Much of archery’s romance comes from the bygone era of handcrafted wooden bows.
These bows inspire curiosity and wonder, even from the most seasoned archers. The bows’ graceful curves and craftsmanship spark the imagination and take us back in time, maybe to our childhood when we played with homemade bows of stick and string. Or maybe we envision native American villages, where wooden bows were both weapon and hunting tool; or even the Ice Age, where simple bows secured man atop the food chain.
From native Americans to modern bowyers, Osage orange is one of archery’s most heralded woods. Osage orange — also called bois d’ arc (wood of the bow) — is a gnarly, shrub-like tree that might make you wonder how anyone can make a bow from its wood. Don’t be fooled by its appearance. Osage orange grows durable wood that’s ideal for building bows. The wood is a brilliant orange when spit from the tree, and darkens to a caramel color as it ages.
A small subset of traditional archers are enthralled with the wooden bow’s simplicity and effectiveness. Modern bow builders, called bowyers, are part ecologist, scientist and woodworker. They must know trees and bow designs, and be skilled woodworkers to craft wooden bows, which are also called self-bows.
Imperfections in Osage-orange wood make for interesting, high-character bows called “snaky bows.” Bowyers consider “The Traditional Bowyers Bible” the foremost resource on building wooden bows. In a chapter dedicated to Osage-orange bows, author Ron Hardcastle wrote: “As smitten as I am with Osage, even a cursory glance will show that it is far from perfect, often growing in treacherous twists and snakes and leaded with knots and thorns. But herein, for many bowyers, lies the interest and excitement of wood bowyery.”
Building a bow from Osage orange is a complex process, but it can be broken into a few steps. First, harvest a tree that’s relatively straight and knot-free. Next, spilt the tree lengthwise into staves and season them. Seasoning the staves means drying them indoors for about a year so they can be worked into a bow. They’re then roughed out to shape. Once the stave looks like a bow, it’s ready to be tillered, which means carefully removing wood from the bow until both limbs bend symmetrically. This requires patience and an experienced eye. Once the bow is tillered, the bowyer applies a finish to prevent its wood from absorbing moisture.
Building an Osage-orange bow is challenging and rewarding. However, the bow-building craft isn’t for everyone. If you want to try traditional archery, you don’t need to cut down a tree or pick splinters from your fingers. Archery shops carry longbows and recurve bows. To find a nearby archery store, click here.