Archery the Old Way

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

degame tree comes only from Cuba.

Wilson points to the cut end of the Osage orange stave. The tree's history is here in crossection. Bark gives way to yellow sapwood that turns dark brown toward the heartwood's older growth rings. "About 10 rings per inch is ideal for bows. The wood should be seasoned to let moisture out for at least one or two years before making a bow. Some say 10 years." Rather than relying only on calendars, Wilson's hands help tell him when wood is ready. A seasoned stave is drier and warmer to the touch than a cool and clammy fresh one.

Next, he looks for a growth ring that will become the bow's back, which faces away from the archer when shooting. The sapwood is too weak, so he looks deeper into the heartwood. He spots his ring 13 layers down. Wilson sets the stave in a special bench-vise, picks up a draw knife and starts pulling off shavings.

Sapwood comes off quietly. But heartwood is harder and rasps as the knife travels across. This stave is fairly straight, which makes the job easier. But anywhere it may "snake," he will follow the path so that only the 13th layer is exposed. This work takes about 4 hours.

As he shaves off the annual rings, Wilson recalls one of his grade school teachers at Democrat Ridge School in Duke, Missouri. He claimed to be part Indian and liked that lore. He once showed us how to make a bow from an Osage orange tree that grew on the school grounds. Friday afternoons we'd read stories, such as Robin Hood.

Around that time, my best buddy and I got a book called Two Little Savages. The story was that a city boy stayed with his country cousin during the summer. These two found an old bachelor hermit, who taught them how to make bows, arrows and tepees. There were diagrams about making a bow that we tried out.

"I've been a hunter since I was 12," Wilson says. "Back then it was squirrels and rabbits. We often had them for supper. My parents had jobs, but we hunted to supplement our diet."

After demonstrating the drawknife's work, Wilson walks on softly crunching shavings to the table and starts the next phase. He picks up a second stave whose back he has already exposed. Otherwise, it still looks like the split log that it is.


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