By Ryan Graden
Being an avid hunter, I have enjoyed the outdoors for many years. It all began as a five year old double-timing my steps in order to keep up with the strides of my father, uncles, and grandfathers as they walked through the timber. Every chance they could, they would pick me up on Saturday mornings and head into the Iowa woods for a hunt of some sort. Those experiences became a catalyst in my passion for the outdoors and I am thankful to have 29 years of those memories stuck in my head!
As I’ve grown in my skills and abilities as a hunter I have gained a lot of success in many ways. When I gained confidence and success hunting with a firearm, I desired an experience that would give me more of a challenge. So, I took up archery hunting. After doing quite a bit of target practice with an old Fred Bear Whitetail II compound bow, I updated my equipment and began to do some active archery hunting in hardwoods near where I lived.
Now, having about 15 years of success with that, I desired yet another challenge. And for me, the choice was to exchange my compound bow for a long bow. But there was one condition. I wanted to make it myself.
After doing some research and finding a few dependable instructional videos, I had a goal set and I wasn’t going to stray from it. In order to dive in “all the way” I decided I was going to make it out of Hickory and wasn’t going to change my mind. I went to the nearby timber and cut a few eight-inch diameter logs which remained in my garage for a whole year allowing them to dry completely.
Last summer I began the project! I split the logs and began the long and slow process of shaping my long bow. Things were going slow, but they were coming along very well! Out of the colorful shades of color of the hickory, a long and slender bow began to appear. It was wonderful and I was quick to show any guest who visited our home my “work-in-progress”.
Finally, I was at a point in the bow-making process where a person would need to begin to test the balance in the bend of the bow. The process is called “tillering”. You simply need to tie on a string of some sort that will allow you to bend the limbs to test that they are bending at equal points and amounts.
At this time I had roughly 40 hours of time into carefully shaving, shaping, and sanding the long limbs of the bow. As I tied them up, I held the bow in my hand and began to gingerly draw the bow back forcing the limbs through their first few bends. Seeing that they were doing what they were supposed to do, I became pretty proud and confident in my craft. I continued to draw farther and deeper as I saw my handiwork coming to life.
My excitement was building and all the hours of hard work paying off when it happened…..CRACK! A split starting near the handle and continuing up towards to upper limb appeared out of nowhere! My mind, thoughts, and emotions took a 180 degree flip and I froze! I couldn’t believe that had just happened. My frustrations got the best of me and I dropped the bow and just walked away. 40 plus hours of careful work down the drain! What had I done wrong? What should I have done better? The questions came flooding in and I didn’t have any answers to give. But I never will forget the last question I asked myself, “Isn’t there an easier way to make a bow?”
Well it turns out there is! As I looked online for answers to my questions I discovered that there were quite a few people out there that had apparently asked the same question and come up with some answers. I hopped on YouTube and discovered a young man who had made PVC bows an art form and he was willing to share his steps with anybody who would listen. That’s when I decided, I wasn’t giving up on a bow, but I might have to change my expectations a bit. As a result, last winter, for my daughters, I built my first three PVC youth bows with which they have become pretty accurate with.
When you decide to take on this task, there are a few things that you’ll need to gather together in order to be successful. Here is a list of the things that I have used.
1. ¾ PVC pipe (schedule 40)
2. Tape Measure
3. Heat Gun
4. PVC cutters
5. Heat trough (explained later in this article)
6. C-Clamps (at least two)
7. A 3 foot long piece of board (could be 2×4 or 1x, just as long as it does not bend)
First you will need to cut your PVC to length. A good and common length when making a bow for adults is sixty inches. So, simply measure your PVC to a sixty inch length and make a cut.
Once it is cut you’ll have to make a few important measurement markings on the PVC. First, you must find the center of the length. Try to be as accurate as possible. Next, from that center point, measure two inches out in each direction. These marks will become the top and bottom edges of your handle.
Once you have things marked, the next step is to begin to form your limbs. There are a few important tools and items that you’ll need to gather together in order to do this properly.
First off, you’ll need to make a heating trough. All you need to do is to take a piece of cardboard and form it into a “trough” shape. Make sure you have two taller sides with a bottom width half the length of the sides. Next, cover it in aluminum foil. Make sure you cover all the board with the foil. If you don’t, well, you’ll quickly find out why you should have!
Next, from your left over PVC tube, cut two ¾ inch pieces of tube to use as “spacers” when you begin to create the taper on your limbs. (see picture).
