Hornbows Vol.6- sinew- backing the prod

Last volume was dealing with the final shaping of the horn- lam. Now the horn- lam has to be backed with sinew- fibres. But before backing the prod has to be wrapped with bundles of sinew- fibres.

precoating the prod all over its length at least 4 times
The wrappings are enforcing the joints of the horn- slats and the recurves
After having wrapped the prod with the sinew- bundles, the prod is wrapped with cotton- or silk cloth for to press the fibres as close as possible to the prod
2 weeks later the cloth- wrapping is removed- the prod is ready for the backing

About a quarter of  prod´s thickness will be the sinew- backing,  3- 4 layers of sinew- fibre- bundles has to be prepared. According to a total length of 30″ minus the recurves about 25″ of the prod´s length and an average- width of 2″ incl. the sides of the prod , so about 50 sq.inches have to be backed. As a total that means 4-5 buffalo- leg- sinews have to be spliced, at least a job of 8h.

The backed prod- one day after the backing
Closer and better sideview at the backing- one day after it has been done. The backing is still about 1/2" in thickness, when it is dry it will have about 1/3"- 1/4" of the prods thickness.

Waiting time! At first I planned to finish the prod in April or May, that´s to less time for the polymerisation. I´ll do it at the end of August, 9 month after having backed the prod.

So next volume will be focused on the braced and ready to final tiller- work prod.


Hornbows Vol.5- the crossbow- final shaping of the horn- lamination

Sorry, sorry again, for this time-delayed report about the making of the prod for the crossbow. The prod is almost ready, maybe within the next 2 weeks I´ll go to do the final tillering.

The final shaping of the horn- lam is a delicious job to do, cause while drying horn-lams are more or less twisting sidewards. The job to do is to end up with a straight, symetrically prod- lengthwise, in width and in thickness with oval cross- sections. The cross- section of the recurves should be rectangular. I don´t use any machine for this job, machines are nothing else but very fast hand- tools, too fast for delicious jobs, no machine can replace the feeling I got from shaping and tillering thousands of bows by my own hands.

That´s how the lam looked after glueing- no recurves added, not shaped

A rough shaping has been done, the recurves had been spliced in, time for final shaping.

The draw- knife is my favourite tool for shaping the horn- lam

My wife will use the horn- splinters as a fertilizer in our garden. The white lines on the back are cutted through glue- lines.

.......done- isn´t it looking elegant?

I´ve even bent it some 5″ for to check an even tiller of the 2 limbsif you do bend a horn- lam the first time, it´s a horrible experience, cracks and cracks, that´s the usual sound………when I bent my first horn bow years ago, my nerves were done.

Next volume is dealing with the sinew– wrapping and sinew- backing of the horn- prod

Sinew- Backing Vol. 2- nothing new on the planet- applying a sinew backing

It is a  must to degrease the wood or the horn, don´t use some of these chemical killers, just use a solution of water and pure wooden ashes. Take care: this is a killer too, it´s a base, historically used for degreasing, use some working gloves.

Wether to apply a sinew-backing to a wooden bow or to a hornbow, to precoat with a thin solution of glue several times is an additional must. Otherwise the glue can´t penetrate deep enough the wood or horn, the glueline is not as stable as it could be.

The sinew- backing needs to be well organized: the workshop has to be well tempered, the glue has to be heated up to 140F or 60C, too much heat will destroy the glue. To less heat will leave the glue to tough.

A dish of lukewarm water has to be prepared for to soak the sinew- fibre bundles about 2 minutes.

The bow has to be fixed in a small vice.

The setting for a sinew- backing: f.l.t.r. dish for soaking the fibre bundles- bow- heated glue

The glue has to be kept to the right temperature with some tealights. The containers used for soaking the fibre- bundles and for the glue have to fit the length of the fibres.

1st: soaking the bundles in water for at least 1minute, when removing them press some water out of them
2nd: soaking the bundles in the glue
3rd: Applying the first bundle right at the handle

Go on applying bundles towards the tip of the first limb. Usually 1 bundle will cover about 1/2″ of the width of a bow´s limb. The bundles should be applied staggered for not to end up with a running through the width glue-line.

Flattening of a bundle on the bow´s back

The guy helping me this post to become true is Stefan, making a Hun- type style hornbow(asymmetrical). It´s his first sinew- backing. The sinew- backing just covers the v- splice with the siyahs.

The first layer is done!

