In Part 3 of How to Make a Bow and Arrow, our bow tips were flexing evenly and consistently to a distance of at least 6 inches. That allowed us to string our bow.
It’s important to string your bow while there is still wood to be removed. On my first bow, I kept whittling down the belly trying to get each limb perfectly matched to one another. By the time I strung my bow, I realized – somewhat depressingly – that I had actually made a children’s bow.
Some folks break lots of bows before they make their first wood bow. My issue was making them a lot lighter than I planned.
A lot of people wonder about “the weight” of their bow. If you are used to compound bows, you might hear numbers like 50 lb., 60 lb, or even 70 lb. bows. If you’ve never shot a bow, these weights will feel very heavy to pull. There is a macho component in the archery world. The heavier the better.
Compound bows have up to an 80% let off. Let off is a mechanical advantage that allows you to hold less weight at full draw. For a 60 lb. bow, you can pull the bow to full draw and only feel like you are holding 15 lbs! There is no such handicap for a wood bow.
Don’t fall into the trap of needing to make a 60 lb bow. Especially if you want a bow that you can learn proper form. You don’t want it to be too easy, but you don’t want to be shaking when your bow is at full draw.
When I teach bow making classes, I recommend students shoot for (pun intended) a bow that pulls 30-40 lb.
Not to be too technical here, but people often leave out the second part of the measurement.
A 40 lb. bow is not fully descriptive. There needs to be a distance attached to the poundage.
This brings us to draw length: the distance you pull your bow string from the back of the bow.
The average draw length for an adult male is 28”. But I’ve found that distance to be shorter when using at traditional bows.
So to wrap this section, you are aiming for (pun NOT intended) finishing your bow at a comfortable weight at your specific draw length.
The average weight and draw length is 50 lbs at 28 inches. But you are not average. You’re special. So make your bow to YOUR specific need and desire.
I should mention that there are a few major causes of bow breakage. This is not meant to scare you, rather inform you when to pay the most attention.
Here they are:
- A severe hinge (thin spot created from too much wood removal in a specific area of your bow)
- A natural flaw in the wood – sometimes there’s nothing to be done about this except avoid it in the layout
- The back of the bow was not prepared properly – sanding, burnishing, etc.
- Stringing your bow – this happens most frequently when a bow is flexed unevenly
As you can imagine, a combination of these factors can be lethal to your bow. Fortunately, most of these things can be avoided with some forethought and awareness.
At this stage, we are most concerned about number 4. Use the step-through method, but remember that if it’s too hard to string your bow just keep removing wood evenly from both limbs.
Tips on tillering:
If you ever see a hinge in your bow, take out your pencil and draw a big X on that spot. Remove wood from either side of the hinge until it is removed. The later in the tillering process, the more dangerous hinges become. I often think of hinges as a poundage. If you are making a 40 lb. bow, but you gouge out an area and create a 30 lb. hinge, then you are forced to make a 30 lb. bow.
When your bow limbs are equal and there is a consistent bend on each limb, it’s time to gently flex your bow an inch or two further. Still look even and consistent? Pull it a little further. Part of this process is training the wood fibers of your bow. That’s why you should never string it or pull it backwards. The wood fibers are being compressed.
That’s why you never want to pull your bow back when you have not addressed a hinge. If you do, that part of your bow will retain that memory and be weaker. Slowly work your way to full draw
You want most of your bow to be flexing, but for a little insurance, leave about 4 inches of stiff area near the tips AND near the handle. Stiff tips will allow your bow to shoot slightly faster. If your bow bends near the handle, it can make it have more “hand shock”. This means that after releasing the arrow your hand receives some of the force. Over time it feels uncomfortable.
As you get closer to finishing your bow, you want to make sure the tools you are using are not leaving deep tooth marks. My favorite finishing tool is a cabinet scraper. It will leave a fine finish after every stroke. I like to implement this tool after I have strung my bow.
You might be wondering how to measure your bow’s weight. My favorite tool is a bow scale. You can make measurements on your tillering board – measured from the back of your bow. Then take your bow scale and pull it to that distance.
Using a bow scale is not essential, but it can help you start to measure your bows more accurately. If you are going for a specific weight, the bow scale will allow you to make sure you are on target (pun intended).
As you approach final tiller, you should be removing less and less wood with each series. This is the time for you inner perfectionist to come out.
My favorite saying for this stage is “stalking final tiller”. You are sneaking up on it. Take your time as any errors at this stage will be magnified.
When your bow reaches your target weight at YOUR draw length, then you are done!
I will often tiller my bow an extra inch in case I get frisky when pulling my bow a little farther than my draw length.
At this stage, you can shoot your bow to see how the weight feels. You want it to be just a little heavy at this point. Your bow will settle into its final weight after shooting it a few hundred times. You’ll also lose a pound or two from the final sanding.
