The Death of Dusty


My longbow died in August.

Odd to think of a longbow as a living thing, but I always have. So much goes in to the making of a bow – passion, anxiety, sweat, tears, blood – it isn’t a stretch to consider the result a spiritual extension of its creator. When you spend enough time working on anything, you cannot keep a part of you from seeping into it. I’ve always said you buy the bowyer when you buy a bow. That is the reason.

Dusty began life as a conversation. I had known Tracey and David Balowski of St. Joe River Bows for several years and wanted one of their bows. It never seemed to work out financially, however. I had a several longbows and there was no logical reason to buy another. But my relationship with the Balowskis grew and my wanting with it, until a used model popped up on their website and forced my hand. It was older (a Dick Swager bow) sculpted from a piece of Osage that had aged a beautiful burnt orange. They were kind enough to send it to me for a “test drive” and I ended up buying it soon after. “Josey” became my turkey bow and I carried her into the woods my first seasons.

We had a series of adventures together. Still, something wasn’t quite right. Tracey didn’t make Josey and that bothered me. Dick had done a wonderful job, but we had never met. Tracey was now extended family and I wanted one of her bows. She felt the same. We talked about my bow for several months before I decided to order one. I’d bring it up whenever I saw her and shot her a message whenever I got the chance. I can be terribly indecisive and often used her to talk me into a concrete decision. This went on for several months. When I finally gave her the “go ahead” to put my longbow into production, she had no idea what she was building. I decided it best to give her my specs and let her handle the rest. She seemed happy with the arrangement. She was an artist, after all, and people seldom let her have that freedom.

The waiting was painful, but a lot of fun. Tracey loved a good surprise and seemed to enjoy keeping me in suspense. David, on the other hand, was a little easier to pry information out of and accidentally leaked Tracey and her Mom had found a gorgeous piece of tigered hickory to work with while shopping for bow wood. I had never heard of such a thing, but it sounded good to me. He said something about giving it a “gray wash” but I had no idea what that meant. I envisioned him pouring a bucket of paint all over the bow and wondered why they would do such a thing. Still, I reserved judgement and let them work out the details as promised.

My bow arrived in a tube five months later. It took me far too long to unwrap the damn thing. I was excited and shaking. I was sweating by the time I freed the bow from the tube and pulled it from its sock. It was worth it. The gray wash was really just a stain of sorts and it made the grain of the hickory pop in a way I had never seen before. This gave the bow a dusty finish. Tracey chose Osage as the accent wood, which was the perfect contrast to the hickory. It reminded me of a gold nugget hidden amidst the silt in some crotchety miner’s pan.

I bonded with Dusty the moment I strung him. He went everywhere with me. We were inseparable for two years, culminating with the taking of my very first buck in November. I had finally found my bow, after years of looking. I had a connected with Dusty, just as Tracey had connected when she built him.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever.

August brought the Great Lakes Longbow Invitational, and a whole mess of archery-related activity. As acting president of the Michigan Longbow Association, I spent most of my time thinking about the event and little time worrying about shooting or the whereabouts of my bow. This year was no different, but the weather made it worse. Charlton Park was exceptionally humid. I arrived on Wednesday to setup and was miserable by the event’s opening on Friday morning. You couldn’t move without sweating and didn’t stop once you started. It rained on Friday afternoon and that didn’t help the situation. And by “rain” I mean “biblical downpour”. Members and council members were scurrying around like ants taking care of whatever needed taking care of.

Dusty was at camp during the chaos. I’d strung him up that morning to shoot an event and left him there to dry on the rack afterwards. I had intended to put him in the camper and out of harm’s way, but was distracted by the collapse of our merchandise tent. Thankfully, my Dad made it back in time to move Dusty and the rest of our bows to the only dry place he could find – the backseat of his car. I thanked him for his quick thinking and figured I’d snag Dusty when the rain stopped. It never did and my bow stayed in the car until the following morning – strung.

The sun heated everything up in a hurry when it came out the following morning. The family wanted to get some shooting in and grabbed their bows early. I did not. God only knows what I was doing, but Dusty remained in the car. Several hours had passed by the time I remembered. A wave of heat hit me when I popped the door open and my stomach knotted. Dusty was really warm to the touch and developed an area of foggy glass near each fade. “Oh God no…that wasn’t there before.” I said aloud. “This can’t be right. This can’t be right at all. I’m such an idiot!”

