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Stefan's Florilegium


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rtn-bow-cnst-art - 1/11/97

"How to make a rattan bow" by Jorgen Jonsson

NOTE: See also the files: archery-msg, rattan-msg, c-archery-msg,
archery-SCA-msg, quivers-msg, arch-shoots-msg, arch-supplies-msg, arrows-msg.


This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called StefanŐs Florilegium.

These files are available on the Internet at:

Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.

While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.

Thank you,
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous

From: John Edgerton <sirjon@netcom.com>
To: Mark Harris
Date: Sun, 29 Dec 1996 11:44:55 -0800 (PST)
Subject: rattan bow construction (fwd)

Note: I am unable to include the diagrams for this article.

Date: Wed, 4 Dec 1996 14:04:25 +0100
From: Jorgen Jonsson <jorgen.jonsson@umf.umu.se>

How to make a rattan bow

Lord Jorgen Danske

This is what I remember from our course. Anything that might be wrong is
due to me, not our teacher Weiland. Feel free to copy it as much as you

General information:
In the cantons of Uma, where I come from, and Frostheim in the barony of
Nordmark (Sweden), Drachenwald, we have built about 10-15 rattan bows and
we have found them to be working rather well. Few of us had been shooting
with a bow before and none of us have built any.

A rattan bow could easily be made to 30-40 pounds. How strong you get the
bow depends very much on the quality of the rattan and, of course, how
thick the limbs are and how long the bow is. The strongest rattan bow
Weiland has heard of/made was nearly 70 pounds. This bow was made from a
rattan stick that wasn't peeled so that you had the skin on the back when
the bow is finished. If you use a rattan stick with the skin still on you
generally will get a stronger bow.

The rattan bow will lose some pounds after you have been shooting for a
while. A stronger bow will lose more than a weaker bow. A 60 pounds bow
could lose 5-10 pounds, a 40 pounds somewhat less. This is depending
entirely on the quality of the rattan and since you can't determine the
quality in advance you have to guess.

What I have seen from the performance of wooden bows and laminated bows
compared with rattan bows is that rattan bows are a little bit slower
when you release the string. I haven't been shooting with anything else
but my rattan bow so it's hard to compare the actual feeling but Wieland
told me it's slower. If you wan't to speed up your bow you can make a
slight recurve at the ends. Use steam to make the rattan soft, force it
to bend the "wrong" way and let it dry. This gives extra speed but not
very much extra power.

Why make a rattan bow if it's slower than a wooden bow?
For one thing it's a good start if you want to make bows. It took me
about 8-9 hours to make a bow, a string and an arrow and it will probably
take less time for the second bow. Weiland makes a rattan bow within an
hour. Almost any rattan stick will do as long as there are no cracks in
it, the material is cheap, rather easy to find and very soft to work
with. If you want to make a wooden bow you have to find the right
material, probably dry it and it's rather hard to work with. The fibres
of rattan seldom break so it's ideal to have it with you while camping,
canoeing and so on when you probably will be rather rough against your bow.

How about backing the bow with some harder material like hickory to get
extra strength? Don't! The rattan can't take to much compression
according to Weiland. You could use rattan for backing. It seems that
rattan can take stretching far better then compression.

We have mostly used the bows for target shooting and to hit a target
about 20 x 30 cm at a distance of 30 m is not impossible and is probably
easier for a trained archer. We are amateurs. We have tried a little to
simulate combat archery by shooting on a target on a soccer-field (some
boards, not a player!). The distance was about
60-70 m (70-80 yards) and with a little training at least 50 % of the
arrows (birch wood with sharp point, not combat archery points) landed
within 2-3 m (2-3 yards) from the target. This distance was a little to
long for the weakest bows. My bow (about 20 pounds) could get the arrow
about 15 m (15 yards) past the target but that's the upper limit for my
bow. An archer with a wooden bow misjudged the first arrow a little and
got the arrow well past 100 m (110 yards). That bow is much stronger than
our rattan bows. We have not been trying to hunt animals with our bows
since it is forbidden by the law in Sweden and I can't recommend it since
I have no experience in hunting at all. According to Weiland, the rattan
bows are not good for hunting. This is due to it's lower speed (if I
understood him correctly). It seems to me that hunting should be better
with some sort of a gun.

Material and tools:
A straight, about 4 cm (1.5 inch) thick rattan stick of your own length
plus 40 cm(1.5 feet).
Spoke shave
Single-graded file
Fine and very fine sandpaper
Something to fasten the stick with so that it doesn't move while you are
Tillering board, see fig 1. If you haven't built a bow before, you
probably won't know what it is (I didn't anyway).

