Being able to hunt and fend for yourself in the bush are important skills of woodscraft, and essential if you happen to find yourself in a true survival situation. A traditional longbow can be a very useful tool in such circumstances—provided, of course—that you have skill with it to start with. Aiming a longbow is neither simple nor intuitive. It takes hundreds of hours practice to become good with one. But master the longbow and you not only have acquired one of woodscraft’s most demanding and elegant skills, but you can always create a bow for yourself of local materials and feed yourself and your family if the need arises. This article describes how to make a 50# longbow from simple, local materials. The longbow in this article is made from rock maple, an excellent bow wood, though many other woods will do, including hickory, osage orange, yew, oak, birch and ash. In fact, most any dense hardwood and some of the denser, stronger softwoods will do, but maple, birch, osage orange, hickory, oak and yew make some of the toughest, fastest shooting bows.
What You Will Need:
This article focuses on simplicity. You will need only a handful of tools to make a bow.
- Hatchet or axe
- Two splitters
- Chainsaw or handsaw
- Drawknife or spokeshave
- Small to medium chisel or very sharp small knife for carving
- Cabinetmaker’s scraper (a 6”x4” thin piece of steel)
- Sandpaper: 60, 100, 200 and 400 grain
- 6” square piece of leather or 50’ feet of rawhide thong or 300’ 100# test nylon fishing line (the woven kind that feels like string, not monofilament)
- Linseed oil or polyurethane lacquer
- Small round rasp: either a chainsaw sharpener or a ¼” round wood rasp
- Optional: small hand planer and farrier’s rasp or medium wood rasp
- Also optional: fiberglass cloth and Titebond III glue
Step One: Acquire your wood.
Making a longbow requires first getting wood. Two do this from scratch, you will have to cut a young tree. I always recommend finding a tree that “needs to be cut”. By this I mean find a tree that is suitable to the purpose of making a bow but is also crowding another tree, so that removing the tree will only benefit the local environment. In the image left, we see several birches growing too closely. The trunk in center is straight and branch-free, and it really needs to be cut so the other trees can have room to grow.
Select a tree between eight and sixteen inches diameter. You will cut it about a foot over the ground. You may cut with hatchet or saw, though a saw makes a cleaner, more level cut. You should only cut the tree during a warm month when the sap is flowing abundantly. The tree trunk must offer a good seven feet of straight area, free of branch growths and knots. As soon as the tree is felled, paint the ends with spray paint to reduce loss of internal sap too quickly, which will cause micro-fissures to form in the wood.
Step Two: Split and Season the Wood
Bring the wood back home and split it. If it is nine inches or under in diameter, split it in half. If it is greater than nine inches, you can quarter it. Then bind the wood back together with wire and place it in a warm, dry place–such as a shelf in the garage—where it can season slowly for a year. Never place your wood someplace bone dry and hot, such as an attic. It will season too quickly and become too dry, causing fractures and warpage, rendering the wood useless for bowmaking.
Step Three: Initial Cutting
The time has come to begin shaping the bow. Your first bow, this is likely to take a while. But experienced bowmakers can turn a suitable piece of wood into a bow in a day. In the above pic, we see the stave cut to length with basic shaping. The grip has been cut and fitted to the bow already and is tacked to it with a single drop of superglue to serve as a visual reference.
The ideal length of bow is generally considered about 64”. That is long enough to give good leverage and minimize stacking (excessive draw weight build up in the last few inches of the draw) and finger pinch (due to curving of the string on the fingers as its pulled) and give superior arrow speed. Truly perfect bow length depends on the wood you’re using, though. As an example, with yew it is traditionally considered to be the archer’s height plus a handspan.
For this bow, we are going to aim for 64”. Cut your stave to 66” and use the draw knife to carefully start shaping the wood. Your goal at this time is to reduce the wood to stave 1.75” wide and 1” thick. The stave must be a portion of the trunk that is free of knots and branches. Now here is the trickiest and MOST IMPORTANT PART: The back of your bow (the part facing away from the shooter) must have an unbroken growth ring. So, while carving the initial stave, you must use the drawknife to carefully work away the bark and outer green growth without damaging the outer growth ring.
