Michigan has a rich traditional archery community with a bevy of fine bowyers who call it home. One of these bowyers is Tracey Balowski, who with her husband David, owns St. Joe River bows in Bronson. Tracey is one of the few female bowyers in the United States and her story is a unique one. While she had been bowhunting since the 80s and always enjoyed working with wood, she didn’t acquire an interest for traditional bows until 2009 when she met previous St. Joe owner Dick Swager at the Traditional Bowhunting Expo in Kalamazoo.
David wanted to buy a new bow and they were both drawn in by the curvy St. Joe design bowyer Craig Potter originally developed years earlier. The pair began to visit Dick’s shop regularly where Tracey rekindled the love for woodworking she acquired from her father and grandfather. Eventually, by pure happenstance, Dick announced he’d like to retire to do some traveling and offered to sell the company. The Balowskis were interested, took the plunge in 2010, and the rest is history.
My St. Joe story began in 2010 where I met the bow-building duo at the Traditional Bowhunter’s Jamboree in Grayling, Michigan. Their bows were unique with vibrant colors, curvy risers, and elegant, swooping limbs. Their longbows were a forward handle design with reflexed limbs that still formed a “D” when strung, rather than the modern “V” shape of most hybrids on the market. I was intrigued, but lacked the money to think seriously about owning one. Oddly enough my daughter Aubrey was born shortly before that initial meeting and would be the reason for my giving St. Joe a second look a few years later.
Tracey and Dave had been building youth bows from the start, but I hadn’t really noticed them until the 2013 Kalamazoo Expo when I was actually shopping for one. Aubrey’s third birthday was approaching and I wanted to make it a special one by buying her a bow. Since the day she was born, I planned on three being the age I would officially introduce her to archery, so this would be a special purchase. Tracey’s youth bows looked incredible, from the beautiful finishes to the tip overlays. There wasn’t a question St. Joe was the way to go for my kid’s bow, but I didn’t see anything for Aubrey’s age. There were plenty of bows for five and up, but nothing for a three-year-old on the racks. I decided to give Tracey a call and find out if such a bow was possible.
I was delighted when she told me she had made a bow for a person that young, her granddaughter in fact. It was the only one she’d attempted, but she was willing to try another and perfect the formula. After a few moments we worked through the specs and settled on a pink and black longbow in the 10-12lb range with “Aubrey” tattooed on the limbs. I should point out that I only called to discuss the purchase of a bow, but when Tracey told me it would be finished in April and asked what credit card I would like to bill it to, I couldn’t help but agree to the purchase. She made me feel that secure about it and it really impressed me. So much so, I recently bought my own St. Joe longbow. They let me take one for a test drive and I loved it so much I ended up keeping it.
I’m very impressed with St. Joe River Bows and my experience with David and Tracey thus far, so much so I asked Tracey to sit down with me recently and talk a little bit about her youth bow program for the benefit of our Stick and String readers. Enjoy!
Nick: What inspired you to build youth bows?
Tracey: We had a couple of our adult bow customers request we make bows for their kids. They were looking for a high quality youth bow, made in the U.S. and didn’t like what they were finding on the market. David and I talked it over and we both felt strongly about the importance of promoting traditional archery and helping our youth get a good start in the sport. We both feel the future of the sport is largely dependent on young people getting involved and that our youth will benefit from the values/lifestyle archery promotes. It was a win/win situation, so off we went into youth bow production.
Nick: Interesting, I find it funny that I did the exact opposite, looking for a bow for my daughter and finding one for myself.
Tracey: That is funny, but not all that uncommon.
Nick: What makes St. Joe River Bows different from other youth bows?
Tracey: We work with the same high quality, made in the U.S., materials we use in our adult bows. They are handcrafted, tillered, and tuned like our adult bows. They are not toys. A well-crafted bow means better success for the shooter. Better success for our youth helps them enjoy archery more and to stick with shooting.
We also use a wide variety of bright colors and woods that appeal to young people. Kids love color.
Nick: Definitely, my daughter lives in the land of pink and purple and when I saw one of those bright pink ones on the rack at the Expo, I had to have one for her. Plus, they looked just like your adult models, which was cool. She can have one like her Daddy’s but with her own style.
Tracey: Absolutely! That is what we are going for.
Nick: If you would, walk our readers through your youth bow program.
Tracey: Sure thing. You can buy an in stock bow from our website, at a show or from one of our dealers, or you can order a custom bow from us to get the exact color/wood and poundage combo you desire. There is a 60-day wait for a custom order. All our bows come with a pro-rated three-year warranty, including our youth line.
