Bamboo Recurve Bow Build-Along

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Special Thanks to Sam Harper for allowing us to republish his tutorials and build along instructions. His expertise and knowledge in the bow-making field have greatly benefited many readers, and we are grateful for his generous permission.

The Background Story

Several years ago, I made this recurve bow with bamboo on the back, bamboo flooring on the belly, and cedar in the core. Although you can’t tell from the picture, there was also a 21-inch power lam. I can’t remember what I made that out of.

The riser had Osage, padauk, and zebra wood in it.

The form I used to glue it up on was made out of a 2×6. This is a picture of the actual form I used to make this bow:

The bow turned out surprisingly well, so I gave it to my good friend, Sam Loper. If I remember right, it came out to about 50# at 28″.

Since that bow turned out so well, I decided to make another one for myself. I used the same materials in the limbs and the same form, but things went awry.

First, I glued the bow to the form and did some damage to the form in my efforts to get it free. Second, whereas the first bow had perfectly aligned tips from the get go and hardly required any tillering at all, the second one was a mess.

read.. how to make a knife (by Sam Harper)

The tips were so misaligned that I couldn’t even keep a string on it. I gave up on it and set it away for a year. Since the bow was so much trouble, and since the form had warped a little, I threw it away.

self bow bamboo bow

A year later, I decided that rather than leave the bow indefinitely to collect dust or throw it away, I’d experiment with it and see if I could fix it.

I didn’t expect it to work out. One of my neighbors who had bought two of my bows wanted me to make him a recurve, which I didn’t want to do. So I showed him the failed bow, told him I was trying to fix it, and that if I succeeded, he could have it.

I was so surprised when I succeeded in fixing the bow, that I posted it on the Leatherwall as The bow that lived, which for those of you who are not in the know, was an allusion to the failed attempt of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s attempt to kill Harry Potter.

The Bow that lived did not have quite as nice of a tiller as the first one.

However, I was pretty happy that it was a bow. See the smiley face?

Since I had offered to give this bow to my neighbor with the thought that it most likely wasn’t going to work out, I was a little disappointed that I had offered to give it to him. I wanted to keep it for myself.

But it was too late. My disappointment was somewhat alleviated because of how delighted my neighbor was to be getting such a fine bow for absosmurfly free. His day was made, and that was enough for me.

Since the making of these two bows, I’ve been asked a number of times to do a build along. I haven’t done it in all this time because I struggled with both bows. The hardest part was bending the bamboo backing. I’ll explain in a little bit what the problem was.

But I decided to try another one. The first time I made one of these, i was just winging it. I didn’t have any formula about how I was going to make the form, where I was going to cut things, how thick my laminations were going to be, etc.

I used bamboo because it’s difficult to break. Bamboo flooring is really a great material to use to make experimental bows. It’s cheap, and it doesn’t break easily. Since I didn’t write down all the specs from the first two bows, I’m pretty much going to be winging it this time, too.

But I’ll let you know all the specs as we go along so in case you want to try this yourself, you won’t have to wing it.

Thankfully, I at least have that picture where I labeled the dimensions of the form. That will help.

Making the Form

The first form I made was from a 2×6 I liberated from a construction site pile of garbage. Sticking with tradition, I also liberated this 2×6 and 2×8 from a pile of garbage at a construction site.

This 2×6 actually turned out to be a 2×8, which resulted in me having too much deflex in this bow. I was perplexed why this bow turned out to have too much deflex when my original two recurves didn’t.

I just found out today (July 2, 2013). Mystery solved. So anyway, if you decide to do this build along, use a 2×6, and you shouldn’t have too much deflex like I did.

It was easier this time, though. You see, my brother-in-law’s brother is building a new house, and since my brother-in-law is working on it, I just told him what I needed, and he helped me find it.

It’s really important not to get a board that’s warped. Mine was not warped lengthwise, but it was a little warped widthwise.

I planned on cutting that 2×8 in half and gluing it to the ends so I’d have enough room for my recurve, but as you can imagine, with my 2×6 being warped that way, it would’ve resulted in my tips being misaligned. To fix that, I used my brother-in-law’s table saw to square off the edges of the board.

This picture shows a cross section of the board. The area in red was removed by the table saw. I’m exaggerating the amount of warp in my board so you can see why I needed to run this through the table saw.

I suppose a jointer would’ve worked, too. If the board had really been as warped as this picture shows, I probably wouldn’t use it.

