Starting at the Beginning
By Dean Torges
Building a wooden bow of your own device can seem a daunting task, what
with the variety of tools, glues, limb designs, wood choices, curing controversies,
tillering techniques, backings and blah, blah, blah--all of these decisions
made more difficult by doubts about your woodworking skills, and then the
whole effort built under the imperative that you end up with a hunting bow.
Seems easier to choose new church membership or decide college enrollment
or take a mate, such decisions as shape a life forever.
With this admission, lets begin at the very beginning. Just as
traditional archery for many of us rekindles a joy from our youth, lets
return to our youth and to the bows that gave it such joy. Lets build
a kids bow. Rather than pass down to kids the tillering mistakes that
weve muttered and cursed over, lets purposefully set out to
have fun. Lets build worry-free small bows as simply and as durably
as we can, with minimal investment in materials and tools, and lets
build them quickly and in large numbers, enough to supply our neighbors
and our relatives, too, should we choose. Yes, lets arm the neighborhood.
And most importantly, lets do it in a way that our own sons and daughters
can help, with significant, fearless contributions to the construction process.
Lets rediscover and share the joys of traditional archery while we
endow the next generation. Lets start back at the beginning.
Tools and Materials
- Bottle of white or yellow wood glue
- For spreading glue, a 25 cent stiff-bristled flux brush, available
in the plumbing section of hardware stores
- 1 inch thick plain sawn hardwood board, (such as hickory, ash,
elm, walnut, cherry or maple), kiln or air dried, of random width and length.
Typically something resembling an 8 foot board, grossing about 8 inches
- Stanley sur-form rasp or 12 inch wood rasp or farriers rasp.
Seven 4 inch C clamps (more, better) or some method for cramping glue joints.
- Knife for scraping bow smooth and cutting nocks.
- Several sheets of 80 grit sandpaper.
- Strips of cotton cloth, perhaps from old bed sheets, for handle wrapping.
- Cotton work gloves for children.
- #3 braided nylon Venetian blind cord (3/32" diameter)
- Can of shellac.
- Block plane or jack plane or Sur-form block plane.
- Cabinet scraper (See Chapter 4 in the selfbow column of the Aug/Sep
issue of Traditional Bowhunter for selecting and sharpening these useful
and inexpensive tools).
Not Just Any Board
To save money, go to a sawmill, especially a pallet sawmill, for your
board. Hickory (which we prefer for kids bows) makes a common pallet
board and is usually available at these places. Be sure to specify "plain
sawn", and buy one free from knots and defects. Even if you buy your
board at a lumber yard, most likely it will come to you rough sawn, the
way it left the sawmill. Clues through its rough exterior will help you
choose a board to suit our purposes.
A view from the end of a plain sawn board will reveal a grain pattern
similar to the one shown in Figure One. Grain direction relative
to the sides and surfaces of the board identify it as plain sawn.
Quarter sawn wood, cut exactly the opposite of plain sawn, appears as
in Figure Two from the boards end. The annual rings are perpendicular
to the surfaces of the board.
Rift sawn is that sawn board between the two, graded as such when the
end grain runs at 45° angles to the surface, as in Figure Three.
Imagine two boards sawed from opposite sides of the same log. One board
is sawed out so that its length pretty much parallels the length of the
tree. The other board comes out so that one end is close to the outside
of the log while its other end lies near the center of the log. Kind of
tilted in the log. The first board is much more preferable for bows. Its
grain pattern will be evident through its rough sawn exterior. Its rings
follow the edge and do not run out, as viewed from the side, edge or thickness
(three words for the same place) of your board. Its identity can also be
read from a surface or width view. The rings show a long feather point pattern
pretty much down the center of the board, as in Figure Four.
If the feather patterns are closely spaced and rounded off down the width
of the board, you can almost bet grain will run out on the thickness as
well. And vice versa. Its surface and its edges will look like the board
illustrated in Figure Five.
Usually this phenomenon happens not from tilting the board in the log,
but from sawing straight boards from curved logs. These boards tend to be
full of stresses and much less stable than the plain sawn boards with parallel
grain of Figure Four, so that when you rip them they peel off in
all directions, sometimes pinching the saw blade, sometimes parting away
Cutting the Board
Either at the mill where you bought it, or at some custom woodworking
shop, have the board surface planed two sides and joined both edges. This
milling procedure will square your timber up and provide you clean smooth
surfaces. Dont be reluctant to ask the mill hand to please send the
board through the planer in the direction that will minimize tear-out. You
dont have to know what youre talking about, but if he doesnt
know, you should probably take it somewhere else. Chances have increased
dramatically he will butcher your wood, and, additionally, he will do it
with machinery that will exaggerate his mistakes.
