Forgiveness is a Virtue of the Stave

See a more recent update on this bow here.

It’s happened to any bowyer that splits their own staves. You start with a halved or quartered log and analyze the grain. You find a straight area that looks long enough to hold a bow. You position your splitting wedge or hatchet at the exact spot that you think will yield the cleanest stave. You swing back your hammer and plink! The log splits across the grain, running off the edge halfway down the log, while dirty words frolic around your mind.

But that doesn’t always spell disaster.

I’ve seen many bows coaxed from throwaway wood split from ruined logs, and they’re typically the most interesting. And it’s not surprising that most are made from Osage.

“In order to make a bow from Osage, or any other wood… you can say, ‘From this particular piece of wood I want to make the best bow I can.'”

Ron Hardcastle, The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible: Volume 1

In Chapter 5 of The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible: Volume 1, Ron Hardcastle lists four main reasons that Osage is an excellent bow wood – it’s hard, plentiful, durable, and stable. I would also add that it’s forgiving.

During one stave-splitting session I experienced the above disappointment, splitting a halved trunk with 8″ of exposed cambium into quarters. The grain separated in such a way that I created one viable stave and one piece of firewood. It was only 50″ long and 1″ wide at the cambium. This firewood sat in my garage for a while, catching my eye periodically and calling to me, “I swear I can be a bow!”.

The back and end grain of a stave split from an Osage log.

The end grain of a small Osage stave thought originally to be firewood.

A few weeks later that stave lived up to its promise, pulling 48# at a 27″ draw with only 46″ of wood between its nocks. 5″ of that is handle and fades, leaving 41″ of working limbs to handle the draw weight. Its max width is just less than 7/8″ at the handle. Its back ring is a beautiful mixture of white sapwood and orange heartwood. But it wasn’t easy to make, and the results are far from perfect.

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Various angles of the back ring, showing the mixture of sapwood and heartwood.

First, I had to remove some propeller twist from the limbs, accomplished using dry heat and an impromptu rig made from monkey wrenches, C-clamps, and barbell weights. I let this sit for a night.

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Heat was applied to the limbs as weights were gradually added to C-clamps hanging from wrenches to reduce twist.

With the twist reduced, I bent reflex into the lower limb to match the upper using more dry heat. That worked well for the tillering phase, but has since taken set and reverted back to its original profile.

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Adding reflex to match the other limb. The original stave is shown in the top image, the clamp in the middle, and the results in the bottom. In the future I will use a more aggressive form since this reflex came out while tillering.

I ran into more trouble while tillering at the 19th annual Tennessee Classic. At the time I had pin nocks carved directly into the tips. I pulled the bow to about 25″ of draw on the tillering tree when bang! The string slipped off the nocks, my pulley system went slack, and the bow was nowhere to be seen! A second later I heard what sounded like the buzz of a locust storm, and looked up… to see my bow spinning faster than a dreidel on drugs 30 feet in the air! It got enough air time for me to progress through all seven stages of grief while it was still airborne, so that by the time I walked over to where it clattered into a driveway of loose rocks I had accepted the inevitable. But lo and behold, besides a small crack that had started at a pin knot on the back and some new “tool marks” made by the rocks, it was healthy as ever. I wrapped the cracked portion of the limb in sinew and Titebond II and set it aside to let it (and my sanity) recover.

Another challenge reared its head when the bow was pulling to full tiller. I left the bend too strong in the fades and too weak near the tips. The bend was dramatic and the handle stiff, so it delaminated with an audible crack while on the tree. This was a big problem, and I had to give it some thought before settling on a solution.

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A picture of the bow at full draw, showing the dramatic bend in the fades. In this image you can imagine the fades pressing the handle “down” from the bow’s back, creating a delamination in the handle.

First, I scraped the fades back about 1/2″ on each side of the handle. I filled the delamination cracks with super glue, let it dry, and sanded the excess – multiple times. Next, I cut my handle wrap out of a dried beaver tail and let it soak. During the soak the beaver tail expanded, and while it was still wet, I applied it to the handle. I wrapped that beaver tail as tight as I could with artificial sinew, which wouldn’t stretch, and left it to dry. Overnight the beaver tail dried and shrunk, and the next day it may as well have been part of the wood itself! I reckoned that between the glue and wrap, the handle would stop delaminating.

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A close-up view of the delamination cracks that were sealed with super glue and wrapped with beaver tail.

Finally I called my stick a bow and finished it with mineral oil and beeswax. I named it “Jumper” and made some arrows to match. After a few hundred arrows it pulls 43# at 27″, still more than one pound per inch of working limb.

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Various profiles of the shortbow, strung and unstrung, after a few hundred arrows. The lower limb, shown on the right, has a weak spot in the tiller just past the fade.

This was my first experience with, as Ron Hardcastle said, “making the best bow I can” from a given piece of wood. It took a bit of acquired skill to coax a weapon from this stick, but it wouldn’t have been possible with just any old wood. The bottom line is that Osage is a forgiving wood, and will accept a lot of abuse from the bowyer if they listen to what their stave tells them. In this case, Osage has forgiven me for cracking, delaminating, heating, bending, and twisting it, and pushing it close to the limit of its mechanical properties with sub-par tiller and near-insufficient dimensions.

Maybe you are on the fence about making your first bow. Maybe you’ve made a few board bows and don’t know if you’re ready to progress to a stave. Or maybe you’ve had bad luck with your local bow woods and are hesitant to order that expensive piece of Osage for fear of breaking it on the tillering tree and wasting your money. If you’re in one of these situations, I say go for it. Find some Osage and build a bow. Take your time, research, and do your best job. In the end you will most likely end up with a shootable bow, regardless of imperfections, that will at least serve to bolster your confidence and fuel the bowyer addiction.

2 thoughts on “Forgiveness is a Virtue of the Stave

  1. Pingback: Using Dry Heat to Reflex a Bow: Lessons Learned – Field and Flood

  2. Pingback: Forgiveness is a Virtue of the Stave: Update – Field and Flood

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