Fig. 1. A tillering board from the front and from the side.

How to do it:
Look at the stick and determine which "side" of the stick that looks to
be best, i.e. without any deformation. The best side will be the back of
the bow, i.e. the side that is furthest away from you when you shoot. To
this side you will do nothing with, except with the very fine sandpaper
to get a smooth surface. If the fibres of the back are broken the bow
will probably break because this side stretches when you draw the bow. If
there are any cracks in the last 20 cm of the ends it doesn't matter
because you will saw them off. If there are cracks, e.g. in the middle of
the stick, you shouldn't use it because it will probably break. If there
are any dents on what you decided to be the back you could try to put a
little water on it and hope that the dent rises. The fibres can break in
the dents so it's a good thing to get rid of them. My own bow has two
dents in the middle of the bow but after 3-400 shots I haven't noticed
that it is about to break. It's better to be on the safe side. Why
haven't I tried to get rid of them? I'm a lazy optimist!

Measure out the length of yourself on the stick. If there are cracks at
the ends, make sure that you get rid off them. If that means that the
stick becomes a few centimetres (1-2 inches) shorter than yourself it
doesn't matter, but don't make it too short because if you don't get the
strength in the bow that you wanted you can shorten it when you are
almost finished and by that way get extra strength.

Saw off the extra part so that you have a stick of your own length,
without cracks and, preferably, without dents. The measurements I will
give are from my own bow that worked. You could try to change some of
them but I can't recommend it since I don't know what will happen.
Lay the stick down, on the floor or a carpenters bench if you've got one,
with the back downwards. The side that now is upwards is called the
belly. Mark the middle of the bow on the belly and decide which end you
want to be up and which one you want to be down. Which side you choose
doesn't matter.

>From the middle you make a mark at 5 cm (2 inches) at each side of the
middle. The space between these two lines will be where you hold the bow
while you are shooting.

Now it's time to make the bow thinner towards the ends. Turn the bow a
quarter of a turn so that you have the side of the bow upwards. Draw a
line that is vertical against the floor at each end and in the middle of
the end of the stick. Imagine, or draw if you can (I couldn't), a
straight line from the two 2 inches marks towards the mark at the top and
the bottom. These two lines go from the surface of the stick on the
belly-side through the stick and end halfway through the stick at the top
and bottom. Now turn it back a quarter of a turn so that you have the
belly upwards again. Fasten the stick tightly but not too hard. If it's
squeezed too hard you'll damage it and the bow may break. Use the spoke
shave and remove everything above your imaginary line. So if you have a
stick like mine, which is 4 cm (1.5 inch) in diameter, you take away
almost nothing at the two 2 inches mark but 2 cm (0.75 inch) at the ends.
See fig. 2. If you want a heavier bow you could try to make the bow a
little thicker towards the ends.

Fig. 2. Side view of the stick. Remove the black part.

The next step is to turn to the width. If you look at the stick from the
belly or the back the bow should be widest at, what will be, the handle
and slender at the top and bottom. To get that shape you put the stick on
the floor again with the belly-side up. At the two ends you mark the
centre of the belly horizontal to the ground, i.e. with a stick that is 4
cm thick (1.5 inch) you make a mark at 2cm (0.75 inch). 1.2 cm (0.5 inch)
from the centre you make a new mark on each side of the middle,
horizontal to the ground. The space between those two marks is the
final width of the top and bottom. Take a one meter ruler or something
else that is long and straight (if your length is more than 2 meters you
need something longer than one meter) and draw a line on the belly-side
from the middle of the bow-length to one of the two marks 1.2 cm (0.5
inch) from the middle at the ends. Draw the line from the side of the
middle of the bow-length so that when you have drawn the four lines they
will form a V-shape on each side of the bow-length middle. See fig. 3.

Fig. 3. View on the belly-side. Remove the black part.

Fasten the stick tightly but not too hard with the side up and use the
spoke shave to remove everything above the lines you have drawn. Even if
your lines don't end at the same place towards the middle, make sure that
you use the spoke shave so that they do it anyway. The lines are only
there to help, you'll have to relay on your eyes for the finish.
The symmetry of the bow is very important. Now your stick looks very much
like a bow.

