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Some time ago I wrote an in-depth build-along entitled the “Beginner’s Guide to Building a Hickory Longbow.” Well, in researching how to build a selfbow it is impossible not to hear about Eric Krewson’s tillering gizmo. As such, I felt it would be natural for me to reach out to Eric and see if he’d be okay with me sharing some of his secrets. Not only was he happy to share the information, he generously sent me a tillering gizmo as well.
This information has been republished with the permission of Mr. Eric Krewson.
By Eric Krewson
Since I made my initial tillering gizmo there has been an input of ideas to make it work better from other bow makers. Consequently, it has evolved into a differently made tool than my original design.
Here is how to make the latest version. I use a drill press, bandsaw, and belt sander (because I have them). This tool can be made out of any scrap wood, holes drilled by hand, out of square and work just fine.
I cut a large downed cedar looking for a bow stave. I may or may not have found a stave, but I definitely found a bunch of beautifully grained gizmo material.
I start by cutting a piece of wood 1″ square and 6″ long. You can make the gizmo longer if you want to, but I have tried a bunch of lengths and always come back to 6″.
A little sanding to get rid of the saw marks.
Mark the center of the block lengthwise and center.
Drill a 5/16″ hole on the center mark.
Use a 1/2″ Forstner bit to cut a 1/2′ deep hole over the 5/16′ hole you just cut. The Forstner bit cuts a clean hole, but any 1/2″ bit will work just fine.
Next, mark the ends of the block with a 45-degree angle to shorten side opposite the pencil of the gizmo. This allows one to run the gizmo closer to the tips while tillering.
Here is and update for a slimmer shape for your gizmo that will go further up the limbs without string interference.
I tap a 5/16″ nut into the 1/2″ hole and seat it all the way down with a piece of dowel.
Screw a pencil into the nut(I put the pencil in a vise and screw the gizmo on it) and you are ready to tiller. I sand the pencil a little after I cut thread on it so it will screw in and out easily. It only took me 10 minutes to make this tool, start to finish.
With a little Tru-Oil this will be a beautiful little tool, it has a wonderful grain pattern.
USING THE TILLERING GIZMO
After floor tillering your bow, bend the bow slightly on your tillering tree or tillering stick using the long string. Retract the pencil in the Gizmo and run the wood block up the bow’s belly and find the widest gap. Screw the pencil in the block to a point it is almost touching the bow’s belly at the point where you found the widest gap. I change the angle the pencil has been sharpened to a very short angle and sand the tip of the pencil flat for the best results in marking the limb. This lets you work very slight bends.
Initially, I set my gizmo pencil about 1/8” off the limb for the first few corrections. This course setting will mark only the stiffest spots. If you set the pencil too closely for your first few passes it will mark the whole limb.
Run the Gizmo up the belly making sure it is centered on the limb. The pencil will mark non-bending areas, which need wood removed. Always check the entire limb with the gizmo every time you use it and scrape wood from all the stiff spots at the same time, not one stiff spot at a time. Start on the long string, continue at brace and up to about 20” of draw. You do need to have a way to hold your bow string while you mark the limbs with the Gizmo.
I often set my gizmo for one limb and use this setting on the opposite limb as well. This way you will end up with two closely matched limbs.
I have holes in my tillering tree and insert a 3” piece of dowel in one of the holes to hold the string with the limbs slightly bent while I mark the limbs with the gizmo.
Go slowly, no more than ten scrapes on the marked areas of the limb, flex the limb 30 times and recheck. I have found it usually takes five or more check, scrape and check sessions to get a stiff spot moving, so be patient. You can get the limb bending perfectly this way. You will still have to eyeball bending in the fades, but the rest of the limb will be perfectly tillered. Hinges will be a thing of the past.
Make a few passes with the gizmo on your limb and the areas that need attention will be perfectly obvious. You can fine tune the tillering by closing the gap between the pencil and limb to almost nothing. At this point, I like to use a cheap orbital sander to remove both wood and any tool marks that are left. With course sand paper, the sander will leave tiny swirls in the wood so I like 220 grit for my final tillering work with the sander and follow with a light hand sanding.
The gizmo doesn’t work in the fade out area of the riser so you will have to eyeball the bend in this area or put a flat board across the back of the bow in your tillering tree and watch the gap between the back of the bow and the board to see where the limb is bending.
Tillering that once took me hours to get close takes me about 45 minutes with the Gizmo and the end result is close to perfect.