After the board has been surfaced to optimal thickness (somewhere
around 7/8 inches), and squared on its sides, cut it into 4 foot lengths.
Lay out one test section so that you come out with as nearly a matched number
of quarter sawn pieces of a 1/8 inch thickness on the one hand, and plain
or rift sawn pieces of 3/8 inch thickness on the other hand, all of like
or similar width.
Notice (see Figure Six) that if you rip 1/8th inch strips
from the middle of the board, you end up with quarter sawn stock. If you
rip 7/8 inch square sections from the outside edges of the board and then
resaw them into 3/8th inch stock, you end up with plain sawn or rift sawn
Request that the mill use either a hollow ground high speed steel rip
blade with no set in the teeth or a smooth cutting carbide rip blade so
that the pieces come off the table saw with their faces suitable for glue-up.
If the blade is dull and burns the faces or if it lacks stability and wobbles
and damages them or if it cuts rough and scores them badly from a tooth
out of set, then cut them all slightly oversize and run them back through
the planer to finished dimension. Try as best you can to avoid this additional
cost in mill time by choosing your shop smartly.
Since these boards usually come in random widths and lengths, for the
most part, you will be left on your own to gain an idea of how much of each
combination to cut.
Assume the board in Figure One nets a fat 7 inches wide. Ripped
and resawn (while allowing for an 1/8th inch saw kerf of waste with each
cut), it yields 10 pairs of quarter and plain sawn pieces, enough for ten
bows, as shown in Figure Six.
Our purpose now is to mate each plain or rift sawn thick piece with each
thin quarter sawn piece, and our goal is to glue these mates together, as
many as we can at once, as quickly as we can. To that end, cover your work
surface with newspaper, and then lay a 4 foot length of waxed paper immediately
before you. Set your open clamps to one side and your glue bottle and brush
In a mock run, lay as many as eight mated pairs across the newspapers,
opened like bread slices for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, inside
surfaces up. Time yourself. Pretend to squeeze a bead of glue down each
strip. Then brush over all 16 pcs. as though to spread the glue, fold each
"sandwich" together and lay it along its edge on the waxed paper
until all eight pairs are laid side by side in a giant Dagwood sandwich,
"crust" lying down on the waxed paper. Lay a C clamp across
the middle and tighten enough to bring everything together with the pressure
you might require to squeeze a little glue from the joints. Work from the
middle toward either end, spacing the clamps evenly, making sure that the
tips come together.
How long did you take? Add a little extra time to that because when the
pieces are buttered with glue and pressure is exerted on them, they will
tend to slide away from each other, requiring you to reposition them and
to tighten clamps down the line a little at a time.
Under average room temperatures, you will have about a ten minute window
for spreading and clamping white glue (which has slightly better gap filling
properties than yellow). If you feel you need longer, right before you begin,
very lightly mist both glue surfaces with water from a spray bottle.
Make sure also that the outside pieces of each Dagwood sandwich are the
thicker plain sawn belly pieces rather than the thinner quarter sawn back
pieces, this for the greater rigidity they provide in exerting more even
pressure along the cramped glue joint.
If you lack for clamps to provide even glue pressure along the length
of your set-up, consider removing a few pairs of wood and placing 7/8 inch
square battens to the outside to stiffen your sandwich.
Unless you have wetted the glue surfaces beyond need, you can remove
the C clamps and glue up the next batch of bow blanks within an hour, continuing
through an evenings work until youve glued up all your bow blanks.
Scrape off excess glue while you wait for the next batch to dry. Set them
aside to cure for several days.
If you started out with an 8 foot board netting over 7 inches in width,
and if your bows are all about four feet long, you have 20 blanks for your
toil. Not only enough to arm the neighborhood, but spares for the invading
hordes that will come begging as well. Even enough that a few wont
be missed from the batch should you decide to have some fun where your own
bow muse directs you before I get back here with the next installment.
Copyright 1997, Dean Torges