Step Four: Now You Have Your Stave:
Now that you have carved your 1.75”x1”x66” stave, you must inspect the wood. Ensure the back of the bow is free of knots and branch holes. An experienced bowyer can turn imperfect wood into a “character bow”, but we’re keeping it simple in this article. You want perfect wood, free of imperfections and blemishes.
Now you must do a little marking. Measure the middle of the stave at 33”. Mark 2” up and down from the center point. That 4” span will become the grip. Mark another 3” up and down from each grip mark. That will become the “fade”, where the grip will be tapered to fit back into the shape of the bow.
In the bow I carved for this article, I actually made the grip out of a separate piece of wood. In the image above, you can see the fade. It is steep, going back only a half an inch, and was made with a simple rasp, angling the ends of the grip into the stave. The grip was pinned into place with a finishing nail at either end and finished with a strong string grip. This is called a floating grip, though it is easier (and arguably better) to carve your grip right into the bow.
You will also need to mark 10” up from each tip of the stave. That’s where you will start the taper to the tips of the bow. See the plans below:
<PLANS TO BE INSERTED>
Step Five: Start Carving
Now you will use your drawknife to start carving. You start by carving out the limbs of the bow. Start from the tips and work your way toward the center. Your goal is to reduce the limbs to .75” thick.
Once the limbs are reduced to .75” thick, it’s time to taper the tips. You already marked 10” up from each tip. Now measure up 1” from each tip and mark the center of that mark. This is where the finished bow tip will be. Mark ¼” to each side of the center mark: that’s how wide the bow should be at the tips.
With your marking done, begin carefully carving the taper with the drawknife, using the scraper and 60 grain sandpaper or a small handheld planer to remove transparently thin shavings to level the taper.
Now flatten the area at the center of the bow where you will attach the floating grip. The best tools for this are a planer and 60 grain sandpaper made flat but affixing it to a sandpaper block or held to a bit of 2”x4” scrap lumber.
Now, cut out a 10” piece of maple, 1” wide by 1” deep. This will be the backside of the grip. Round the back with a rasp and make the other side perfectly flat so it fits the area you just flattened on the stave to receive the grip. Rasp away a fade into either end of the grip so it “flows” into the stave. Fit it to the center of the stave and glue in place. Use a good but breakable glue, such as a couple drops of superglue. The glue is just to “tack” the grip in place so you can hold the bow comfortably while testing the curve and shaping the limbs during the next stages of the bowmaking process. Later, this floating grip will be permanently set in place with a couple finishing nails and grip material (leather or nylon string).
Using the drawknife, carve the sides of the stave at the grip to be 1” wide so that they perfectly match the width of the grip. Thus, the grip should be 1″ wide and 2″ thick. Beyond the grip, taper the stave back to 1.75” wide.
Step Six: Testing the Curve
At this point, the stave will start looking like a bow. You can use the rasp to put some curve into the back of the grip now. Finishing rounding and smoothing the four corners of the grip with a fine rasp then medium grain sandpaper. That will help you hold the bow while you test its curve and draw.
Now tie a strong string to either tip of the limbs. The knots should go about 1” up either taper. Hold the stave in front of a large reflective surface: a window or a mirror and carefully draw to what feels like 50#. (Do not try to draw all the way back at this time. You will break the stave. Only to what feels like about 50#.) No need to be precise just now. (If you are not used to drawing bows, it will be hard to know what a 50# draw feels like. You can get a draw weight scale from suppliers such as 3riversarchery.com that will help you calibrate precisely. However, your goal is to make the draw hard enough that you have to put real effort into it but not so hard that pulling it hurts you or causes shake.)
Unless your wood is very soft, it will only bend a little. It is still nearly an inch thick, after all. Now, use the drawknife to carefully start reducing the thickness of the stave. Reduce evenly on both limbs, removing a paper-thin amount of wood from both limbs each time you carve. Every time you finish working both limbs like this, re-attach the string and test the draw. Ensure that the limbs curve more or less evenly and the draw is 50 lbs or greater. You will have to remove wood in this way dozens of times before this process is done, but it is important to go slow. Remove too much wood by rushing and your bow will be too weak. In bowmaking, you can’t go too slowly or cautiously. When you can pull the string back to your cheek and the draw is a little heavier than 50#, say about 60#, it is time to start the fine work and tillering.
