My first attempt at archery was not a success. This was largely due to my being ambidextrous, and therefore using a right-handed bow, only to find later that for archery, I am left-handed. Not a good start. A little while later, while visiting a friend, I was able to use a longbow, and instinctively used it left-handed. It felt much better.
Since we have our own woods, and a good supply of hay bales to use as targets thanks to our wildflower hay meadows, I felt that I would like to do a bit more archery. I could go out and buy a longbow, but I fancied attending a course to learn how to make a longbow.
The course I attended was at Greenwood Days, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch on the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border (http://www.greenwood-days.co.uk/) . The tutor was David Cotterill, who is a very experienced bowyer, and the course lasted for three days.
It turned out that I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew with this course. Although it is aimed at beginners, and I have some experience of green woodworking (and in particular, wood-turning), the other students on the course were much more experienced and confident woodworkers than me: three local chippies, one chap from a green woodworking club and another whose hobby is making drums for very illustrious clients.
The course started with us selecting an ash stave to work into a longbow. Most longbows are made from laminates, which combine wood with very good compression, stretching and core strength properties, something that only occurs naturally in yew. Since yew is hard to come by, ash is a reasonable compromise, as it works quite well in both compression and when stretched, and is both strong and reasonably springy. We were looking for nice straight grain, and absence of flaws in key parts of the bow, particularly in the bow arms. I was drawn to a piece of wood that had some character as well: in retrospect, this turned out to be a mixed blessing.
We were given a good pattern as to how to mark out our longbows for working, and the old adage “measure twice and cut once” seemed to be very wise. In fact we all measured a great deal more than twice, in order to get the rough shape of the sides of the bow, handles and front.
Longbow-making is one of those areas where power tools are not likely to speed the process very much. We started off gently removing wood with axe, followed by draw-knife and spokeshave. The key is not to remove too much too soon, so care and precision which can only be achieved by use of these hand tools is order of the day.
We started off by removing the bulk of the front of the bow, and then shaping the sides of the bow – this took most of the first day, and I found it to be quite hard work. This was not helped by the piece of wood with “character” that I had selected. There was a knot where I wanted to put a nock for the string, as well as another flaw in the wood in the area marked out for a handle, and this made working quite hard. It also turned out to be quite a tough piece of wood in general. This was a lesson learned. Character is all very well, but it really is better to go for bland, particularly for your first longbow!
On the second day we worked the belly of the bow, and shaped the sides. This involved shaping the handle, and profiling the sides to the required shape, as well as chamfering off the edges to make it smooth. We also had to create the nocks for the bowstring using a knife and files.
Once this was done, we learned how to make a bowstring, although not all of us made our bowstring on the second day. This involved learning the skills of making rope, splicing and also how to “serve” the string using a special tool to wind a thread round the area of the string where the arrow will be nocked.
The final day was taken up by tillering the bow. This is the process whereby the bow is trained to bend in an even way throughout its length. To aid this, small amounts of wood are shaved off the bow to ensure the arms of the bow bend evenly along their whole length, and the bow is made to the correct heft for the strength of the user. This is quite a scary process – all your good work can be undone in a moment if too much wood is taken off, or an un-noticed flaw in the wood gives way. It is done by stringing the bow, then attaching a hook and pulley to the string and gently pulling on it, to train the arms of the bow, note where they need attention, and try and get the bow to draw to full length. These corrections are made gently with a spokeshave and cabinet scraper.
This was where I got seriously behind. My natural caution had led me to produce a bow that was much too hefty, and I had to remove a lot of wood from the bow to make its use possible for a short 50kg woman. I also found a flaw in one of the arms of the bow and with the help of our tutor, David, we decided that I should not make the arms draw symmetrically, but leave the flawed area rather inflexible, in case it should break. Yet again, my mistake for choosing wood with “character”!
So while the others finished off their bows, and went off into the woods to shoot some arrows, I was left scraping and shaving. It was not until the last few minutes that I achieved full draw on my bow, and that was at a draw weight of 44lbs – still rather hefty for me. I was not able to finish it off to a fine finish, or finish the ends of the bow above the nocks.
On the plus side, the bow will settle to a lower draw weight after use. I was able to finish it off at home, and plan to add a leather handle. Being busy working at our woods, and on other wildlife sites, over the last couple of weeks, I have not been able to shoot the bow yet. But I have now got some arrows, and plan to have a go just as soon as we get a bit of good weather.
I learned lots of skills on this course, although I’m not sure I would be confident to have a go on my own yet. I think it is difficult to tutor a course like this because the gulf in skills between me and the others was so evident and because I was getting so far behind that I was watching demonstrations of something that I would not be doing myself for half a day, which meant that Dave had to patiently tutor me all over again when the time came. But I would definitely recommend making your own longbow if you are at all interested in woodworking skills, archery, or both. The best part is that you have a bow that you feel very connected to in all respects. I know mine isn’t technically the best bow in the world. But it is mine. I know all the quirks of the wood. I will feel much more pride in shooting this bow than a bow that I have bought. That alone made the course worthwhile.