What you have to do next is fix the ends, the nock, so that you can
string your bow. Make a mark at 1.2 cm (0.5 inch) from each end on both
sides. Use the knife and, from the marks, you cut away the rattan towards
the ends. See fig. 4 how it could look like when you're finished. Make it
about 0.4 cm (0.16 inch) deep. Now make the cut slope downwards towards
the handle and a little towards the middle. The slope should be steeper
towards the belly than towards the back. At the back it should almost be
vertical against the length of the bow. Make sure that there are no sharp
edges around the nock that can wear on the string.

Fig. 4. View of the nock in natural size. From the left: view from the
back, view from the side, a view of the belly and from the end.

Now you should be able to string your bow. If you don't know how long
draw length you should measure it up now. This length is always measured
in inches and you will probably end up with a measure somewhere between
20-35 inches. The draw length is the distance from the back of the bow to
the point where you hold your hand when you have fully drawn the bow. Ask
a friend to help you measure it up, it's nearly impossible to do it by
yourself. You should use an arrow or stick to measure this distance. The
draw length is how long your arrows must be (plus an extra 2 inches) and
you tiller your bow to that length. Don't ever try to draw your bow more
than your draw length. This is a certain way to break your bow. The bow
might not break right away but it will probably get damaged and break
later. Don't push your luck! I have a draw length of 34 inches and I will
never use someone else's bow that I'm not certain will be able to be
drawn to 34 inches. Ratan is a rather forgiving material so this rule
doesn't apply as hard for a ratan bow but it's unnecessary to take any
risks of this kind.

Use the tillering-board to make sure that the bow bends exactly the same
on both sides of the middle. Put the strung bow on the tillering board
and draw the bow to about 10-15 inches at first. Take a few steps back
and look at the bow. The 10 cm (4 inches) closest to the the nocks on
each side should be rather straight when the bow is drawn. This part of
the limb will not work as the rest of the limb. Which side (limb) is most
bent? Use the file to remove material from the other limb. This will make
the least bent limb "softer" so it will bend more. Since rattan is a very
soft material to work with be sure that you don't file away to much
because then you will have to file some on the other side and you could
end up with a bow so weak that it won't even kill a fly. So use the
tillering-board often! Take your time when you do this because if the bow
doesn't bend in exactly the same way you get a bow that doesn't behave as
it's supposed to. Put the bow back on the tillering-board and draw it a
few inches more and repeat the procedure. Make also sure that the bow
bends evenly all over so that it's not a small area that bends very much
(what we call a knee in swedish) and another that is almost straight.
Repeat until you have a perfect bend when the bow is drawn to your draw
length. It is a good help if you have a friend that could draw the bow in
the tilleringboard so that you can see
how the limbs are working. If your bow is too weak you could now saw off
an inch or so at each nock, make new nocks and string it. Don't shorten
it to much though, there's a limit to how much you can bend rattan to.
If your bow is too strong you use the file or spoke shave, very gently to
remove some wood from the belly, to get it weaker.

When you are done with that you use the sandpaper to get a smooth
surface. Use only the very fine sandpaper on the back and not very much
since you don't want to break any fibres on the back.

Now you could use you bow but I recommend that you do two things first:
1) Since the ratan-bow will lose up to 10 pounds when it's damp weather
you should varnish it with 2-component boat-varnish a number of times.
This varnish will not crack as other will do and it protects the bow from
dirt, moisture and scratches. You could also use linseed oil, tar or some
sort of wax, although it's not as good. For a wooden bow I would use oil
or wax but for a ratan bow it's better to use varnish.

2) At the handle you should make some sort of protection otherwise your
bow will get a lot of scratches from the arrows while you are shooting.
The protection could be leather, linen yarn that you wind around or
whatever you've got. If you use yarn or something like that it could be a
good idea to glue it to the bow. Otherwise it will probably unwind rather
quickly. What I have used? Well, as I mentioned earlier I'm lazy so I
haven't made any protection. I will do it now however, since I've seen
how much damage the arrows have made.

DOG BONE BACKING FOR BOWS (rawhide chew bones)

A WORD OF CAUTION. When you tie the hide to the bow there will come loose
small particles of the hide that may penetrate you skin. A friend of
Weiland made this kind of backing and had a small wound on his hand. He
got a rather serious blood-poisoning and was hospitalised for a while. So
use rubber gloves when you tie the hide to the bow.

