to 40 hours of work and it can’t be rushed.”
The equipment needed to make a bow includes a band saw, a sander and various hand-shaping tools. To find information and bowmaking equipment, Drew recommends 3 Rivers Archery Supply (3riversarchery.com). To learn more specialized details of bowmaking, The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible, available in four volumes and edited by J. Hamm, is an excellent choice. These books can be purchased online or from 3 Rivers Archery.
“Eastern hornbeam, Osage orange and hickory all make great bows,” Drew said. “It doesn’t take a gigantic tree, 2 to 3 inches in diameter works fine. Smaller trees are easy to cut and the wood is easier to work. Choose one with few limbs or defects and a straight trunk.”
The tree should supply at least 6 feet of straight bow wood. Remove the bark with a draw knife or scraper down to the white wood. Finally, coat both ends with animal glue, Titebond or wood glue.
“Next, cut out the rough profile of the bow on a band saw,” Drew said. “This will speed up the drying process. Store the slightly shaped wood indoors and allow it to dry for at least two months.”
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When the wood has dried, begin reducing the thickness of the limbs of the bow with a scraper or a farrier rasp. Tiller the limbs of the bow against the floor until the bow flexes 4 inches.” Tillering is the process of removing wood from the planned bow so that it will bend to the intended shape, draw length and draw weight. Floor tillering means pressing the bow against the ground, then applying pressure to bow to see if it flexes evenly.
The next step is to make notches for the bow string. This needs to be done very carefully or your bow won’t have a smoothly rounded curve, won’t draw well or push the arrow in a straight line.
“Cut in the string nocks with a chainsaw file, then string the bow with a tillering string,” Drew said. “After the tillering string is on the bow, make sure the bow limbs bend in an even arc.”
Continue to reduce the thickness of the bow limbs until you can string the bow and pull it back at least 20 inches. Keep working on thinning the wood until the bow can be brought back to full draw. Remove the tool marks using sandpaper.
“At this point I decide whether the bow is worth finishing,” Drew said. “Test the bow by shooting arrows. No matter how carefully the tree is chosen and worked and the wood is refined, some pieces of wood just don’t make good bows. Sometimes it’s better to cut losses and start over than to try and turn a bad piece of wood into a straight-shooting weapon.”
If the bow passes the test and is worth decorating, it’s time to add the trimmings.
“A well-decorated longbow is more valuable, more authentic and attracts people’s attention,” Drew said. “It makes me proud to shoot a one-of-a-kind bow that has snakeskin, beaver tail, bone, leather or other details that makes it uniquely mine and give it natural camouflage.”
The first step in finishing the bow is to stain it with wood stain and then apply a waterproof finish. This safeguards the bow from weather and damage. Then comes the hardest decision: What material will be used to decorate the bow? This is something you have to live with as long as you shoot the weapon, so choose carefully. The grip needs to have a leather handle to prevent slipping, but colors, textures and other decorations should be uniquely your own.
Straight & Narrow
A bow is an excellent projection implement, but a bow without an arrow is just a piece of bent wood. Making a good arrow that matches the bow and the shooter is an essential part of getting an arrow into the target. River cane is virtually free and can be harvested along most rivers in the southern United States. Drew likes the bamboo-like plant for arrows because they are easy to straighten, take fletching and shoot well.
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“The cane grows near water close to creeks and riverbanks and is easy to find,” Drew said. “It is the best natural arrow material found. Once it is straightened and dried, it is very durable and has a natural taper that makes it shoot straighter than other materials.”
Cut the cane longer than is actually needed, then partially straighten each one while it is still green. Put the shafts in bundles to season. This can take two to four months. After the cane is dry, straighten the shaft of the arrow a second time over a heat source, such as a hot plate or stove.
The canes grow in hollow segments. To make an arrow holder, insert a hardwood foreshaft (hickory, walnut, dogwood, etc.) into the hollow on the front end. Leave part of the hardwood sticking out to hold the arrow point, or broadhead. This will strengthen the arrow. Then cut a string nock into the other end of the cane to hold the bowstring.
Fletching helps the arrow fly straight. The fletching is usually three strips of shaped feather. One feather is almost always a different color and is placed opposite the bow string when knocking. They are glued above the nock of the arrow. These strips are made from turkey or chicken wing primary feathers and are fastened on with hide glue. For good balance while hunting, Drew prefers the fletching to be 4 or 5 inches long. Finally, attach a broadhead made of flint, obsidian or metal to the foreshaft and fasten it in securely with narrow strips of sinew.
When your unique work of the bowmaker’s art is finally finished, you will have a weapon that is simple yet durable, practical and elegant. Whether it is used for target shooting or to take into the woods for game, it is a rare personal treasure. With a bit of care, it will last for decades.
But for Drew Turner, making a bow is more than just turning a piece of wood into a useful tool. It is a link to the tradition that goes back to earliest man. He also feels the importance of sharing these skills with the next generation.
“My granddaughters often follow me into the woods,” Drew said. “I take them along with me to pick out the perfect tree for a bow. My oldest granddaughter, eight-year-old Alexis, informed me she was now old enough for her own homemade bow. She also told me she wanted it to be pink with snakeskin backing. It wasn’t long before we found a copperhead and the right tree, and the bow came together.” Just like her PopPop, the young archer quickly began to practice her hunting skills.
“She will be stalking her own deer in no time,” Drew said with a smile. “Watching new longbow archers build their shooting skills and eventually their own bows gives me great pleasure. Carrying on the bow-builder’s art is a privilege I am proud to share.”
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.