I did the same thing with the 2×8. Although it wasn’t noticeably warped, I figured it couldn’t hurt. I took these pieces home, cut the 2×8 in half, and glued it to both ends of the 2×6.

Fate would have it that my 2×6 was already 64” long when I got it, which is about what I wanted it to be anyway. So I didn’t have to cut it to length. My original form was 64.5”, but this’ll work.

Once the glue (i.e. Titebond III) was dry, I drew my shape. I drew a line 2 inches from the end and 2 inches from the bottom.

Then I placed my great big ole salad bowl lid to where it was tangent to both of those lines, and I drew around it. That’s going to be my recurve.

The salad bowl lid has a diameter of almost 13 inches.

Next, I found the center of the form and made a mark at the top, 3.5 inches on either side. I used my aluminum yard stick to draw a line from that mark to the tangent of the circle I drew with the salad bowl lid.

I did the same thing on the other end, then I cut it out with the bandsaw. That was not easy because the whole thing was kind of heavy.

It would’ve been easier with a lovely assistant who could hold one end of it. I cut off the top 5 inches of those 2×8’s first, which helped.

When you cut out those curves, you should at least try to cut one out perfectly rather than cutting slices down to the line and taking it out piece by piece.

The reason is because you’re going to need one of those cut outs to pre-bend your bamboo backing.

I also cut out the bottom corners. Although I’m going to use the rubber band method of glue up for this bow, the rubber bands just aren’t strong enough to get a good glue line in the curve area, so I’m going to use clamps there. It’s easier to use clamps with those corners cut off.

Now that I’ve got the form cut out, I used the belt sander to round out the handle area and smooth out the limb area.

You might wonder how I keep everything squared. Well, I’m just careful, and it may not be perfect. It is important to get a smooth transition between the straight part of the limb and the curve. Once I get the limb straightened out with the belt sander, I used a drill press with a sanding drum attachment to perfect the curves.

You may not be able to get everything perfectly smooth using the belt sander and the drill press. But what you can do is grind a lam of bamboo or whatever and glue it to the form.

That will smooth out any bumps or imperfections. I managed to get mine pretty smooth, so I’m not going to worry about that.

The final step is to drill holes in it, put dowels through the holes, and make some rubber bands. Then the form will be finished. To get free rubber bands, all you have to do is go to any bike shop and say, “Do you have any inner tubes you’re throwing away?”

Inevitably, there’ll be somebody who doesn’t mind sticking his hand in the garbage and getting you an inner tube. One inner tube is way more than enough. I’m using a ten speed inner tube and cutting them about 1/2″ wide.

I drilled 3/8″ holes 1″ from the top and spaced 1″ apart. Then I stuck 3/8″ dowels in there that were anywhere from 3″ to 3.5″ long. Then I hung the rubber bands from the dowels.

My original form had them going all the way around the curves, but after discovering that I’d have to use clamps there, I decided it wasn’t necessary.

It’s still useful, though, if you want to glue a lamination to your form to even out the bumps.

With my setup, I stretch the rubber bands straight across, and they barely make it without breaking. If you happen to have fatter inner tubes, you can crisscross them to get more stretch.

I have mixed feelings about the inner tube method. On the one hand, they give you even pressure, and you can vary the pressure by putting more rubber bands on there. It also prevents the lams from sliding around during glue-up.

On the other hand, if you put too many rubber bands on there, there’s nowhere for the glue to go when it gets squeezed out. Sometimes, it’ll pop through the plastic wrap and glue your bow to the form. Another option, I suppose, is to make a two-sided form and use the fire hose method.

And that’s it. The form is done.

Preparing the Bamboo

I prepare the bamboo backing pretty much the same way I do on the bamboo backed ipe build along (i.e. cutting the inside away with a bandsaw, then grinding it by hand with the belt sander). There were just two things I did differently.

First, whereas on the BBI build-along, I cut the bamboo to the shape of the bow before glue up, in the case of the recurve, I leave the bamboo 1.5 inches wide through its whole length.

(It’s 2 inches wide when I buy it, so I cut 1/4″ off both sides.) The reason is because tip alignment is crucial in recurves. By leaving the tips wide, I have some flexibility after glue up.

Second, I leave the bamboo for the recurve a little bit thicker than I do for the BBI. The reason is because after heat bending the bamboo, it’ll warp a little, and the gluing surface will no longer be flat.

As you can imagine, that will ruin any chance you might have of getting a good glue line. By leaving the bamboo a little thicker, you can re-flatten the area that warped after you’re done heat bending it.

