How to Make a Bow and Arrow
A Guide by Archery Edge
As exciting as buying a new bow and arrow set can be, let’s be honest, nothing beats making your own bow and arrow from scratch.
In this in-depth guide, we’re going to take you through step by step and show you how to make a bow and arrow.
Bow Design, Build Quality & Building Techniques
Before we go into what tools and materials you may need, you first need to decide on the type of bow you would like to build. Will it be more of a basic primitive design and build? Or are you looking to make a bow that requires professional tools, time and thorough research?
Additionally, are you looking to make a bow and arrow for practical use? Or a bow that would be proudly displayed on your wall or mantlepiece?
These questions are of high importance, as the tools, techniques and build time will be completely different.
Tools & Accessories (basic bow design)
- Hand saw
- Whittling knife
- Hand ax
- Bark spud/peeling spud
- Tape measure
(Above is a general list and can change depending on the materials you have to hand)
Is There an Ideal Wood to use for your Bow?
In short, yes and no.
It all depends on the type, and length of bow you wish to build.
As an example, English Longbows were traditionally made from Yew wood.
Of course, your place of residence will also play a significant part. Not everyone has an abundance of different woodland to choose from. So, unless you’re willing to travel to forests further afield or order online.
Your choice of wood will be restricted to what kind of trees grow in your area. Which in turn will limit you in what type of bow you will be able to build.
Sourcing your Bow Wood
Many different types of wood can be used in the making of your bow, some of the most common are:
- Lemon tree
- Red Elm
- Black locust
For sourcing your bow wood, your local woodland or forest is best.
You will need a single piece, this should be roughly the same or slightly longer than your own height. Try to find a piece of wood that requires little to no cleaning up or pruning, thick in the middle with narrow ends as well as being free from any knots and twists.
Normally your wood would need a period of drying out, but if you’re itching to get started straight away, then try to find a piece of wood as dry as possible.
Green or fresh cut limbs can be used in emergency survival situations or even for first practice attempts, but we’d always recommend picking a tree limb that is mostly dried out.
As well as the above, finding a tree branch that already has a natural curvature will make the job so much easier.
In terms of flexibility, it should be flexible, but not overly so. The rigidity of the wood will give the bow its power base.
But too rigid in body, and your bow will be in danger of breaking. Too flexible, then your bow will have little resistance and power. This is a fine balancing act to get right.
Remember though, you won’t always be able to get it right. Especially if this is your first time building a bow and arrow. So don’t overthink it, or overly stress too much.
The Right Choice…
After searching long and hard in your chosen woodland, you may be lucky enough to find the ideal piece you need on the forest floor. If this is the case, then great! It should be dried out enough and no sawing or chopping will be needed.
More than likely though, a tree limb of the size and length needed will need to be taken from the tree itself.
Again, usually the tree limb will need to be dried out once cut away, but you may be lucky enough to find one with all the attributes needed.
When you think you’ve found the right piece of wood for your bow, it’s most likely time to get that hand saw or hand ax out.
Measure the trees limb to size with either a tape measure or a length of string. The length, as mentioned above will be roughly around your height or slightly above. Now cut the tree limb away from the tree, using one of the above tools.
Drying out of the tree limb will generally only need to be done if the limb was taken from a relatively young, green, living tree.
The average time for the drying out process would be roughly 2-4 weeks for a basic bow. For a more professionally made bow, the drying out process can take up to a year.
Of course, if you find a piece of wood that’s already dried out (not dead) you can skip this step altogether.
Cleaning & Debarking
Next, you need to clean your tree limb of any stems, stalks or leaves. Your whittling knife, chisel or bark spud/peeling spud tool should be ideal for this process.
Using one or more of the above tools, start to remove all the stems, stalks and leaves. This process is probably best achieved while resting the tree limb across one or both knees, gripping and turning with one hand whilst the other hand goes about the task of cleaning.
Once this process is complete, you now need to debark your tree limb. This is where your drawknife will be used. Take extra care in this process and always grip the drawknife with two hands using the handles provided.
Debarking is probably best achieved while you’re seated with the tree limb at an angle, with one point sticking into the ground and the other resting over your shoulder and pointing skywards.
