by A. J. Hendershott
I have been making wooden bows since 1997 and what started as a “one and done” project has grown into a lifelong pursuit of understanding different woods, cultures and techniques for making bows. I have made hundreds of bows out of all sorts of wood native to North America including hickory, Osage orange, mulberry, maple, hackberry, ash, elm, walnut, cedar, butternut, bald cypress, persimmon, dogwood, red oak and white oak. I have also made replicas of historic bows created in the eastern woodlands, the great plains, desert southwest, and even bows from the Alaskan arctic.
Replica cable backed bow from the arctic
Cabinet scrapers and file working on Osage orange stave
Hendershott working on a hickory longbow
I am a hobbyist “bowyer”, – someone who makes bows. Bowyers like to create using a variety of wood to test their skills and to learn more about different wood’s properties. We also read a lot from other bowyers to learn new tricks and techniques. Studying bows made by Native Americans is really helpful because they had generations and even millennia of experience to work with.
To say that I love making bows is an understatement. I keenly understand bow making as well as different ways to get the job done. While it may not seem germane to building a resume, I also know how to break a bow because I have done it. Not on purpose you understand, but any bowyer worth their salt has a few broken bows in their past. It keeps us humble and keeps us alert to future issues. It also provides wisdom for addressing issues. I bring this up, so you understand my passion and credentials.
This notion of a chinquapin bow ignited a few years back when I read a 1999 article in Primitive Archer magazine regarding the Native American uses of the American chestnut tree with emphasis on medicinal properties.
In the article Ethnobotanist T.R. Zimmerman wrote, “Lastly, chestnut has primitive uses.
The wood has been carved into useful wood utensils and wooden ware.” He followed this statement with, “Powerful bows can be made from straight stems and trunks.” After reading Zimmerman’s article I was a little discouraged there wasn’t any further discussion of the bow topic. It was a primitive archery outlet after all. Zimmerman didn’t indicate where that fact came from because it was a secondary source. As a bowyer who is excited about the Ozark chinquapin tree and its past uses, I was exceptionally curious about the chestnut’s potential for making a longbow.
Even though chestnuts and chinquapins are not the same species they have a lot in common. I decided to dig deeper and see what was out there on chestnut bows because there is much more historical knowledge and empirical material to work with for chestnuts than chinquapins.
I wanted to explore the undiscovered country of an Ozark chinquapin longbow. Some uses for the Ozark chinquapin are well documented and others are given slight attention. Other uses, like being used for longbows are non-existent. Which would be the end of the story for some, but undeterred, I proceeded on.
Some bow making principals
When examining any potential wood for use in bow making you must understand some hard and fast rules. First, the wood must be strong under tension. The back of the bow, which is the side facing the target, must stretch stressing the fibers as the bow is drawn back. On the other side – the belly of the bow, which faces the archer, must compress as the bow is drawn back. When released the wood has to resume its previous shape and state. A bow wood must be able to accept the stresses of both sides of the bow limb or it will break the back or permanently compress the belly never to recover. If the wood in question is not super strong under tension, there is a work around. You can back it with something that will take the stress. Bowyers use a strip of wood they know is up to the task or they use sinew strips or rawhide to provide the strength needed under tension. In all cases these backing material are glued to the back.
In Firefox Vol 6 the Eliot Wigginton, mentioned recorded memories of the American chestnut from the Appalachian areas of Tennessee. Jake Waldroop had this to share in his interview, “Now there was timber that was stronger than chestnut, but the one thing about chestnut is was so much easier worked than the rest of it was.” Waldroop was indicating chestnut was easier to work than the wood from other species of trees. This was helpful as it gives us some idea of how strong and hard the wood was.
“. . . stronger than chestnut. . .” That means the wood was easier to break than other species. That is not exactly the thing to put on a resume for a wood you want to make a bow from.
Undiscouraged, I wasn’t done and so, I proceeded on.
In a wood database online article entitled “Bow Woods”, Eric Meier looked at a ratio of how easily wood will bend when compared to how easily wood will break. Based on stress tests for each wood species he compiled a list where American Chestnut was given a score of 6.99. The score is meaningful only when you compare it the score of other woods. So, let’s look at the score for some good bow woods. Osage orange scored 11.05, shell bark hickory 9.58, black locust 9.46, and red mulberry 8.64. Trees that scored close to the American Chestnut were tulip poplar 6.39, cottonwood 6.20, and baldcypress 7.36. To see the complete list and a detailed explanation of his process visit Bow Woods | The Wood Database (wood-database.com).
The interesting thing about Meier’s list is the items with a lower ratio are woods I would not readily reach for in making a wooden longbow without backing. However, I am aware of Native Americans using those exact woods to make bows. For example, the Seminole people used baldcypress to make bows. Furthermore, I have made a replica of one of those Seminole baldcypress bows and it shot well. People in the dessert southwest used willow with some design accommodations which didn’t even make Meier’s list.
