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Making an Osage Selfbow


Traditional Bowhunting -- Part One...



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June 01, 2010
Last month in this column I introduced Gary Davis, Michigan's own master bowyer, who has been making and shooting Osage selfbows for many years. I've known Gary for a long time. In fact, I videoed him for his appearance in the Masters Of The Barebow DVD series. When I stopped in one day to visit, Gary's natural teaching instinct took over.

"We need to get you shooting a selfbow." Gary decided. "You can't learn until you do it yourself. Pick out a stave and let's get to work." Gary commanded.

Looking through the pile of bright yellow Osage staves on a table in Gary's shop, I picked out the straightest one I could find.

"Boring…Boring"… Gary repeated in a monotone. "You need a bow with some character. Here," he said, handing me a stave that somewhat resembled a snake, "this will make you a great bow!"

Osage is well known as the premier wood for making selfbows, which are bows made of a single piece of wood without laminations or backing to strengthen the wood. Osage is one of the few woods which is strong in both tension, the stretching of wood cells on the outside bend of the bow, and compression, the squeezing together of wood cells on the inside bend of the bow. It is also known as hard, thorny, gnarly, crooked wood.

"Crooked doesn't bother me," Gary explained. "If I can find clear wood, without knots, I can make it straight with my steaming process. Two good pieces that are too short to be a full length bow stave can be joined together with a splice at the handle and steamed straight enough to make an excellent bow."

Looking at the end of an Osage log, Gary showed me the growth rings and explained that the hard, dark yellow rings are summer growth, laid on slowly throughout the growing season. The softer, light colored rings are spring growth, laid on during the rush of sap in spring. The ratio of hard, summer wood to soft, spring wood is important because this gives the bow its strength. A bowyer looks for wide rings of summer wood with as little soft, spring wood as possible. The actual number of growth rings per inch is less important than the ratio of summer wood to spring wood.

Gary splits the bow staves out of an Osage log with wedges. He doesn't use a saw because cutting straight along the log would cut across any curves in longitudinal grain and cause the bow to break where the grain was violated.

"Bending a bow puts a tremendous strain on the wood and it's important that the grain doesn't run off the side of the bow limb or it will break there." Gary said in his best teacher's voice. "The wood also needs to be completely dry. These staves were split out of the log more than a year ago. The old time bowyers said that it takes Osage seven years to cure, and that's true of a log with the bark left on it. By splitting the log into staves, with the bark left on, moisture will escape from the split sides and the stave dries much faster."

Clamping my new Osage stave in his vice, Gary picked up a two handled draw knife and proceeded to shave the rough bark off of it. "Remove the bark and all the whitewood to get down to the hard, yellow, heartwood." he instructed me. "The back of your bow, the side facing away from you when you draw it, needs to be one single summer wood growth ring. Carefully clean the stave down to that one growth ring. If you accidentally cut through that growth ring it will weaken the back of your bow and give it a place to break. All is not lost though, just start over and take it down to the next good growth ring."

I found that reducing a stave down to a single growth ring was not impossible, or even difficult. In fact, using a sharp draw knife is a pleasant chore when you get into the rhythm of it and the time went by quickly.

Once the stave had been cleaned down to a single smooth growth ring, we were ready to lay out my bow on the wood. Any knots, cracks or other flaws that are visible on the wood might be missed by carefully laying the bow out around them.

First pencil a centerline down the crown of the stave by carefully following the tiny longitudinal lines of the grain. You may have to adjust the light to see them clearly. On a snaky grained stave this centerline will curve and twist as it follows the natural grain of the wood. Next, measure and mark a center point on your centerline for the center of the handle of the bow.

MakinganOsageSelfbow
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Bowyer, Gary Davis, cleans a bowstave down to a single, hard growth ring. This will form the back of a selfbow.

