Making a Heavy Whitewood Longbow
Altough there are numerous written accounts on the procurement and usage of non-yew bows in medieval england - no original examples exist today. We do not know if the shape and dimensions of such a bow differed from the yew bow, to utilise the best properties of the wood, and neither do we have any reliable details about the wood treatment such as seasoning.
However, we can hypothethise on the design and construction of such a bow, based on the Mary Rose yew bows, and we can then make a facsimile of such a bow, in order to get some idea of their performance - in comparrison to the best alpine yew that is available today..
This article is a step by step guide on making of something, which 10 years ago was thought not possible, being that of a 160 lbs MR pattern of longbow made in ash, that is shootable, with little set and correct oval cross section, which is made like the bows of the day.
To do this we shall need: One stave of ash, with 0.85 or better specific gravity, at least 84“ long and about 2“ thick and wide initially. The wood in this case must be very dry - at least 8% - otherwise we shall get only poor results. Note that this is different from yew.
Fig. 1 Here you can see the basic tools. I don't use a drawknife, unless I want to take the back ring of the stave down. Of course neither the weight scale or the caliper would have been used by medieval bowyer, and Colts tail (abrasive dry weed) or sturgeon skin would have been a substitute sandpaper. Few other tools are pictured later.
Fig. 2 I am making my life easier by substituting the rasp for a grinder, and I am using a sanding disc with 40 grit paper. This is better than a linisher, because due to its versatility.
Panel 1: basic tools and equipment
Fig. 5 Thickness layout is done in a rather straight manner, where it is benefitial to leave slightly more wood under the kink, because it is weaker overall and will bend more then the originally straight section.
Fig. 3 You can see the roughed out stave. Its a squared blank of about 40 mm wide, which is slightly less thickness at the median, and almost paralel along its length. The width layout is: measure about20 and 20 cm from the center of the bow to the each limb, this stays paralel. From there I draw a line to the tip, which is laid out quite wide - slightly over 25 mm. This will leave me with plenty of wood midlimb for the tiler, and the tips will be trimed later in the process.
Fig. 4 Following the kink in the woodgrain where a knot was originally in the tree. This will violate the grain in the least possible way.
Panel 2: roughing out
Fig. 6 Once the basic squared blank is prepared, I chamfer and round the edges of the back.
Fig. 7 And I draw chamfer lines on the belly „Carpenter style“, which should leave enough wood on the belly, otherwise you will end up with triangular bow section - which has tendency to collapse under compression.
Fig. 8 The stave is chamfered all the way.
Fig 9 The belly can be rounded by rasp or by the grinder, which was depicted at the beginning of this article.
Fig. 10 Belly rounded by handplane. This is very good method for straight grained wood like ash.
Fig. 11 A scraper can be also used for fine work.
Fig. 12 Funny outfit aside - the roughed out stave is rather substantial piece of wood.
Panel 3: first tiller
Fig. 13 I cut some emergency tiler slots into the stave. They can also be filed by a small round file - like they probably were in middle ages. Now to the tiler!
Fig. 15 Here we go. Its actually not that bad for the first bend of stave, which is made by rule of thumb. Its important not to torture the wood too much at this stage until a smooth bend is established.
Fig. 14 I start first with bow fastened on the tiler, this is a safer method to first establish a good bend. I do not „ floor tiler“ because I cannot bend untilered blank for 160# stave by prying on the floor.
Fig. 16 I am removing some wood from the bow to make it bend more, and when I feel like it will, I will switch the tilering method and hang the bow by the string.
Fig. 17 I reckon its pretty safe to turn the bow over now, altough the limbs don‘t move completelly even. I don‘t tiler any particular part of limb first, I rather try and establish a good bend along with no weak or stiff spots. I use moderate force to be sure that no area of the limb will give up under the stress.
Fig. 18 Stiff area is marked by pencil. I will grind, plane or scrape the area slightly to make it more bendable. Its important to remove wood with smooth transition, and not to create hinges. Hinge is a killer of the whitewood bow, and even a yew bow with a hinge during the tilering process isnt going to make a good bow.
Fig. 19 I repeat the process until I have a smooth and even arc, and feel it will be safe to brace the bow for the first time. That is tricky, and should not be attempted without establishing good shape and feel of the stave first, particulary if it has tendency to twist or its reflexed.
Panel 4: Making the nocks
Fig. 20 I then trim the horn on the sides to be able to drill it in the vice.
Fig. 21 This is spade drill reground for horn drilling. The sides can be slightly convex, as it makes the wooden cone inside slightly bulbous and thus stronger. It is also closer to MR bows than just straight taper drill. (Thanks Dave Pim for his nock research)
Fig. 22 I drill the horn to required depth.
Fig. 23 I trim the horn with bandsaw, and note that at this point I have made simple mandrel out of old arrowshaft. The mandrel matches the horn, and with a little pressure the horn holds on to it very well. This allows me to manipulate the horn in a safe manner.
Fig. 24 Nock is ground on the sanding disc.
Fig. 25 Until its round. Note the vacuum tube - this is to remove the unpleasant horn dust.
Fig. 26 Now I use rug wheel and blue polishing compound. Do not use green one - its too rough and smears on everything.
Fig. 27 Second nock gets the same treatment.
Fig. 28 It is important that the edges of the horn are thin, this way the transition to wood is better.
Fig. 29 Using my emergency madrel for reference dimensions, I mark and grind the bowtip as required to match the hollow in the hornnock.
Fig. 30 The nock is now glued on the tip. It is possible to glue the whole blocks of horn to bow, and then work it over to the shape, but that would force me to manipulate an 82“ long bow and during the grinding process - I would undoubtelly ding the bow and damage it somewhere. At this time you can cut any sort of groove in the tip, either regular front slot, or a more accurate side slot - like the ones on MR bows.
Panel 5: wood treatment
Panel 6: final tillering & finishing
Fig. 31 You can toast the belly of the bow. I only go for light chestnut colour. Upon toasting let the stave completelly cool and then adjust tiler as required. Nevertheless with good dry initial blank, this is not required.
Fig. 32 Having cut the slots in the hornnocks, I then brace the bow gently. Now the bow is also lightly sanded. From here I can proceed with the tiler until I have the weight and the drawlenght required. Not even now do I pry the wood stronger than necessary, leave it drawn for too long or leave a hinge unattended.
Fig. 33 Some 160# at 30“ ash longbow is drawn on tiler. Later on it will be sanded to the final finish, and get treated against the moisture. Note - all whitewood are very hydroscopic, and they suffer performance problems when they are not at the required level of dryness. It might be necessary to use modern „plastic“ finish to keep the bow shootable in all weather conditions.
Panel 7: find an archer to test your handiwork. Any archer will do.