If one limb is stronger than the other, but you don’t want to lower the weight of your bow, make that limb the bottom. I won’t get into all the details, but this has to do with the split-finger shooting method. With your index finger above the string and your middle and ring finger below the string, the arrow will be resting above the actual center of your bow. Having a heavier bottom limb will help with this subtle imbalance.
Isn’t it amazing that YOU created this bow? Now you are shooting arrows!
We’re not quite done, though. After a little celebratory shooting, it’s time for finishing your bow.
Final Sanding and Finishing
Now that your bow is at its final tiller, it’s time to sand the belly and sides of your bow, finish the handle, add an arrow rest, and protect your bow from water.
Sanding the belly and sides is basically the same as sanding the back. Simply start with a rough grit (100) and progress to at least 220 grit. Some folks go crazy and inch up to a 600 grit, but I haven’t found it necessary. I will burnish the belly as well.
With a light rasp, round the handle so it is comfortable to grip. You can round the back of the bow, but don’t gouge into it.
Now it’s time for an arrow rest. This is optional, but a nice addition for most folks. My favorite way to make an arrow rest is by using a simple wood wedge that is 1.5” tall, 1” wide, and 3/8” thick at the top. You’ll need to make sure the side of the wedge that will attach to your bow is perfectly flat. Your handle will also need to be flat to get a secure fit.
Your wedge should be about 1.5” above the center of your bow. This will allow your hand to be placed comfortably on the handle. If you are right-handed, place the wedge on the left side of the bow and vise-versa if you are left-handed. Glue the wedge with Titebond II.
High-performance tip: If you round the top of your wedge so that there is a peak in the middle, your arrow will be in less contact with your arrow rest. This will allow your arrows to shoot faster.
It’s now time to put a finish on your bow. Remember when we talked about the moisture content of your bow?
You have tillered your wood bow at a specific moisture level. If you suddenly brought your bow to Phoenix in the middle of summer, your bow would dry out and the tiller would change. Or if you wanted to shoot your bow in the rain, your bow would absorb that moisture. What’s a bowyer to do?
Coat it with a water-resistant or waterproof finish. There are all sorts of finishes that you can use. Back in the day, natives used rendered fat from deer or bears. This is similar in form to Crisco. You could in fact use Crisco – or bear grease if you have some.
You can also use oils. A vegetable oil will work, but it will take several coats and you will need to re-coat it on a regular basis. Linseed oil is a step up in protection and can be found at your local hardware stores. I use Linseed oil for bows that will be shot in fair weather.
The other end of the spectrum is a chemical finish. Several coats of a polyurethane finish will waterproof your bow nicely. I live in a wet environment and my hunting bows need a fully waterproof finish to endure 3 hours in the rain. My favorite waterproof finish is a spray-on polyurethane. Tru-oil is also a great finish.
There are a couple of last touches to finish your bow.
Add some industrial strength self-adhesive velcro (just the fuzzy side) over your arrow rest. This will protect your arrows, especially the fletching (feathers).
You can also add a handle. My favorite is to use brain-tanned buckskin, but any leather will do. A nice thick cowhide sewed up with artificial sinew works well.
You can also add your name, the weight of the bow at a specific draw length, and a date. Use a fine sharpie. I like to have a friend with sweet handwriting label my bow.
Wow! That was quite a journey. The amazing part is that you now have something that you can use for hours at a time. Shooting a bow that you made is incredibly satisfying. There is nothing quite like it.
Final Tips on How to Make a Wooden Bow
Always unstring your bow when you are not using it. Your bow can be left strung for hours, but it’s better to unstring it when not in use.
Store your bow horizontally, as storing it vertically can warp your bow over time.
Even though you’ve put a finish on your bow, it’s best to store your bow indoors in a temperature-controlled environment. This will keep your bow shooting for a long time.
Be wary of letting others shoot your bow. If you are a tall, strong person, it might be fine. But untrained individuals have a unique ability to pull bows in awkward ways. If I make a bow, I typically don’t allow others to shoot it.
Never dry-fire your bow – pulling your bow back and releasing it without an arrow. Think of the force it takes to propel an arrow. Now imagine all that force going into your bow. Snap-Crackle-Pop.
You have just created a bow. The original intention of a bow was to hunt animals to feed people. You certainly don’t need to be a hunter, or even an omnivore, to enjoy using a bow. But realize that bows can do serious damage. They might be fun to use, but they are not a toy. Respect the bow.
Lastly, shoot your bow. Don’t be afraid to break it. Be afraid of your bow gathering dust next in a closet next to your high school trombone. If you’re not shooting it consider giving it to someone who will. I’m serious.
It has taken me a decade and dozens of bows to learn these lessons. Go easy on yourself with this journey. The only way to learn is to put these articles to use.