Building a Durable Hickory (White Wood) Bow Quickly


First off, thank you for taking the time to read this article. I'd also like to extend my thanks to Paul Comstock and Tim Baker for their patience with me. You may already have your stave in hand and possibly are wondering where, exactly, to begin. I hope these instructions are to the point and will be helpful to you.

If the bark is not off the stave at this point, hit the stave on the bark side, with a hammer, near the end until the bark lifts. Next, pull up on the bark and it should come off in one piece. I don't usually have any problems debarking Hickory but if the bark breaks and doesn't come off cleanly, you may have to use your draw knife. Take care not to go below the cambium layer which lies immediately between the bark and the real wood. It is brownish when exposed to the air, variably soft and fibrous, depending on the time of year the wood is cut. The first clear layer of white wood is the back of your bow. Much of the time staves go out with the bark already removed, this information is just so you'll know what to do if you receive a bark on stave or cut your own tree. I will generally remove the bark from split Hickory after about two weeks when moisture has dropped enough that my moisture meter won't peg at 35%. When the bark is removed, moisture plummets in a few days to around 25%, then descends more slowly to about 15%, where in my locale, it will stabilize. Generally, unless you drive moisture out by heat or a dehumidification chamber, you will age, before your wood will cure enough that set will be minimized and performance can be optimized. Be careful about putting wood in the attic where temperatures may be excessive and the tendency is to forget the wood then go back to it at an undetermined later time. This can be disastrous. The high temperatures and low humidity there will wreck your bow if you don't keep track of both. The truth is, in most places the moisture in Hickory generally will stabilize above the point where cast is optimum in the finished bow. This is absolutely the scenario in the eastern part of our country. Out west, in Utah for example, moisture may drop to 6% without manipulation. Here in the South, I have often seen people build perfect bows, only to realize mediocre performance. Failure to understand the implications of moisture in wood will lead to disenchantment with wood bowyery. After all, the dimensions are correct, right? As with most things, there's just more to the big picture than that one facet alone. If a bowyer understands to drop the moisture, and to make for certain it stays there, after arriving at the final dimensions, the performance of the bow would rise significantly. The spread for performance goes something like this. For every 1% of moisture, between 9% to 25% that your finished bow contains, resistance to bend will decrease by about 6%. The performance of such moisture laden wood cannot be optimum. Do the math, you will quickly realize that if you leave the moisture in the wood, you will have a slow bow, the extra moisture adds to hand shock as well. A moisture laden bow will assume and retain a bend after being strung or it will "take a set". We will not leave the moisture in our bow, because being enlightened, we know better. I will suggest that you obtain a moisture meter if you plan to build very many wood bows. Your results will be transformed, in the same fashion, as those of the kid in math class who possesses the calculator. The people who used build and write about Hickory bows didn't address moisture control, but simply wrote Hickory off as a heavy, slow wood having low cast. They also tried to build Hickory bows to the same configuration as the long bow of that era. Long narrow profiles are not the best way to design a Hickory bow for optimum performance. I believe yesteryear's bowyers used the designs they were familiar with and didn't experiment for optimum design and performance. They used Yew and the stacked, rounded belly of the long bow as their yardstick because, to their knowledge that was what worked. It did work, but not very efficiently. Lighter than 50 pound bows can be built narrower than recommended width for heavier bows. When properly tillered and dried they will show low levels of string follow also.