Step Seven: Fine Work
Now you will start the fine work. Using sandpaper and scraper, taper the sides of the limbs. They should taper only inward so that if you were to cut away a limb and look at it straight on, the sides would appear slightly curved toward the center of the bow. Nothing should curve outward away from the center—that weakens the wood and can introduce cracks.
It’s also time to finish up the shaping of the grip. Using the scraper and 60 grain sandpaper, finish any rounding of the four corners of the grip so they feel very comfortable to the hand, then sand till silky smooth. That’s all for the grip for now.
Step Eight: Tiller the Limbs
When you can pull the string back to the front of your cheek (or your anchor point; if an experienced archer) and the draw weight is about 60#, it’s time to tiller. A lot of fancy gadgets have been built to brace the bow and check the tiller, but the most convenient way to do this is to finish the limb tips and carve in your notches so you can connect an actual bow string and get a feel for how the bow will pull under real conditions. So . . .
For starters, do not make the tips any less thick than half an inch. You don’t want the tips to have much curve. In fact, it is best if they are a bit stiff. Cut off one inch from either tip, which brings the bow’s length down to 64”. That extra inch was just left on because persons new to carving tend to break wood at the tips as they work. Using the drawknife (and hand planer, if desired) and scraper and 60 grain sandpaper, refine the taper of the tips. Round the very end of the tips with a rasp and then use the round rasp to cut string notches into the tips, approximately .75” from the ends of the limbs. The horizontal of the notch goes across the back of the bow and is at .75” from the end. The sides of the notch come toward the center of the bow at about a 25 degree angle. The notches should be cut only as deep as the bowstring. Smooth the edges with medium and fine grain sandpaper.
Use a loose bowstring. It should be the length of the bow minus 1”. Attach to the bow and draw back halfway in front of a mirror. Observe the curvature of the limbs. They should bend smoothly from the handle to the start of the tips. The tips should be fairly stiff. Perspective can be tricky, so flip the bow over and look at it again as you draw halfway. Then mark any stiff areas where the bow may bend less. Very carefully take off a little wood in that area, no more than a leaf of paper’s thickness.
If the bow reveals areas that bend too much, that may be a location of loose grain or you may have accidentally carved that spot a bit too thin. If so, you will have to mark that area and remove all the wood up and down the limb on either side of it (except the tips). This will weaken the limb but helps even up the curve of the limb under draw. NOTE that this is why you must go very slowly and check often when carving away wood. Make one small place a hair too thin and the whole bow must be made with a lighter draw weight to accommodate the weak section. Every time you adjust one limb, make sure the other matches the curvature.
In the image above, the bow has a good tiller on the left, but the limb is very stiff on the right, with the out half being almost straight. Wood will have to be carefully removed from the right limb, especially the outer part, so that the curve of the right arm matches the left arm.
Every time you remove wood, check by drawing the bow. The flexing of the limbs is good for the bow and it is the only way you can ensure you do not take away too much wood. Repeat until the limbs curve evenly. Go very carefully because every time you tiller, you reduce the bow’s draw weight a little. That’s why, if aiming for a 50# bow, you carve the stave till the draw is 60# then start the tillering. By the time the tillering is done, the draw is usually somewhere between 45# and 55#.
Step Nine: The Grip
In testing the curve, your grip may have snapped the glue and come loose. That’s no big deal. The glue is only to hold it in place while you finish the bow. Once the tillering is done, it’s time to permanently affix the grip to the stave. Make sure it is perfectly centered and tack it with a couple drops of superglue or similar product. When the grip is set in place, tack in a 1.25” finishing nail into each end of the back side of the grip, 1” up from innermost portion of the fade. The nails will keep the grip in place even if the whole stave curves a bit when drawing the bow.
