From a Pacific Yew Tree to a Bow Stave
Harvesting the Yew
The last couple of weeks have been very busy in the shop dealing with a big pile of yew logs and getting them ready to dry and season safely.
There is a lot of discussion out there as how best to process logs into staves and I would like to take this opportunity to share my experience and findings.
I have found that the best and safest way to produce high quality staves for self bows is to start with green standing trees. The trees need to be felled and cut to length and ideally carried out of the bush gently to minimize damage to the bark and sapwood
Splitting Out a Stave
I have tried different ways of cutting up a whole log, but after all these years my preferred method is still good old fashioned splitting with a sledge and wedges, as follows.
That is how it is supposed to go, but often things don't go quite as planned and there are many things along the way that can affect the final product.
The first major issue we deal with when processing wood is twist. Pacific yew is very prone to twisting, it seems to just be a part of the species. Often you are able to see the twist in the tree while standing and they are wound up just like barber poles. Other times the twist is very gentle and you can just make it out in the bark pattern if you look closely. That would seem simple enough, but once you start splitting the logs up you can have ones that look twisted to split perfectly straight and you can have others that look straight to split spiraled. You never really do know until they are cracked open. We can still build bows out of twisted wood, but we need to spend more care and attention to untwist the bow during the build. I have found it best to try and limit the amount of twisted wood right from the get go.
The second major issue we commonly come across is drying checks. When wood dries it shrinks and as wood shrinks it can not shrink uniformly and so somewhere must crack and give to allow the shape to change. This is why we make sure to seal both ends of every stave we process. I have found that the flat surface of end grain is a very difficult surface for wood to maintain and it almost wants to check (fancy bowyers word for crack). I used to use wood glue to seal end grain, but now have switched to a wax based product. I have also found that any place on a stave where the bark has been knocked off is also sensitive to drying too quick and cracking, so I now seal any area of the sapwood where the bark is banged up
Another issue that we come across often is a ring separation. For some reason two years of the tree seem to have no adhesion between them and once split into staves they will separate no matter what we do. I don't know if it is from flood, drought, wind or what but this is a relatively common problem when working in yew staves.
This is not always a bad thing, depending on where the separation occurs we can sometimes get two "piggy back" staves. One backed with the outer sapwood and one all heartwood. I have made some really nice bows from these inner splits as the back of the bow is already down to one continuous growth ring. The problem is that we have no control over the thickness of the staves and sometimes they are too thin to produce heavy poundage bows.
Animal activities have proven to affect quite a number of the staves as well.
Lastly we need to talk about knots. Pacific yew is a knotty gnarly tree. The clean faces for staves seem to be the exception not the norm, and the percentage of trees which can actually yield useful staves is very low. It is quite common to have one side of the tree clean but the other side covered in large and small knots. We all know that bows can be made with knots in them, but we still try to keep the number of knots low. Even the nicest staves usually have a few pin knots here or there.
On to the Shop
After all that we are left with our collection of staves and now the bow making process really begins.
A few years ago I purchased a nice big bandsaw (Thanks Jenna!) and this really increased the number of staves I was able to produce. I still prefer to split my logs first to show the twist, but it now allows me to start slicing staves out of the big splits. Where as before it was too risky to split down any further, as I definitely didn't want to waste a good stave by getting greedy. I also prefer to saw the smaller logs as I found it risky to split logs smaller than 4 inches as the chance of the split running off the side was too great.
I hope this will shed some light on to some of what goes on before the staves arrive at the workshop, or at least help to appreciate the rarity and preciousness of a nice yew stave.
Last year we were contacted by the good folks at the Longbow Shop in England, Graham Higgs and Jason Powell about our business and the yew bows, after several back and forths we were very excited to name them as our UK distributor and have our bows on display and for sale in England. It felt like a big step for a small town Canadian bowyer.
As the 600 year anniversary came closer we began to connect the dots between the Yew bow making workshops and the importance of the longbow within Englands History. We hatched a plan to run two workshops in England and focus on building true self yew longbows on English soil, and after some research we learned that there is really nothing else quite like this going on there.
The Longbow shop just recently opened a new Archery Events centre within the same business district they currently operate from, so we had the ideal location to run the workshops. Next was packaging up 22 pacific yew staves and shipping them across the Atlantic, and the last piece to be sorted was an extra suitcase on the airplane stuffed full of bow making tools.
We ran two workshops each consisting of 4 days and 7 eager participants. Normally most of our workshops are 3 days long, but I added an extra day as were adding true horn caps to our longbows.
Started by meeting everyone and getting a good sense of the bow they were hoping to build. We talked about the tools we would be using and the safety involved. Once they all had their staves we started to draw out the bow profiles and then get to work with hatchets and spokeshaves to start removing some wood and getting the sticks to look like bows.
A very busy day all around of roughing out the bows to oversized dimensions and trying to get a bit of bend starting. We spent a good amount of time re measuring our dimension and making sure everything was feeling proportionate. Also starting to clean the bows up with rasps and spokeshaves. We also started to take a look at building the flemish twist string, as we would need strings and shooting strings for all of the bows.
This was the day that we focused on getting our horn caps fit and installed on the bows. I brought the pieces of water buffalo horn from Canada and they were all predrilled with a tapered drill bit. This is always a bit of a finicky process to make sure that we get a good fit with lots of contact area before we glue. After gluing the horns were cut down and string grooves cut into the horn. Then onto the tiller stick to get them bending to our draw length and weight
Again was very busy, we focused on getting all of the bows tillered out and shooting some arrows. We then decide which is the upper and lower limb based on the shape of the bend. Once happy that the bows are shooting nicely we set an arrow pass with powdered stone set in with glue. Then a few coats of oil.
The time at workshops always goes very quickly and this often gets discussed. It often feels like I just put my head down to draw a line on a bow and it's time for lunch. Before I knew it our time was up and we were done.
The workshops were a huge success and all the bows turned out lovely. The feedback from the participants was very appreciative and enthusiastic as is often the case, and it really felt like folks didn't want to leave at the end of our time. I take this as a real compliment.
The question was raised several times about when I would be coming back to do this again. Before the trip it felt like this might be something that we do every couple of years, but after feeling the excitement and interest in making yew bows in England we have decided to re book for next year and run two more courses next October. Once again hosted by the Longbow Shop. Registration is already open and I have heard that it is filling up already.