I felt sick. I unstrung him immediately and decided to leave him in the shade until Tracey had returned from her booth that evening. The damage had already been done and I didn’t want to bug her until then. I ran into David first and told him what happened. He told me Tracey would be down shortly. I handed it over – head hung in shame. Suddenly, I was 17 again and just about to show my Dad the aftermath of side-swiping his Durango against a tree after homecoming.

Dave looked at the bow and back at me. “Yeah, that’s not good Nick. We’ll see what Tracey says after dinner. I’ll show it to her then.” It didn’t matter. I knew what was coming.

I checked back later to find them hunched over a picnic table. Neither one of them looked happy. As I drew closer, I could see that Dusty was the subject of the hunching. Had it not been for the comings and goings of camp I could’ve sworn I had arrived at a visitation. Tracey looked sad. “I don’t know Nick…” she paused, gently rolling Dusty over. “I don’t think I can let you shoot this bow.” My heart sank. “That bad, huh?” I muttered. “I’m afraid so. The glass is definitely compromised. When a bow gets hot enough, things start to fail. And this is in a really bad spot.”

“Can you fix it?” I plead. She paused again, picking Dusty up and running her thumbs over the fogged glass. “I will try. I might be able to work the glass up and get some glue in there. I’ve only done this one other time and it really is a risk.”

“So even if you can repair him, theres a chance he’ll break again?” She pursed her lips and shook her head. “There’s just no way of knowing. You could have him for years or he could fail you on a hunt. I don’t want that for you.” She paused again and looked at me. “I think I need to make you a new bow.” Under any other circumstance, this would’ve been music to my ears. Not this time. I felt as if I had just lost a friend and let Tracey down as well. “I can’t afford that right now.” I said. “I’m finally taking the girls to Disney in the Spring and that is where all of my money is going.”Dave clapped his hand on my shoulder. “We’ll figure all that out later.” He said. “Why don’t you stop by our booth tomorrow morning and try out the bows in stock?”

“Sure…” I said. “That sounds cool. It’s something I suppose.”

“Good!” He said. “Do you have a bow to shoot this season? I know you were pretty dialed in with Dusty. We’d be happy to lend you one.”

“You’d lend me a bow for the season?”

“Sure. Why not? It’ll get you thinking about what you want.”

“I wouldn’t be comfortable with that Dave. I’d end up damaging it and feel terrible. I have another bow I can shoot.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that. Just think on it.” He said. “We’ll see you in the morning.”

I popped by bright and early to choose a bow and get a round in before the activities of the day started. There were plenty to choose from, mostly the shorter “Torrent” model longbows that were now all the rage, but those didn’t feel quite right to me. I shot a round with one of them – a really smooth shooter – but couldn’t adjust to the shorter riser. Still, I was feeling better. The excitement of a new bow started to replace the agony of losing Dusty. Plus, the sun had come out and the park was waking up. Wet dreary faces were once again flush with happiness and purpose. Everyone was having a good time, including my family who had been dealing with a leaky, sticky, camper since we’d arrived. I realized that the event was a success. The membership had pushed through the weather and had a fantastic time. My stress was gone by the time I met Tracey at the booth.

“Well how’d it go Nick?” Tracey smiled. “Did you like that Torrent?”

“It shot really well – super smooth – but I don’t think these shorter bows are for me. Dusty was a classic with a longer riser and he fit me perfectly.”

She smiled. “Well, you’re a tall guy, and that style might be what suits you best. Why move away from something that works?”

“Awesome. As much as I want one of these new Torrents, I think the Classic is for me. But let’s do a takedown this time. I want to travel more.”

“We can do that. Do you have any woods in mind?”

“Well, this weekend was a rollercoaster for me. It started out rough, but got a whole lot better in the end. I was staring at the fire last night…everyone was having fun and I had this idea about a phoenix. You know…the flaming bird?

“Uh huh.” She laughed. “I’m with you.”

“Yeah. A phoenix rising from the ashes. Something good rising from something bad. Plus, Dusty was kind of ashy in appearance.”

Tracey lit up. You could tell the wheels were turning. “I love that idea.” She said. I’ve got some special pieces laying around I’ve been wanting to use. Maybe we could make it grayish, like Dusty, and work the brighter, fiery parts into the riser.”

“Now you’re talking.” I beamed. “Tell me more…”

Tracey is currently working on my “Phoenix” and I cannot wait to see the result. I can’t wait to share the results with you. Stay tuned! If you have a bow story you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment. I may not always respond, but I read them all.










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.