One last note before we leave the wood database. I noticed Eastern red cedar (ERC) was given a score of 10. This is particularly high and would seem to indicate a great wood for making bows. I would caution anyone wanting to make an unbacked bow from eastern red cedar that they need to be mostly all sapwood and worked by a skilled bowyer. EAC can snap easily.
Meier did mention that microfibril angle is a component to bow wood success. He did not mention ERC specifically, but I wonder if that is at play there. Overall, I think his list is a reliable predictor of which woods could be used to make a great bow from one piece of wood. The design and the care you use for making those bows really does matter.
I bring the ERC up because the wood database is a great resource, but it doesn’t supersede experience with bow making and bow woods. Meier seemed to communicate that concept by qualifying that he was not a bow maker in his article. The take home message for me is I need to look at chestnut and chinquapin the same way. Use the data for a guide, combine that with historic documentations on wood dynamics and sensibility for bow making. Then make decisions.
To summarize this bow wood discussion, chestnut wood does not seem to be a top shelf choice for bow making, but scored along with some woods that could make a serviceable bow if given the right consideration. I think the main issue was strength under tension which kept coming up in my research. That brings us back around to the bow making foundation discussion. If a bow is not strong under tension, there is a work around. Glue a tension strong wood or substance to the back. Operating with my assumption that Ozark chinquapin wood works similar to American chestnut wood, I decided I was going to back this bow and give it go.
Making a chinquapin bow
In 2012 a large Ozark chinquapin tree sadly died during a major drought in southwest Missouri. The silver lining to this story is that tree’s genetics live on in other trees that have been planted all over the Ozarks. I would never be excited for a healthy Ozark chinquapin to die because restoring the species is a large priority to me. Every tree matters. But when one individual tree does die, I want to make maximum use of it so as not to waste it in terms of learning and education purposes. The dead tree was big enough to make a bow from and I got access to a section of the trunk.
Based on my research I was not overly confident Ozark chinquapin wood could take the stress of tension on the back. So, I decided backing the bow was my first and best option. I set out with design and prep work. I laid out a 65-inch longbow with a laminated handle riser and hickory backing all glued together.
Ozark chinquapin handle laminated riser
Chinquapin bow tip overlay
Ozark chinquapin bow, full view, ready for tillering
I had a couple of chinquapin scraps that would make attractive tip overlays. After about 6 hours of work, I had the wood looking like a bow and was excited to see and feel the grain of the chinquapin wood. It was a pleasant creamy tan with dark lines due to the spring growth rings. When working on the limbs to get them to bend I would always make marks on sections where wood needs to be removed to promote better bending of the bow limbs.
If you want to know more about the process of bow making, there are a lot of great books and online resources out there. I recommend the Traditional Bowyer’s Bible series as a jumping on point. Volume 1 has the foundational concepts.
There is a process for training bow limbs to bend properly called tillering. When first tillering a bow I tie a string on the bow limbs without bending them. When the bow string is tied, the bow still looks like it did if the string wasn’t on there. I then put the bow on a tillering tree or tillering stick and bend it very slightly to see how the limbs bend.
Ozark chinquapin bow on tillering tick with work to do
Following this I make new marks for where wood needs to come off and try again. If the bow bends too much in one area you leave it alone and remove wood where the bow is not bending. This whole process is sometimes called the long string method and it allows you to get the limbs bending the same way evenly all across the limbs. However, it is not super stressful to the wood which is why we start there. Once you have the bending in order you can string the bow up to brace height.
If I ever have to put a project down for an extended period, I leave the marks on there, so I know where I left off. When I pick it back up, I know how to proceed from there.
Oh, the horror!
Here is where things went bad. I share this to be totally transparent as a bow maker. This was humbling and really frustrated me to my core because I knew better and should have been able to avoid this.
After having set the bow project a side for about 6 months while work and life got busy, I finally got the chance to pick it back up. I found my tools, got set up and looked at my marks. The wood was removed with a spokeshave, and I began to string the bow to brace height – as if I was done with the long string method.
Only I shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t done with the long string method, and forgot. The truth of this was revealed with a “snap”.
Chinquapin bow break
My heart sank.
The hickory broke in two with a slight break in the Ozark chinquapin. At this point I was highly discouraged. The wood didn’t cause this failure. I did. Normally if a break like this happens, the bow is either cut up into firewood or spear throwers or something else useful. But its potential for a bow is normally over. I let the bitterness of that reality soak in for the better part of a day. It was super discouraging. This wonderful piece of wood could have made a bow and I made a wreck of it. It wasn’t my typical quality of work which stung even worse.
Later that evening I set my jaw and changed my direction. I couldn’t stop now. The chinquapin wood was mostly intact and didn’t break badly. That wood was too valuable. Perhaps I could remove the backing and start again. I know fixing it would mean problems. It would also mean this would never be as strong or as perfect as I wanted, but with renewed passion I proceeded on.
