Making a traditional bow with Organic Archery

In a world full of instant gratification and demands on our attention, taking the time to build and shoot a primitive bow is both meaningful and fulfilling.

And a hell of a lot of fun.

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Correy Hawk instructing at Organic Archery bowmaking workshop
I learn skills best with a combination of demonstration, explanation, and hands-on experience. All were used during the workshop.

In September I completed a three-day workshop with Correy Hawk of Organic Archery, making a traditional bow. When I say traditional bow, or trad bow, think of a primitive bow. It’s just a stick and string, so to speak.

We made modified longbows, starting from a wooden blank taken from a Hackberry tree near where Correy lives in Nebraska. Over the course of the three days, under his guidance, I shaped that piece of wood into a functional bow, made a string, and spent a few hours learning instinctive shooting.

This was an incredible experience — I’ve tried to make a few bows before, but with no success. That’s exactly why this workshop has been on my radar. Correy’s methodology is how I learn best — being shown and instructed by an expert, working through the process under their supervision, and having guidance when I have questions or run into trouble.

And let me tell you, it was worth every penny.

If you’re interested in traditional archery, making your own bow, and maybe even learning the skill under the guidance of a pro, this post may give you a little insight… But I’m going to wander through a little bit of waxing poetic about archery along the way.

In the interest of transparency, let me say that I’m not affiliated with Correy or Organic Archery in any way other than as a student who found the experience at the workshop incredibly fulfilling.

How to build a traditional bow

You may be wondering how one makes a traditional bow. Honestly, to make one, you simply need to follow an incredibly simple three-step process.

  1. Procure a piece of wood that will make a good bow.
  2. Remove everything from that piece of wood that isn’t a bow.
  3. Add string and shoot

I’m not being a smart-ass. It’s really that simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy. It’s a lot of work, and if you want a greater understanding of the process, here’s a little more detail:

  1. Find a good tree for making a bow, and cut it down.
  2. Process the tree into staves and let them age.
  3. Shape the bow.
  4. Tiller the bow — that means remove material from the belly of the bow, then bend the bow to see where more material needs to be removed.
  5. Keep tillering.
  6. Tiller some more.
  7. Tiller just a hair more.
  8. Stain and seal the bow.
  9. String it.
  10. Shoot it.
Penciling the layout of the bow at the Organic Archery bowmaking workshop
Once you’ve got an aged stave ready to go, you start by laying out the bow. The exact layout will depend on the style desired, your draw length, and the desired draw weight.

The process is still fairly simple in theory, but in practice… Well, there’s a reason why my previous attempts at making bows have failed. I don’t know if this will disappoint you, but I’m not actually going to walk you through the finer points of making a bow. While the photos in this post progress through the weekend workshop, this isn’t a how-to, and I’m not the person you want teaching you this process — I have only successful made one bow under the tutelage of a professional. If you want to do this yourself, I would highly encourage you to seek out a professional or an expert as well. I can’t speak highly enough of my weekend with Correy. There are a ton of resources online and in the library that will teach you to make a bow, but I’ll say that the Organic Archery bowmaking workshop cut a couple of years off the learning curve, and it was a hell of a lot of fun along the way.

Why make a bow?

A lot of folks may wonder why I would want to make my own bow in the first place. If you’re asking that question with derision, you’ll never understand. But if asked with sincere curiosity, there truly is a simple answer. Because there is a part of me, deep down inside, who still identifies in some small way with a man, not so different from myself, who made similar bows thousands of years ago.

And, because it’s fun.

Using a draw knife to shape the bow
Once the bow is laid out, it’s time to start giving it shape using a drawknife.

With individuals who are only familiar with archery from modernity — a world of cams and pulleys, sights and let-offs — this may all seem like a foolish venture. Who, you may ask, wants to wander backwards through the advances of technology?

I’ll be the first to admit that I have my issues with technology. I’m afraid of robots and I’m told that AI may steal my job within the next decade, but I’m not a total luddite. I love my phone, enjoy social media, and if you’re reading this you know I write stuff for the internet. Hot water is great, and I won’t say no to AC. Technology is a useful tool and a fun distraction, but I think a lot of us, myself included, feel too distracted in our daily lives. A lot of us also feel an innate connection to the past. That’s why I have three history degrees.

