Iowa boyer Kent Ostrem knows all about Robin Hood. But he'd rather talk about men such as Fred Bear, Howard Hill, Ben Pearson, and other renowned archers of the 1950s and 1960s. They were "traditional" bowmen who used fiberglass-backed longbows and recurves to hunt game worldwide. Their exploits were celebrated and greatly contributed to archery's growth into a popular pastime.
"Today, you'll find three types of archery: primitive, using all-wood selfbows like the American Indians did; traditional, with glass-backed, laminated-wood longbows and recurves; and mechanical, with compound bows," Kent explains. "Myself, I was a traditional archer before there was a name for it. I started bow hunting in 1968 with a Bear recurve that my dad bought me. In 1973 I finally shot a deer, and did it pretty consistently after that. About 1976, compound bows became popular. The first one I saw was in Mechanics Illustrated, which was where it belonged with all its pullies and other components! I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I ever saw. It could never catch on."
Young Kent made a wrong call back then. Compound bows became the rage, mainly because their system of pullies enables an archer to draw the bow with some 60% less effort than a traditional bow. But with some, a romance with longbows and recurves lingered. "Today, there's an anti-high-tech attitude. People want to get back to the basics," Kent observes. "Yet, many don't want to get quite as basic as primitive archery. That's where I come in. I fill the niche with custom-made, traditional bows."
The birth of a bowyer
Kent's one-man bow-making business thrives from his Oskaloosa, Iowa, home. His fiberglass-backed longbows and recurves find their way around the world. But it took a lot of new skills and bad bows to reach the high level of customer satisfaction his Mahaska Custom Bows have attained. (Mahaska is the name of an Ioway Indian chief of the mid-1800s.)
"I started making traditional bows in the late eighties as a hobby," says Kent as he examines the wood-and-fiberglass laminations for a new bow. "A friend and I ordered bow kits. But as I read the instructions, the methods seemed like they weren't effective. So I began doing some reading and built it following my intuition. After that first one, I got so hooked that my friends started calling me the 'Bow of the Month Club.' I spent all my spare time making bows to sell.
"Finally, in 1992, I thought I had enough business to do it full time," he continues. "Luckily, my decision tied in with the resurgence in traditional archery. It's still a relatively small market, but there's enough to make a living. And I'm not building real elaborate bows. I make quality custom bows and keep the price reasonable. My most expensive bow would be the premier recurve at $420. My longbows are relatively basic, but good looking, and cost around $300. Yet, if somebody wanted a $600 to $700 bow, I'll build it!"
The first three years, Kent was traveling to traditional archery meets all across the nation to show his bows and take orders. "Now that I'm fairly well established, I depend on word of mouth, advertisements in archery magazines, and just a couple of traditional shoots [meets] a year," he says, almost sighing in relief. "I've also developed pockets of customers around the country—I sell a bow to one archer and others see it and order theirs. And I operate another business arranging and guiding bow hunts that keeps me busy in the spring and fall."
The woods behind the 'glass
Kent made his first bow from a kit because the bowyer he called for a custom bow didn't work in the woods he wanted. Due to that experience, he now offers his bows in a wide range of woods for risers and limb-core laminations (see the anatomy of a longbow drawing, below, and "The bowyer's top woods," at the end of this story)
"For limb cores, I primarily use red elm—it's the most popular—Osage orange, cherry, walnut, and, as an accent lamination, sugar maple," Kent comments. "There are so many native woods that I could use because it's a matter of fact, you could probably make a 'glass-backed bow out of a pine block.
"You see, unlike a self-bow made from one piece of wood, in a laminated bow it's the fiberglass backing that's doing the work. The wood in the core people pick for its appearance. For instance, there's hackberry— real pretty stuff. I'd use that for a bow up to around 50-pounds pull. And even catalpa, though it's weak, doesn't easily split and looks great. But I'd only recommend it for a low-poundage kid's bow."
For bow handles, called risers among bowyers, he needs strong wood because that section bears the brunt of the pull when the bow is drawn. And he frequently turns to exotics, such as shedua, zebrawood, and bubinga. "There are a lot of people in traditional archery who really know their woods, and when they call to order a bow, they want something specific," notes Kent.
Tips on laying up a bow
Building a bow requires precise alignment for complete adhesion of its fiberglass and wood laminations, plus the riser. Otherwise—at the least— the bow won't shoot straight. At the very worst, it could break when strung and drawn.
"Most of my longbows are 'three-lam,' that is, two laminations of the same limb-core wood with an accent lamination sandwiched between," explains Kent. "Then, there's a one-piece fiberglass lamination over the wood on the back and a two-piece one on the belly above and below the riser." Extra-long longbows get four laminations and recurve bows two.
Kent buys and uses sanded and tapered wood laminations that are thicker at the butt end near the handle and taper at a rate of .002" per inch to the tip. The fiberglass doesn't taper.
Taper in the limbs gives a bow a bullwhip effect that snaps taut the bowstring with great efficiency. Some bowyers like taper; others don't. And some combine parallel (untapered) and tapered laminations.
To lay up and glue the laminations requires a reusable jig called a bow form. Most bowyers make two-piece forms that clamp together—one for each side of the bow with the void between in the desired bow shape. Kent, however, prefers a one-piece form on which he lays the epoxied laminations, then clamps them snugly in place. "My laminations are always 2" wide, so if they slide a bit under pressure I'll still have a bow blank after I trim them off to 1" or so," says Kent. "Many bowyers use narrower aminations that don't have leeway for error. But if they slip, they've wasted a bow."
