Hornbows Vol.3- the crossbow

that´s how the finished crossbow should look like

That´s a typical medieval crossbow. Its bow is made of horn, backed with 2- 3 layers of sinew, wrapped with sinew and covered with birchbark.  The bent ends or recurves of the bow are made of another spliced in piece of horn or antler. These crossbows are told to draw 150- 300lbs. The bow measures in length 30″ – 35″, at the handle width is 2″, at the ends( just where the recurves are beginning) width is 11/2″, thickness is about 3/4″ at the center tapering down to 1/2″ at the ends. The recurves are measuring about 31/2″ in length.

assembly of the horn slats, cross section

The horn slats are assembled like the stones of a dry stone wall, no running through seams or joints. It would be no problem to use thinner horn slats, it depends on the available material, so their could be 7 rows of horn slats adjoined. The lengthwise joints are butt joints at a 45 angle.

First is to glue the orange slats, then insert the black slats, last add the red and green slats to the sides. So there are 5 rows of slats. The back of the assembly of horn slats will be cut even, rasped to an even thickness and width, than the tapering in width and thickness has to be done.  The rectangular cross- sections will be rounded more towards the belly of the bow. Time for a first test of tiller(even bending), drawforce, any sounds of breakage??.

In the drawings of the cross-sections the sinew- backing is marked blue.

The cross- section at the left is another way to do a hornbow for a crossbow. Just glue at least 2 slats together lengthwise one upon the other and sinew- back them. This is an easier way. But it is not recommended for really high drawweights up to 200- 300lbs……………..and it´s hard to find horns measuring such long enough with a roughly even required thickness. The dry stone wall method makes a more effective use of the entire horn.

arrangement of the horn ready for the 1st glueing



arrangement of the horn ready for the 1st glueing seen from above - the back of the bow


Next volume is focused on the next step of the making of the “dry stone wall”, and I hope so, on sinew- backing in general.

Hornbows Vol.2- preparing the strips and the glueing, grooving- this is the gourmet- episode of hornbow- making

After having flexed and sanded 2 pairs of waterbuffalo- horn you´re really smelling strong, the smell in my nose reminds me of my first visits at the barber around the beginning 60ties. Even if protected by a mask, it will last 2 days if one will be able again to smell more than horn. I´m used to be around with animals, every morning I´ve to clean up the stable of our horses and our donkey. Donkeys could really stink heavily. I like the smell of animals much more than the smell of cheap perfumes and deos, but the smell of horn, above all when worked with blunt tools, is second to none.

Before the glueing horn needs to be grooved and precoated.  The grooving of the horn and the wooden core of a hornbow along the glue- lines is a hot topic. There are well reputated horn- bowyers confirming that there is no historical proof for such a grooving. Don´t believe them, the very opposite is true. Grooving makes much sense, the glueline will become 3- 4 times wider, a grooved cross- section is much more stable. The stability of the glue- line of a hornbow is a must, cause of its resilience the horn will always try to reconstitute its original shape. To not groove means to overlook this fact, maybe these hornbowyers are somewhat lazy. It takes half an hour per hornbow to make a proper grooving. A well done hornbow is expensive and the grooving is enforcing its quality. A well grooved glueline should be a main charcteristic when buying a hornbow.

grooving of horn- slats for the crossbow

grooving tool at work

the inside of the grooving tool

I prefer to make multi- tools. This grooving tool works for to make grooves of different width and depth. The one used for the grooving of the crossbow- slats is at the left. I use cabinet scraper- blades and made the grooves with round files or triangular files. The blade is fixed between to wooden logs of manageable size with a slot working as a guide. The slot is a bit more in width than the slats.

grooved slats- ends cut at a 45 angle

The grooved slats are cut at their ends in a 45 angle for a lengthwise overlapping.

When making a hornbow for a crossbow the slats have not to be of even thickness or length, the surfaces have to be planed and grooved. Next volume will be focused on the construction- principle of it.

When making composite bows the traditional way hideglue or fishglue is the glue of choice. Modern glues are way of being traditional, they ar poisonous and brittle. Natural glue- lines are much more durable, they don´t need flexibilizers which will discharge in the course of time. The production of natural glues is a very sense making use of what we would call waste. It´s a holistic handling of  a slaughtered animal.

There are different qualities of hide glue. Don´t use liquid hide glues. They are made liquid by  flexibilizers, the glueline will become brittle.

The best hideglue is made of the skins of cattle, its adhesive power is very high(for the experts: 450- 480 bloomgrams, 160mPas). You can get it as a granulate, the serious dealer of my choice is: Kremer in Germany.

preparing the hideglue- soaking the grains with some water for about 12 hours

Before soaking the grains I usually had to clean up the glue- pot. It´s hard to do, I soak it with warm water for to dissolve some leftovers, for the final cleanup I´ve often to use a hammer and a chisel.

Next morning add water: for a good quality hideglue you´ve to mix finally 1 time glue and 2 times water. Now the solution has to be heated up to 140 F, to much heat will destroy the collagen of the glue and it will become worthless.

I use the hot water reservoir of our kitchen stove, the glue pot fits the reservoir exactly. Such a kitchen stove is a great tool when making hornbows, for a proper glueing warmth is indispensable.

The Ottoman hornbowyers are told  to have used a bowl filled with blistering charcoal.

heating the hideglue- there are still some indissolved grains

My wife doesn´t resist such an abuse of our kitchen, cause its me to cook most times and I´m a passionate baker too, I bake bread almost every 2nd day and like to make some cake. I guess my wife has never realized that I use the kitchen stove for to make bows.

Horn is very dense, so it has to be decomposed or digested by precoating it with a thin solution of hide glue.

the thin hideglue- solution for the precoating- water: hideglue= 10:1

At least the horn has to precoated 3 times with a thin solution of hideglue. When glueing horn, bamboo and dense woods with natural glues the precoating is a must. Warmth is as important as the precoating, about 50% of all hornbow- breaks are caused by glueing failures. The horn and the glue are mainly made of collagen, as a protein, it loves warmth, but take care, 140F is the limit. I guess nobodies nose will ever forget the horrible smell of somehow burnt horn or hideglue. My nose is the best thermometer for warming hideglue and horn.

Before every glueing or precoating the horn has to be warmed!

warmth is the key for succesfully working with natural glues!!!
to warm hideglue
the kitchen stove is such a great help in making hornbows- at the same time you can keep the thin glue- solution warm and warm the hornslats in the oven
precoated hornslats looking shiny

After the 3rd precoating the hideglue is warmed up to 140F, the grooved and precoated slats are warmed, coated with the hideglue and compressed with clamps.

the first 3 parts of the hornbow for the crossbow are glued- I bet you can´t recognize any crossbow here!

Selfmade clamps go here.

Next volume is focused on the principle of construction of hornbows for crossbows, including measurements, drawforce, drawlength…………….plans.

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.