The key thing to remember for proper tillering is using a scraper or sandpaper and work slowly, only scrape off your pencil marks, flex the bow and recheck. I often make a zig-zag pencil mark from one side of the limb to the other over the gizmo’s pencil mark to make sure I remove equally from one edge of the limb to the other.
If you ever get the urge to grab a course rasp or use a belt sander to speed things up even more, take a coffee break and come back when these thoughts have passed.
What about using this with character bows, especially yew that has rollercoasters rather than snakes?
The gizmo won’t work with a stave with a lot roller coaster (a limb with a lot of dips and humps). I almost always take the roller coaster out of my osage before I start a bow, because it is such a pain to tiller. If the roller coaster is only in one place in the limb I eyeball that section and use the gizmo on the rest.
Eric, are you sanding down the nut side once things are finished so it’s sitting flush? or is it still recessed in the finished gizmo?
I drill the big hole deep enough to tap the nut about 1/4″ below the surface of the wood. I drilled a shallower hole on the earlier version and sanded the wood and nut flush but often lost too many threads of the nut in the process. The new version with the recessed nut works much better.
There is something enchanting about the idea of crafting something from scratch with one’s own hands – looking at a piece of dead wood and seeing something more and then breathing life into it again in the shape of a bow.
Hundreds of thousands of people have made their own bow from wood, and they all started somewhere. Whether you’re looking for a deeper connection to the sport of archery, trying to find your roots in hunting or you’re looking for your next challenge in woodworking; today, you can start here.
This build-along shows you how to craft a laminated flat-board longbow.
For this build-along we will be aiming at constructing a 45# at 28” hickory longbow.
Pro-Tip: Don’t be upset if your bow ends up pulling #20 at 28” – it happens more than you’d think. Being a bowyer takes practice and patience.
For this build-along we’ll be making a hickory longbow; although you might be more interested in making a recurve bow, that’s not a great place for a beginner to start. Hickory is not the only bow wood you can use; in fact you will find countless videos and tutorials online showing you how to make a self-bow from red oak, a cheap, brittle wood that is easy to come by and easy to break. However, hickory is, perhaps, the best wood for a beginner to start with because it can handle compression and tension better than red oak. Further, hickory has very good performance and speed and it will be a little easier for a beginner to tiller because the wood is a little softer than red oak.
Pro-Tip: Hickory is also great because it can be backed by its own wood. You can take a 1/8” strip of lumber off with a table saw and flip it end for end and reverse it, then glue this piece back on and you are good to go.
There are no specific schematics or a plan to print, but I’ll try my best to provide as detailed instructions as possible. However, you can learn more from our books and DVDs.
Making the Rough out Marks
Every piece of wood is different – for that reason, every bow is different, so there is no perfect guide or set of measurements, but hopefully these will help you along.
Find the middle of your bow stave (i.e. 36” would be the middle of a 72” bow).
Mark the middle.
Mark 6” on either side of the middle – this will eventually become your handle.
Mark 1” on the limb side of your 6” marks – these lines indicate where you will start your taper.
To mark the center of your bow, measure up 3/4″ from the edge of the bow and put another mark perpendicularly on your middle mark. Now, you should have a + in the middle of your bow.
Take a string that is longer than your bow and run it across your bow. Attach a weight on either end; you might find it easiest to use squeeze claps.
Move either end of the string on the tips of the bow until the string is resting as close to the middle of the ends of the bow as you possibly can, while ensuring the string is running straight through the center + of the bow.
Make a mark on either end of the bow directly under the string. Connect the marks on each tip, running through the center + on your bow.
At either tip of the bow, mark 1/4″ on both sides of your center mark.
Connect each mark to their corresponding 1” mark.
This should make a taper from your handle to the end of your bow.
Next, starting from your 1” mark, draw a line to 3/8” above the tip of the bow (this will shape the belly of your bow).
Let’s Get Cutting
Wear safety glasses while cutting
Never touch the blade while it is moving
Although a band saw is the best tool for the job, there are a number of hand tools that will also work such as your draw knife.
Congratulations, you have the belly and the sides roughed out.
Rounding Out the Rough Edges
Make a mark on the side of both tips 1/4″ above the back of the bow.
Draw a line connecting the points.
Using your rasp, round out the edge of the belly of your bow.
Pro-Tip: You may want to clamp down the bow, so you can use both hands during this process.
You will want to round the edges from the belly to the 1/4″ line that you drew earlier.
The goal is to make your bow go from the top image to the bottom image (looking down the bow).
