This post was originally published in February 2013 and last updated on in April 2020 with the above live stream video by Chris Chisholm.
A. Harvest the Wood
- Quick Survival Bow: Start with a relatively straight section of sapling or branch that is as free as possible from knots and side branches, and without any twist. You want this straight section to be 1-2 meters long and about 3-6 centimeters in diameter. Remember to cut carefully so not to create cracks or splits in the wood. * Guest video:
- Big Game Bow: In the pacific northwest, find healthy stand of Pacific Yew, Vine Maple or Sitka Spruce. Harvest with a gardener’s eye. Here’s a good “moderate bow” video especially Material Selection & Preparation, with great overview starting at minute 4:48 in Part 4 in this guest video series by a fellow you might recognize from an early episode of Naked & Afraid:
B. Prepare the Wood
- Quick Survival Bow: Stand the bottom of the stave (usually the base of the sampling or branch) on your boot or on a stable log (get in the habit of never putting it in the dirt/sand which will eventually weaken your tips) and hold the top (same direction as how it grew) loosely with one hand. Push outward lightly on the middle of the bow. The stave will swivel to show you which way it is slightly curved. The outside bend of the curve is called the “back” and the inside bend of the curve is the “belly.” Leave the “back” of the bow untouched. The back receives the most tension and any damage to it can cause the bow to break. Now find the middle point of the stave and mark out your handhold area by measuring and marking about out from the center in both directions to fit your grip, about 5-8 centimeters in each direction from your center line. The handhold area will also be left relatively untouched. The area above the handhold is the upper limb and the area below is the lower limb. * Guest video:
- Big Game Bow: For a better bow, you may want your bow to flex the opposite way that you think it might naturally bend, so remember that when preparing a big game bow. Also, cut the stave slightly longer than the length of bow you want, and if you know what you are doing, you can inspect the stave looking for growth rings that are dark, straight, and thick. At this point, you can just cover the ends with paint, pitch, glue, or wax to season for a few months. You can do the next steps below (A-D) after it has seasoned, with some added difficulties such as the bark and wood being harder to work, depending on tree species.
- If you have enough time, tools and pitch/glue/paint/wax at this point, it’s better to remove the bark now, especially if it comes of fairly easily such as when the sap is flowing (not as easy in the winter) making sure that you don’t cut into the outer growth ring (sapwood / cambium layer) of the wood, and if there are branches/knots to deal with, be sure not to cut into them very much; in other words, leave a knob at those points.
- If your stave is thick enough for more than one bow, or if you see obvious parts of the stave that have imperfections you want removed, go ahead and saw and/or split the stave down to a more manageable thickness. It’s nice to do all this on day one in the field in order to get inside your stave and know what you’re dealing with – whether you want to keep all, part, or none of the wood for bow making.
- Once you have a stave or staves you think will work for you, then choose the edge you want as the “back” of the bow (with untouched outer growth ring which was just under the bark; it’ll be the opposite side of you when pulling on it; or in other words, the side that faces the animal) and draw an exactly straight “center line” down the back from tip to tip, using an ink that won’t rub off very easily. You’ll need it as a reference to know whether the stave curved/twisted while seasoning, and to work from while reducing it to size later.