With the drawknife safely gripped in two hands, place the bladed part onto the bark at a slight angle, and pull back towards yourself. The drawknife should now start to remove the bark. Continue this process along the entirety of the tree limb until all the bark is removed.
After the above processes have been completed, you should now be left with a naturally curved, debarked, smooth tree limb, free from most stems, leaves, and knobbly bits.
This is nowhere near the end product, but there should be a noticeable difference, where you can start to see your bow taking shape.
All wood has a natural curve, after cleaning and debarking your tree limb. It’s now time to find the natural curve of your tree limb.
Take one end of the debarked tree limb in one hand, whilst placing the opposite end on the ground. The tree limb should now be sticking up at an angle. In this position take your free hand and place roughly in the middle of the tree limb. Now gently push downwards, the woods natural curve should become more apparent. The back should be bowed outwards (towards the ground) with the belly facing upwards (towards you).
Measuring your Bow
Now the natural curve has been found, it’s time to start measuring the parts of your bow.
But first, let’s familiarize ourselves with the 3 main parts that make up the bow’s body:
- Upper limb
- Lower limb
That’s 3 parts that now need to be measured.
Traditionally, both the upper and lower limbs will be longer than the handhold.
As a general rule, the middle of the bow (the handhold) will normally measure 5-6 inches in length.
So if we take a 6ft bow as an example, the upper and lower limbs should roughly measure 2ft 9in, with the centre of the bow (the handhold) measuring 6 inches total.
Now you have your measurements, it’s time to mark them on the wood.
If you prefer not to use a pencil, then you can use a chisel to make a small indent into the wood if you wish.
Shaping your Bow
Now that you have most of your measurements, and you’ve marked them onto the wood, it’s now time to start shaping the bow.
There are various tools you can use in this process; A sharp whittling knife, drawknife, carpenter Adze and even sharpened flint to name a few.
When you’ve selected your tool, take up one end of the debarked tree limb with your free hand, then place the other end underfoot. Now you can start the shaping process.
The handhold should be wider than both the upper and lower limbs. As a general rule of thumb and while still learning, it’s probably best to keep the width of the handhold to 1½ inches and the upper and lower limbs to 1¼ inches with the very tips of the bow being carved around ½ inch.
This is one of the most important processes and will take both time, and patience. The goal here is to have the upper and lower limbs be identical to each other whilst also fitting the above measurements. The curvature, width, and thickness of both the upper and lower limbs should essentially be mirror images of one another.
So it’s important to keep on checking throughout the process, if one or the other is out, keep on shaping until you achieve the required results.
Starting to Take Shape
By this point, your bow should be taking shape nicely. For an added touch, use a very fine sandpaper and give it a very quick and light rub over to make it nice and smooth.
The next part of the process; Adding bow string notches, doesn’t require near as much work, but can be thought of as just as important as shaping the bow.
Again, multiple tools can be used but we would recommend a file, chisel or whittling knife for a more accurate, neat and tidy result.
To make the bowstring notches, measure downwards from the point of the upper bow limb about 1-2 inches, then using one of the tools above, carve one or more indents to the outside (edge) of the bow.
This is to be replicated on either side of the bow.
Now repeat the above process for the lower limb. The notches can now be smoothed using a file or sandpiper if required.
Tillering your Bow
Before we get on to stringing your bow, we first need to make sure if the structural integrity of the bow is acceptable to continue.
Floor tillering of the bow can be achieved by holding your bow stave upright from one end, whilst the other end is touching the floor.
Next, you will need to apply a downward pressure that will create a natural curvature in the bow. Now you can inspect your bow for any large cracks or defects.
If anything other than hairline cracks is detectable, you’ll most likely need to start a new bow from scratch.
Before we continue, you may wish to make 100% sure of your bows symmetry and evenness. To do this you will need to create something called a Tiller Tree.
To build a tillering tree, you’ll need a separate piece of wood that will need to be secured upright either to the wall, floor or both. A standard 2×4 is more than adequate for the job.
- Once secured upright, measure 5 inches down from the top, and then carve a notch or indent into the face of the wood.
