Make A Longbow

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This article is from Issue 36 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Hit the bull’s-eye with this weekend-warrior project.

As a professional bowyer, I’ve been building longbows for a couple of decades and teaching the craft around the country for some years now. I’ve come to realize that a lot of people enjoy making bows as much as using them, and for good reason. A bow is a fun project and something that can be made with just a few pieces of wood, a bandsaw, a couple of files, and a bench vise.

The only materials you need are a narrow length of yellowheart wood, a strip of bamboo, and a small block of hardwood. You laminate the three components together and then shape them into a bow. Woodworkers who don’t want to search out the materials can purchase the unlaminated parts for $120. A “quick-start” pre-laminated option is also available for $150. Both kits include a bow string. (See the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide for the kits and other supplies.) The 66"-long bow described in this article will suit a person as short as 4'11" or as tall as 6'3". Following the directions will yield a bow with a draw weight between 25 and 55 lbs., depending on how much material you choose to remove during shaping.

Laminate the stave components on the jig, using thick plastic stripping to prevent clamp damage.

Laminate the stave

1 Make the backing from a piece of 1⁄8 × 2 × 72" bowyer-grade bamboo. Lay out the front profile as shown in Figure 1, and then bandsaw it to shape, cleaning up the edges with a #50 cabinet rasp, block plane, or spokeshave. 

2 Mill a 5⁄8 × 11⁄2 × 68" piece of yellowheart for the belly wood blank. Mark and taper one face of each limb. (See the Parts Side View in Figure 1.) Rough-cut each taper on the jointer or bandsaw, and then clean it up with a hand plane or file to ensure a consistent taper without dips or bulges.

3 Make the 1⁄2 × 2 × 14" riser block from a dense hardwood like purpleheart or wenge.

4 Screw together a simple laminating jig from 2-by lumber, as shown in Photo A. Make the outer supports 3" tall, and the center support 2" tall. 

5 Laminate the components together using epoxy or other waterproof glue, joining the backing to the non-tapered face of the belly wood and the riser block to the flat section of the tapered face. Mount the pieces in the jig with the backing oriented upward, spacing clamps 11⁄2" apart and pulling the stave down against the center jig support. I protect the backing with 1⁄8"-thick plastic stripping, which conforms to the shape of the bamboo. Let the glue cure for at least 12 hours at room temperature. When the stave comes out of the form, it will have a slight back-bent “reflex” shape. 

Cut the profile of the belly wood by sawing just outside the edge of the bamboo backing.

Saw the profiles

1 Bandsaw the profile of the belly wood as shown in Photo B.

2 Lay out the side profile of the riser block as shown in Photo C. Then bandsaw to your lines as shown in Photo D.

The Bowyer’s Lexicon

My bows consist of three components laminated together: the belly wood, the backing, and the riser. The belly wood is the primary wood of the body. The backing is a 1⁄8"-thick bamboo strip that adds strength and resilience to the belly wood. The riser is a block of wood that thickens the handle area at the center of the bow. Joining the three parts creates a stave, which is then shaped into a bow. The elements of a bow are the handle, the upper and lower limbs, and the nocks, which hold the ends of the string.

Measure 2" out from each side of the center and draw a line from each point to the end of the riser block.

Hold the stave steady on its edge and bandsaw to your tapered layout lines.

File the edges of the belly wood flush to the edges of the backing. 

File the basic stave shape

1 With the stave clamped in a vise, use a 10" #50 rasp to trim the edges of the belly wood flush to the edges of the bamboo backing (Photo E). File inward from the bamboo at an angle nearly perpendicular to the edge of the stave, as shown in Figure 2. Hold the file level to create a surface that’s square to the face of the belly wood.

2 Scribe a pair of lines down the bamboo backing, insetting each line about 1⁄8" from the stave edge. Scribe another line down each edge of the stave’s belly wood, again insetting it about 1⁄8" from the same corner, as shown in Photo F and Figure 3. These lines define the chamfer you’ll cut next.