Two additional layers will have to be applied. 2 – 3 layers of sinew- backing is enough, wether it is a wooden bow or a hornbow. Otherwise to much weight is added to the bow. Waiting time is beginning just right now. The elders have left a sinew- backed bow for 4-8 months alone. I don´t know why a lot of modern “primitive bowyers” are ignoring the fact that the so- called drying of a sinew- backing is in truth a polymerization. Polymerization needs its time!

“Time is a healer, where is the patient? “(T.S.Eliot)

Next volume is dealing with the tillering of a sinew- backed bow.

sinew- backing Vol.1- nothing new on the planet-choosing and preparing the sinew

I hope I´ll be able to write an article after some weeks of posting nothing. Sorry, but this winter has begun really hard, after the best fall we have had here, winter has come with really a lots of snow and very cold nights.

winter has just begun- snow and ice at the creek behind our barn
all is white, grey, black, icy

There is much less snow and cold down in the valleys, to live in the heights of the Black Forest in winter is an extraordinary experience. You really feel a bit lonesome.

And it´s every year the same story, everything seemed to be prepared well, but every year you´ve forgot something.

When it comes to sinew- backing I´m getting always enthusiastic. It´s such a great technique and a prime example for an absolutely sensemaking cooperation of humans and nature. It´s a highly holistic and synergetic technique. Maybe we´ve heard something like…….” the old ones have used every part of a hunted animal………….”. It comes true when making a sinew- backing. For to make a sinew- backing we need leg- sinews and hide- glue, so called by- products of a fine steak(I´m a vegetarian, using the “waste” of the meat eaters?). I could philosophize hours about sinew- backing…

The principle is to enforce the back of a bow to withstand the tension when drawn by using  one the most flexible fibres and glues nature offers( nature is never cheap, it is always luxurious). So a modern backing made of artificial fibres and epoxy are nothing new on the planet- same principle- but highly poisonous and polluting, for nothing to say about its durability. A well done and well treated sinew- backing will survive any bow backed the modern way.

It´s very important to know that any backing will add a lot of weight to a bow decreasing its efficiency. It makes no sense at all to back a bow longer than 55″. Historically the bows of the Plains Indians and hornbows have been sinew backed. So the bows of the horsemen have been sinew- backed,  they had to be made rather short for a better handling on a horse´s back. This is the case in the sinew- backed wooden bows of the Plains Indians. Hornbows need a highly flexible backing, cause horn is by far less tension- strong than pressure strong

A sinew- backing is often recomended for to repair a bow. It works very well if there will be a small crack at the back, or it is a good option if the bow- stave seems not to be as perfect- maybe there are many tiny knots or some loose splinters etc…………..

There are another types of historical bows that were not only backed but completely wrapped with bundles of sinews: remember the hornbow for the crossbow I´m just reconstructing, the highly delicious bow- constructions of the Egyptians and Scythians, the joints of the siyahs( the highly recurved tips of hornbows) to the bow- limbs.

I´m wrapping almost every extra piece of wood I add to a bows handle. Sinew fibres are used for to adjust the feathers at an arrow, for to enforce the fitting of an arrowhead to the shaft.

Sinew fibres had been the sewing thread of the past. Its real power is evoked when soaked into water for some minutes before using it, when it dries it is shrinking at about 30%, that´s a lot and it makes clear how our ancestors had been able to produce waterproofed seams.

It is often told that a sinew- backed bow is very sensitive to humidity. That´s really true, any sinew- backing or sinew- wrapping has to be sealed with an oil(linen-seed, walnut, olive, bee´s wax…….). A sinew- backed bow is a weapon to be better used in a dry climate for to come into its own. Historians are telling that the Osmanians would have conquered Central Europe too, if their hornbows wouldn´t have performed so bad in the more humid environment.

The best sinew for to make a backing of a bow is leg sinew of deer, elk and buffalo. I prefer buffalo leg sinew, cause it is easy to split. But it is hard to get. So I often  have to use deer- or elk- sinew, elk- sinew is longer and easier to split than deer- sinew.

leg sinew of an elk- tools for getting the fibres

The length of the elk- sinews is about 11″, the hammer is needed for to tenderize the sinew. After a few blows the skin will peel away and the colour will become more white.

pounding the sinew on a stable wooden log
progress in pounding

Where the sinew is dividing into 2 strings it is very dense and hard, I cut this part off and offer it to our cats and our tame magpie, she likes to play with it, some day I watched the magpie soaking the piece of sinew in her small bird bath, I was really done!

take a gripper or caliper for to go on
take a gripper for to go on
progress in splicing the sinew with the gripper

It´s really a hard work to do, the fibres are sticking together very strong.

the fibres within the sinew are building a kind of a very close net

Having a closer look to sinew its main constituent is keratin, a protein and a polymer. Polymers are building chains, these chains are cross- linked heavily.

some sinew backed bows l.t.r.: a west coast style painted juniper bow- another west coast style painted hickory bow- a typical unpainted Plains bow- a splitted limb Epyptian hybrid hornbow- and the sinew fibres of one elk- leg sinew
sideview at the Plains bow, a ready sinew- backing is so thin, almost not to see on the pic

To splice one elk leg- sinew takes me about 2 hours, usually for a Plains bow or a hornbow you need 3- 4 sinews, backing the bow will take you another hour.