The material you need is:
2-4 toybones for dogs depending on witch size the bones are and the
length of the bow. You will get the best result if you only need two
bones so get the bones for mutated dobermanns , some 40 cm length when
they are tied. That was enough for my bow that is almost 1.9 meters (a
little more than 6 feet if I got it right).
White glue (ordinary wood glue). Hide glue will also work but you have
considerable less time to work with and it's easier to handle white glue
and easier to get.
Brush to the glue
Scissors or shears. You use this to cut the wet raw hide so get a sturdy
one. A knife will also work but it was a lot easier with a pair of
A really sharp and thin knife.
A 4 mm holepunch (I'm not certain if you call it that. You hammer on it
to get a hole in leather). Don't use the kind of tongs were you squeeze
hole. That will take a LOT of time since it's very hard to penetrate and
you will get very, very tired in your hands if you get any succes at all.
About 10 meters of cord/string that won't break if you draw it hard.
Two large needles
A pair of rubber gloves
1-2 happy co-workers

How to do it:
First of all you need to put the bones in water so that they get soft and
are easy to handle. It will take about 12 hours to get them soft enough
so do this the day before. It doesn't matter if they are in water longer
but don't let them be in the same water longer than one day. It will
start to smell really bad. Now you can untie the knots. Check that the
bones cover the back of the bow and that they overlap with 2-3 inches at
the joint. Note that you can and will stretch the hide when your glueing.
If you only need to use two bones and the joint is at the handle it isn't
that critical that they overlap that much since the bow doesn't move very
much at the handle.

Now put the hide on a plane surface and place the back of the bow on it.
Draw a line on the hide about 1.5 cm (a little more then 1/2 inch) from
the bow on each side. In this extra 1.5 cm you punch the holes so that
you can tie it up so it doesn't have to be perfect edges. You will remove
it later.

Now it's time to mark were the holes will be in the first hide. Start 1
cm in from the top edge. Follow the long edge and make a new hole every 3
cm (little more than 1 inch). Mark the last hole 1 cm from the bottom
edge. Make sure that you have the same numbers of marks on each side of
the hide. Now you punch the holes. Let there be 4 mm of hide between the
edge and the hole.

When your finished whith the first hide it will be a little bit to dry so
put in water again for about 30 minutes. During that time you prepare for
the actual gluing. Since you have been handling the bow a great deal
there will be a little fat on the back of the bow. Use a rather fine
sandpaper to remove it. Then you coat the back with a little water a few
times. This you do to avoid the glue to dry to fast. Cut two pices of
cord of about 0.5 meters length and on at 3 meter. The longer pice you
thread two needles with, one at each end. Make a knot so that the needles
stay in place.

When 30 min has passed you take up the hide and dry the excess of water
away. Put glue on the the part of the bow were you will put the first
hide. Use a brush to get an even layer and be genorous with the glue
since you only get one chance. Put the hide on the glue and use one piece
of the 0.5m cord to tie it to the nock using the first pair of holes in
the hide. Make a really tight knot so that it stays in place. Use the
other 0.5 m cord to tie the other end of the hide at the handle. Here
comes your happy co-workers in handy since you should stretch the hide as
much as you can. You probably will need somone to hold the bow etc. When
the hide is fixed in both ends you take the longer peice of cord lace the
rest of the hide up like a pair of shoes. Draw it really tight and make a
knot every now and then so that it stays in place. A helping finger is
good to have here. If the cord was too short you just lace it as far as
posible, make a few knots and take another piece of cord and finish it with.

When you finished with this you look on the glued hide and if you can
determine any airbubbles between the hide and the bow, make sure you
press them out so that the glue really sticks to the bow and hide. Let it
dry for a while so that the surface gets a little hard. It will take 1-2

During this time you prepare the other piece of hide exactly as the first
one, cut new pieces of cord, sandpaper the other side of the back and
coat it with water. When the first hide has dried up a little you measure
out how much the two pieces will overlap at the joint. Thin out the
overlap on the glued piece so that you will get a nice even joint. The
part closest to the edge at the handle should be really thin so that you
get a smooth crossing between the hides. Put the glue on as for the first
piece of hide and tie it up in the same way as before. Remember to check
for airbubbles.

Now you finished for this day. Put the bow in a rather cool place (10-15
degrees Celcius) and not to dry for 3 days. It's better to let it dry
slowly. After 3 days you can take it in to a warmer place and let it dry
for another 4 days. When a week has passed you can remove the cords and
the excess of hide that doesn't cover the back. Shoot about 1-200 arrows
and then make the final tillering. Finished.

Well, I hope you will have some use of this.

Best regards

If you have any questions please contact me and I will try to answer.
Adress: Jvrgen Jvnsson
Orienteringsstigen 8CS-903 38 UMEE SWEDEN

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