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Traditional Archery: Part 2 – Wood Types and Backings

“As I was drawing the bow, I travelled a long road. Now I release this arrow knowing that I took the necessary risks and gave of my best.” – Paulo Coelho, The Way of the Bow

My appreciation for bows grew immensely when I began to understand the various qualities and characteristics of wood that had to be considered when crafting a hunting tool or weapon on which your life depended. While the creating of most modern bows relies upon scientific data to determine the resulting strength\length\weight ratio, and access to global species of wood is a click away, our ancestors depended upon their regional supply of timber and their knowledge of how the wood “worked” to craft bows and arrows that to them meant “life”, not merely a recreational sport. Much of that knowledge is still available and is necessary if you want to become a bowyer — a bow maker or bowsmith — whether it is just a hobby or for survival.

This article in our Traditional Archery series will focus on the properties of wood that need to be taken into consideration when creating a bow, local woods that you can use to create a bow from scratch, as well as self-bows, backed-bows, and laminate bows.

The Key Characteristics of a Good Bow Wood

There are two forces of stress that are placed upon a bow when it is drawn: compression and tension. Compression occurs on the belly side of the bow, as the fibers are being compressed. Tension occurs on the back side of the bow, as the fibers are being stretched. For wood under tension, the fibers want to separate, splinter, and finally crack. There are not many woods that are good at both compression and tension, though tension is typically the larger problem. Thankfully there is a solution to this issue, called “backing”, which I’ll address later in the article.

Choice Woods for Self-Bows

When crafting a bow from a single piece of wood, care must be taken in the choice of wood as not all woods will hold up under the stress of bow usage. Typically, the hard woods are going to be your best bet, though even the best of hardwoods can break. Bows can also “set”, which means they begin to conform to a curved shape and lose their ability to snap back to their original, unbraced position, thus decreasing their power and ultimately becoming useless.

Here is a list of the most common self-bow woods:

Osage Orange – Considered the king of bow woods by most bow enthusiast. The Osage tree is more common in where Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas join, though it has been planted in all 48 states and grows with some success.

Black Locust – The Locust tree has long been a favorite wood of Indians for making bows. There are Black and Yellow Locust trees and while either can work for a self-bow, the Black is more favorable.

Hickory – Likely the most common bow wood due to the wide range of growth, Hickory wood can make an excellent bow. There are many species of the Hickory tree and some perform better than others when it comes to bows. The Pignut Hickory seems to be the variety of choice, though Shagbark is also a good option.

Ash – Well-known as the baseball bat wood, Ash wood also makes a hardy bow and can typically be depended on to withstand both compression and tension.

Yew – Yew is an English wood and was the most common wood of bows in ancient times. Longbows are commonly made of Yew and typically have thicker limbs to support the draw weight needed to push an arrow through armor or a horse.

Elm – The hardwood varieties of Elm, such as Winged, Cedar, or Rock Elm, can work well as a self-bow.

Hophornbeam (Ironwood) – The name comes from the “hops” like fruit of the tree which resembles hops for producing beer. The “horn beam” is a reference to the use of this strong wood to yoke oxen and similar horned animals together. The Hophornbeam tree can provide excellent bows.

Just about any hardwood can be attempted as a self-bow, with varying success. For example, Pecan is actually a relative of Hickory and can be used to make bows. However, the results are less predictable. You will find the same is true with many species of trees.

Backing a Bow

Because of the immense tension placed on the back side of a bow during draw, it is often desirable to “back” the bow to prevent the fibers from rising and eventually separating. Backing the bow is a process of attaching, usually by glue, some thin strip of hide, sinew, cloth, or another wood, to the back of the bow which suppresses the tendency of a bow to break under tension. Here are a few common ways to back a bow.

Leave the Bark On

When in a long-term survival scenario, a simple way to add strength to a bow and prevent it from breaking is to leave the bark on the back side of the bow. This would not be ideal if the bow is going to be used for a long period of time, but can add some support for the wood.

Sinew

Primitive bows would often be backed with sinew as it is naturally strong and flexible. The most common sinew used would be from the legs of an animal, such as a deer. Hide glue would be created using dried and ground sinew, boiled in water until a thick paste formed, and strips of sinew would be layered on the back of the bow until the full length of the bow was covered. I have read that some Indians would simply chew the strips of dry sinew and when sufficiently moist and pliable, apply them to the back of the bow.

Silk or Cloth

Using glue, a strip or two of silk or some other cloth can be placed on the back of a bow and used as a backing.

Animal Skin

It is not uncommon to see rattlesnake or some other type of skin stretched across the back of a bow. Not only does this look pretty cool, it serves as an excellent backing.

Thin Wood Strips

The most common form of backing a bow today is to simply laminate a thin strip of flexible wood onto the back of the bow. Bamboo pairs well with just about any type of wood as a backing since it is very strong and quite flexible. However, just about any thin strip of wood will work. At this point, the bow is no longer considered a self-bow, rather it is a laminate bow and is the most common type of bow, particularly with recurves, that are being made today.

Laminate Bows

The process of backing a bow with another strip of wood generally involves a very strong epoxy adhesive. Laminating the backing onto a bow both increases the strength of the bow and also adds a great deal of protection against tension breakage. Also, by laminating, various wood types, even those which would not normally be chosen as a bow-worthy wood, can be used. For example, Ipe (pronounced ee-pay) is a Brazilian hardwood. It is so dense that it actually sinks in water. It works very well under compression but may not be suited as a self-bow unless specific parts of the tree are used. However, when paired with Hickory or Bamboo as a backing, it makes an excellent bow.

Nearly every type of hard to moderate hardwood can be used for bow making in when laminating various woods together. Fiberglass is also used to create a layer of strength in many composite bows. Alternating thin layers of wood and fiberglass provides the ultimate in aesthetic appeal and durability.

How a Recurve Gets its “Curves”

One question that will often arise is “How does a curve get set in a recurve bow?” The means are actually quite simple. For a self-bow, a single piece of wood, the curves are created through heating the limbs, either through indirect heat or steam, and bending over a jig of some kind. Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe, brought a number of ancient techniques to the modern age in the early 1900’s. After heating a limb and slowly bending it, would secure it to a round rock with cord and leave it in a dark place for several months before using it as a bow.

For laminate bows, the glue and laminate strips are secured in a mold of sorts which applies a bend to the limbs. As the laminates pieces dry, they remain in the shape provided by the mold. This is possible because each laminated strip becomes attached to each other via the epoxy, thus they remain bent.


Ishi shooting his bow. His short bows only had a slight recurve which would be hard to see in full draw.

Stay Tuned

There is more manliness ahead with traditional archery. Choosing the right arrows, instinctive shooting, and more!

More Articles in This Series:

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