Wednesday, September 25, 2013

String of plaited deer skin

Two strands of rawhide twisted into a cord for a bow string.
The sheet of rangifer tarandus rawhide that the strips were
cut from is in the background
I've taken the Mountain Ash Beothuk bow reproductions as far as I'm comfortable going while the wood is still so green. I may continue to season them over a fire or I might set them aside for a few weeks and instead work on bows made from the fir staves that I collected a couple weeks ago.  The weather will partly decide this for me, as it looks like we might be in for a fairly long spell of rain, which will force me inside to work on the fir bows.  In the meantime, I'm twisting some rawhide bow strings.

Stretching the rawhide cordage,
one cord is done and the two
strands that I'm holding are
about to be twisted.
The rawhide cordage is fairly straightfoward to make.  I just cut thin strips of reindeer (caribou) rawhide a foot or so longer than I need and soak them in warm water before twisting two of these strips together into a tight strand.  I'll let it dry under tension.  I could have twisted together any number of strands, but two seemed to be about the right thickness for a bowstring.  My inspiration for the rawhide bow string is this statement  from George Wells as recorded in Howley's 1914 book, The Beothucks or Red Indians:

The string was of plaited (twisted)(?) deer skin. George Wells 1886

The bows are both tillered to a
22 inch draw.
I'm happy with the bows to date in all regards, except for their draw weight.  They look right; they are made in the correct style from the right kind of wood in the correct dimensions, but the green mountain ash is still very flexible.  I've tillered the bows to about a 22 inch draw, which is probably a little farther than I should have taken them while the wood is still so green.  At that draw they are in the 12-15 lb range.  This is very light.  The wood is so flexible that there is not much spring in the limbs, which makes the bows very weak.  

The bows took similar profiles, which was a little bit
accidental.  I made them both along the natural curve of  the
wood and they both happened to have an outward curve at
the midpoint.
The fire drying has had limited effect on hardening the wood so far, and, in fact, the humidity in the air seems to creep back into the wood during the nights.  As the bows continue to dry, the wood will harden and the draw weight should go up, but there could also be twisting and the limbs that draw evenly now, might stiffen unevenly, so I'll need to tiller the bows again when they are dried more.  If I've removed too much wood now, there won't be enough to work with later on.  I'm not certain that is going to be a problem yet, but its a possibility.

John Guy meeting  Beothuks.  Take the details of this
engraving with a grain of salt, the artist never saw the
Beothuk for himself, but the bows are not unlike
my reproductions, perhaps a little more recurved.
I'm of two minds on the reproductions at the moment.  On the one hand they are exactly what I need for the display that the client wants.  The bows look right and once they get their ochre covering, there will be no mistaking them for anything other than Beothuk bows.  And since they are relatively weak, I'm not too worried about them snapping or the string breaking or something else going wrong in the display case.  But on the other hand, I want to make something that will be a reasonable reflection of the actual power of a Beothuk bow.  We don't know the draw weight of Beothuk bows because none have survived, but I'd bet a nickel it was more than 15 pounds.  

This is not a crossbow.  One of the bows is in the tillering board with the string drawn to 22 inches.  The arrow is there to show what the full draw would look like at 32 inches.  I intend to get them to that point, but I want to dry the green wood more first.

I don't leave the bows strung for more
than a few minutes at a time.  I don't
want them to set in this bent position.
As a sort of benchmark, the current bow hunting regulations in Newfoundland and Labrador state that you can't use a long bow to hunt small game unless it has a draw weight of at least 22 lbs at full draw.  For big game the minimum draw weight allowed is 45 lbs.  Full draw on these bows should be around 30-32 inches to fit the yard long Beothuk arrows described in the 18th and 19th centuries.  If the wood dries hard without twisting and I can return to tillering, I think the bows will cross the small game threshold at full draw, but I'm skeptical that they'll pass the 45 lb mark.  

Photo Credits:
1-4, 6, 7: Tim Rast
5: Detail from a 17th Century engraving by Theodor de Bry.  You can read more about this engraving here: and here:


  1. Great Blog Post! We have been working with Hickory here in New York and sometimes Locust. We just got a road killed deer here so we might be doing some rawhide lacing too.... Love your photos and clear descriptions. Very inspiring!

    1. Thanks Ricardo. The ash is nice to work. I'd say the most difficult part so far was finding straight trees big enough to make a bow from. The wood itself works very nicely with hand tools.


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