The old time bowyers used wood which stabilized by its natural character to a lower level of moisture by simply reducing the tree to stave form, storing it in a dry place and then waiting. The moisture factor is certainly tied to durability, as well. The bottom line is that wood doesn't care if you dry it rapidly. If you read "The Bent Stick", by Paul Comstock, there are plans for a quickly built, effective and cheap wood dryer. Basically any container that your stave can fit in and have a flow of dry, warm air past it, from bottom to top, will serve as a dryer. A dryer can be a car, a piece of stove pipe, a wooden box, or even a cardboard box lined with wall insulation, almost anything will do, The point is to dry the air around the wood and create air flow past the wood. The warmed dry air picks up the moisture in the wood then transports it outside the box. Use a light bulb which will raise the temperature inside your container to about 100 degrees F. Leave a vent at the top so the moisture laden air can escape. Wood will loose moisture to the atmosphere surrounding it much more quickly than it will absorb moisture from the air. I use a rheostat, to control the temperature in the box. Most hardware and light fixture stores sell rheostats, they are also known as dimmer switches. Install the rheostat in line, so you can raise or lower the heat generated by the light bulb. Once you get your box wired, put a meat thermometer in the side of the wall, so that you don't have to open your box every time to check the temperature. Use a lamp or a porch light fixture, so you don't burn the house down. Make sure your box is insulated enough where the light is and that the heat isn't directly focused on the sides, if possible the light should be free standing, not touching anything. I have used a drop light with an aluminum shade in the bottom of my dryer and pointed it at the top of the box, all heat is directed up and the drop light is already wired. This the drying box should direct heat from bottom to top and should draw air, like a chimney. When building a dryer remember that hot air rises if you put the light up at the top above the wood the heat will go straight out the vents, without any moisture. The principle is a warm, dry air flow, not heat independently. Take care not to heat your box and wood over about 100 degrees, for safety's sake. The drying process will take about 12 days, at 100 degrees. Time is increased or decreased proportionate to the amount of wood mass being dried. The closer you are to final dimension, the less time you will have to dry the wood. All this preparation is necessary for you to take control of the bow making process and not let it control you. You people who live in drier regions such as our west may have the inverse problem experienced by the bowyers who live here in the east. Your bow may get too dry and break because of too little humidity in the air. All the steps of construction are the same for dry country bowyers except you don't have to build a wood dryer. Everyone's results will be consistently better if they can look at a meter and know if moisture content is 6% or 26% without having to guess. The performance spread is tremendous and you really need to know where you are. I'll tell you how to know that your wood is cured, in the absence of a moisture meter. One way is to weigh the wood, when you get it. Weigh it every other day or so while drying it. When the wood has ceased to lose any weight for 25% of the time it has been in the dryer, you should be at or very close to 8% or 9% and you are where you need to be. If the bow has not already been reduced to dimension it's time to begin. The closer you are to final dimension, the faster your bow will dry down to the optimum moisture content.

Now that we know what to do about moisture during the curing process and its effect on performance, let's talk about how we will reduce and tiller your now cured stave. To construct a durable bow, I recommend that it be 68 to 70 inches in length. That seems long, but in terms of accuracy you will shoot a longer bow better. A longer bow will also last longer. The extra length can always be cut off if it worries you. The insurance that the extra length affords in terms of stability though, will make you want to leave your bow long. If you happen to make a bow that is too light, you can always shorten it. Trim your stave to 70 inches or as long a length as you are comfortable with. Mark the middle of the stave all the way around. Measuring from the middle at 2.5 inch intervals do the same thing again, twice in each direction, toward the ends. This will set you up for a 5 inch handle with 2.5 inch fade outs. Next set the stave on its belly and mark the middle the full length of the handle and fade outs. This has established center for you. On the middle 5 inches which will be your handle, mark 3/4 inch either side of center, on both top and bottom. Connect the dots. You should be looking at a centered 1.5 inch rectangle, mid-length in your stave. Now, at the first line above and below your handle rectangle, on either side, make dots, however wide you want your bow to be, leaving the fade out. I recommend a width of 1 3/4 inches for 55 pound and up bows, 1 1/2 inches for 50 pounds and below. Remember, you can take wood off quickly and easily if you like but it's hard to put it back so take it easy. Note also wider and thinner belly to back white wood bows perform well. A 50 pound bow that is 1 3/4 or 2 inches wide will shoot just fine too. Wood is eight times stronger if it's twice as thick as the next piece, it's twice as strong if it's twice as wide. After choosing a width, connect the dots. You should be looking at an outline of handle and fade outs. I'd like to express a few personal thoughts at this point about measurements. These measurements are to be taken with a grain of salt, particularly the one which addresses handle width. Ultimately your handle will be from 1 1/8 to 1 1/4 wide, depending on your hand size. Ladies and children need smaller handles. I always figure wood can be removed more easily than it can be put back. From outside of the fade outs, measure toward either end about 20 inches. Make a line completely encircling the stave on each limb. Make dots the same width apart as you did at the outside of the fade outs. Connect the dots from the outer corners of the fade outs to the dots you just made. You are now looking at a 20 inch length of limb, proceeding from top and bottom fade outs. Now find center on either nock end. Make a mark. Measure 3/8 inch either side of this mark and make a dot on either side of the center both top and bottom. Connect the dots. You should be looking at a picture of your bow on the back of your stave. Turn the stave on its side, on either end make a mark at 7/16. Now go to the fade out marks closest to the ends and make marks at 7/8 inch. Connect the dots. Now measure 1 3/4 inches from the back to the middle and make marks on the lines which are the ends of the handle. Connect the dots and you should be looking at a profile of your bow. Cut out the bow with a band saw or your rasp, depending on what you regard as fun and how you wish to spend your time. The band saw is quicker but the rasp is safer. Consider yourself warned. You should have a roughed out bow before too long, in either event. I like my bows to bend in the handle, just a little bit. The handle can be reduced to about 1 3/16 later, if you elect to have a bend in the handle bow. Go slowly when reducing the handle. Now, bend the roughed out bow backward over a 2x4, which has a 4 inch block centered in the handle of the stave. Secure the ends of your bow, which because it is at 15% to 25% moisture content, will be very pliable and noodle like compared to how it will be in about a week of drying in your new wood oven. Tap your wooden bow and remember the sound. Do this in the same place each time when checking in on it. I tap at the end of the fade out, at the top of the limb, about 4 inches out. The initial sound will be a much lower thump than the higher "tick" that you will hear when the wood is dry at about 9%, or less. All this is done daily for about a week after you start drying your stave. When the tone goes to the higher note and doesn't change for a day or two, take the bow out of the box and let it cool for a few hours before bending it. This is not a precise method for determining moisture. Lacking a moisture meter, with enough experience, you will get comfortable with this method.

