How to Build a Self Bow

How to Build a Self Bow

 by Jenny Underwood    If you’ve never given archery a try, you’re missing a fun, relaxing, and rewarding pastime! Not to mention it’s the perfect opportunity to learn how to work with wood, build some muscle, and enjoy the outdoors. Or maybe you’ve considered it, but the price tags on custom bows were a bit too hefty for a hobby. If so, this article is for you! In it, you’ll learn how to select and harvest a tree for bow wood, split staves, prepare staves for drying, and the actual making and finishing of a simple self bow. Oh, and this is a wonderful project for kids especially if you homeschool and want to teach woodworking.   

First, you’re going to need some simple tools for the job. A chainsaw is handy but if all you have is a hand saw, you can make do with that. A saw, drawknife, pocket knife, measuring tape, pen, splitting implements such as wedges, a maul or a hatchet, a hammer, and a handmade tillering tree are all you need. Set up a workstation where you don’t mind wood shavings or you can clean them easily. A vise to clamp your bow while working on it can also make the job easier but it’s not a necessity.   

You’re also going to need access to woods where you can pick a tree to cut down or if this isn’t possible, you can buy bow staves online. You will want a straight tree for at least eight to 10 feet up. Many different kinds of wood make an excellent self bow so more than likely you’ll have a few choices regardless of the area you live in. Hickory is one of the best woods especially for a beginner because there is no need to follow one growth ring. So for this article, we will focus on hickory. You will want a stout but not brittle wood that either grows rather straight or shoots well despite its curvature. Look for any obvious knotholes or insect damage and don’t choose those. Less than 12 inches in diameter will make it much easier to work with so measure your trees! Here is where a chainsaw comes in handy! Cut down the tree and then cut 80 inches in length off it. Make it the straightest, cleanest section your tree has.   

Bring your tree section home and seal it on the ends with regular wood glue if you aren’t going to work with it right away. This will help prevent it from splitting as it dries. Cheap wood glue works as well as expensive wood glue for this part so just use what you have. Your next step is to either let it dry or begin work on it right away. It’s easier to work with green wood but you will then need to clamp or bind it to a straight surface such as a 2×4 or rafter to prevent it from twisting. The stave must be dried before tillering or it will take set. Set is the curve that a bow keeps after unstringing. It’s preferable to have as little set as possible for optimal bow performance.   

Now split your bow wood into staves if it’s big enough. If not, just use the entire piece as one stave. You’ll need to remove the outer bark with a drawknife or a regular knife. This is called a whitewood bow. Once you have the outer bark off, you have the back of your bow. You will not remove any more wood from the back of your bow. The back is the part that faces away from you and is covered in bark. The belly faces you and is split. You will remove any wood needed to reach your desired draw-weight from the belly only.    

Draw your desired design on your stave and work down close to the dimensions. Do not finish the bow unless the stave is dried. After drying, you may then tiller or finish the bow. Carefully take small amounts off the belly to achieve your draw-weight and even bending of both limbs. Your limbs must bend evenly or they will develop a “hinge” and most likely break. Remember to carefully remove small amounts of wood by scraping because it’s possible to remove weight but you can’t put the wood back on!   

To tiller your self bow you will need a post or wall. Simply make a small holder for the bow to set on. Then several feet down directly under it, place a D-ring or small pulley. When you place your bow on the holder you will attach another string with a hook onto your bowstring and run it through the pulley or D-ring while you hold the other end. Gently pull the string and observe how the limbs bend. Are they even or does one limb bend more than the other? If one end bends more than the other, take off small amounts from the one that doesn’t bend as much until you’ve reached as close to even bending as possible.   

A few considerations for making this an easier process are: cut your trees in the spring when the bark will slip off easier; make sure to seal your staves with glue or they will crack on you, and take your time on your project. It’s also preferable to get your bark off rather soon to prevent insects from taking residence in your stave.   

After reaching your desired draw-weight and tiller, you now should waterproof your bow. You may also stain it or leave it the natural color. This process is simple but very versatile as you can stain using natural or artificial stains and waterproof with anything from bear grease to a commercial sealant. A few beautiful natural stains can be made from walnut hulls, flowers, roots (such as bloodroot or goldenseal), barks (such as Dogwood), or even clay-based pigments. Other options are snakeskins, bamboo, or sinew. Remember the stains and wrappings do not waterproof it.   

A bowstring will also need to be made or bought for your bow. These are inexpensive and last a long time under proper maintenance.    

I hope you will give this ancient and fun project a try. It may become your new favorite hobby or even become a business! Many thanks go to my husband for his help with this article. He has made several self bows for himself and our children. He made sure my directions were accurate and understandable. If you would like more detailed information, I recommend the book series The Bowyer’s Bible which is a four-volume set that tells you everything about bow building that you can possibly imagine!   

JENNY UNDERWOOD is a homeschooling mama to four lively blessings. She makes her home in the rural foothills of the Ozark Mountains with her husband of 20 years. You can find her reading a good book, drinking coffee, and gardening on their little fifth-generation homestead. She blogs at www.inconvenientfamily.com  

Originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and vetted for accuracy.

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