Usually, I’d use a string and weights to get the bamboo straight with the tips lined up through the middle. But in this case, my bamboo was already pretty straight, so that wasn’t necessary.

Here’s a picture showing, from left to right, the bamboo at its full 2 inch width, after narrowing it to 1.5″, and then after flattening it.

Ideally, a recurve would be 1.75″ wide. That helps with stability. You see, the limb tips of a longbow are a little more rigid than the limb tips of a recurve. That extra width in the limb of a recurve helps keep the tips rigid.

The reason I’m going 1.5″ instead of 1.75″ is because that’s how wide my form is. I suppose I could spend t

he extra money and go to the extra trouble of getting plywood or something to make a thicker form, but the 2×6 is easier to acquire and much easier to work with. Of course the down side is that it might warp while it’s in the oven.

Now, we’ve got to pre-bend the bamboo with heat because otherwise it won’t bend around the recurve without breaking.

I took one of the recurve cut-outs, sanded it smooth and round with the belt sander, then cut it out in such a way that I could bend the bamboo around it and apply clamps.

I used a cheap $10 heat gun from Harbor Freight to do this. The heat gun is a good investment because there are all kinds of uses for it. I’ve had mine for several years, and it still works great.

The idea is to heat the bamboo and bend it gradually, starting at the first clamp. You don’t want to apply too much pressure to the bamboo because the idea is to let the heat render it pliable. As you get it to bend a little, apply another clamp. Keep moving down the bamboo until you’ve got the whole curve clamped down.

There are two things you have to be careful of. First, you don’t want to heat the bamboo so much that you scorch it.

I really don’t know how to explain how much pressure to use and how much heat to use, but I can tell you that without anybody explaining it to me, I figured it out, so I’m sure you can, too.

Second, you have to be careful with the nodes. The nodes will be stiff, and that tends to create a hinge on either side of the nodes.

There are a few ways to deal with that. One way is to cut a groove in the form to accommodate the node. But then you’d have to do that for each piece of bamboo you bent, and your form would be full of grooves.

Another idea is to put some padding on the area between the nodes, like maybe a piece of thick leather, a t-shirt, or a thin piece of wood. Another idea is to attach a strip of carpet to the form. It’ll absorb the nodes.

In my case, thankfully I only had one node to deal with. I just placed a clamp anywhere it looked like there was about to be a hinge, and that took care of it.

From bending a few pieces of bamboo, I’ve found that having the bamboo a little thicker than final thickness also helps prevent hinging while you’re heat bending it. So there’s a third advantage to keeping the bamboo kind of thick.

And in case you’re wondering, mine is about 0.2″ (i.e. 1/5″) thick. I’ll make it a little thinner after I take it off the form, like less than 1/8″ thick.

Once I’ve got it all clamped up, I go over it a little more with the heat gun to relax it in shape so it’ll hold when I take it off. You want to give it plenty of time to cool off. I’d give it at least a few hours.

Overnight is even better. It’ll spring back some when you take it off, but the longer you leave it on there, the less spring back there’ll be.

As you can see, I got a lot of spring back. But that’s okay. It doesn’t need to hold the shape perfectly. Having it bent that much will prevent it from breaking when I clamp it to the form, but it’ll still take a little pressure to get it pressed against the form.

When I did the other end, I got a few cracks near the node.

You probably can’t see that very well, but they’re there. That’s why I said you have to be careful around those nodes. If you see a hinge starting to form, put a clamp on it. It might help to put a flat piece of wood between the bamboo and the clamp to spread the force a little.

This turned out not to be a problem because it wasn’t that deep. Once I was done heat bending, I used the belt sander to grind the bamboo and make it more thin. All the splinters went away.

Preparing the other lams

Although I used cedar in my previous two recurves, I’m using all bamboo flooring for this one.

***Important note on bamboo flooring***

Speaking of bamboo flooring, I need to tell you something really important. If you’re going to use bamboo flooring in a bow, you need to get vertical grain bamboo. Do not get horizontal grain.

Horizontal will delaminate on you. It doesn’t matter whether you get carbonized or natural. Paul Kloster used to say natural was better because carbonized takes more set, but I haven’t noticed a difference.

You can get bamboo flooring from I used to buy it in 6′ pieces. I don’t know if they sell it that way anymore. 3′ is fine. You can just butt splice them together. I actually got a box for really cheap on craigslist. Somebody had installed bamboo flooring and had some left over. Score!

