I first learned the proper way to make an archery bow during a weeklong stay in Sequoia National Forest. There, I studied with Joe Dabill, a master of the art of bow-making and all the related skills.
Dabill handed each of us students a stave he had cut and split a few months earlier. My stave came from a California Bay tree and was more than 5 feet long. Our job was to reduce our staves to functional bows. Dabill’s job was to mentor us during each step of the process.
After he explained some of the basics, I clamped my stave to a wooden table, and Dabill carefully looked it over. The stave was over an inch thick in sections and as much as 2½ inches in others. He took his carpenter’s pencil and marked my stave to indicate the sections that had to be completely removed.
Taking a spoke shave and a draw knife, I began the process of shaving off wood—always from the “belly” of what would become the bow (the “belly” is the side that faces you when you shoot the bow) and never from the back.
Dabill and his assistant Sig Nubla would periodically come over, look at my work and make helpful suggestions. As the stave began to look more like a bow, I began to use a Shinto wood rasp, which shaves off smaller amounts of wood. Dabill or Nubla would make a few comments, put some more marks on my bow, and then, I’d get back to work.
On my second day of work, I began to use a flat, rectangular piece of metal to scrape the belly and the sides of the bow. This removed fine slivers of wood and helped smooth out the surface.
Eventually, Dabill removed the bow from the clamps and filed nocks into each end. I had already twined a bowstring from linen cord, which I then waxed with beeswax. Dabill strung it and tested the “tiller” (how evenly each side of the bow bends). He and Nubla then carefully examined the strung-and-pulled bow, pointing out the still-stiff areas. Dabill then marked those stiff areas for further reduction.
“It’s getting there,” said Dabill. “A little more, and you’ll have a bow.”
I clamped the bow back to the table and began the careful end game. I reduced each end a bit, per Dabill’s instructions, and did some careful thinning in certain areas.
After another two hours, Dabill tested the bow’s tiller again. “Looks good,” he said. He then fired a few arrows at a nearby tree stump. “Shoots good,” he said with a smile.
I was happy, especially after Nubla and Dabill did a little more fine-tuning so that my “finished” bow was now “a really good” bow.
WHEN YOU NO LONGER HAVE ACCESS TO FIREARMS REPLACEMENT PARTS AND AMMO, THE ABILITY TO MAKE YOUR OWN BOW AND ARROWS COULD BE KEY TO YOUR SURVIVAL.
WHY GO TRADITIONAL?
Archery today is a complex sport. There are numerous types of bows—the crossbow, recurve and compound—and specialization, competition and much debate surround even the smallest components of the modern bow.
The bows of the Native Americans might seem like toys by today’s standards, but they dependably provided the indigenous people with food and protection. They routinely abandoned their rifles for bows. After all, the bow was a familiar tool they used all their lives.
To acquire and operate the bow, all the needed tools and parts came from nature. By contrast, the lack of replacement gun parts, ammunition, repair materials and know-how were the reasons they quickly reverted to their bows when their guns failed.
When you no longer have access to fire-arms replacement parts and ammo, the ability to make your own bow and arrows could be key to your survival.
THIS TRADITIONAL BOW, OFTEN CALLED A “SELF BOW” OR “LONG BOW,” IS GENERALLY NOT CURVED WHEN UNSTRUNG, AND IT IS MADE FROM ONE PIECE OF WOOD.
START WITH A GOOD PIECE OF WOOD
If you’re going to make a bow from scratch, you need to find a good, straight piece of wood. You can select a perfectly straight shoot about 3 inches in diameter or cut a much larger tree and then quarter it down for separate staves. This traditional bow, often called a “self bow” or “long bow,” is generally not curved when unstrung, and it is made from one piece of wood.
I prefer the least amount of work, so I generally select a straight shoot about 6 feet tall. I typically use willow, ash or California Bay, because those are commonly available. (I have also purchased red oak boards I carefully selected at Home Depot, but I prefer to make a bow from a shoot I have cut.)
Next, I let the wood dry thoroughly for at least two weeks (but usually longer). Some bowyers advise covering the ends of the wood with paint or wax to cause the wood to dry slowly and evenly.
According to “Longbow,” also known as Alton Safford—one of the best old-time bowmakers—you should begin with a standing dead limb at least 4½ to 5 feet long and about 1¼ to 1¾ inches thick. Avoid green wood, because it is too heavy and doesn’t cast the arrows well. Also stay away from downed wood; it will likely be waterlogged or rotten.
