Lemonwood (Degame) was used quite a bit in the Golden Age of archery. As time went on, fiberglass became predominant, and the political situation brought an end to a plentiful supply of lemonwood from Cuba. From a historical standpoint, I find lemonwood intriguing. From a strictly design aspect, other woods such as osage, yew, and red mulberry are better suited for my needs. Many domestic species of wood can make a good bow, assuming the design matches the wood. Years ago I had obtained a lemonwood board of the South American variety.
I had never attempted a wood composite and the prospect seemed daunting. I had made selfbows, and backed bows, but composites require complex epoxies, wood combinations, and other stuff. It seemed too much for me. I can craft a decent selfbow, but my traditional woodworking skills are decidedly lacking. So the lemonwood board sat in storage for a few years. Finally, I screwed up enough courage and decided it was time to give it a try.
My backing of choice was hickory. Hickory is nice and flat, and unlike bamboo it would be the same thickness from end-to-end. I figured that would ensure a measure of consistency. My backing experience in the past had been with cloth, linen, and rawhide backings glued with Titebond II. While I have heard of wood backings being glued with Titebond, the idea makes me cringe. I decided to go for Urac because I wanted no doubts about the glue holding up. This was my first experience with Urac.
The aficionados of Urac and other such glues advocate measuring out the ingredients by weight. I opted for measuring the ingredients by volume, and the results were superb. Just follow the directions for either weight or volume and you should be fine. Once the Urac was prepared, I laid the glue down on the bow and applied the backing strips. I used bicycle inner tubes and wrapped them spiral fashion down the limb to impart even pressure along the limb. As pressured was applied, the Urac seeped out and got everywhere! I guess I used a wee bit too much glue. I was careful to use firm pressure in my inner tube bandage wrap, but was careful not to starve the glue joint.
Once the joint was dry and cured, I discovered Urac to be tough stuff! It was rock hard and drops of Urac stuck fast to my bowyer's bench. I tried prying them off with a thumbnail. It didn't work. I tried prying them off with a screwdriver. That didn't work. I finally had to use a rubber mallet and screwdriver to carefully chisel it off. Dried bits of Urac made the inner tubes unusable for a second gluing. I was thoroughly impressed with Urac's gluing powers.
If you are hesitant to use Urac, bear in mind that I'm by no means a craftsman, and I was able to succeed with Urac the first time around. I'm sure others will have an even easier time with it.
I wanted the handle to have a complimentary color to the rest of the bow. The hickory backing would be creamy white, and the lemonwood would be a light yellow. I decided on walnut. Cream white flowing into light yellow and then a dark walnut riser should present a simple, yet subtly beautiful package. I applied the riser to the bow with Urac but used C clamps instead of inner tubes.
Layout, Design Considerations, and your local Park District
With everything glued up, it was time to lay out the bow. The design I have become most intimate with in my 12 years of bowyery is the American longbow design. The American longbow (a.k.a. flatbow) is essentially a rectangular, or slightly radiused, cross-section bow with a stiff handle section. The edges of the bow are very much rounded. Handle design and layout measurements can be found in The Traditional bowyer's Bible Volume 1, The Bent Stick, and Hunting the Osage Bow. Due to my longer draw length of 30 inches, I make my bows 70-72 inches long on average. I decided to make this bow 70 inches from tip-to-tip. Draw weight would be 50 pounds at 30 inches. Lemonwood has about the same specific gravity as red mulberry. Red mulberry bows can be made to similar dimensions as osage but a little wider. With that in mind, I designed the bow to be 1-1/2 inches at the widest point of the limbs (or flares) and from there the limbs would taper in straight lines to just under 1/2-inch at the nocks. For me, the limb design of tapering straight from the flares to the tips yields a smooth-acting limb. Perhaps because the limb gradually tapers both in width and thickness it facilitates easier tillering. Widths at the widest point can be adjusted to accommodate your species of wood. Though for woods requiring very wide limbs, this design becomes more of a pyramid in shape and loses the gradual taper.
I went to the local community woodshop and used their bandsaw. Ten minutes on a band saw saved me three hours of work with hand tools. The bow was roughed out and the limbs were cut to 3/4-inch thick. Using a Stanley Surform and cabinet scraper, I finished out the process. If you have a local park district, check them out. Some of them have woodshops and the use of their power tools will cost a nominal fee. I paid $2 for an hour of use.