Using a traditional bow links you intimately to the human past. Making that bow extends your reach into the roots of the tree from which you craft your weapon. I realize this all sounds romantic and poetic — and that’s because it is. Every bow, in my opinion, has the potential to become an extension of the archer, extending his or her reach to the target. But a modern compound bow, with its finely tuned precision-machined components lacks a degree of intimacy achieved with a traditional wooden bow. The shooting process, while still inexorably linked to the archer’s body and mind, now has additional levels of abstraction, requiring grabbing the string with a release mechanism, aiming and sighting with pins, and then essentially pulling a trigger on the release to loose the arrow.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these abstractions, or with compound bows for that matter. They’re just a more complex version of a bow. I have nothing negative to say about them — and I’ll even go so far as to say that they have their advantages. I know that not all of my readers are archers, so it may be useful to take a little detour here and talk about the benefits of compound bows and traditional or “trad” bows.

Removing wood from the belly of the bow
After shaping the bow, you need to remove mass from the belly of the bow.

Why shoot a compound bow?

I’m a fan of traditional bows, but I’m not knocking compounds — I have a lot of friends that shoot them, and as I mentioned, they have their advantages. Mechanical advantage to be more precise. This is thanks to the pulley and cam system. This allows the limbs to remain much more rigid than a traditional bow, making the compound bow more energy efficient. This system also provides what’s called let-off — once you draw a compound bow back to a certain point, the bow itself bears the draw weight. Not so with a trad bow. When you pull 50 pounds of weight on an old school bow, that’s what you hold until you release.

That let-off allows an archer to use a much more powerful bow, longer and more effectively than they perhaps could use a trad bow. The sighting systems and release mechanisms can also contribute to greater accuracy and precision. Compound archers rely on those sights to know where to aim — and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why we develop tools. In contrast, the traditional archer can’t offload the aiming. They either use a mental system or instinctive shooting to put the arrow where they want it to go.

The compound bow is, essentially, a more efficient weapon in all respects. They’re more efficient to shoot, and buying one is a hell of a lot more efficient than making a trad bow. But efficiency isn’t everything, and making and shooting a trad bow is a lot more fun to me.

Tillering at the Organic Archery bowmaking workshop
After removing sufficient material from the belly, you can begin tillering… It’s a slow process.

The technical benefits of a traditional bow

The greater efficiency and technological advancement of a compound bow doesn’t mean that there aren’t benefits of a trad bow. For example, there are fewer moving pieces. It is, after all, a stick with a string on it. There are no cams to adjust, no sights to fiddle with. It’s a piece of wood and a string.

They’re also a hell of a lot lighter. The bow I made with Correy weighs about one pound. No joke. It feels like holding air. My buddy’s compound setup weighs about seven pounds. Now that’s not a ton of weight, sure. But if you had to choose between carrying one pound or seven pounds through the woods all day, you’ll see the benefit.

An additional benefit is that by using an instinctive shooting system, the trad archer can fire off multiple arrows much more quickly than a compound archer that will have to sight and aim for each arrow.

The greatest benefit isn’t technical, however. It’s the intimate connection between the archer and his weapon. Unlike using a compound bow with mechanical advantage and sights, there are no layers of abstraction — it’s just my mind and body using my bow to propel an arrow.

Tillering with a shinto rasp
The majority of the second day is spent removing a small amount of mass from the belly, then checking to see how the bow bends, then removing more as needed. It takes a lot of patience — it can’t be rushed, especially by a novice. 

Why I shoot trad

That lack of abstraction is exactly why I shoot traditional bows. I get a great deal of enjoyment from shooting a traditional bow, and that has never been truer than when I’ve shot the bow that I made during my weekend with Correy and my fellow students. This bow is truly mine, in a way that a purchased item could never be.

I’m a process-driven person. For me, the experience of shooting the bow is as important — if not more so — than hitting a bullseye. That isn’t to say that I don’t like making good shots, or that I don’t try to shoot better each time I draw the string. But if I had to choose between shooting every day without hitting a bullseye, or shooting once a year but always hitting dead center, I would choose the former.

