To be able to begin making a selfbow one of the first things you must learn is to chase an annual ring for the back of the bow. It is of the utmost importance that the back of the bow must have a smooth surface of one annual ring to distribute the tension that drawing a bow can cause. One even piece of growth that can not separate and will hold the tension applied by the drawing of the bow. Any violation of that ring into the spring growth will cause it, in a sense, to delaminate and pull apart between layers of growth causing the bow to break. You must follow the summer growth of one annual ring and not violate it by cutting into the spring growth underneath. Failure to follow the annual ring is sure to cause a broken bow and a frustrated beginning bowyer.
The cause of most of the broken bows from ring violation can be summed up into one word, aside from inexperience. Knots! If you wish to make a bow that will throw an arrow and last for more than a week you must be wary of the knots. They are the most trouble you can find. They are hard to work around and you might spend as much time chasing the rings around the knots as the rest of the bow itself. As a beginner you will slide you draw knife down a summer ring and feel it crunch in the spring growth as it peels it up. You will eventually hit a knot. If you violate the knot, all the work you just did is for naught and we need to take it down to the next summer ring. Sound frustrating? It can be.
All of this can be avoided if you want to make a bow from a white wood, like hickory. You can cut your own wood as soon as the buds start in the spring or in late August to September. Once the wood is down, it would be cut into about 6′ length for bow staves and split out. The bark can be peeled right off the stave. The cambium layer of the tree is very wet and will separate easily from the smooth summer ring under it. This would expose the back of a new bow already finished. You will have no knots to mess with,. no rings to chase or mistakes to make on the back. This is real easy and saves lots of time on making a bow, but white wood is not what you are after, right? You have something drawing you to have to make a bow from an Osage stave. It must be all the rhetoric that surrounds this almost magical wood. Maybe it is the color or the knowledge that if Indians could get it they would trade for it or travel long distances to cut it. In any case, let’s spend some time talking about how to prepare this to make a great bow.
If you are working with Osage or Black Locust the stave must be dry. This is very important ,for if the wood is not dry and you expose the wet sapwood it will split along the back. Depending on the size of the stave it can destroy a small one. On a larger one it will make you work through many annual rings to repair the damage. If you do get into a hurry and debark a stave not yet dry, take it and apply two coats of white glue or varnish. This will prevent moisture from escaping from the back and causing the splitting. Sit the stave aside to properly dry and work on another that is dry.
Secure your stave in a vice or clamp it down with the bark up. Take a look at the stave from the side and the ends. We need to remove all the bark and the white sapwood without damaging or tearing into the first heartwood ring. While looking at the end you should pick a target ring to aim for as the back of your bow. This is part of the planning stage. Look at the stave and picture where the bow is in it. This will change some after the ring is chased, as you will try and work around knots and keep them out of the bow. Get a feel for where it is. You are the bowyer trying to set the bow free from all the waste wood surrounding it and keeping it from being a thing of beauty.
Now we know where we want the bow to be. Let’s get to work and remove that waste wood. A sharp draw knife works great here to tear the bark and most of the sapwood loose. As the sapwood is pealed up look for the knots. They will become visible as soon as the bark is off in the sapwood. Peel slowly around knots. If you try and peel one annual ring up as it goes over a knot it will tear wood up from the ring below on the other side of the knot. This is where it gets tough. I personally like to leave extra wood around the knots while working with the scraper and draw knife and come back and remove it later with a small pocket knife. The draw knife can be used for most of the work and all of it if it is a clean, clear stave. The draw knife works best for the heavy work removing most of the bulk wood. When you get down to with in one years growth of your target ring it is best to switch over to the scraper. Slow methodical scraping of a sharp scraper will work just perfect. Take it slow when the porous spring growth starts to show. If you use too much pressure when you get close you may tend to make a wash board surface on the stave and may require you to go down another annual ring if the rings are thin. By working careful and slowly you can work down the back to one annual ring without violating it.
The picture below show the end of an Osage stave that was cut off. The Dark rings are the summer growth and the light rings are the spring growth. Notice how the top is chased to one annual summer growth ring. It is not perfectly flat and it follows the ups and downs of the wood. A piece of white wood will look similar to this except the spring growth will be thin darker rings and the summer growth will be thick lighter colored rings.
It is as simple as that. Take it slow and be patient. A thing of beauty was never created in a hurry. Once you have finished the back, which is one of the hardest parts, you will only have tillering to work through. Now you can move on to designing your bow and drawing it with pencil on the back. Take this time and look at you stave and see where the beauty is within it.