OPTIONAL – Attaching the Riser
Although your hickory bow doesn’t necessarily need a riser, it can still be desirable to have. The riser (your handle) acts as a stop for each limb, which stops the flex from traveling through the middle of your bow. It is that travel, which will sometimes cause the phenomenon of a riser popping off of the bow. This is why there is a 1” buffer on either side of the riser and this is also why you add the riser before you start the tillering process. If you start the tiller before you add the riser the wood will “remember” flexing through the handle, which could cause your riser to pop off.
Make a mark indicating the middle of your bow on the side of your handle.
Make a mark on the side of your riser indicating the middle of the riser.
Align the two marks.
Glue your riser to the handle (on the belly side) of your bow.
Be sure to use plenty of wood glue (I recommend using EA-40 because it has more longevity than regular wood glue) – making sure to glue both surfaces, this will ensure you don’t have any dry surfaces.
Pro-Tip: You might want to put a piece of wax paper under your work area to avoid making a big mess.
Clamp the riser down with c-clamps.
Pro-Tip: Put a cloth or another piece of scrap wood between the back of your bow and the c-clamp to avoid scarring the wood.
Glue will ooze out everywhere, but that’s why we put wax paper down. This whole process can prove to be a little bit tricky, as the riser will try and move while you’re attempting to clamp it down. This will lead to a kind of twist-and-correct action on your part, but it’s not impossible.
Pro-Tip: This would be a great time for a second pair of hands.
After gluing on your riser, take the phenolic tip overlays (you also have the option of using wood of differing thicknesses, and using different species of wood to give your bow a nicer look) and epoxy them to the tips (making sure to apply epoxy to both surfaces) – on the back of your bow.
Pro-Tip: For a more traditional look, you can always use horn nocks.
Just like the riser, clamp down the tips with c-clamps.
After you’ve glued and clamped everything down it’s time to walk away.
After you’ve waited for at least 24 hours, remove the clamps and prepare to remove the excess wood on the riser and at the tips of the bow.
Be sure to avoid cutting into the belly of the bow when cutting the riser
Mark roughly 2-1/2″ back on either end of your riser.
On the side of your riser, from the mark you just made draw a line in a crescent shape to the belly of the bow.
Remove the marked section, blending the riser into the limb of your bow.
You can use a band saw to remove this section, but it would be safer to use a rasp file.
Pro-Tip: If you’re going to use a file, clamp the bow down. By clamping the bow, you will be able to use both hands to remove excess wood.
We’re going to leave the sides of the riser squared off for now, so it will sit flat in the tillering stick later.
Backing the Bow
Although there are a number of different materials that can be used to back a bow, for our purposes, we will be backing the bow with hickory and EA-40.
Although there are many materials you can choose to back your self-bow (such as fiberglass, snake skin, bamboo, rawhide, sinew, and even cotton) for this bow hickory will give you the most longevity and protection from breaking.
Pro-Tip: You might be thinking that you don’t need to back your bow, and you might be right, but you’re probably wrong. Think of a toothpick. What happens when you bend a toothpick? One side, the back, will splinter and break. Your bow is like a giant toothpick, the backing will help to prevent your bow from splintering and cracking, which is why you back your bow before you tiller your bow.
Again, it might be a good idea to put some wax paper down to keep your workspace clean.
After 24 hours, gently sand the hickory to knock off any burrs or excess Smooth-On EA-40 Bow Glue.
Use your draw knife or a band saw to remove any excess hickory that might be hanging off the sides of your bow.
Be sure not to cut your bow, just the excess backing.
Use sandpaper to smooth out the sides of the bow.
Adding the Rough Nocks
Draw a line 1” from the tip – making the bow 70” from nock to nock.
Using your file, cut a notch where the line is marked on the back of the bow (where you glued the tip overlay earlier).
Next, using your file cut another notch on the side of the bow at about a 45 degree angle.
Work the file so that you don’t have any sharp edges and that both sides match each other.
Don’t cut the nock so deep that you can’t make adjustments later, but be sure to cut it deep enough that it will hold onto the string securely.
Time to Tiller the Bow
Successfully tillering a bow takes time and is difficult to teach, even in person, so there is only so much that you can learn from reading without just going and doing it. That said, be prepared to break a few bows.
Pro-tip: Never pull the bow past your desired weight. This means that if, after you first string the bow, you pull 45# at the first notch on the tiller stick then you need to stop and achieve a good tiller. After you’ve gotten a good tiller, repeat the process, if you are still pulling to the same notch, then cautiously remove some more material from the bow. Once you can successfully pull the bow to another notch at 45#, re-tiller the bow. Continue this process until you’ve achieved your ideal draw length.