Bamboo flooring usually comes with a really hard finish on it. I find it easier to grind the finish off with the elbow of the belt sander before I cut out my lams. Just grind the smooth side and cut the lams from that side.

From back to belly, there’ll be the bamboo backing I prepared above, then a 21″ power lam, tapered on both ends, then two lams of carbonized bamboo tapered at 0.001 inches per inch, then the belly will be parallel.

I put the tapered lams on the inside and the parallel lam on the outside so that if I need to, I can tiller the bow from the belly.

I could use my belt sander as a lam grinder, like I did with the fiberglass bow build along, but why do that when my brother-in-law has a big drum sander?

I made three sleds for use with this drum sander to grind my lams. One of them is 6 feet long and has no taper.

A second is 3 feet long and has a 0.001 inch per inch taper. A third is 3 feet long and has a 0.002 inch per inch taper. I labeled the tapered sleds so I won’t get them mixed up.

I used to have a small piece of wood glued to the high end as a back stop for the lam when I pushed it through the drum sander, but when the lams got really thin, I’d have to hold it down so it didn’t buckle while it was going through. But then I decided to glue some 100 grit sand paper with a spray adhesive, and now it works a lot better.

I can just set it on there, and it runs itself through without slipping. I catch it on the other side. This is a whole lot easier than using the belt sander as a lam grinder, but I understand not everybody has a brother-in-law like mine. 🙁

If you’re going to make sleds, you should use some kind of hardwood, like oak. You need something that isn’t going to warp. Anyway, here’s the drum sander with the long parallel sled grinding my belly lam.

Here’s all the lams after I got them ground.

From top to bottom, that’s my power lam, then my tapered lams, then the belly lam. I used carbonized bamboo for the tapered lams and blonde bamboo for the belly lam.

I just did that for looks. With a blonde belly and blonde backing, I thought the darker bamboo in the middle look kind of cool–like a pin stripe.

I wasn’t shooting for any particular thickness. I just eyeballed it. Whenever I’m making an experimental bow, I try to err on the side of too weak so it’ll be easy to string and unlikely to break.

Once I’ve made a bow out of a new form, then I’ll have a better idea of how thick my lams need to be to get the weight I want for the next bow.

But in case you want to follow along, here’s the thickness these came out to:

power lam: 0.144 inches
tapered lams: 0.140 inches at the thick ends
belly lam: 0.102 inches (a little thinner than I meant, but oh well)

The power lam needs to be tapered on both ends, and it needs to be really thin, like the ends of the riser on a glass lam bow. I do that by holding it against the belt sander with a block of wood.

Notice how I’m holding it from the back of the belt sander which has the effect of sharpening it like a knife.

This seems to work better than holding it from the front, but you have to have a good hold of it or it’ll fly out of your hand. Here’s the end result

Yeah, I realize it’s not the best picture, but trust me. It’s thin. You can see light through it. Having it nice and thin like that will help with the glue line.

Oh my goodness! I haven’t even explained why we have a power lam in the first place, have I? Well, it’s just to strengthen the bow near the fades to kind of even out the tiller so the outter limbs will work.

It also stiffens up the area just before the glued-on handle, which will keep the handle from popping off. If I did this like a fiberglass bow where the lam runs up the fade, a power lam would be unnecessary.

For the tapered lams, I used a butt splice the same way I did on the fiberglass bow build-along. I used epoxy to glue them together.

Doing a Dry Run before Glue

It’s a good idea to do a dry run before you slather glue all over everything. That will help you anticipate any problems.

Whenever unexpected problems arise in the middle of glue up, it causes panic and foul language. Doing a dry run will alleviate some anxiety and reduce the number of cuss words you say later on.

You should have a center line drawn on your form from when you made it. You should also have a center line drawn on all your lams, including the bamboo backing.

That’ll help you keep everything lined up when you put it on the form.

Of course you don’t have to draw a center line where those butt splices are because that’s obvious.

Seeing everything all stacked together like that made me think maybe I should’ve made the tapered laminations thinner.

This bow may come out kind of strong. But this is the middle, showing the power lam and all. It gets thinner as you go out beyond the power lam and the core lams taper.

I start putting the rubber bands on from the middle, like this.

I think the easiest way to put the rubber bands on is to use needle nose pliers. Start by hooking the loop on the back, then pulling it up, over, and toward you, then put it over the dowel in the front.

Don’t freak out if you break a few rubber bands. Just remember how cheap they were and how easy it is to cut more from your inner tube. I broke six of them today.