Plus, any youth bow purchased from St. Joe River Bows may be traded in on your next youth or interim bow purchase (48″longbow, 56″ longbows, or 54″recurve). If the bow is in good working and resalable condition, we will apply 50% of the original purchase price toward the purchase of your new bow.
Nick: Fifty percent? That’s a great deal.
Tracey: Yes. We’d rather keep a child shooting then make a bigger profit.
Nick: What options do you offer on the youth bows?
Tracey: Right now we have both 46” and 48” longbows available. Poundage ranges from 10 – 30lb. We have a wide variety of colors that include hot pink, purple, royal blue, emerald green, red, black, camo, and many native woods. To keep costs down and production faster most youth bows feature black glass, but white, brown, and clear glass is also available. Clear glass does cost a wee bit more. Colored glass youth bows are $150, clear glass bows are $175.
Nick: I love the glass options, very unique. You mentioned making production faster. How long does it take you to make a kid’s bow?
Tracey: A couple weeks from start to finish. I have many in progress simultaneously in the shop at all times. It takes a week to apply the Thunderbird finish and let it cure.
Nick: A week? I had no idea it took that long for a finish to set. I’ve recently asked you to build a longbow for my daughter Aubrey who turns three in May. Is she the youngest person you’ve ever built a bow for?
Tracey: No…but close. I made a 46” longbow for my grandson Liam Archer when he turned two last June. He LOVES getting out with his mom Sarah and my son Mike to shoot some arrows. He isn’t very proficient yet but he’s having a blast.
Nick: That is all I am looking for – to plant the seed. So Aubrey is the youngest girl’s bow then?
Tracey: Absolutely! Your interest for Aubrey made us decide to market the 46” lower poundage youth longbow. I now have a couple more on order. Thanks!
Nick: That is awesome! When I called you to make Aubrey’s bow you asked me several important questions, including whether Aubrey was right or left handed, which can be difficult to figure out with someone that young.
Tracey: There are indeed challenges, but it’s worth the trouble. When a child really gets a bow that works and they fall in love with archery, it’s AMAZING! Figuring out eye dominance is an important step but not easy to do with a young child. I used a pirate telescope toy to check Liam’s. I let him play with it for a few days and observed which eye he gravitated to naturally.
Nick: That is a really good idea. I never thought about doing that.
Tracey: Another challenge is getting poundage right so as not to over-bow the child and cause them to be discouraged by not being able to draw the bow or shoot easily enough. Age and size are not accurate indicators of what a child can handle. It may require some trial and error to find the right poundage bow. That is why we’re happy to exchange bows in the first couple weeks of ownership (as long as they are still in good shape) if you have under- or over-bowed your child.
Nick: Very generous of you, especially when you have such a good return policy already.
Tracey: Again, it is all about keeping the kids shooting. We stand by our product.
Nick: Is it more difficult to make a youth bow than an adult bow? What are the challenges?
Tracey: Youth bows are pretty much the same to make as adult bows. No harder or easier really. The main challenge is to produce high quality at a price that a family can afford.
Nick: How do you match arrows to a bow so light?
Tracey: That is indeed a challenge as there aren’t a lot of options out there right now. There is only one arrow builder that we know of that actually spine checks his youth arrows: Bounty Hunter Traditional Arrows. They are a little pricey to most, knowing many will be broken or lost as their young one learns to shoot, but worth it if you can afford it. Generally most 1/4” or 5/16” youth arrows will work quite well and can be bought for $15 to $20 for a half dozen.
Nick: Has the program been successful thus far? What are your future goals for it?
Tracey: I consider it an enormous success. We have had the privilege to start many new shooters and help several young ones fall in love with traditional archery. I get pictures of kids out shooting their bows and having fun with archery all the time now. It makes my day!
We have plans to expand our youth bow line to include a 52” longbow. This will help us to better outfit kids with longer draws with a longbow. We’re working on a prototype right now and hope to have it in full production later this year. It is very exciting!
Nick: Do you have anything else you would like to add?
Tracey: Traditional archery is seeing a huge surge in popularity right now due to movies, TV shows, and video games that feature archery. If you’re wondering: Is archery something my family can do? Will archery be good for my children? I answer: Yes! It’s a wonderfully wholesome family activity that gets our youth outside and in touch with nature. It helps them learn to focus their attention and hand/eye coordination. It opens up communication between family members. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and builds self-esteem.
If you’re wondering where to start, call us! We’ll be happy to help you.
There are plenty of youth bows in stock for the holiday season! If you are interested in purchasing a bow for your son or daughter, check out St. Joe River Bows at the link above or give them a call at (517) 617-3658.