For to get sinew ask your local hunter, give him some money, cause it´s a bit of a delicious job to cut the sinew proper. Dry it at a save place for 3- 4 weeks, mice, dogs, cats……… like fresh sinew.

Don´t use sinew of farm animals. I´ve had to make a very sad experience when preparing my first sinew- backing. I got some sinew of cattle from a farmer nearby, when I begun to pound it, it returns to dust. This cattle has never been walked on grazing land, has always been chained in a dark stable till the butcher was coming.

Next volume is dealing with the applying of the sinew at a bows back.

Hornbows Vol.1- selecting, cutting, working the horn

the materials for 2 hornbows and a bow for a crossbow

Here we´re: 2 pairs of waterbuffalo- horns cut into strips( outer and inner curve, sidewalls), a bundle of 12 leg- sinews of elks, a mountain- maple bowstave and a bag of hide- glue.

Here we go: I´ll post the step- by- step making of a hornbow(hybrid- style) and of a hornbow for a crossbow(medieval European style, about 150lbs).

You know, I´m very ambivalent about hornbows, I admire the making of a hornbow with all its cultural backgrounds, I´ve been involved into the reconstruction of Scythian, Greek and Parthian hornbows for years. For to tell the truth, hornbows have never blewn me away. The term hornbow is totally overloaded with myths, mares and nightmares, arrogance, mistaken masculinity………………….a hornbow is a very ineffective way to make a bow. Anyway it´s fascinating, maybe that´s the magic of horn.

a pair of matching horns

Horn has been reduced to be a main symbol of male power, but remember the unicorn, the cornucopia. It is still used by some tribes and people for to receive cosmic vibrations in rituals or for to enforce the power of organic fertilizers or it is a fertilizer itself. Horn is still a material for to make jewelry, cups, drinking horns and combs. Book covers had been made of horn.

Horn is an ingredient of remedies, mainly for to enforce male virility, but it is also known as a kind of emergency remedy.

In craftmanship horn is used as a stabilizer, when compression strength is needed. Due to its density it serves well as a container for liquids. Chemically horn is a polymer and is made of keratin, a protein that is building long molecular chains. Keratin is the basic component hairs, claws, finger nails and scales are made of.

When engineers tried to develop the first plastic materials horn was the model: they wanted to create a dense, resilient, break- prooved, and temperature- resistent material. Charles Goodyear succeded in inventing ebonit, the first volcanic rubber. Next one was the invention of galalithe, which really looks like horn, radio- cabinets and small boxes for cigars and cigarettes were made of it.

Horn is by far the most compression- strong natural material. Its modulus of elasticity value is great, you can compress a piece of horn at 10% of its length, it´ll always reconstitute its original length. So it is an ideal material for to make bows.

Its main disadvantage in making bows of it, is its high physical weight, so its use in a bow should be reduced to the compression- range of the limbs of a bow. So it is a matter of course to make a hornbow as a relatively short bow too. The shorter a bow, the more tension is stressing the back of a bow, a hornbow without a sinew- backing for to reduce tension strength will not work. A core of wood works as a kind of adjustor between the sinew- backing and the horn. The wooden core is needed for to keep the bow in line, for to withstand humidity, the ancient hornbowyers have called the wooden core the skeleton of a hornbow.

First step is to get the horn. Nowadays we´ve to buy it, our ancestors were carefully selecting the horns needed for to match the required quality. They even observed the buffalo or ibex: were they nourished well, to old, to young………….they had to take the best horns what they had been able to find. Actually the best horn to get is horn of water- buffalos, it is big, long and straight. The water buffalo is not an endangered species. The horn- supplier of my choice is Highlandhorn, run by Martin Hyslop in Scotland. Martin knows what hornbowyers are longing for, you can even tell him what kind of hornbow you want to make, he´ll serve you well. Maybe there´ll be problems with the customs, ask for it. Martin knows that a hornbowyer needs identical horns, a so- called pair of horns. The radiuses of the horns have to match, that´s for to get symmetrically bending bow- limbs.

