Archery

From the Bowyer’s Bench: Maple Longbow

Hey there!

As I mentioned earlier, making and shooting bows is a big hobby of mine. So it kinda makes sense to have it represented here on the blog. The occasion for this first bowmaking post is that I just made photos of the newest addition to my arsenal: a 65 lbs. maple longbow (the exact species should be acer pseudoplatanus unless my judgement was way off).

I built it kind of in a rush because I expected a visit from relatives who wanted to try shooting with bow and arrow. Almost immediately before they told me so, the bow I was shooting at that time (a ~70 lbs. longbow made from rowan [sorbus aucuparia]) unexpectedly broke. All the bows I had left were two rather low weight bows (both ~40-ish lbs.), and having only those just wouldn’t do. It’s a matter of honour. Besides, I didn’t really want to go back shooting the light bows, so I needed a replacement anyway.

The Plan

Because I rather liked the broken rowan bow, and was pressed for time, I decided to build a replica of it: Its design roughly based on the English Longbow (I won’t bore you with the details of the alterations and their reasons), and about 70 lbs. draw-weight. Replicating it would also give me the chance at fixing some things about the bending profile I could have done better in the earlier bow.

An English Longbow can mean surprisingly many things, but they usually have in common: A narrow, man-tall-or-more bow, made of yew wood, and bending throughout its entire length – even the handle part bends, making the whole bow one elegant crescent shape without any frills.

Draw-weight is the force you have to pull to bring the bow to a full draw. It’s traditionally measured in imperial pounds, just as one’s draw-length is measured in inches. My metric heart is bleeding, but what can I do?

The Process

Cutting and drying wood isn’t particularly exciting, so I’ll keep it short: I found a reasonably good piece, cut it, and put it behind the sofa in my living room to dry. Once dry, I got to work making it shaped like a bow. One thing I immediately noticed is that maple is surprisingly lightweight – more on the consequences later. Meanwhile, have a photo of my bowmaking bench with tools, the bow in its very early stages, and a lot of shavings:

The workbench

Once it’s shaped like a bow, it more or less starts bending like a bow. In the beginning, you bend one limb at a time, trying to make it take a nice, even curve. When both limbs can be bent far enough, you can start bending them at the same time with a bow string and work them to an equal bending strength – it’s no good having one limb super strong and the other bendy like a toy bow. Here is the bow at one such so-called ‘low brace’:

The bow at low brace

After the limbs both bend well, and are about equally strong, the next task is working them down so they can be bent as far as they need to accomodate how far you want to draw the bow, and have just the right stiffness to them that you get the draw-weight you want. It involves a lot of pulling the bow ever farther with a spring scale and tiny adjustments.

It was at this time that i became worried about how lightweight maple wood is. Lightweight means less wood mass per volume. Less wood mass means that the solid elements that make up wood are much more loosely packed than in heavier species. As a result, there is less material to take up the energy all the stretching and compressing inflicts upon a given bow design. After consulting the literature and crunching some numbers, it looked like my target draw-weight of 70 lbs. was more than a piece of maple this size could take. So I adjusted my goals and eventually reached 65 lbs. at my draw-length of 30″ – not too much lower. I took it out for a few test arrows, liked what it did, sanded it very smooth, gave it a coat of pure beeswax and there it is:

The Finished Bow

Final specs: 190cm nock-to-nock length (193cm overall), 34×28mm width×thickness at the centre, 11×11mm at the tips, 65 lbs. at 30″

The bow, braced
This is the bow, braced. (What Tolkien usually describes as ‘XY bent his bow’ before they start shooting. Which is a very mindful kind of thing to write)

A close-up of the beautiful maple wood
A close-up to show you how nice and white the maple wood looks, even after the beeswax coating.

The string nock of the upper limb
This is the nock that holds the bow string on the upper limb…

The bottom limb string nock
…and this is its companion on the lower limb. On the lower limb, the string is held by an adjustable knot while the loose end of the string has a braided loop that slips into the top limb nock.

The bow at (almost) full draw
And of course, the bow in action. It was horribly hot that day, and both me and my sister gave up on shooting after barely half an hour, being completely exhausted. My form definitely shows my fatigue.
Many thanks to my dear sister for taking the photo!

Conclusion

After having shot a few hundred arrows with it, my verdict of the bow is:

  • The tiller (the way it bends) is better than on the rowan bow, but still not perfect.
  • The lower draw-weight is still nice to shoot, and the lower mass and better tiller make up for it in increased efficiency. It certainly puts the arrows quite deeply into the target at our archery range.
  • Maple is not only a pleasure to work, but also very beautiful, with its almost white colour and uniform grain. (But I still mourn the beauty of that rowan bow. Rowan is crazy gorgeous!)
  • Maple is so lightweight that I’ll have to take its effect into account in the future.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to leave questions, general feedback or just plain old comments. :)

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