The tillering stick allows you to draw the bow to different lengths, stand back and examine the limbs to see how you need to work the bow.
Pro-tip: Your tillering rope needs to be long enough that you can put it on the bow and still have plenty of slack.
Pro-tip: If you don’t have a bow scale (and if you’re following along with this build-along, I’m guessing you don’t) it’s a smart idea to put a bathroom scale under your tillering stick. This way, when you pull down on the string you can see what poundage the bow is pulling. Just remember to either zero out your scale with the tillering stick on it, or subtract the weight of the tillering stick from the weight you’re pulling to get the actual weight of the draw.
You’ll start the tillering process by pulling down just a few inches
Pro-Tip: It would be a good idea for you to make one of Eric Krewson’s tillering gizmos, which really takes a lot of the guess work out of the tillering process (this is a great tool for beginners, I can’t overstate this) – you can use this tool at brace or on the tillering stick.
Longbows generally are never braced lower than six inches and many modern longbows like to be braced at or around seven inches. Your brace height is the distance between the string and the belly of the bow. Brace height is determined from the deepest portion of the grip. However, you can measure your brace height from whatever point on the bow you wish, back to the string. Some folks measure from the middle of the sight window, some from the belly side of the arrow shelf, and some from the deepest portion of the grip. If you’re discussing brace height with someone, make sure you’re both on the same page. Regardless of where you measure from, brace height is a critical measurement for tuning your longbow or recurve. For measuring brace height, nothing beats a T-Square.
Some things to remember when tillering:
When tillering, you will want to avoid the hinges and remove wood from stiff areas, so the bow bends equally
Whenever you remove wood from one place on a limb remember to blend it with the rest of the limb
After you’ve worked one limb be sure to equally work the entire other limb, so that both limbs are even
More flaws will show up the farther you bend the bow, so if you pull the bow and see a flaw, stop and fix it
Your standard tiller process will look something like this:
Brace the bow on the tillering stick; you should not go to full brace starting off, keep it low, 2-3”
Exercise the limb 30-50 times by pulling the bow to where it is currently braced and then relaxing it
Place the string on the desired notch and level the bow
Step back and evaluate the limbs for areas that need to be worked
Mark the area that needs to be worked with a pencil and unbrace the bow
Bring the bow to your work area and clamp it down
Use a block sander or a scrapper to remove stock from the wood
Remember to remove only a little wood at a time, as even removing a small amount can make a big difference
Repeat until you have your desired tiller
Whenever you remove any wood from the belly, you should exercise the limbs at least 30-50 times
Pro-tip: Count your strokes and mirror the number on the other side – especially when you’re simply reducing the weight of the bow and not fixing any flaws.
Pro-tip: At times, you might want to flip your bow around. This will help give you a fresh perspective on the project.
Remember, we’re shooting for a 45# at 28” bow, which means you should never pull the bow beyond that 45# threshold – you don’t want to put unnecessary stress on the bow.
You should set several milestones for yourself during the tillering process. Remembering that tillering is more of an art than an exact science, the first of those milestones should be something like 30# at 20.”
When you first string the bow with your tiller rope you will have a lot of excess. Pull down on that excess and see how far down it is when the limbs just start to bend. What ever the distance and weight, double it and that will be your first target milestone.
By taking a slower, more conservative approach to the tillering process you’re giving your bow the best chance of avoiding a break.
After you reach your first milestone you will want to string your bow at half-brace.
Now, you will want to pull the bow to 30# again and check how far you’re pulling , since you’re half braced you can expect it to be less than 20.”
At this point you might want to use a 2x4x4 (or, you could continue to use Eric Krewson’s tillering gizmo) and slide it along your bow to find stiff spots you couldn’t normally catch with the naked eye.
There will be a gap between the block and the curve of the bow. On a perfectly tillered bow, as you slide the block down the limb the gap will stay the same. If, however, the gap gets bigger and then smaller it means that you have found yourself a hinge. If the gap does the opposite, gets smaller and then bigger, you’ve found a flat spot.
At this point you will want to creep your way to about 40#, remembering to move one inch at a time and to take out any flaws as soon as you see them.
Don’t forget to exercise the limbs.
After you’ve achieved your second target, it’s time to move your bow to full brace.
At full brace check for flaws and correct them if necessary.
It’s also a good idea to check string alignment when you first enter full brace.
Again, moving slowly, one inch at a time, bring your bow to your desired weight and draw – for our purposes that would be 45# at 28.”