- You can now decide whether to reduce the stave to an even more manageable size. You can even shave the back of your bow down to a lower growth ring if you need to get underneath some imperfections. In addition, should shape a handle area that is good for your grip. Remember, you can never add wood back on, so leave most of the work for later. Otherwise, just paint any cut/split parts of the stave(s) with paint, pitch, glue, or wax to season in a cool, dry place for a few months. Guest video:
C. Shape the Stave
- Quick Survival Bow: Now put the bottom tip of the bow on top of your foot and hold the top tip while pushing outward from the belly side of the handhold. Only push outward a few inches. Look at how the limbs bend. Observe which areas bend and which areas do not. Begin removing wood from the belly of the limbs where they do not bend while leaving material in the areas of the limbs that bend a lot. Remember: only remove wood from the belly side of the limbs, leave the back untouched. The goal at this step in the process is to get the limbs to bend evenly in the shape of a parabolic curve (like a satellite dish) throughout their entire length Take off material slowly and re-check the bend of the limbs frequently. The handhold and tips should stay straight or have very little bend. You are ready for the next step of bow making instructions once both limbs are no longer stiff and are able to flex evenly throughout their length – thick staves will take lots of carving, while narrow diameter staves may only need very little shaping. * Guest video:
- Big Game Bow: Look at your seasoned bow and see if it has developed any cracks, especially in the outer growth ring. If so, use for something else. If it has developed a twist that caused your vertical center line to shift beyond the width of the bow, then again, use it for something else. Otherwise, test whether you can bend the stave. If not much at all, you can reduce the sides and belly to a point at which you can bend it a little.
- Start by drawing another straight center line between the tips, and then reduce the bow in a way that keeps the center lines as close center as possible. But again, only work until the bow starts to bend just a little in the direction you want.
- You might notice that the bow is twisted a bit, or curved a bit too far off center. So now you can heat-straighten the bow. Because the bow is no longer green, it needs steam or oil to help the process. If you use steam, just simmer water in a pot and substitute the following directions for the following: to heat-bend without steam, just apply some animal or vegetable oil to the portion of your bow that needs shaping, and create heat (camp stove, wood stove, very small fire) next to where you can quickly put the bow into a vice such as between two tightly-growing small trees. Carefully move just the exact portion of the bow that you want shaped back-and-forth-and-around over the heat, and when it is just a bit too hot to touch (but before the wood burns in any way) then quickly put the portion you want to shape into the vice, holding it there in the shape you want until the wood cools. Look and repeat until it stays in the shape you want.
D. File Notches & String the Bow
- Quick Survival Bow: You can now carve small notches on the both sides of each tip, being careful not to carve into the back of the bow. The notches only need to be deep enough to keep a bow string in place. Tie loops into both ends of a nylon, sinew, or plant fiber string, using a length that will allow about 15 centimeters between the string and the handhold when the bow is strung. You can know this in advance because after making loops and hooking the bottom loop into your bottom notches, the top of your string should reach approximately 15 centimeters from where it will hook into the notches at the top tip of your bow. Go ahead and string the bow, but be careful not to pull back on the string yet to avoid breaking the bow. Of particular importance, never pull back on the string and let go of it without an arrow nocked and ready to fly. Guest video:
- Big Game Bow: Use the instructions in the previous paragraph, but remember, this hand-out assumes you have received visual instruction on all these steps, including how to make and tie string, how to file the notches so they flow well with the string, etc. so you know that there are differences to consider, and pitfalls to avoid. For instance, you know you are not going to be able to string the bow to a 15 centimeter brace height yet. Instead, just keep putting the handle of the unstrung bow on your knee and pull both ends, and keep removing wood until it starts to bend evenly. When you can finally string the bow, get it to a point where the string stays off the handle, taking into consideration that the string will stretch at first.
E. Exercise & Tiller
Whether you are making a big game or quick survival bow, you will need to tiller the bow down to your targeted weight. To test the weight, there are a couple of methods. You can lay it on a clean surface, place your clean footwear on the handle, and pull the string up toward you, observing how it bends. You can also hang the bow horizontally, balanced on its handle, from a branch nub or chunk of scrap wood nailed into a post, letting your string fall below the nub/scrap wood.
- Test by pulling down on the string a few inches while observing how the limbs bend. Not only do you want each limb to bend evenly throughout its length, you also want each limb to bend exactly the same amount (a mirror image of each other). That’s where “tillering” comes in: observe which limb bends less, and carefully remove more materials from the belly of that area until both limbs bend equally and evenly. At first, you will want to unstring your bow to tiller, then restring and test. When it starts to even out a bit, and the brace height reaches about 2-3 inches or 5-8 cm, you can keep the bow strung and tiller it that way, watching how the bow bends to get it perfectly even while strung.