Once I’ve got a few rubber bands in the middle, I put a clamp on the deepest part of the curve before putting the rest of the rubber bands on.

That makes it easier to put the rest of the rubber bands on. Don’t put much pressure on that clamp. You need the bamboo to be able to slide as you apply pressure with the rubber bands.

Once you get all the rubber bands on there, check for gaps between your lams. If you see any, you can just add more rubber bands on top of the ones you’ve already got. That’ll give you more pressure.

Once you’ve got that all situated, you can add clamps to the curve. I start with the one at the bottom and work my way out, placing a clamp wherever I need to to close any gaps.

These kinds of clamps will leave dents in your bamboo if you squeeze them too tight. You can avoid that by using a piece of leather or something for padding. But if you get a little dent, it’s not too big of a deal. You’re going to sand or grind that rind off later, and the dents will go with it.

The Glue Up

There are almost as many gluing surfaces for this bow as there are for a fiberglass bow, so I’m going to measure out almost as much glue. J

ust like the fiberglass bow, I’m going to use two 3oz paper cups (Mickey Mouse is optional), fill one almost to the top with Smooth On epoxy, and fill the other almost to the top with the hardener.

Then I’m going to squeeze those into a plastic bowl and mix well with a stick of scrap wood.

To prepare for glue up, I put the form near the back of my table and tape some wax paper to the table nearest to me. I also drape some plastic wrap over the bow form. I put all the lamination on the wax paper in the order I’m going to stack them.

Starting with the belly lam, I dab glue on it with my stirring stick, then spread it with my handy dandy seam roller.

I also put glue on one of the tapered lams, then place it on the belly lam to where both glued surfaces are pressed against each other. I press down with my hands all along the length. That helps minimize the amount of sliding later on.

I couldn’t show you all this because I had glue all over my hands and didn’t want to handle the camera. But I basically just kept gluing and stacking. The second to last piece was the power lam. Be sure to get those center lines all lined up.

The last thing to apply glue to is the bamboo backing. This was a little tricky because of the curve, but still manageable.

Be generous with the glue around the curve in case you don’t get a perfect glue line. Smooth-On will fill any gaps, and although it may not be beautiful, it will be fully functional.

I put that all on the form and get it basically centered. At this point, I took my rubber gloves off since I’d just be handling the plastic from here. With glue-free hands, I could take pictures again.

Notice how the tip of the backing is bent up while everything else is straight. That makes it impossible to wrap the plastic around it right away.

So I just wrap the plastic around the middle at first and put the first few rubber bands on.

See how the ends are still unwrapped? As I put the clamp on the curve, I can wrap the rest of that plastic around the ends, being careful not to get any plastic between the laminations.

By the way, don’t wrap that plastic tight. Leave it kind of loose so that when the glue gets squeezed out it has somewhere to go. Otherwise, it’ll pop the plastic and glue your bow to the form.

From here, I follow the same procedure as when I was doing the dry run. Be careful to keep all the laminations lined up as you’re applying clamps because it’ll want to slide. Here it is all clamped up and ready to go in the hot box.

Having it all clamped and rubber banded like that makes it blurry. It clears up when you place it in the hot box.

This is a new hot box I made with plywood. It’s a lot sturdier than the one in my ‘how to’ thingy and gets a little warmer.

It still has three 100-watt bulbs in it. I attached foam board insulation all over the inside. It gets to around 170°F in the summer or 150°F in the winter.

I cook it for four hours, then turn it off and leave it in there overnight. Or, if I do the glue up in the morning (which I did today), I might take it out that evening. Just make sure you give it plenty of time to cool off.

What to do for a Handle…

While the bow was in the oven, I looked around for some wood to make a handle out of. On the previous two bows, I glued several thin laminations of various woods against the bow, then another thicker piece of wood on top of that.

I had a piece of Osage that was already thin and flat, so I used that. I had a piece of mesquite firewood that I cut a risers out of a while back and had enough left over to cut a thin strip from it, so I used that, too.

And my brother-in-law gave me a small piece of curly maple.

I don’t remember how long my riser section was on the first two bows, but looking at the pictures, I’m guessing they were about 12 inches long.

My maple piece was only 11 inches long, so I decided to cut the Osage and mesquite to 12 inches and put the maple on top of that.

I cut these to about 1/8″, then used the belt sander to remove the tool marks and make them thin enough to bend easily. I didn’t bother with the thickness sander because it’s not that important to get them perfect. The belt sander is good enough.