3 Use a #50 rasp to file a chamfer on the edges of the backing, working to your scribe lines, as shown in Photo G.

4 Mark out and file chamfer lines on the stave belly in the same manner. 

5 Use a straightedge to mark a centerline along the length of the belly. Then file symmetrical bevels from the centerline out to the previously cut chamfer edge, as shown in Photo H and Figure 3. Don’t file away the centerline itself. When filing the wide bevel on the belly, don’t overwork the shape at the ends of the riser in an effort to remove all the glue. It’s better to leave it for now than to risk overcutting those sections.

Use your fingers as a marking gauge to scribe lines that define the chamfer to be cut. 

File downward against the backing to shape the chamfers to the scribed lines.

Use a #50 rasp to bevel the belly and riser out to the edge of the previously cut chamfer.

Tillering A Stave

Tillering is the process of sighting stave limbs for consistent curvature and then carefully removing material from the belly to correct bulges, flat spots, or excessive tension. To “floor tiller” a stave, hold it at the handle with the backing toward you, brace the lower limb against your instep, and push the upper limb away from you. Sight down the lower limb to check for any bulges or flat spots on the belly or hinged areas where the limb angles slightly instead of curving smoothly. Mark any hinged area with an X, and then remove material from the rest of the limb belly while maintaining a consistent overall taper. Continue to tiller the stave to make sure the curvature was corrected. If the curvature of the stave is consistent, but it won’t bend enough to accept the string, remove material evenly from both limbs until the flex is correct. Keep in mind that removing less material makes for a stronger bow, but you’ll need to remove enough to allow the bow to flex properly.

File the string nocks at an angle extending between two layout lines.

Fine-tune the shape

1 Tiller the stave as described in the sidebar at left to check for consistent curvature and to make any necessary corrections. 

2 Lay out the string nocks. Measuring from the end of each limb, make a mark at 1" and 11⁄2", as shown in Figure 1. Then use a round 3⁄16" chainsaw file to cut the nocks by filing at an angle between the lines (Photo I). Aim to leave about 1⁄8" of wood between the completed nocks.

3 Slip one end of the string onto the lower limb, letting it ride past the nocks enough to allow the opposite end to slide over the upper limb. Then locate the string in the lower nocks and bend the stave in the floor tillering position while sliding the upper string loop into its nocks, as shown in Photo J. (Expect this to take some serious effort.)

4 It’s likely that the stave needs removal of more material before it will accept the string. To mark out more wood for removal while maintaining a consistent taper, mark the edges of the belly with a pencil, as shown in Photo K.

5 Using the #50 rasp, remove wood from the belly in equal amounts from both sides of each limb. Continue to tiller the stave until the string slips on. When it does, check the limbs for equal curvature by measuring from the string to the limbs at various points, making sure they’re equidistant. If they’re not, continue to remove more material from the stave belly until the limbs are symmetrical in curvature.

To string the stave, hold it in the tillering position and slip the upper string loop into its nocks while pulling the handle toward you.

To mark wood for removal, use your fingers as a marking gauge, running them along the stave belly.

Finish up

1 Starting 6" from each limb tip, remove the ridge from the center of the belly’s entire length, filing away about 1⁄8" of material with the #50 rasp.

2 File the belly with a smooth-cut wood file to feather together any flats and create a subtly rounded surface, and then smooth the entire surface of the belly using a scraper or finely set spokeshave. Finish smoothing by sanding the entire stave, backing and all, with 180-grit sandpaper.

3 Apply the finish of your choice. I often use dyes to color a bow, but you can leave it natural if you like. However I recommend applying about four coats of a wiping varnish.

4 String the stave. Happy shooting! 

About Our Author

Tom Turgeon has been making bows for over 20 years. He teaches bow-making skills to students around the country, many of them in classes offered by Woodcraft stores. You can find more information about his work and classes at


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