Usually you get from Highlandhorn what I´ve posted above. Next step is to cut the bottom of the horn even and to plane its outer and inner curves. For to make a hornbow for a crossbow the sidewalls have to be planed too. The hornbowyers are looking for the outer curve of the horn, cause you can cut a long and wide strip of it.

Horn is a natural material, it grows like wood, there´re growthrings, if they are cutted the horn will break. So the sidewalls can´t be used for a hornbow. The hornbow of a crossbow is made like a dry- stone wall, that´s a different principle of construction.

In former times hand tools had to be used for to work the horn. That´s not that hard you may think of it. I´ve done my first horn bows with axes, saws, rasps…….knives, above all for to get a feeling of the material itself. Sometimes I´m still working horn with hand tools, it is an outstanding experience, but usually I prefer a flex for to cut and plane horn. Some hornbowyers advice the use of a bandsaw for to cut a horn, hands off, that´s really dangerous! I´m a former cabinet maker I really know to get by with a bandsaw and I´ve cut horn with it, but severeral times there had been some risky situations, for not to talk of the disrupted saw blades.

the groovy surface of a horn
to pre- plane the surface of the horn with an axe
sidewalls of the horn- remaining groovy areas after planing with a flex

Sometimes the grooves in the sidewalls are to deep for to be planed, leave them and try to get by with the remaining wall.

the bottom of the horn is cutted even- it is very obvious where the walls of the horn are thick enough- have a close look to it, for to notice cracks like the one at the horn´s rigth side near the top
the four sides are planed

The bottom of the horn is very thin, for a hornbow a thickness of at least 1/8″ is required, so some horn should be cutted off. The tips of a horn are solid and thick enough, they will be the belly of the bows handle.

the first horn is cutted, the others are planed- the marks for the cuts are done
cutted outer and inner curves- sidewalls

The required width is about 1″ – 13/4″, twists can be adjusted with heat. Don´t use horn to much twisted anyway, horn is always trying to reconstitute its original grown shape.

So what a hornbowyer is usually longing for should be a long, wide, almost rectangular, not twisted  horn with no deep grooves. That´s a dream, sometimes you´ll meet horns like that. Usually there´ll be some problems.

Next volume is focused on preparing the horn for be glued to the wood and the making of the hornbow for the crossbow: thickness, width, grooving.

Selfmade clamps for laminated bow- constructions

About 10 years ago I did my first hornbows with usual bow- woods as a core: ash, elm, black locust, wild cherry………The glueing turned out to be a kind of not to much reliable The glueing procedure itself was  becoming more and more a thing of chaos and even some horror:  glue drying to fast, fingers full of glue, glue everywhere, all things glued up but not the horn to the core- wood…………….these flops made me to think the whole thing over, to reset and to update my mind about traditional glueing of laminated bow- construction. Remember 10 years ago the infos dealing with hornbows and other laminated bows were not as wide- spreaded as today. It took me another 4 years to become able to manage the procedure in a more secure way. When glueing bow- lams with natural glues it is a must to organize the whole procedure very carefully. Clean and degrease the parts to be glued with curd soap, coat them several times with a thin solution of glue: water- glue= 5 : 1. Take care that the workshop is well- tempered- 77F, as well as the glue- 150F, preheat the wood and the horn to about 75F. Place your clamps or rope ready for to go. When the glueing is done fix the lam to a straight and stable wooden lath for to make sure that the bow will stay aligned. Maybe you want a reflexed or recurved bow, so fix the bow to an according wooden form. This procedure is called glue- shaping.  The Japanese makers of the traditional Yumi- bows are using a rope and wedges made of bamboo for to glue- shape the multicurved yumis.

After having done my experiences in glueing bow- lams I ended up in using selfmade clamps for to match as exactly as possible the needs of a well working glueing.

selfmade clamps- bottom-, side-, top view

The clamps are made of mountain- maple slats cut to 3″ in length, about 1/2″ in thickness for the bottom piece and 1/3″ for the upper piece, width is about 1″. For to screw them down I use thread rods and fitting nuts, countersinked into the bottom piece of the clamp. It´s also a good idea to use winged screws, but for to develop heavier pressure I prefer to screw the clamps down with a ratchet wrench.

selfmade clamps in action- use a wrench of your choice or wing screws

It´s also possible to do these clamps by glueing small pieces of wood at their internal sides for to guide the lams not to slip out of place. But don´t do them to thick, otherwise you can´t produce the necessary pressure: I leave an open space of about 1″ – 11/2″ in width and about 1/3″ in thickness,  you can make clamps with more or less open space matching the different cross- sections of the lam.

another view of the clamps in action- note the glued on small pieces of wood working as a guide

Before using the selfmade clamps open them up, organize the glueing well, prepare all tools you need, take care for the right temperature of the workshop and the glue.  The advantage of these clamps is that you can develop pressure where it is needed, more or less. Don´t screw them down to heavy.  Just as far as the glue is flowing out of the glueline.