Next, place one end of your “bow” into the heat trough. Turn your heat gun on high and begin to heat up the end of the limb steadily and carefully. Try to heat things as evenly as possible. Roll the tube and be cautious of creating scorch marks on your PVC. Too close and too hot will result in brown marks on your piping. Heat the PVC until you can press down on it and “smash” it with ease. You’ll notice that when it’s properly heated, the PVC will increase in diameter too.
This has to happen quickly! As soon as you have the limbs heated, move it onto a flat table and begin the tapering process. Here’s what it should look like.
Take the two ¾ inch pieces and place them by the “handle” marks. This will become the “high end” of your taper. Then take your board and lay it on top of the pipe starting at the “end” of the limb (where your string will attach) and then rest the excess side of the board on top of the ¾ inch spacers near your handle mark.
At this time, quickly apply your C-clamps at two points. One at the end of your limb and the other right above the ¾ inch spacers at your handle mark.
If you’ve done this right, you will see that you’ve created a “thin to thick” shape starting at the end of your limb looking nearly flat and slowly getting bigger towards the handle area. Once the clamps are set, simply allow your bow time to cool and hold its shape.
Do the same to the other end once the first end cools.
Now it’s time to shape your handle a bit. There are two benefits to shaping your handle. First, it’s going to add tension to your bow and draw weight. Second, it will fit your hand better and allow the arrow to pass along the shaft of the bow in a more accurate manner.
By now, both limbs should be formed. Now, heat up the handle in the same manner that you did with your limbs. You will not need to heat it to the point that you have previously done. As you heat the handle area (two inches each direction from your center mark) get it to a point of bending, but not total looseness. It will be pretty hot so be careful.
Once it’s heated to the point that you can grab it and squeeze it into shape, simply do that. Shape it into the shape your fist would like to hold. Make it even and be cautious not to twist or bend your bow lengthwise. Always look down your shaft to make sure your limbs are lining up with each other. If they aren’t, carefully heat those spots and reshape it.
Now, you should be getting closer to a completed project. All you have to do is shape the ends of your limbs in order to receive your bow string. There are a couple of measurements that you’ll need to measure in order to do this.
First, because your ends should be completely flattened, there should be a diameter of about 1 ½ inches of pipe. Make two marks on the end of your limb each ½ inch from the edge. Second, make an additional mark 1 inch down from the end of the limb. Now, simply connect the marks making a “triangle” end to your PVC bow.
Take a hacksaw and cut these corner pieces off then sand the edges a bit.
Next, take a drill and about ½ inch from the ends, along these cuts, drill a hole with a 1/8 inch drill bit. The hole should be drilled so that it looks like a “half hole” along the edge of the cut.
At this point, you bow is useable and finished. All you need to do is add a string to it and you could go out and shoot.
I usually order my strings online and you can find just about any length that you might need. Just remember a good “rule” for string length with long bows; your strings are generally 7-8 inches shorter than the length of your bow.
There are all kinds of things that you can do to enhance the look and performance of your PVC bow. For example, your draw weight.
If you build your bow according to the steps that you just read, you’ll be pulling about 30 pounds draw weight. To increase that, simply create some resistance. One way to add resistance would be to insert additional ½ PVC pipe inside your ¾ inch pipe. You wouldn’t have to do that for the entire length of your bow. Simply position it so it’s the inside 3 feet of your bow. (Center it inside the pipe.) Then, go through all those steps in the same manner.
If you wanted to make your long bow into a recurve, simply heat the ends and bend them around something. For the sake of this photo example, I used a piece of 6 inch PVC pipe. You could use a pot or pan, a tin can, or something else that will offer you a consistent bend.
If you desire to paint your bow, make sure you give it a good sanding first. And as you paint it, make sure it’s in the bent position as you do so.
You could also add arrow rests to your bow. There are simple long bow arrow rests that you can buy online for fairly cheap. You can screw them into the handle, glue them, or attach them in a variety of ways.
All in all, you’ll learn to fine tune the process and you’ll be proud to make something that is actually usable and fairly tough and resistant. The process I have outlined will provide you a safe and reliable bow, I wouldn’t let me daughters use them if the bow wasn’t safe. However as with anything handmade you need to test it until you feel that it will make a working bow. My girls have really enjoyed their PVC bows and the bows have allowed us some great times outside during this beautiful spring weather already.
If you want a project to work on for yourself or with your kids, give this a try. I promise that any time spent investing in this project won’t be for a loss! Good luck!