If you have tapered your limbs in thickness and in width evenly, often, after cutting your nocks, these bows will need very little, or sometimes no tillering. At the worst, tillering will be minor. Tiller by sanding the belly in flat spots and by sanding the sides. Remember, make the bow bend smoothly and evenly on both limbs. It's a not a bad idea to tiller your bow to about 10 pounds heavier draw weight than you wish it to be when completed. Your bow will probably lose this much draw weight during the break in and final tillering process. If it doesn't lose any weight you can always reduce it later. During the tillering process don't pull your bow to a heavier weight at a longer draw than you wish the bow to pull when finished. Observance of this rule will prevent set in your new bow. You can monitor this by pulling against the bathroom scale with your bow on the tillering board. You can reduce the width of the tips to 1/2 inch or a little less initially but not very much thinner. Depending the nock style you chose, sometimes 3/8 of an inch is the final thickness and width you will end up with at the nock. You will probably have a fast bow with these low mass tips and even taper. This should be done after putting the bow in the tillering board, after tillering has been completed and after the bow has been sitting, strung, at a brace height of 4 inches for about 6 to 8 hours. If you want to recurve the tips you can still do it at this point. The best and most dependable results happen when recurving is done when the tips have not yet been reduced but are still somewhat wide. Any twist can be better dealt with if the tips are somewhat wider than they will be when finished. If you make working recurves, you may need to stiffen them with glued 1/16 inch thick stiffeners. Unless it's for looks or you need to raise the poundage, I don't recommend recurving the tips. The standard straight style will usually shoot better. The three inches of reflex that you put into the bow may now be a thing of the past, depending on your tillering job, even before stressing the bow by shooting it. Don't worry, bows shoot just fine with a small amount of string follow, some people think better.

Now that the bow has been strung for awhile, raise the brace height to 5 or 5 1/2 inches and shoot it about 400 times before final tillering and sealing it. The day before sealing it, l let the bow spend the night in the hot box, at about 100 degrees.. Apply the stain of choice, let it dry. I usually seal with a mixture of 50% mineral spirits, 25% each Tung oil and Linseed oil. This formula makes a nice looking finish which is pretty much water proof. The only catch is that it may take 25 or more coats to get there. I warm and dry my bows periodically during wet periods. You will probably always be adding some finish to your bow and covering scratches with the oil finish. To avoid the mess of the oil finishing process, you can seal the bow with a polyurethane. Three to four coats will seal your bow. I do that sometimes, depending on the situation. The only problem is that if you scratch the bow, it's hard to match the scratch, then you have to reseal it again. I prefer the oil finish, personally. Car wax is a good water repellent to be familiar with as well if you anticipate getting caught in the rain, regardless which finish you use.

I hope this article is helpful to you in making your bow. Remember, this is not the only way to build a bow it's just the way I do it and it works pretty well for me. If I can be of further assistance, please let me know.