- Re-check frequently, and “exercise” the bow by pulling on the string repeatedly, a little bit further each time until you are able to pull it to your draw length. Your draw length can be measured by imagining holding a bow and pulling the string back to your upper jaw to a shooting position – the distance between the handhold and your upper jaw is your draw length. The tillering process is complete once both limbs flex equally and evenly and the draw weight (pressure required to pull the string back to a full draw) is at your desired poundage. A 25-35 pound draw (10-15 kg) is sufficient enough for hunting small game while 40-60 pounds (15-25 kg) is the legal minimum weight in most jurisdictions for hunting larger animals like deer.
- Keep exercising the bow as you are tillering it. The bow weight increases the further you pull the string back, so test the weight at your draw length. For each centimeter of draw length, you are increasing the pressure by about a pound. The weight can be tested in a few ways, such as by balancing a five foot 2×4 piece of lumber upright/vertically on a bathroom scale, then balancing the bow on top of the piece of lumber (horizontally from the handhold) and pulling down on the string to a full draw length. Mark out the inches/cm down from the top of the lumber so you know where that distance is, and scale will register the draw weight.
F. Finish the Bow
- Quick Survival Bow: For wilderness survival situations the bow can now be used as is. Again, be sure to never “dry” fire the bow (dry firing is when the string is pulled back and let go without an arrow). If possible, sand the belly smooth and lightly oil/wax/pitch/paint the entire bow to prevent it from drying out too quickly. Many bowyers prefer linseed or tung oil. To care for your bow, shoot it and oil it frequently and adjust the tiller as needed.
- Big Game Bow: There are a few more things you want to do with your bow if you want it to shoot well and last a long time. However, please remember that you haven’t really learned how to make a bow until you’ve put dozens of hours into a Big Game Bow, then tillered it below the legal weight, or make one that breaks on you.
- It’s best to design your bow so that the ends of your bow are as “thin” as possible so there’s less weight on the ends to “fling” through the air when shooting. This will increase the “cast” or recall shape of the bow so arrows fly faster, and reduce your “hand-shock.”
- If you made a bow with thick/nonbendable handle, you can carve an arrow rest into the handle. If your bow bends at the handle, just shoot using your hand as the arrow rest. One tip of carving an arrow rest is that the closer you can bring it to the centerline of your bow, the better your arrows will fly because that will shoot straight off your string and not have to go “around” your bow. However, you can’t cut into the centerline of your bow, nor make the handle bendable, or it will break. That’s why a good handle design looks thin from the perspective of your shooting eye, but looks thick to a side observer. Finally, wrap your handle with leather or something that will soften the sound of your arrows and reduce hand-shock.
- Be careful to slightly “round” every edge of your bow, and sand it smooth. Sharp edges and rough spots cause breaking points. Remember, though, that every micro-filament you remove from your bow reduces its weight strength, so the true weight cannot be tested until it is smooth and oiled. Guest video:
Bow Making Notes *
Quick Survival Bow Instructions originally posted above in February 2013 were edited in September 2013 after reading Jason Knight’s great article at http://www.wildernesscollege.com/bow-making-instructions.html which nicely simplifies the process.
Big Game Bow Instructions written above by Chris Chisholm of the Wolf College include personal experience, as well as classes by Peter Yenkin and Frank Sherwood of Earthwalk Northwest and by working with Wolf College artisanry instructors Andrew Twele, Jason Patterson, Bill Chambers and Charlie Borrowman.
Chris Chisholm is founder and co-owner of Wolf Camp and the Conservation College. For excellent traditional bow and arrow making instruction with Chris as lead instructor, check out these great courses:
Every March: Saturday Bow & Arrow Making Workshop in Western Washington with the Conservation College.
Every August: Five Day Ancient Artisans – Classic Crafts & Traditional Technologies in Western Washington with the Conservation College.