Pro-tip: You might want to leave the bow a little heavy (a pound or two) as the bow will weaken slightly as it breaks in.
After you’ve achieved your desired draw weight and length it’s time to check if you have a positive tiller. A positive tiller is when one limb bends more than the other limb. The limb that bends more is normally chosen to be the top limb.
To check for a positive tiller, measure from the end of the fade near where the riser and limb meet to the string on both sides.
If you’re top limb has a gap 1/8” bigger than the bottom limb, then you have a 1/8” positive tiller. Don’t feel bad if your positive tiller is closer to 1/4″ or even 1/2.”
Pro-tip: A positive tiller is not a requirement though, a zero tiller is good too, just not a negative tiller.
Time to cut the arrow rest
Draw a line on the handle (belly side) in the center, both horizontally and vertically (you should end up with an +). Draw a line 1” up the bow from the center (vertical | ) mark (toward the top of your bow). Pro-Tip: You are not doing a cut-to center shelf, as this would be too much for a self-bow. It should be at least 1/8” away from the center of the bow. In fact, you could avoid cutting the shelf altogether and simply shoot off the knuckle.
Make a mark 1/4″ down from the horizontal (-) center line. Connect those points to make a box. The corner of that box indicates the inside corner of your arrow rest. Draw a slopped line from the corner of the box to the corner of the handle. Cut out the marked section. Pro-Tip: These images are for a right handed shooter; flip the images for a left handed shooter.
Currently your arrow rest should look something like this. You want to round off the arrow rest until it looks something like this. This will make it so the arrow will only rest in the middle of the ledge, which will cause less resistance and save some arrow fletchings.
You will also want to use your round file to round out the inside corner of your arrow rest; currently it should look like the top image, you want it to look like the bottom image.
You might want to round-out and blend-in the remainder of your arrow rest, but that is purely up to you.
Shaping the Handle
Using your rasp start shaping the handle to look more like a pistol grip.
Pro-Tip: An easy way to do this is to simply hold the bow and see what feels like it should be shaved off; making sure it fits your grip.
Make the grip asymmetrical – that is, both sides should mirror each other (this is purely optional, but it helps give it that nice pistol grip shape) .
You don’t want to take too much off while shaping the handle.
After you’ve gotten the handle to feel right in your hand, use some sandpaper to take off the rough edges.
Start with a 60 grit and move up to a 220 grit – this will make your grip a delight to hold.
Rounding out the Nocks
Use your rasp and sandpaper to shape the nock into an inverted teardrop shape.
This is where the tip overlays we added start to come in useful; if you added different woods, your tips will really pop.
By making the tips of your bow a bit smaller it will speed up the bow and will also reduce hand shock.
There is no exact science to shaping the nocks, but you will want to be sure to maintain your good string edge.
Try and look online to see what others did.
The final sanding will smooth out the whole bow and take out any tooling marks that might still be around. It takes out any squared edges that are still visible and makes the whole bow smooth.
Be sure to sand the full belly of the bow to ensure consistency.
Don’t remove wood from the bow – you want to avoid tillering the bow at this point.
People start at different grits at this stage, but the higher the better – a 220 grit is a good idea to start with, but sanding with a 100 grit and then moving to a 220 grit is okay too.
The higher grit you go, the smoother your bow will be – consider working your way up to a 400 or 600 grit.
Finishing the bow
Clean the dust off with mineral oil
You have the option of staining the bow at this point, the color and kind of stain you get is all personal preference. You also have the option of simply clear coating your bow.
Many people also choose to paint the back of their bow:
This process is simple and cheap
Lay out some wax paper
Use painter’s tape to cover the areas you don’t want painted, and spray paint the back of your bow whatever color you want
After the paint has dried remove the painter’s tape
After you’ve stained and painted your bow, you will want to coat it (at least the belly) in polyurethane.
After the stain is dry, clean your bow with mineral oil
Lay out some wax paper and spray coat your bow in the polyurethane.
Wait 24 hours, gently sand the bow with 220 grit sandpaper and coat again.
Pro-Tip: You don’t have to wait the full 24 hours, but it’s a good idea if you’re going to give it that final sanding.
The final sanding is optional, but it will knock off any burrs that might have gotten stuck in the first coat of polyurethane.
Apply at least one more coat of polyurethane (some choose to coat their bow as many as five times).
Sign the bow with your name, date, draw length and weight.
Pro-Tip: You might want to sign your bow before your final coat of polyurethane to protect your markings.