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Building My First Bow & Arrows

by Taylor

14th October, 2020

Back in March I was staying in Cincinnati with my family: my parents, my brother Connor and his girlfriend Molly.

I had some time on my hands outside of work, and I thought I’d take advantage of my Dad’s carpentry shop. I’d recently become a fan of The Last Kingdom, a story of the beginnings of a united Kingdom of England.

Although archery isn’t significantly represented in the show, they do have a few scenes showing English archers utilizing their famed Yew longbows and I was recalled to my early fascination of Bernard Cornwell’s The Archer’s Tale.

As a teenager I attempted to make my own archer’s bow using a fallen cedar tree I had found in the woods behind my house. My dad came home from a work trip and I wanted to show him how far I had enabled the bow to stretch (I was using a rudimentary tillering tree). Of course, the bow snapped, the top half of the bow flung back and nicked my skull. I left the hospital with staples to close the wound, but not before my brothers snapped a picture with a stream of blood running down my face.

Anyways, despite the setback, more than ten years later, I was determined to make both an archer’s bow, and my own arrows.

The Bowmaking Process

First Attempts

I tried using Poplar, Red Oak, Maple and Pine as various staves for my bow.

Pine on the left, Red Oak stave on the right. You can see the limb taper marked out on each stave. A handle of the opposite wood type has been glued to the bow.

I primarily relied on Kramer Ammon’s video, How to Make a High Performance Board Bow, but had many supplementary sources as I nailed down how I wanted to build my bow.

It took several attempts to make my first successful (well, so far at least) bow. I tried using Poplar, Red Oak, Maple and Pine as various staves for my bow.

The steps involved in progressing from a base wooden stave to a rudimentary bendable bow are as follows:

Getting the Basic Shape

  1. Buy stave (done)
  2. Measure (twice), mark cuts along stave
    1. Limb taper
    2. Upper/lower end of handle.
    3. Depth markers for trimming belly of the bow
  3. Cut bow 8″ handle from end of stave
  4. Cut fiberglass tape strips
  5. Glue strips as bow backing onto bow back.
  6. Let dry 24 hours.
  7. Cut taper into bow

Refining / Shaping

The next steps towards a finished bow involve:

  1. Cutting a basic handle grip for you to hold onto.
  2. Cutting the nocks for your bowstring to sit in.
  3. Cutting down the depth of the bow so that it can bend slightly. Testing the bend at this stage is typically known as floor tillering.
  4. Fastening your tillering string.

My first two bows, Red Oak and Pine, both ended snapping in the bottom half of the bow as I shot the first few shots or tested the strength of the bow.

They suffered from uneven tillering, which I can reaffirm, is by far the most difficult part of making a bow.

Without a proper tillering tool I was “shooting in the dark” so to speak, and I had to address that shortcoming.

Making a Tillering Tree

I’m very proud of the tillering tree I built. I took a 2″x8″ board and cut it down to two 2″x”4″ boards and then screwed and wood glued them together.

I then marked my bowstring notches down the length of the board and used a miter saw to cut into it. Given that this board was now a 4″x”4″ block of wood, the miter saw actually couldn’t cleanly cut through all the way; I had to flip the board over and mark+cut on the other half of the board as well to get a clean cut.

Above is the early rendition of my tillering stick/tree. Even getting to here was a long process.

This was okay, but leaving the bow in a high stress state for periods of time while scraping away the belly of the bow is not great for it. You also can’t really see how the limbs bend when your face is against the board pressing down on the string.

And lastly, it’s not the safest should the bow break and your face is the first object in contact with the wood.

So that wouldn’t do. I needed to make the base for the tillering tree and a pulley system to pull on the bow.

The pulley system on my tillering tree gives me a mechanical advantage, drastically decreasing the force I need to apply to bend the limbs of the bow.

Above you can see the final implementation of the tillering tree. I cut a space for the bow to sit in and add wedges to adjust to a snug fit against the bow handle. 2″x4″ blocks of wood interlock around the bottom of the tillering tree snugly to provide a stable base agains the force being applied to the bowstring. The actual force is applied at the base of the wood, which prevents the tree from being pulled over.

I stained it with Early American stain, the same stain I used on my final bow as well.

Primero: The Finished Product

Ultimately, only one bow made it through the “manufacturing & testing” phases. I call it “Primero”.

I used a Dremel tool to engrave “primero” into the handle, with the Spanish pronunciation appearing as “prem-arrow” and translating to “first”.

Here’s one of the first shots in slow motion.

Making the Arrows

I was very happy with how the bow turned out, but I wanted an end-to-end completion of my medieval war weapon, and that means making my own arrows.

The most important tool when making arrows is your fletching tool. I used a Bitzenburger fletching jig that I got from 3Rivers Archery.

The fletching jig allows you to apply the feathers in evenly spaced positions around the dowel of the arrow.

Steps Involved

The steps involved looked roughly like this:

  1. Purchase the supplies
    1. Buy the oak dowels. You want a hard wood here as it will receive significant force when your arrow (hopefully) hits the target.
    2. Buy some sort of spacer, I used bronze and steel spacers.
    3. Buy the arrow heads and feathers (I got my feathers and arrow heads from 3Rivers once again).
    4. Lastly, fletching tape, paint, strong epoxy, protective coating for the arrow.
  2. Drill into the dowel a space large enough for the arrow head to fit into.
  3. Sand down on the outside of the drilled hole enough for the space to sit.
  4. Epoxy the arrowhead and spacer into place on the tip of the arrow.
  5. Paint the dowel decoratively.
  6. Polyurethane to protect the arrow from the elements.
  7. Ensure you place the arrows in an arid/unhumid environment when allowing them to dry.
  8. Apply the feathers with your fletching jig and tape.

Finished Product

So that’s it! This was one of my quarantine projects. I pretty much have nowhere to shoot them now that I’m back in Madison from Cincinnati (damn you urban environment!), but I’m proud of these creations nonetheless.

I hope you learned something and take on any carpentry project you’ve been considering!

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by Taylor