Longbow explains, “You want a piece of wood that is free of knots, checks, bumps and irregularities. A slight bend is OK. You can make a good bow from just about any type of wood, but some are better than others. The best bowmaking woods are yew, Osage, mulberry, black locust, apple, juniper, hickory and ash. But in a survival situation, you use whatever wood is available.”
Before you start to work on a particular piece of wood, Longbow suggests that you test some of the smaller, dead branches from the same tree by bending them to see if they will stand the stress. Then, examine your stave, bending it slightly to see which way it bends. You should be able to determine the natural direction to begin carving your bow.
Your next step is to flatten one side— the side that faces you when using the bow. (This flat side is called the “belly,” as explained earlier.) While all wood is removed from the belly, nothing but bark should be removed from the back.
Now, you’re ready to get to work. You can hold your stave or clamp it to a vice or table. Use a knife, small axe, draw knife, rasp or a file for reduction (maybe all of these). Just be sure your tools are sharp and appropriate for the work.
Slowly, carefully and evenly cut flat strips all the way down the belly of the bow. As you remove wood from it, test the bow periodically by bending it. This process can take hours until the bow begins to take shape.
You might use a small axe and big knife at first, but you should wield them very carefully as you proceed. Remember that you can always shave off more wood, but you cannot put it back on. If you carve too deeply, you might ruin what could have been a good bow … and you’ll have to start over from the beginning.
The reduction process can take hours, and although everything can be done with one large knife, I strongly recommend that beginners get a few of the other tools mentioned here.
As you reduce more of each “arm” of the bow, you will get to the point at which you can test how well your bow-in-progress flexes. Also make sure you have an even tiller, which means you want each arm to bend the same. To do this, you need to string the bow, gently pull on it, and observe how much each side bends. There should be equal pull on both.
One way to observe the tiller is to do the pulling in front of a large mirror. Alternatively, have someone watch while you pull it. You can also use a tillering stick, which allows you to step back and observe. If the tiller is not even, continue to carefully and slowly reduce the stiff side until the tiller of both sides is equal. This is important because once strung, each arm must bend equally; otherwise, your arrows will not fly straight.
When you are satisfied your bow is bending evenly, cut nocks on each end for the bow string. Your bow is finished.
Longbow suggests that when going into the woods, you always carry good cordage for a bowstring, because it can be difficult to manufacture from wilderness plants.
HOW TO MAKE AN ARROW
Select the Shaft. Find and harvest straight shoots. Many types of wood can be used: willow, ash, mulefat, currant, roses, etc. I use generally mulefat because it’s abundant near me; not because it’s the best possible wood for arrows. I collect the straightest shoots I can find—about 2 feet long and about as thick as a pencil. You’ll learn from practice which shoots to collect. Too thin is no good. but too thick can work, because you can always whittle them down a bit.
I bundle the fresh shoots, perhaps 20 to the bundle, so that they are as straight as possible and then let them dry in the shade.
When I first learned arrow-making from Joe Dabill, we used his previously harvested and dried shafts from various vines, bushes and trees. Dabill said he used mulefat, willow, arrow weed, currant vines and other woods. All had been cut about 2 feet long, were about as thick as a pencil and as straight as he was able to find.
I selected a shaft. Then, following Dabill’s instruction, I began to clean it; first by gently scraping it with my knife and then with small, smooth rocks that acted like sandpaper. Once the wood was smooth and clean, I would sight down the shaft, looking for bends and irregularities.
I would hold the wooden shaft over the fire, trying to warm the bend. I would then bend the shaft into straightness as best as I could. This took a little bend here, a little bend there— and some patience, working on it for maybe a half-hour. This step is crucial, because it takes a perfectly straight arrow to fly straight and true. Finally, the arrow shaft bore a close resemblance to a dowel.
Add the Arrowhead. Dabill then directed me to carve a nock that would receive a flint-knapped stone point he gave me. He explained that some arrow points were nothing more than the sharpened, fire-hardened tips of the shafts (suitable for small game). And sometimes, an arrow point can be made from bone, shell, wood or hammered metal.
I was using a stone point that Dabill had knapped. I carefully carved the small nock that would receive the stone point. I then checked to see how the point fit … it didn’t.