Now, if you use a solid piece of leather for wrapping the grip, cut it to fit the central 4” where the bowhand goes and glue it in place. The best glue I know for the job is Titebond III, a popular bowyer’s glue because it is strong, waterproof and flexible.
If you use hide thong or string, wrap the line around the grip, edge-to-edge so the wood does not show, and use a whipping knot to lock the line tightly in place. A good whipping knot will never loosen. But leather tends to stretch over time, so if using hide thong you should wet it first so it expands. As it dries on the grip, it will tighten and lock fast to the bow and never let go.
Step Ten: Checking the Tiller
Now take your bowstring, attach one end to a notch and twist the other end until the bow string is 4” shorter than the bow. Attach to the other notch. There should be 6” of breach height now (the space between the center of the string and the grip). Draw the string to your cheek, as before in front of a reflective surface, and ensure that under full tension the limbs still bend perfectly. If they need further tillering, conduct as in Step Eight.
Step Eleven: Sealing
(In the above image, the bow has just had its last coat of wipe-on polyurethane applied. The poly is clear and does not affect the color o the wood.)
Now for the last part, unless you want to do the Optional Step. Use linseed oil or polyurethane to seal the wood. You want to trap the wood’s moisture within and protect the wood from dry or humid conditions. Linseed oil is a natural way to do this though you have to touch up the bow now and then. For a permanent seal, use wipe-on polyurethane. Whichever you use, apply at least three layers. Let each layer dry a day then apply another layer. However, if you want to do the Optional Step, do Step Eleven last.
Optional Step: Backing
Your bow may be used without backing: in other words, an unbroken growth ring of wood forms the back of the bow. But about half of these bows will break even if you do everything right (unless you made the bow of yew, which has a natural backing, but that is another story). If you want to ensure 90% of your bows will work (even if you accidentally cut through the growth ring while carving), you can apply a fiberglass backing.
The best fiberglass backing is made from light fiberglass cloth, the kind boat builders use, and can be gotten at any marine supply store. Merely cut the cloth to 1.85” wide and 62” long. It will cover all but the last inch of either tip of the bow. Put on latex gloves and apply a generous but not overflowing, even layer of Titebond III on the back of the bow, using your finger to distribute it evenly and rub it into the wood grain. Lay the cloth onto the bow and begin smoothing it down. The cloth is porous so any air bubbles can easily be worked out in the smoothing. Smooth it in this way till you see glue evenly in the pores of the cloth and there are no wrinkles or air bubbles. If needed, sparingly apply a little more glue to areas where glue may be insufficient and rub it in. Leave to cure a day. When the process is done, fiberglass cloth looks something like snakeskin on the limbs of the bow, as in the image below. It not only protects the bow but it adds draw weight and arrow velocity.
When cured, use scissors then a fine wood file to rasp away any fiberglass cloth sticking over the sides. Sand the sides smooth with medium grain sandpaper. Then go back to Step 11 and finish your bow.
Your bow is now ready to shoot. A bow string should be four inches shorter than the length of the bow and provide a six inch brace height. If this is your first bow, expect to botch the making a couple times, even if you are an experienced woodworker. Learning to taper and tiller the limbs is tricky and experience is the best education. I botched the first two bows I ever carved but after that they became satisfactory and soon became quite useful.
This type of bow is a useful homemade tool. If you are used to shooting a true master-craft bow, these bows won’t stack up, though. The last bow I made shoots about 150 per second, but it doesn’t stack up to my beloved custom-built 70# Tomahawk longbow which shoots at a good 220 feet per second, is virtually impervious to weather and fires off a carved-in, centerline shelf. But with practice, even these homemade bows are quite serviceable. They were, in fact, the stuff of hunters throughout the Stone Age and well into the Iron Age. Learning to build them is a good survival skill. Should you want to make your own master-craft bows, this is where you start, too.
What’s more, in a pinch one of these bows can be carved with nothing other than a sharp knife and a hatchet in the woods in a matter of a couple hours, once you get the knack of making them. Or you can make such a bow from a convenient branch or by tying several thin branches together. You can make string from natural fibers or sinew. In other words, you can make these survival tools most anywhere from local materials. A very useful bit of woodscraft for anyone who ventures into wild places.