I’m thinking about adding a piece of walnut, too. I have lots of walnut flooring my brother-in-law had left over from a building project.

Have I mentioned that I love my brother-in-law? And I love my sister for marrying him. Let’s give him a name so I can stop saying “brother-in-law.”

I really don’t like typing that out each time. I especially don’t like typing the hyphen. Let’s just call him Steve. I actually call him Uncle Steve, not because he’s my uncle, but because he’s my daughter’s uncle.

Later…I went with the walnut.

Out of the Oven

The bow was glued to the form in one spot. I used a chisel to get it off without damaging the bow or the form.

It was a bit of a struggle to get the bow off the form, but after a little tugging and prying, it just went “pop” and it all came off at once. It held its shape, and there was no spring back.

I immediately pressed it against the floor and found it to be quite a bit stronger than I expected. I think I should’ve made those tapered lams thinner.

I might should’ve made the bamboo backing thinner, too. When I was grinding everything, I was worried it was going to be too weak. Oh well. I’ll know next time. And I can still take a little off the belly.

Cleaning it up and Adding Riser and Tip Overlays

Taking the plastic off was like pealing a sunburn. Of all the plastic wrap I’ve used, Hy-Top works the best because it’s not as sticky. It comes off a lot easier. I don’t worry about cleaning the bow up too much at this point, though.

Mostly, I just want the belly to be clean where I’m going to glue on the riser wood. So I clean that up with a belt sander, then glue on the riser lams with Titebond III.

You don’t want to wrap plastic around it when you’re using Titebond III. Titebond III doesn’t cure; it dries, and it’s needs air to dry. Just wipe off all the excess glue that gets squeezed out with a paper towel so it doesn’t make a mess and glue your clamps to the bow.

If memory serves me right it’s Osage, mesquite, walnut, and maple, in that order. I always feel a little uneasy putting beautiful wood in laminations like that since you only see the edges and ends of it.

I’m going to try to get a nice fade so hopefully, we can see some of that mesquite and curly maple.

I’m going to let that glue dry overnight, then glue on the rest of the handle tomorrow.

Now, if I had been thinking, I would’ve marked the form in 1-inch increments (marked at 2″ increments) down the limbs so I’d know where to cut the bow for whatever length. I forgot to do that.

Now that I’ve got part of the handle glued on, I can’t just stick it back on the form and mark where I’m going to cut the tips. Oh well. I’ll deal with that later.

No, on second thought, I’ll deal with that right now. It isn’t easy to use a tape measure to measure increments on a curved surface. It’s easier to put some masking tape down on a flat surface and use a yard stick to measure the increments.

Notice that I marked off twice each inch. That’s because there’ll be an inch on both ends, so for every one inch on one limb, that’s two inches on the whole bow.

I take that masking tape and stick it on the form.

Now, I can mark the increments on my form.

You can probably tell that this form is bigger than the average recurve form. When the handle is done drying, I’m going to cut the bow at the 68″ mark so I can cut my nocks at the 66″ mark.

66″ is how long I do most of my bamboo-backed longbows, but it’s kind of long for a recurve. That’s alright, though. I’m just doing this for the fun of it.

Since the three lams I glued on for the handle were about a half-inch thick, when I put the bow back on the form, it was raised by a half-inch. So I marked it a half-inch above 68″ to hopefully give me 68″, and I cut off the ends.

Then I traced a line on a piece of mystery wood to match the curve of the handle.

I sanded it to perfection, then glued it on with Titebond III.

The next day (that being today), I cleaned the bow up a bit. First, I took off some of that bulging glue with the band saw.

Then I used the belt sander all along the sides until I got all the glue off the sides and could see the glue lines.

Well, okay, there’s still a little glue on the handle, but I got most of it. The rest will come off while I’m shaping the handle.

I used the belt sander to grind all the corners along the limbs. That helped get rid of some of the glue that was stuck to the back. I got the rest of it with a pocket knife.

The pocket knife only works with the glue stuck to the rind of the bamboo, and it comes off pretty easy. I do this all along the back of the bow until it’s all removed.

Now I want to cut the tips out, so I use a string to see where they line up. My tips turned out to be lined up pretty well.

It’s hard to draw straight lines down the curve, so I made a template out of a discarded sanding belt.

It worked out pretty well.

I cut that out, then smoothed the sides with the belt sander. The reason I only tapered the last 8 inches is because the wider it is going into the curve, the more stable those tips will be.