I spent the next 45 minutes carefully carving a nock that would specifically receive my particular arrowhead and accommodate all its idiosyncrasies. Bear in mind that the time required to construct an arrow diminishes as your experience making them increases.
Yes, the ideal stone point is straight in the profile, not too fat anywhere, with sharp edges. But in the real world, no two arrowheads are alike—just as no two arrows are identical.
Finally, my arrowhead fit snugly and tight. I added glue and then wrapped the point securely with sinew (the white connective tissue in an animal’s leg that holds it all together). Wet sinew is stretchy and sticky, and it tightens up when it dries. It made the point of my arrow appear even better than I expected.
I examined my arrow so far. I was a bit amazed that I’d created something with my own hands so artistically beautiful and inherently useful.
Fletching. I had to complete the arrow by adding the fletching (feathers) which helps stabilize the arrow in flight.
Before we began, Dabill sat at the table and gave us students a lesson about the anatomy of feathers, pointing out many interesting and useful details.
Feathers curve uniquely. Each one also has a wide and a thin side. It takes three pieces of feather to finish an arrow; in general, that means you’ll need three feathers per arrow. When you select the three feathers for the fletching, all of them must be from either the right side of the bird or the left; you can’t mix them. And when you cut the segments you need, you must cut them all from either the feather’s wide or thin side.
Begin by deciding how wide and long you want the feathers to be. Then, using a sharp knife, cut the feather down the middle rib. For example, if I want my feathers to be about 3 inches long, I trim off all but 3 inches of the feather, leaving about an inch of bare ribbing on both ends of the feather. This is for attaching the feather with sinew to the shaft—speaking of which, I have seen feathers attached in many ways. For this article, I will describe what I was taught.
First, carve your nock. This is the notch in the back end of the shaft that the bowstring sits in, thus propelling the arrow. The nock need not be deep.
You don’t want your feathers to get “bumped” by the bowstring when you shoot the arrow, so the feathers should be placed carefully onto the end of the arrow shaft, evenly spaced from each other around the shaft. One feather must be perpendicular to the nock as you look down the end of the shaft. That one is called the “cock feather” and is often a different color than the other two.
Securing the feathers is a job that requires three hands … but you’ll have to learn how to do it with two.
Once you have three trimmed feather sections, secure them to the end of the shaft so they are not in the way when you grab each arrow for shooting. Secure one feather in place and then wrap it with some sinew. Add another feather, keeping it in its correct place, and do another wrap. Add the third feather, adjusting it as needed to wind up with all three feathers equidistant from each other. A few more careful wraps, and one end of the feathers should be secured to the shaft. The other ends of the feathers can be wrapped at the same time and will go a lot easier.
Your arrow is done! You can paint the shaft with special colors, symbols or words. That’s up to you.
MAKE A TRADITIONAL ARROW
Basic steps to making a traditional arrow include:
‹ Select a suitable straight wood shaft, and let it dry naturally;
‹ Straighten the shaft using heat from a fire to promote bending;
‹ Select a point/arrowhead (can be traditional stone, shell, wood, glass or metal);
‹ Cut a nock in the end of the arrow to receive the point;
‹ Secure the point into the nock with sinew, cord, glue or similar fastener;
‹ Cut the nock where the bowstring will fit into the arrow;
‹ Cut three feathers to an appropriate length, and trim them 1 inch off each end of the rib;
‹ Position the first feather perpendicular to the nock; and
‹ Secure the others, equally spaced, around the shaft.
Bows and Arrows of the Native Americans. Jim Hamm; The Lyons Press, 1989. (An excellent presentation that includes data gleaned from Ishi, thought to be the last surviving member of the Yahi group of Yana Indians)
Encyclopedia of Native American Bows, Arrows, and Quivers. Allely and Hamm; Lyon’s Press, 1999. (A picture book full of line drawings showing the diverse styles of bows, arrow types, nocks, methods of construction, quivers, weaves, etc.)
Survival Skills of Native California. Paul Campbell; Gibbs Smith, 1999. (An excellent book that covers all the skills used to survive, with detailed sections on bow and arrow making)
The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible, Volume One. Allely, Baker, Comstock, Hamm, Hardcastle, Massey and Strunk; Bois d’Arc Press, 1992. (Everything you need to know about wood for bows, making bows, even making arrows. Yes, there are other volumes, but start here.)
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the May 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.