The bow was roughed out and ready to tiller. One thing to consider is what type of tiller profile to use. Different tiller profiles have their advantages. For the American style flatbow, an elliptical tiller is the classic choice. In an elliptical tiller, the limbs are slightly stiffer near the handle and tips, with more bend in the middle third of the limb. Arc-of-circle tiller is when the limb has an even bend from the widest point to the tip of the limb. Elliptical tiller is reported to be best suited for longer bows or bows shooting lighter arrows. Shorter bows, or bows shooting heavier arrows, are best served with an arc-of-circle tiller that uses the whole limb equally to push out the heavy arrow. Such assertions are reported by those more knowledgeable than I. Do we go arc-of-circle or elliptical? I gather we could go either way, or probably combinations in between. My personal preference is for each part of the limb to share the workload, so I tend to go more arc-of-circle with slightly stiffer tips in the last 4 inches to avoid whippy ends. I think as long as you get the limbs bending evenly in whatever profile you deem best for the bow, you'll be fine.
Tillering, a gentle process
Much has been written on tillering. Check out the Traditional Bowyer's Bible Volume 1 and Paul Comstock's The Bent Stick for specific details not covered here. Tillering is what separates living bows from static pieces of wood. This is not the time to be hacking away in a hurry. Tillering should be a deliberate, thoughtful and above all a gentle process.
With the limbs reduced to 3/4-inch thick, I used a Surform and floor-tillered the bow. Floor tillering is where you flex the limb by placing the tip on the floor and push down on the handle of the bow. I floor-tillered the bow until the limbs appeared to bend roughly even. I put the bow on the tillering tree. Excellent plans for a tillering tree can be found in Hunting the Osage Bow. As I worked the limbs I wrote all over them. I marked weak spots, stiff spots, and wrote out the number of scrapes needed for each part of the limb. A good tool for checking the bend is a 6-inch ruler. By running the ruler under the bent limb, you can see the arc of the bend and flat spots become apparent. This is most useful on straight board bows. It is not as helpful with staves that are not uniform.
I used the tillering tree to flex the limbs at a simulated brace height. When the limbs appeared to bending evenly on the tillering tree, it was time to brace the bow. This is the point where I put way the rasp and use only a scraper.
I made a string and brought the bow to "zero" brace height (the string was taught, but touching the handle). I wanted the bow to hit 50 pounds at 30 inches. I brought out the scale and pulled the bow back gently. The bow hit 45 pounds at 17 inches. Now I knew how far I could pull the bow without straining it past 50 pounds. Frequently during tillering I would check the weight to make sure I was not overstressing the bow. Never, never, strain the bow past its intended draw weight during any stage of the process! When flexing the bow on the tillering tree or tillering stick, do not yank it back. Give the bow small flexes and work your way back gently. Remember, we are teaching the wood to bend. Some bowyer's advocate the tillering tree; some use the tillering stick. I use both. I like the tillering stick because I can put the limbs on a static bend and get up close to check for weak or stiff spots.
I brought out the tillering stick and put the bow on a
static bend. I was not concerned with overstressing the limbs because
there were no hinges, and I was not pushing the limbs past their final
intended draw weight. Using the tillering stick and tillering tree, I
brought the limbs bending true. They were bending evenly along their length
and bending evenly with each other. I checked the weight. The bow hit
45 pounds at 19 inches. Assuming a weight gain of 4 pounds per inch of
draw, the bow would hit 89 pounds at my 30-inch draw. If I wanted a nearly
90-pound bow, I guess I was finished! At this stage of the process, I
was close. All I had to do was reduce the weight to 50 pounds at 30 inches
without throwing off the tiller.
As I worked up to the goal of 50 pounds at 30 inches, I would frequently check the tiller. Just because everything is bending evenly, and you're taking even scrapes off each limb, does not always guarantee that the tiller will respond accordingly. Sometimes things change. On this particular bow, the top limb was behaving beautifully, but the bottom limb occasionally showed a flat spot here and there which required attention. When the bow hit 50 pounds at 28 inches, I slowed way down because my margin for error was getting smaller. At this point, I decided to take another break from tillering and do the final shaping of the limb tips and bow handle.