These clamps are highly effective, done by yourself you´ve to buy screws, nuts and thread rod. Choose them made of iron not made of aluminium, as I did it for the first time. Iron is much more stable.

The bow- finding of olon kurin gol- some additional experiences and thoughts

go to:  The bow- finding of olon kurin golthis is where you´ll find a  report about the first reconstructions of the olon kurin gol -bow, details and measurements as seen in the findings. SORRY, this page is currently not available!!!!!!!

In the meantime I´ve done another reconstruction,  I succeded in tillering it at 25″ with 43lbs, it shots a 300grs. arrow with 148f/sec. But the money ran out for the researching project, I wasn´t satisfied too much, I would like to do another stronger one. This bow- design is a working design, very delicious to do. I highly respect the craftmanship of the Scythian bowyers.

Fortunenately some weeks ago a Swiss guy has ordered a 65- 70lbs- version of this bow, I could go on and will keep you update!

We did a big mistake in completely ignoring the fact, that the bow has to be wrapped with sinew- fibres all over its length, even we noticed the tracks of the wrappings. But we didn´t like the nice wood to be covered and wrapped it only at the sharp curves. This bow has to be wrapped allover for to keep all those slats together.

Finally Adam Karpowicz ended up in having to wrap his reconstruction of the Subeixi- bow completely too.

Due to the facts of the findings we assume that the wooden Scythian bows have been made and used by the Western Scythians, the Eastern Scythians made and used their bows with a center- piece of horn running all over the length of the bow, like a component of stable shape.

It is also thinkable that the wooden version of the Scythian bow is made for the use on horseback, Adam Karpowicz´s exact reconstruction of the Subeixi- bow has turned out to be very strong, 115lbs at 28″. According to the statements of nowadays mounted archers this is not to handle on horseback?

The tiller of the olon kurin gol bow is different from the tiller of the Subeixi-  bow. The Subeixi bow bends heavily in its sharp curves just beside the grip- section and in its grip itself.

The olon kurin gol bow is 3cm in width at the grip- section, the longer limb is tapered from 3cm to 1.5cm at the recurves, the shorter lower limb is tapered from 3cm to 2.2cm. So the main bending takes place in  the limbs, not in the sharp curves and the grip.

According to the findings and the reconstructions of the Scythian bows it is fact that they are made of wooden and horn- slats.  Recently some other bowyers have come up with reconstructions of Scythian bows made as hornbows are usually done: horn as the belly, wooden core and sinew-  backing, it works, but it is not according to the findings. Anyway the Scythian bow is an eye- teaser.

scythian hornbow, but done as a usual hornbow

Anyway the successful reconstruction made me proud, I have to admit that I didn´t got a feeling for the making of a bow like this, it is so strange to make such a delicious and weird construction consisting of 12 wooden and 2 horn- slats, so many glue- lines. Why did the Sycthians bowyers have made bows like this, I thought over this question, discussed it with other bowyers. From a bowyers point of views it is a deflex/reflex bow with sharp recurves, a still popular design. I guess the Scythian craftspeople liked to do filigree works, look at their jewelry. Above all its a question of the preference for special designs, design as a kind of a “language” of a certain culture or tribe…………..

With much less effort a bowyer could do a better performing selfbow in one day……………….

But we´ve experienced the making of Scythians bows, I guess we really know it now.  Scythian bow- reconstructions according to findings having been done by Adam Karpowicz,  David Betteridge, myself,  Jack Farrell is still waiting for the drying of the sinew- backing. There´s a reconstruction made of sinew- backed osage  the German bowyer Wolfgang Schwerck did some years ago, a very nice bow, even it is not made of slats I like it, sorry, but I can´t find the pic……………..if you ignore or don´t try to understand history, you´re doomed to repeat it………….

Some additional pics:

scythian bow- and arrow case, according to the olon kurin gol findings
from R.Toelle- Kastenbein´s book: Greek archery, quivers, unbraced scythian bow



1st trial of a Scythian wooden bow, sorry, it is broken
2nd trial of a Scythian wooden bow, 25lbs at 22" only, but she´s nice