I used a pneumatic drum sander to remove the rind.

You could also use sand paper or a scraper, but that’s more work. It’s important to remove the rind because it lifts splinters easily.

You can round the corners of the nodes a little bit, but DO NOT flatten the nodes or you’ll violate the grain and cause a failure. With the pneumatic drum sander, there’ll be a little rind left on either sides of the nodes, which you can take care of with 100-grit sandpaper.

Once all the rind is removed, sand the whole thing with 100-grit sand paper. Then use 220 or whatever. You want that backing to be nice and smooth.

Now, I cut the fades for the riser. I measured 3 inches on either side of the center line, then drew a line from there to the end of the fade.

I cut that out with the bandsaw, then I smooth it out and make it dished with the elbow of my belt sander.

Be careful not to cut into the limb, and be careful while blending it in with the belt sander not to grind into the limb. Here’s what it looks like after the belt sander:

And here’s what it looks like after the pneumatic drum sander:

With my bamboo backed longbows, I always round those fades, but I’m going to leave these square, at least the part that runs into the limb.

As you can see, I rounded the corners a little. I do that all the way down both sides of the limbs except near the end where I’m going to glue on tip overlays.

I need those to be perfectly flat. I made them flat by tilting my belt sander up and grinding them.

They came out looking like this.

It wasn’t perfectly flat, so I tweaked it a little with my dremel tool.

Since I have an abundance of scraps of cow horn on account of using it to make English longbows, I decided to use that for my tip overlays.

Since I was not perfectly satisfied with the flatness of my gluing surface, I used two clamps on both tips and made sure they were snug.

I put those on with 30 minute epoxy, then went to see World War Z at the Alamo Drafthouse. The movie was okay, but nothing to be excited about. I can tell you, though, that running zombies are the worst kind.

When I came back, I used the bandsaw, belt sander, dremel tool, 4-way Nicholson rasp, rattail file, and sandpaper to shape the tips.

This isn’t the final shape. I just roughed them in so I can put a string on it and see how it bends. I wait until it’s tillered before final shaping.

Stringing It Up and Tillering

Stringing a recurve sucks because stringers don’t work well. The easiest way is the step-through method, but that’s not the best way, especially with a recurve. I ain’t gonna lie. I used the step-through method.

When I first strung it up, it had a 1/4″ positive tiller (or negative, depending on your perspective, but up until then, I hadn’t decided which would be the top limb).

“Wait a minute, Sam! Didn’t you skip a step? What about tillering with the long string first?”

I would do that with most wooden bows, but since I ground these laminations, I expected the tiller to be close to good from the get-go, and with floor tillering, I could tell it wasn’t outrageously heavy. So I went ahead and strung it.

And since the tiller looked good, I started exercising the limbs, too. After a bit of exercising, I went ahead and brought it to full draw. It was lighter than I expected it to be. I measured it at 45 lbs at 28 inches.

Much lighter than I expected, but just about right. It’ll probably go down to 40 lbs after sanding and shooting it in. Bamboo takes a lot of sets, so I expect it to lose some draw weight.

The only problem with it was a slight misalignment.

To fix that, I used the belt sander to remove bamboo along the edge as shown in the picture. You have to go slow here and keep checking it because recurves are sensitive about that stuff. I went too fast and fixed it on the first try. I could’ve easily taken off too much and had to remove wood on the other side. I got lucky.

Once it seemed to be fixed, I took it outside and shot a few arrows. After the third arrow, it still seemed to be lined up.

So I went back inside and cut some grooves along the belly at the curves for the string to sit in when it’s strung.

That helps keep the string aligned, and it keeps it from popping off by sliding over one edge.

The tips and handle

Since one limb was bending slightly more than the other, I designated that the top limb, and I cut my arrow shelf accordingly. I also shaped the tips and handle, and I did a lot of sanding. I didn’t take any pictures during this process. Shaping tips and handles is, to a degree, a personal matter. You have a lot of flexibility. If you want to see how I shape my tips and handle for my bamboo backed longbows, here’s a series of videos on YouTube. The procedure was pretty much the same.

Putting a stain on it

A long time ago, J.D. Jones (aka Horseapple) had this tutorial showing how he did a fiddle back stain on the back of a bamboo bow. I read that thing over and over and experimenting, but I could not replicate what he did.

There were also these two guys named James Parker and Vinson Miner who did beautiful stain/dye jobs on the back of their bamboo bows. Check these out, and keep scrolling down so you can see all of them.

