I'm finally getting back to the Tuktut Nogait bow that I started over the summer. The Parks reproduction was finished, antiqued and sent off last fall, but the functional copy that I am building for myself got pushed to the sidelines as deadlines started looming. The bow is cable backed, which means that it has a cord of braided sinew running end to end and lashed around the wood. The cable backing increases the power and durability of the bow and the lashing allows bows to be scarfed and spliced together out of shorter fragments of wood, antler, horn, or baleen. I don't know exactly how much cord I'll need, but I've read 70 feet or more.
The sinew I'm using comes from some moose leg tendons that I collected a couple years ago while working on a pair of moose bone daggers. At the time I was most interested in the bones, but I set the tendons aside and let them air dry. Within a few weeks they were stiff and after a couple years they were rock hard. If I had caribou or sea mammal sinew they would be my first choice for this project, because they can be found in Tuktut Nogait National Park, where the bow was found. Still, moose isn't that bad, the yew used in the original bow would have come from moose country and the moose bone daggers that these reproductions are based on came from just down the coast in the Mackenzie Delta.
To process the tendons I spent a couple hours pounding them on a wooden anvil, with a hammerstone. The hammering cracks through the outer sheath and softens the sinew inside. I suppose it would be a little like hammering apart the plastic tips of a shoelace to get to the string inside, but on a bigger scale. As the sheath is pounded it takes on a kind of waxed paper texture and can be pulled off the stringy sinew. As you pound the sinew it starts to separate into cords which you can begin to pull apart into threads of the thickness that you want. Sort of like those cheese string snacks. After a couple hours of work the tendons went from looking like crunchy dog treats to big stringy piles of tough white thread in convenient 18 inch lengths.
I'm not sure how far the sinew will get me, but I braided 20 feet of cord last night and I still have a big pile of sinew left. Maybe I'll have enough. I haven't braided this much sinew before and keeping the cord an even thickness is a bit tricky. Its a three strand braid, and at first I was trying to make each strand a single piece of sinew 1/3 of the thickness of the finished cord, but that didn't really give me an even strand. It got thinner and thicker as I went along. Right now I'm braiding with two or three thin threads of sinew in each strand and it seems to be a little easier to keep it a regular thickness. Plus there is much more overlap between the start and finish of each piece that gets braided in, which should make a stronger cable.
Hopefully, I can get the rest of the 70+ feet braided today. My hands and mouth are kind of sore from yesterdays work. To clean up the fuzzy bits on the sinew when you pull it apart into thread you can run the thread through your mouth to dampened it down. The corners of my mouth are a little raw from all that thread. I feel like the Joker.
Photo Credits:Tim Rast
First: Sinew Processing. Unprocessed moose sinew lying on the tarp. Hammerstone and wood anvil. The bigger pile on the wood anvil is the pounded sinew from an identical tendon and the smaller pile is that papery sheath that was pounded off.
Second: pounded moose sinew
Third: Side by side comparison, dried raw sinew on top, pounded sinew on the bottom
Fourth: Moose metapodial dagger reproductions.
Fifth: Pounding the sinew
Sixth: The sinew starts to pull apart
Seventh: 20 feet of braided sinew cord. only 50 more to go!