- Below the first notch, measure down another 1 inch, and carve a second notch into the tiller tree.
- Repeat this process downwards until you have 30 notches, 1 inch in between each notch.
- Now string a loose-fitting parachute cord to your bow. Do this by tying the chord to the notches on the upper and lower limbs, just as you would with your final bowstring.
- After the cord has been strung to your bow, lay your bow on top of the tillering tree with the bowstring facing towards the ground.
- Then proceed to pull the bowstring downwards, placing it into the first notch. Stand back and inspect the bow, If any unevenness is detected, remove the bow from the tillering tree and shave away the excess wood where needed.
- Repeat this process for each notch, one after another until you reach the 28th notch.
When you’re happy with the bow shape, remove the bow from the tiller tree. Remove the parachute cord also, as this will not be your final bowstring.
Once the cord is removed, your bow is nearly ready to be strung with the bowstring of your choice.
Before you move onto the next step, this would be an ideal time to sand your bow. If you want the bow to have a professional look as well as an extended life, we can’t recommend this step enough.
A Bow Needs a String…
Now you’ve shaped your bow, the next part of the process will be deciding what string is best. There are various materials available, below are some of the more traditional and most commonly used:
(The above is not an exhaustive list and is more of a guide to give you some examples)
Cut to length
Your bowstring will first need to be cut to the correct length. Generally, this would be 4-5 inches shorter than your bows length either end.
After cutting your bowstring, string it to bow by looping the ends over and tying it to the notches on the upper and lower limbs.
The ideal bowstring will be taut when properly strung to your bow. If it’s overly loose or doesn’t leave a gap at least 5-7 inches from the handhold to the bowstring, then something is wrong and adjustments will need to be made.
If you wish to secure the bowstring some more, then resin can be applied to the string where it is tied to the notches. This way, more string can be wrapped around in a circular pattern.
Handholds, Material & Resin
Now that your bow has been strung, it’s time to start thinking about the material you’re going to use for your handhold.
Some obvious and common ones are leather, fur, linen, and cord.
Ideally, you will want something durable, long-lasting but also comfortable.
When you’ve chosen your material, it’s just a matter of wrapping the handle until you reach your required thickness. Obviously, you don’t want a handle that’s overly thick, but just as equally you don’t want an uncomfortably thin handle either.
Once the right thickness is achieved, cut away the remaining excess. Then begin the process of unraveling the material from the handle once again.
You now need to decide how you will secure the material to your bow. There’s a couple of options available. One requires nothing other than a needle and thread, the other requires finding tree resin or glue to act as an adhesive.
If you opt for cord, then the process is made even easier. All this requires is to be wrapped tightly around the handle using a looped knot. To add extra stability, resin or glue can also be used.
The Finished Bow
You should now have completed all the steps below, and hopefully, be looking at your finished bow.
- Deciding on the bow type
- Sourcing the wood
- Preparing the wood
- Debarking the wood
- Measuring the individual parts of the bow
- Finding the woods natural curve
- Shaping your bow
- Tillering your bow
- Treating your bow
- Choosing a bowstring
- Stringing your bow
- Choosing your handle materials
- Wrapping your handle
If you’ve followed the above steps, you should now have a working bow. But a bow is nothing without its arrows.
Below, we will take you through a short tutorial on how to source and make your own arrows from scratch.
Sourcing your Arrows
As with your bow, the best place to source wood for your arrows is your nearby woodland or forest.
Some of the most common types of tree wood used for arrow making are:
Again, the list above is just a general example of some of the most popular wood used for arrow making.
What type of wood you choose to make your arrows from, will also be based on the available materials to hand, as well as personal preference.
For your arrows, you want to look out for sticks and branches that are as straight as possible. That has few to no knots or twists, and will ideally be longer than 3ft.
Lengthwise, your finished arrow will be as half as long as your bow, but when sourcing the raw materials, a branch much longer than that will also be fine as long as it meets the other criteria, as it will still need to be cut to size, prepared, debarked and smoothed down.
Mistakes are likely to happen in the arrow making process, so try to collect as many raw materials as possible.
Again, just like when you sourced your bow. The wood for your arrows will need to be as dry as possible, but not so dry that they fall apart when shaping.