I sawed a kerf in the hickory down to the chinquapin wood at the handle. I then used a flat chisel and mallet to chisel most of the hickory off. Following that I used a hand plane and spokeshave to remove the rough features and then prepped the bow for a new backing of hickory.
Chisel work to remove the hickory backing
Ready for the hand plane and spoke shave
Sparing you the details of that process which added about 3 more hours to the overall project, I got back to where I was before the break with a renewed sense of hope.
Chinquapin bow fix– gluing hickory back on
I was able to finish the bow almost the way I wanted but there were some caveats. The bow was not the draw weight I wanted. I wanted to hunt with this bow at 50 pounds of draw weight. I got slightly more than half that. Prepping the chinquapin wood for a new backing cheated me by thinning the chinquapin wood which left me with a thickness deficit. I also wanted a clean bow arc on the limbs where the bow bent evenly all across the limb. I had to stop short of that or risk losing more weight. The spot where the bow broke was thinner than the rest of the bow which was the source of the original problem. Had I proceeded normally there is every reason to think I could have made the bow to look right while bending and have the draw weight I desired. Repairing the bow in this way made that section slightly
thinner still making me take even more wood off the other sections. To keep from losing too much weight I had to leave the bow profile imperfect. These two factors are the main reason most bowyers (including myself) don’t try to rescue broken bows. But rescue the bow I had, and I learned years ago that perfect is the enemy of good. Thus, I stopped before I ruined the bow (again). It was already way better than the broken bow that it was.
I strung the bow and shot some arrows in a target. It was fun to shoot. So, I shot it some more. A lot more. It was fun every time. I felt a whole lot less frustrated and whole lot more fulfilled. With each shot my past frustration leaked away being replaced with joy.
Ozark chinquapin bow finished
As a side note, here are some observations about how the Ozark chinquapin wood works with hand tools. It is a hard wood like oak, especially when seasoned. I use hand tools for making bows. While the chinquapin wood responded well to drawknife and spokeshave work, if the grain is wavy, it can tear out and I had to watch for that. Walnut and oak do this too. It is not uncommon in bow making but worth noting.
I also found that the wood smooths out exceptionally well. When I used my cabinet scraper it would make the wood slick quickly but not take off much in the way of shavings. At one point I was concerned my scraper was not sharp. So, I used it on a piece of hickory and it pulled shavings crisp and curly as I pleased. The scraper was sharp. It just didn’t take off a lot of wood on the chinquapin. I had to scratch the surface up with a file before scraping and area smooth. If I didn’t use the file scraper combination, I wouldn’t get much wood taken off at all. This led me to wonder if the chinquapin wood was stronger than the chestnut. Waldrop’s statement in Firefox, “stronger than chestnut” made me wonder if similar tests would reveal some difference in the chinquapin wood. It also made me wonder if it was stronger under tension. It is also entirely possible that the wood compresses or burnishes better than I expected.
When I found my stopping place with tillering the limb bending, I sanded the bow to a super smooth surface that was a joy to run my hand along. It sanded well like beech and sycamore. I couldn’t wait to see it with a wood finish.
The finish line
Finished Ozark chinquapin bow
Bow handle section
For finish I used three coats of Tru oil (commonly used for gun stocks) and added muskrat fur silencers. She is a beaty for sure. I love the looks and feel of this bow. Images 15-17 While the draw weight is lighter it is a delight to shoot. There is no hand shock when an arrow is loosed from the string. My arms and fingers don’t fatigue while shooting and I just love the looks of that wood.
I name all my bows and with some careful thought I chose “Redemption” for this one. It has a double meaning. First, I unintentionally broke this bow but managed to finish the project despite my error in judgement. As a bowyer I felt redeemed. Second, the Ozark chinquapin’s decline is due to people brining an exotic tree into North America which had an exotic fungus which in turn decimated our three Castanea species in the United States.
By restoring this tree to the landscape like we are presently, we are redeeming that mistake as well. It seems like a fitting name for a bow and a species that was “on the ropes” so to speak. By not giving up they both have a chance to continue on.
Based on this experience I would treasure the chance to make another bow from Ozark chinquapin wood that is hunting weight. I would also like to someday have enough wood to do some testing to compare and contrast its properties with American chestnut. With the progress we are making with growing and distributing blight resistant Ozark chinquapins, I am confident this is a possibility. Each year we get closer and closer to bringing this tree back from the brink of extinction. We can’t stop now. We have to proceed on.
Steve Allely and Jim Hamm. 1999. Encyclopedia of Native American Bows, Arrows and Quivers. Vol. 1. The Lyons Press, New York. Pg. 70.
T.R. Zimmerman. 1999. Medicine man: Chestnut. Primitive Archer magazine. Vol. 7: 4
Eliot Wigginton. 1980. Memories of the American Chestnut. In Foxfire Vol. 6. Random House, New York. Pages 397-421.
Jim Hamm Editor. 1992. Traditional Bowyer’s Bible Vol 1. Bois D’ Arc Press
Photo credit: A. J. Hendershott