Kent tries for even pressure. "I don't want to crush the bow, just get good glue lines." After all the clamps are in place—a C-clamp about every 2" from tip to tip with protectors on the pads—the glue-up goes into the heatbox. That's an insulated, bench-high unit built of plywood and wired with six 100-watt incandescent bulbs on a timer as a heat source, as shown in the photo below.
"I could leave the clamp-up to dry on the bench. But I'm going to cook it at 170° for six or seven hours," he says. "That way, it can withstand being locked up in a car on a hot summer day without delaminating."
Getting a bow to weight
A bow's draw weight, or pull, means the number of pounds of energy (usually 30–65) required to bring it to full draw with a 28" arrow. The higher the draw weight, the more muscle it takes to pull and hold the arrow on target. Seems simple enough, but getting there from a laminated blank is really the hardest part of building a bow, according to Kent.
Of course, it's not a guessing game. After a decade of bow-making, Kent has accumulated fastidious notes describing what went into each custom bow that came from his shop. That way, when someone orders one similar to any he's made, he has reference to materials, type of laminations, etc. to use again.
"What determines a bow's draw weight is the thickness of the fiberglass and the wooden limb cores," he points out. "I state my bows to be plus or minus 2 pounds from ordered weight. And that's pretty much understood in this business—it's not rocket science. Still, I'm not going to sell something that someone's not going to be happy with. That's why when I build a new bow design, it takes me a dozen or so of them to get it down to draw weight in the various lengths [longbows from 62–68", recurves from 52–62"]."
Kent continues the work of getting a bow to weight after it comes out of the heatbox and he unclamps it. He runs a strip of masking tape down the bow's back, then clamps a mason's string from tip to tip, centering it over the riser. "Centering the string has a major bearing on how the bow will eventually shoot. The string has to track straight in relation to the riser," he says. "Just a teeny bit off and you'd never get the bow tuned properly for good arrow flight."
Once the bowyer has marked the center line, he uses a specific template for that weight of bow and a pencil to lay out the bow's shape on the blank. Then, he moves outside where he'll saw out the blank freehand on his portable benchtop tablesaw. "That fiberglass dust is really too nasty for the shop," he says about the outdoor operation. "Lots of bowyers rough-out with a bandsaw, but the fiberglass eats up those blades. On the other hand, my little carbide tablesaw blade has lasted over seven years."
With the bow now sawn to rough outline, Kent hauls out the stationary belt sander and begins to take off more of its limb core and to rough-shape the riser. It's an attentative process as he pauses frequently to string the bow and take measurements between string and limbs just below the fadeouts (where the riser feathers into the limb-core laminations). "To be absolutely true, the bow must bend in the same plane—the string has to run right down the middle of the riser," he notes. "By taking off a little here and a little there, I get it down to draw weight. At the sanding drum on my drill press, I'll further refine the shape of the limbs and the riser."
Following the drum sanding comes a thorough smoothing by hand with 80- through 220-grit abrasives. Should he find any detracting checks or open grain in the riser, he'll rub in a little Super Glue, then sand the spot smooth. To finish, Kent sprays on eight coats of Defthane (a polyurethane; lacquer would crack) in either gloss or satin. For an archer desiring a flat finish, he knocks down the satin with extra-fine steel wool. Finally, Kent wraps the riser in leather and glues the leather pad on the shelf (arrow rest).
To a novice, the bow-making process might seem tedious and error-prone, and it really is. "The 'glass can splinter if hit the wrong way with the blade or sander and you'll ruin a bow just like that. Making one from scratch is not for a beginner because you can invest $50 in materials and with one stroke turn it into junk," Kent comments.Then, he cautions. "And if not made right, a bow can be dangerous when you go to string it—somebody could get hurt if the limbs break. For a beginner, a kit is the way to go."
After many hundreds of bows over the years, though, Kent has the bow-making process down pat. He can complete a bow in about five hours (not including its curing time in the heatbox). "I could build a ton of bows in a week if I wasn't on the phone half the time," Kent says, feigning exasperation. "Potential customers call with questions about bows and my hunts. Sometimes I talk to a person for a half an hour making a sale. But that's how it is when you run a one-man business. Over the phone, people will often ask, 'Are you the boss man?' thinking that I've got a manufacturing facility here. I reply 'I am the only man.' And that's what archers really want, to talk with the person who is actually going to build their bow."
A bowyer's top woods
Nothing can stir up a more heated discussion among bowyers than the topic of the best woods to use. Many bowyers favor the following. Note: Under limb-core woods, the modulus of elasticity (ME) indicates how easily it bends or flexes. The higher the number the greater the resistance to bending.
- Black locust. Not especially pretty, but available and inexpensive. ME=2.05
- Sugar maple. Preferred for limb cor accent, widely available. ME=1.83
- Black walnut. Dark, good shooting wood, relatively expensive but readily available. ME=1.68
- Red elm. Readily available and inexpensive; attractive when flat sawn. ME=1.54
- Black cherry. Not as stiff as some choices, but attractive and durable. ME=1.49
- Osage orange. A favorite for self-bows, fine-grained, orange color darkens with age. No stated ME, but approximates black cherry.
Riser (handle) woods
Straight grain, strength, and attractiveness are desired for this part of a bow.
- Native hardwoods: ash, black walnut, butternut, elm, hackberry, locust, Osage orange, and red gum.
- Exotic hardwoods: bocote, blackbean, bubinga, cardinal wood, cocobolo, ebony, granadillio, koa, paduak, purpleheart, rosewood, shedua, tulipwood, and zebrawood to name the most popular.