I file my nocks grooves using a chainsaw file. I then used a four-in-one rasp and Surform to shape the nocks. Handle dimensions are roughly 1 inch wide, 1-3/4 inches deep. From there, I shaped the handle according to taste. I prefer a simple straight handled longbow. The handle and tips should flow into the bow limb. I dislike hard angles. With the handle and tips finished, I thoroughly rounded off all the sharp edges on the bow.
I went back to tillering and repeated the same fundamental processes over and again until the bow hit just over 50 pounds at 30 inches. I wanted an extra pound or so as insurance in case I lost weight during the sanding and finishing phase. It was now time to shoot the bow.
The bow shot straight and true, and there was no shock in the limbs. The tiller appeared to be even and the limbs were recovering in harmony. I spent the afternoon shooting the bow, checking the tiller, and making sure everything was in good order.
Finishing.... or Fear and Roaming in the Health and Beauty Section.
After shooting the bow in, it was time to apply the finish. Using a scraper exclusively during the latter phase of the tillering process had imparted a fairly smooth surface. I finished the smoothing process with fine grit sandpaper. When it comes to finishes my usual choice of finish is Helmsman Spar Urethane high gloss. I like the UV inhibitors, and the tough, watertight protection it provides. It comes in either spray or in a can. I prefer the more precise method of applying it by hand. Foam brushes that one can buy at the hardware store will fall apart with polyurethane and leave bits of foam stuck on the bow. Brushes will leave streak marks. I discovered that foam cosmetic wedges work perfectly. The foam is high quality, does not fall apart, and the 1-inch-wide wedge provides the right size for precise work. They are also cheaper than buying foam brushes. Cosmetic wedges can be found in the Health and Beauty section of the store. Guys, if you're confused, just ask your girlfriends or wives. Single men, use this opportunity to meet new people.
The arrow rest and handle wrap
After the urethane had dried, it was time to apply the arrow shelf, handle wrap, and strike plate. I made a small arrow shelf from a 1-inch or so piece of an arrow. I cut off a pristine section from a broken arrow (or a dowel will do) and then I cut that section in half lengthwise so my shelf will be semicircular. I then carefully filed it down to a taper. While I was applying the finish on the bow, I also finished the arrow shelf separately. I then glued it to the bow with Duco.
For the handle wrap I decided to revisit something that I had not done in years. I had different colors of leather but none seemed right. I decided to try a cane grip. I went down to the local craft store and found the section dealing in basketry, weaving and such. The cane I used was labeled "Binder Cane" and was 6mm wide and came in a pack of 15 ft. The cane usually comes in 2 sections, and it takes about 10-12 feet of the 6mm to wrap a handle. Following the instructions from the Traditional Bowyer's Bible Volume 3, I soaked the cane in hot water for 30 minutes and then wrapped it around the grip. I let it dry for a few days. Once dry, I snipped off the ends of the cane and applied a drop of Duco to keep everything secure. I sanded the rattan and applied the urethane.
There are many different "right" ways to make a bow. Designs and tiller profiles have to hit that compromise area that lies between your needs and the properties of the wood. The design I used worked for my needs and the materials at hand. Wood composites are an interesting animal. Tillering is easier. Wood selection can yield beautiful combinations of color. Selfbows are still closest to my heart. Their drop-dead reliability and simplicity hold an appeal with me. I thought that wood composites were the exclusive realm of true woodworking craftsmen, but I was able to successfully make one. I would encourage you to try your hand at a composite. Stick to the fundamentals of bow design, use the best glues, and from there you can follow your own creative path to success.
The Traditional Bowyer's Bibles Volume 1-3 (Quite
simply, the Bibles. A lot of condensed knowledge that can serve as a springboard
for researching other sources to broaden your knowledge of primitive archery)
Hunting the Osage Bow, Dean Torges. (This is graduate level bowyery that covers seasoning, faceted tillering techniques, tiller profiles, and design considerations.. A superb read and valuable resource from a master craftsman.)
The Flatbow, by Hunt & Metz (This is a wonderful little gem of a book that covers composites, American flatbow design, tillering, construction of archery tackle, and more. A ton of information that can fit in your back pocket or in your quiver!)
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