I personally find something beautiful about the way a traditional bow allows me to recapture just a small bit of the “primitive” past. It’s not for everybody, and that’s okay. If you want to shoot a bow with a sight and mechanical advantage, you won’t get judgment from me. I just don’t plan to join you.

What I loved about the Organic Archery bowmaking workshop.

I can’t sing the praises of my experience enough — sure, I was tired after the day’s work, but that’s not a bad thing. We got started in the morning, although not insanely early — think 9 a.m., not an alpine start — and put in a full morning of work before breaking for lunch. Correy’s wife, Holly, made us incredible, better-than-restaurant lunches, and we always had interesting conversations.

A completed bow being shot
After your tillering is complete, followed by some sanding, staining, and sealing… then making a string… finally, you have the privilege of shooting.

After an afternoon of work, we would gather around a fire, share a few beers, and share excellent conversations. We talked about everything from parenthood to survival television — Correy was a contestant on season 7 of Alone and was a recent contestant on History Channel’s Mountain Men: Ultimate Marksmen. We chatted about our outdoor experiences, belief systems, and of course archery. I felt, at all times, welcomed and encouraged to share my thoughts. When challenged, it was in the spirit of open discussion. In other words, it was awesome. Every conversation I had during the span of the weekend — with other students, Holly, and Correy — was one that I enjoyed.

Correy’s instruction is hands-on, but he doesn’t do the work for you. There are no guarantees that you’ll walk away with a working bow, but the workshop is designed to increase the probability of success, and my understanding is that so far all participants have made a working bow. There are a few “training wheels” moments — like starting with a blank that Correy has processed out of a tree, instead of raw, dried wood, or getting a little extra sanding done with a palm sander instead of by hand. This, in my opinion, doesn’t detract from the experience. The reality is that we were operating with limited time, and we learned the skills needed to do these things. By speeding up the process in these small ways, Correy was able to make sure that we had time to completely finish our bows, make strings, and learn some instinctive shooting.

All four of us completed beautiful, functional bows during the weekend I spent in September. Like I said, to my knowledge, since Correy started these workshops a few years ago, every workshop student has been successful. That’s not because it’s easy, but rather because Correy does an excellent job instructing, answering questions, and helping students understand how the processes work as well as why they’re important. I’ve had a lot of instructors in a lot of disciplines over the years — from historiography to canoeing, knot-tying to writing press releases. Correy is one of the best hands-on instructors I’ve ever had, and it’s obvious that he’s passionate about traditional archery, making bows, and helping others get started in both.

Shooting the traditional bow I made at the Organic Archery bowmaking workshop
This bow is a joy to shoot.

How to get involved

If you like primitive or traditional archery, making things, using hand tools, pairing brainpower with sweat equity, and getting to know other folks who enjoy similar things, this might be a good investment for you. If you want someone to do the work for you, don’t like getting your hands dirty, and prefer not to work for 8 or more hours a day, this might not be the opportunity for you.

But if it is for you, don’t hesitate — workshop dates fill up FAST. Go to the Organic Archery website and check out workshop availability. In addition to the Bowmaking 101 workshop that I participated in, Correy recently announced an Advanced Bowmaking Course beginning in 2024. Although I’m going to miss the inaugural year, you better believe that I’ll be attending in the future. While you’re on the site, I highly recommend signing up for his mailing list, which will let you know about upcoming dates, new content, etc, before anyone else.

While these workshops aren’t cheap, they’re not prohibitively expensive. I spent $1,800 on the Bowmaking 101 workshop — that’s not throwaway money for me and my family, but was doable with forethought and planning.  But having had the experience, I say that it isn’t that the workshop costs a lot. Instead, it’s worth a lot.

Wade shooting his handmade tradition bow

Making a traditional bow

Traditional archery, and especially making your own bow, is counter to the current paradigm where instant gratification is the order of the day. I need as much of that in my life as possible.

It’s not for everybody. Maybe you’re not a traditional archer. That’s okay. And even if you are, maybe you’re not interested in making your own bow. That’s okay too. But if you are, you won’t go wrong by getting your instruction with Organic Archery.

Thanks to Correy not only for an incredible weekend, but also for sharing the photos with us. This post would have been much less visually stimulating without them!

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