Gary's expertise and experience as a bowyer was invaluable in laying out my bow. "On an Osage selfbow it is impossible to make the bow to any preconceived measurements. You have to let the wood dictate how the bow is made. For the length of the bow I like to double your draw length and add 10 inches. If

you draw 28 inches you'll need a 66 inch bow. The center of the handle will then be at 33 inches. Experience tells me a 66 inch bow should be about 1 ¼ to 1 ¾ inches wide near the grip and taper to about ½ or 5/8 inches wide at the tips to make a hunting weight bow. Of course, all this depends on the growth rings and the strength of the wood." Gary explained. "We'll need to cut your stave at 68 inches long to allow an inch on each end past the string nocks."

Since I wanted a 55 to 60 pound bow, we marked out a 4 ½ inch long handle section, 1 ¼ inches wide, in the center of my bow and flared it out to 1 ¾ inches wide at the widest part of the limbs. Following the curves on the centerline, we kept the limbs full width for half their length then tapered them evenly down to 5/8 inch wide at the tips. I figured I could always reduce it more if the bow came out too heavy, but I couldn't add more wood if it came out too light.

The next step was to use a bandsaw to reduce the Osage stave down to near bow dimensions. Sawing away the excess wood, while carefully leaving the layout lines, left me a snaky looking but nicely tapered bow blank.

"Now for the thickness of your limbs." Gary said. "The wood needs to taper evenly for the length of the limb, from about ¾ inch thick at the handle down to about ½ inch thick at the tips. This will leave plenty of wood for a hunting weight bow but will be thin enough to bend when we steam straighten your bow blank. Don't try to cut too close with the bandsaw. We'll finish the tapering later with a rasp."

Although it was square and blocky looking, my bow was beginning to take shape.

Sitting there, in a dark corner, Gary's steaming device resembled some prehistoric, fire breathing, long horned beast. Atop a gas burner sat a large water pot. Above that rested a horizontal 7 foot section of 4 inch metal stovepipe which was connected to the water pot at the center. Steam from the boiling water rises from the pot to fill the stovepipe. Since the outer ends are raised higher than the center, condensed steam (water) runs back down into the pot to be heated again. A little steam leaks out of the loose fitting end caps to keep the beast from pressuring up.

This contraption is Gary's secret to making gnarly Osage staves into perfectly formed bow blanks. "When wood is thoroughly heated up to steam temperature," Gary explained, "the cells become soft and the wood actually becomes elastic. Then I clamp the elastic bow blank onto a caul in the shape that I want it and let it cool. When cool, the undamaged wood cells will hold that new shape pretty well. At the same time we'll add some reflex to the bow and adjust the bow tips to line up with the centerline of the handle section." Gary grinned at me as if all of this was going to be an easy undertaking.

Still grinning an evil looking grin, Gary popped the end cap off the monster and slid my precious bow into its steaming mouth.

While the bow blank was steaming we set up the caul, or form that we would use to straighten the bow's profile and add some reflex to the bow to improve its performance. Gary has several cauls to accommodate different length bows. They are made by cutting a measured curve from a 2x4 and attaching it to a 2x6 board which acts as a base. A row of C-clamps hangs above the bench ready to be used to hold the heated bow in position until it cools.

After an hour and a half in the steam monster, we pulled out my bow blank and placed it on the caul. I was anxious to get the work done before the wood cooled but Gary slowed me down. "There is not need to hurry." he explained while pulling out two electric heat guns. "Just use one of these to keep the wood hot as you work."

Using small wooden wedges and blocks to perfectly align the bow, we clamped it to the caul. "The object is to straighten the bow's side profile into a smooth, reflexed curve without crushing the natural humps on the bow's back. Once we have a good profile for the side of the bow, we look at the belly of the bow and use clamps to move the bow tips up or down to align with the centerline of the bow's handle section. This will insure that the bowstring will line up with the grip of the bow. On a snaky bow, it doesn't matter if the limbs deviate from the centerline. As long as the tips line up properly, so the bowstring bisects the handle, it will shoot just fine."

After we finished and stepped back to inspect our work, Gary said, "Count the clamps."

'Nineteen." I replied.

"Hmmm, usually takes 20." he grinned. "Let's leave it clamped to cool overnight. Tomorrow we'll be ready to start tillering your bow. Good tillering is the real secret to making a serviceable selfbow."

Next month, in this column, we'll tiller my selfbow, finish it and best of all, shoot it.

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