Tools for Arrow Making
Some of the tools needed for arrow making are very similar if not the same as the tools needed for bow making. We’ve listed some of them below:
- Whittling knife
- Hand saw
Making your Arrows
Now that you have all the materials to hand, it’s time to start making your arrows.
Cut your arrows to size
As mentioned previously, your arrows need to be half the size of your bow. So using the 6ft bow as an example, your arrows will need to be cut to 3ft in length using your hand saw or ax.
Preparing & debarking
Now you need to prepare the wood, this can first be done using a whittling knife or Adze. Cut away any stems, storks, leaves or knobbly bits.
Once this is done, use the drawknife to debark the wood. Be careful whilst using the drawknife, always use both hands and shave slowly upwards towards yourself. Be patient and take it slow.
Smoothing & rounding off
Once the above steps are completed, it’s now time to smooth and round off your arrow. Take your sandpaper and slowly rub the entire length of the arrow until it’s as smooth and even as possible. You may find that there’s still a slight curvature to the wood. This is to be expected when creating your arrows from scratch.
Staining & treating your Arrows
Your arrows should now be as even and as straight as possible along the whole length of the shaft. Which means the next step is treating and staining the wood for added longevity.
When applying any kind of stain or treatment, it’s probably best to use a cloth or sponge. Once fully applied, you can leave the arrow to dry.
Arrowheads, Arrow Fletchings & Nock
Making your own arrowheads and fletchings from scratch is no easy task, and for a basic bow design like the one above, it can probably be thought of as an optional extra.
So with bearing the above in mind, it’s probably best to keep your arrowhead as simple and easy as possible.
With your whittling knife in one hand, hold the body of the arrow in the other hand, then carefully shave and shape the front of the arrow to a sharpened point.
Optional: Harden the arrowhead even more, by means of – fire hardening.
- For safety, make a small boundary circle with rocks
- Stack coals in a pyramid shape within the center
- Use a mixture of wood, paper, brush, throughout the coal structure
- Light the fire, keeping safety always in mind
- Once the fire is lit and the coals are hot enough, let the fire slowly reduce in size until you’re left with only hot coals
- Now take your arrow by the base and put the sharpened tip into the hot coals
- The hardening process will be relatively quick, so keep checking throughout the process so as not to burn or scorch the wood
(The above fire hardening process can also be used to harden your bow if required)
As this is just a brief guide on how to make a basic bow and arrow set. We will leave going into any further detail about how to find, shape and attach your own arrowheads, as the task can be quite difficult to perfect for a beginner.
If however, you wish to proceed in making your own arrowheads, then we’ve listed some of the most commonly used materials below as to start you on your journey:
Once you’re happy with the end result, it’s now time to cut your nock into the base of the arrow.
The nock is used to hold the bowstring in place when you draw the bow.
Take your arrow by the base, and carve out a straight line through the center across the arrows circular circumference.
Depth wise, the nock should be slightly thicker than your bowstring.
Fletchings, when made and attached correctly can drastically improve your arrows flight and accuracy.
Some of the most commonly used materials for fletchings are:
- Animal fur
- Man-made materials
(The above is just a general list to give you some examples)
When attaching your fletchings (take feather fletchings as an example) there are two basic methods you can use.
- Carve 3 separate, evenly positioned slits/grooves to the base of your arrow. These should be carved just below the nock. Then apply an adhesive of your choice down the length of the slits, before sliding the feather fletchings into place. (Allow the fletchings to dry and set)
- Again carve 3 separate slits to the base of the arrow just below the nock. Slide the fletchings into place. Instead of using adhesive in this next part, another option is to secure the fletchings with the use of cord or string. Wrap the fletchings as tightly as possible without damaging the feathers themselves. Once you’re happy with the end result, you’re ready to go.
There you have it!
A clear, concise guide on how to make a bow and arrow.
We’ve covered everything from how to source your wood, to the tools needed, and also the building process and more.
We really hope you’ve enjoyed reading about how to make a bow and arrow, as much as we enjoyed writing about it!
Other than that, all that’s left to do now is get out there and start building!