American (Hophornbeam) Horror Story

Well…I’m at it again. Actually, in the case of this particular bow, I’ve been at it for a few months. I could blame it on the kids keeping me busy, or work, but I’d rather just come clean and tell you that up until last week I haven’t been in the mood to work on a bow. I’ve been having too much fun shooting the bows I have — bought or made.

One would think I would have spent the dreary, Michigan winter months tucked away in my workshop building bows for the summer and fall. It would make sense to hiberante given the lack of suitable hunting days and the absence of game, but I do most of my roving/stumping in the winter. I find getting bundled up and having an adventure far too appealing to stay inside sweating over a hunk of wood. Plus, I use this time to see where the deer are moving on my hunting properties and scout out possible ground blind locations based on where others sat the previous  year.

I guess I’d rather stretch the legs and the spirit than make a new arrow flinger. Don’t get me wrong, working on a bow is spiritual in its own right, but I’d much rather do it on my deck, watching the kids play in the yard. There’s more room, less mess, and it has a completely different vibe than building indoors. It makes sense really; a bow is an outdoor tool. Why not build it outdoors?

Philosophy aside, I have been working on a piece of American Hophornbeam my Dad harvested from his backyard and it has been given me fits. This was my first experience building a bow from a log and this particular one contained more headaches than usable wood. The fact I knew nothing of Hophornbeam or “Iron Wood” didn’t help my situation.

Dad picked a decent tree. Hophorn hardly ever grows straight and he found a nice sapling that was about 72″ long and 4″ in diameter. The issue was the bark twisting up the trunk, which we didn’t pay much attention too. It also cracked on the ends due to the sudden release of moisture resulting from its cutting. We didn’t seal it in time. I had to lop a foot or so off each end to get a decent piece of wood.

Splitting the log revealed even more issues. The wood beneath was true to the bark, as it split with a twist, leaving me with a knotty, curvy, mess I knew would result in an asymmetrical bow no matter how I worked the wood. I was initially excited because the ends had a natural reflex, but that eventually vanished when I needed to trim the ends further to avoid bad wood.

But the bow was still coming along nicely and close to floor tiller. I do not use mechanical saws of any kind, so it took me some time to rasp the 2″ limbs enough to get them bending. I ended up a sweaty, blistered mess, but felt I was winning the battle. Unfortunately, tragedy struck when I hit a rough spot on the bottom third of the limb with my draw knife. The blade wedged itself under a ring and cracked the stave from fade-fade-to fade, leaving a weird “W” shape some refer to as a “gull wing”.

I was heartbroken. With knots on the middle thirds and a nasty twist on the end of the top limb, I wasn’t sure what to do. The bow would bend at the fades and eventually fail. Working the limbs down to match the fades would result in a 15# bow max and I don’t know anyone who would shoot a 60″ at 15#. It would be too light for an adult and too long for a child. The bow would need to be backed and I would have to patch the fades somehow.

To make matters worse, the middle third of each limb had weak spots caused by random knot clusters. I would have to address those as well. The bow seemed a lost cause, so I left it sitting in the vise for several days, contemplating breaking it over my knee more than once. But something told me to keep going. I’d already come so far, why not experiment a bit and test myself?

For starters, I made the weakest limb my top limb and left it 1.5″ longer than the bottom given its narrower profile. This seemed to alleviate the set, but to strengthen the weak spots, I knew I would have to back the bow.

A friend of mine once told me he was fond of backing with automotive fiberglass strands and the idea intrigued me. I already had a sheet of the matting to experiment with and I didn’t want to waste sinew on a bow that would most likely fail. I grabbed a jug of Tite Bond III and applied the strands of matting as I would sinew, figuring it would be good practice for the real thing. It worked extremely well, drying clear and natural. I then applied two layers to the belly of the bow near the fades and wrapped all of the weak points with processed sinew/Titebond for added strength and aesthetics. The results scared me. It reminded me of the Frankenstein monster a bit and looked very primitive!

I let everything sit a day before stringing it back up and was surprised to find that the bow took on a pleasing profile and fell into tiller quite well considering what it was. I was also surprised to find it was pulling approximately 45# at my draw without retaining more than 2″ of set. I decided to leave it as it was, add a shelf, and shoot it awhile.

I was reluctant to pull it to full draw at first. I thought it would explode in my hands at any time, but it held the tension well and actually whipped a 40/45 cedar shaft with decent speed and accuracy. I could make a pie plate size group at 18 yards within a 1/2 hour of shooting it. I realize this may not seam like much of a feat to some, but I was practically doing backflips. I had taken a bow that was destined for the fire pit and turned it into a shootable weapon. I have no way of knowing if it will last, but if it makes it a year, my effort will have been worth it.

2 thoughts on “American (Hophornbeam) Horror Story

  1. *Longbows…..Thank You for posting your motivating story!…..I am attempting to build my first bow under similar circumstances…..A knott 6 inches below the handle on the lower limb back has about got me stopped and I would guess I am only about 30% done….. I am not sure how to proceed…..I had wanted to carve a simple self bow and get to shooting….. * ** *A little over two years ago, I cut an Osage tree from my yard…..I sealed the ends of a 6 foot by 12 inch base log and put it up on blocks…..The stave I’m using is actually the worst of the lot so I have a couple more to work with down the road…..I have been building it on my deck as you like…..So far it has been a labor intensive but enjoyable work using a simple draw knife and sander…..I had hoped to get a 40 pound bow 68 inches long……* ** *Any suggestions as to my next move would surely be appreciated…..Rick*

  2. Man, that bow has been a whole spiritual journey for you! Kudos for pushing through!!

    Please let us know how it holds up — I’d love to have you post this story on the ArcherZUpshot FB page – we have a pile of Trad followers who would LOVE reading about what you do!

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