I posted a bunch. I’ve done a lot of experimenting and have never been able to replicate their art. The other day, I was visiting Bob and Zach Sarrels of Sarrels Archery fame, and Bob recommended using a feather to apply the stain for the fiddleback design. So I gave it a try.

I wanted to have a lighter base coat, then put the fiddle back design with something darker, so I started off with some green aniline dye dissolved in denatured alcohol and wiped it on the back of the bow.

You can get it as dark as you want by wiping more coats on. So I wiped a few on until I got it to where I wanted it.

Then, I dipped my feather in some green leather dye (because it’s pretty concentrated), and began dabbing down both limbs.

I thought it looked like crap, but I kept going. Here’s what it looked like when I was done.

Some of the dye got on the side of the bow.

I tried to sand it off, but it had already soaked in too far. In hindsight, I guess I should’ve used some masking tape.

I vaguely remember J.D. Jones saying in his tutorial that you should wipe it down with alcohol to soften it a little, so I gave that a shot. Here’s what it looked like.

Even though it still looks like crap, it’s better than any other attempt I’ve made, and I’ve made a bunch.

Thanks Bob! James Parker uses a mouth atomizer to paint the back of some of his bows. I’m going to try that next time.

Putting a Finish On It

I usually use Deft lacquer for everything because it dries quickly on oily wood. Bob Sarrels taught me a better way. It’s a little more involved, but it gives you a much more durable finish.

First, they sell these disposable Preval sprayers. You can buy it with the sprayer and a jar, or you can buy a sprayer without the jar, or you can buy extra jars without the sprayer.

I’ve seen them at Lowes or Home Depot (can’t remember which), but you can also get them on Amazon.

The sprayer will clog up on you if you leave it sitting too long, so when you’re finished with it, you should take the sprayer out, and spray it a little in the air to clean it out. There’s a lid that comes with the jar.

Second, he puts 80% Thunderbird Sealer and 20% lacquer thinner in the jar. Thunderbird starts off as a lacquer, then after six hours turns into a polyurethane.

That’s cool because it dries just as fast as Deft, but then becomes harder. Bob recommends getting gloss because it’s more durable than satin.

After the first coat of Thunderbird, steel wool the [cuss word] out of it. Then put two more coats on it. You only have to let it dry for ten minutes or so between coats.

After the third coat, wait at least six hours so that it converts to polyurethane. Then, spray a Satin polyurethane over that, which you can get in a spray can from Lowes, Home Depot, or wherever.

I can’t remember if he said to use one coat or two, but I just use one. Bob explained that waiting until the final coat to put the satin on there gives you a more durable finish because the grit they put in there to make it satin weakens it a little.

That’s why he recommends getting the Thunderbird in gloss.

Final Reflections and Pictures

Here it is all finished. I’ll probably end up putting a leather grip on it. It feels better when it’s all hot outside like it is right now, and my hands are sweaty.

The final draw weight is 43# @ 28″, but I suspect it’ll drop a few more pounds as it is shot in.

If there’s one thing I’d change about this bow it would be the amount of deflex. There is too much. (EDIT: This bow had too much deflex because I was using a 2×8 instead of a 2×6. Woops!)

The bow barely has any stored energy when it is strung unless you raise the brace height, but then that shortens the power stroke. I remember way back when I wanted there to be a lot of deflex because I was afraid the bow would break.

There are a couple of ways you could get less deflex. One way is to grind the handle area on the form down some more with the belt sander.

I’d probably take the bandsaw short cut. Another way is, instead of measuring two inches from the bottom of the form when drawing the curve, measure three or four inches instead.

It’s got a 1/4″ positive tiller, which is pretty normal for shooting three under, but seeing it at full draw makes me think I should’ve gone with a 1/8″ positive tiller.

bamboo recurve bow diy

And here’s a video:

EDIT (9/4/2013):

I really didn’t like that green dye job I did, so I sanded it out and tried again. I did this one by wiping on a red leather dye.

Then I used a mouth atomizer to blow some black dye on the nodes. I like this much better. I’m still frustrated that I can’t do a fiddle back stain.

Disclaimer: Sam Harper owns the rights to this article’s images and written content.

Alexander Knobloch

Hi, I'm Alex, the owner of BowAddicted. I've been shooting recurve bow since 2019 and recently got into string walking. I'm passionate about archery, the outdoors, and my kids. This journey has had its share of ups and downs, but the moments spent outside with friends and family are truly worth it. Feel free to get in touch!

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