Monday, February 8, 2010

Baleen Braces for the Tuktut Nogait Bow

I posted some photos of the Tuktut Nogait reproduction bow on a forum dedicated to recreating ancient technology, called Palaeoplanet. The feedback there was very useful. One question was whether or not there were any splints or braces under the lashing on the bend in the limb. There wasn't, but there should have been, so I added some. They don't change the appearance of the bow, but they make a marked difference in performance.

The original bow was in two pieces with a splice in one limb, so I assumed that there would be lashing at that point, and possibly a brace piece, although no additional bow parts were found with the Tuktut Nogait bow. The bow is flat across the back and most of the limb has a curved belly, creating a D-shaped cross section, except at the knee in the limb, where the splice would be lashed onto the rest of the limb. At that point the limb has a rectangular cross section for about 4 inches, which is the area that I wrapped the lashings around. The same spot on the complete limb had a similar rectangular cross section, which seemed to mark the position of the tight lashing. I added the lashings thinking that it might help strengthen the limb, but also so that the bow would look more like I imagined the original would have looked.

However, from a bow making perspective, that is just adding useless weight to the limb for no reason. I dug a bit more and found some excellent analogs for the Tuktut Nogait bow in Karen McCullough's The Ruin Islanders. These bows are much earlier than I imagined the Tuktut Nogait bow to be, but they are such good matches in the shape of the limbs and nocks that it made me rethink the reproduction I was working on. The Ruin Island bows were found on Ellesmere Island, well above the tree line and a long way from Tuktut Nogait National Park, but there are many similarities. The Ruin Island bows made heavy use of baleen, in fact some of the smaller bows are entirely made from baleen. Others combined wood and baleen, using baleen as brace pieces on the back of the bow in the knees, which is exactly where the bow makers on Palaeoplanet suggested my bow might need reinforcement. If the braces on the Tuktut Nogait bow were originally baleen then differences in preservation might explain why they were not found along with the wood components, even though the wood part of the bow seems designed to fit them.

The baleen braces were quick and easy to make, I just cut ovals out of baleen using the scroll saw and sanded down the edges to a smooth taper around the edge. I boiled them and bent them into a slight curve that would fit the recurve of the bow and lashed them into place. Interestingly, the 71 feet of braided sinew that I've been using for the cable fit perfectly this time. Every other time that I've wrapped the cable I had 18-24 inches left over. I thought that the cord might be stretching when I wrapped it, but I measured it again this time and its still 71 feet long. I also weighed everything while it was apart.

Here are the specs:
  • Wood, yew (50"): 223 g
  • Braided sinew, (71'): 104 g
  • Baleen braces, (4 1/2"): 10 g x 2
  • Sinew bowstring, 2-ply, (49"): 12 g
  • Sealskin cable lashing on grip (18"): 3 g
  • Total Weight: 362 g
I lashed the baleen in place as firmly as I could and restrung the cable very tightly. The bow has settled back into its usual shape, but at first it was almost braced backwards from the tension in the cable. I haven't been able to shoot it yet, because the snow around here is too deep right now and I'd lose the arrows, but I like how it feels with the braces and tighter cable. The knees of the limbs no longer feel like the weakest point in the limb, they feel like the strongest. The draw weight of the bow also shot up. It now draws about 34 pounds at 24" without any twists in the cable - which was the draw weight of the bow without braces after 3 cable twists (the lines overlap in the graph below). Now, with two twists in the cable, it has a draw weight of 36 pounds at 24", shown on the graph in orange, which is the highest I've seen yet.

I can't wait for some of this snow to go and try shooting it. Although to be honest, its still tough to draw to 24 inches without the string popping off the nocks. The next time I take the cable off, I'll probably steam and bend the recurves a little more and see if that helps change the string angle a bit.

The Ruin Island bows seem to have had identical nocks to the Tuktut Nogait bow and the angle of the recurve in the complete bows looks to be quite extreme. Incidentally, the house features where the majority of the Ruin Island bows were found were radiocarbon dated between 580 and 1120 years old. These bows have much more in common with the Tuktut Nogait bow than any of the ethnographic bows that I've seen from the area and make me wonder if the Tuktut Nogait bow isn't older than expected.

Photo Credits:
1-4, 7-10: Tim Rast
5,6,11: From The Ruin Islanders by Karen McCullough

Photo Captions:
First: lashing in a baleen brace
Second: Tuktut Nogait bow drawn to 22" with baleen braces in place
Third: Braced bow showing the lashed in baleen
Fourth: Braced bow with baleen in place
Fifth: Ruin Island phase bows
Sixth: Ruin Island baleen brace pieces (middle row and bottom), sinew twisters (top)
Seventh: Baleen braces for the Tuktut Nogait bow
Eighth: The braces in place
Ninth: Tying down the cable - that's tight!
Tenth: Graph of draw weights of the Tuktut Nogait bow with various settings
Eleventh: Ruin Island Phase bow limb fragments


    1. The brace suggestion from Paleoplanet sent our bowyer into a brace-making frenzy late Friday evening. Reference books, baleen and sinew were flying. A great break-through in the learning process. It was really cool identifying the baleen braces in The Ruin Island book, too. Love when a bow comes together. Great job!

    2. I cannot find images of a traditional Inupiat Baleen Bow, or its construction - can you find any>? Daniel

    3. Great website by the way! Thank you- I am thinking about building a traditional bow from baleen - I am thinking about layering several pieces together - and lashing them together with caribou sinew...

    4. Hey this is great. Sorry for not have noticed it earlier.
      I´m very interested in these Inuit bows, since I' ve done my super- fast "Inuit- style" osage bow: and here:
      Still thinking about the speed and this design.
      I'll link this post on my blog, thanks a lot for sharing this.

      1. Thanks Michael - I'm glad you found it interesting. I still have this bow and will have to restring the cable soon. There's a break in the braided cable. I'm thinking about trying some slight changes to try to strengthen it again. Currently, I use the braided sinew cable to wrap the baleen braces, but I may swap that out for sealskin rawhide, which would have been used in some instances to hold the bow together under the cable backing. I'm not sure where in the length of the braided sinew the break is, but I'm hoping that I might be able to get away with a shorter sinew cable if I replace some of it with the rawhide.


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