Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Permanent Supply of Onions

I buy onion sets every year and plant them in my garden. I don't save onion seed because it's kind of a pain. Maybe after I build my green house I will try saving onion seeds and starting my on sets, but for right now I just buy the sets and put them out. This usually gives me a good crop of onions to harvest, and then my wife braids them into long strands which we hang from the ceiling beams in the living room. Yes, in the living room; we are definitely country folk. Anyway, they look kind of nice, and throughout the winter when we need an onion we just cut one off of the braid. It used to worry me though that our supply of onions might be interrupted if sets are no longer available. That is, it worried me until my sister in Arkansas gave me a start of multiplying onions. These are also known as walking onions or Egyptian onions, and they will actually propagate themselves and spread on their own. The way it works is, instead of going to seed, these onions produce small onion bulbs at the top of their green shoots. You can break these bulbs off, separate them and plant them just like onion sets. If you don't break them off, the weight of the bulbs will eventually bend the onion shoot down to the ground where the bulbs will then take root on their own. If you let the onions propagate on their own, however, they will grow very densely and it will inhibit good growth. Also once the onions have been allowed to form new bulbs, the old onion is past its best flavor. I pick some of the onions to eat, and let some of them produce new bulbs. I then harvest the bulbs and re-plant them like onion sets. If you use this method, you can move the onions to a different part of your garden each year. Multiplying onions do not produce a large bulb. They are more like a scallion, but they are perfectly edible, and the green shoots can be used like chives. If you don't know someone that can give you a start of multiplying onions, look on the internet. There are several places that sell them. Once you get a bed of multiplying onions started you will have onions from now on. This site offers walking onions for sale I have never ordered from them so I can't vouch for this outfit, but they might be worth checking out.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Primitive Bow Making - Part 5

Now let's make a bowstring. Remember that you are using either wet rawhide or artificial sinew for your first attempt. All cordage is twisted up using the same basic technique. It is called the reverse wrap. Using the reverse wrap takes only a few simple steps, but it will take a fair amount of practice to prefect the technique. Yucca leaf fibers are used in the following description, however the same basic steps apply to wet rawhide or artificial sinew. The only difference is that you won't have to worry about splices, so there is no need to stagger your fibers as outlined in step three below.
If you are using artificial sinew, just start out with four pieces of sinew that are three times the length of your unstrung bow and proceed to step 4. If you are using rawhide, start with a single strip that is three times the length of you unstrung bow and proceed to step 4.
1. Decide how thick you want your finished cord to be and use half that number of fibers to start with. For example, if you want your finished cord to be as thick as 12 strips of yucca fiber, you will start out with 6 strips of yucca fiber laid out on the table in front of you. All of the big ends of the fibers are on the left, and all of the small ends point to the right.
2. Now take 3 of your 6 strips and turn them so that the big ends are on the right and the points are to the left.
3. ext you will need to take all six strips and place them so that the ends are all off-set from each other. This is very important. Everywhere that one fiber ends, a new fiber must begin, and this obviously creates a weak spot in your cordage. If all of the fibers ended at the same spot and new ones began, you would have a tremendously weak spot that would come apart when the first stress was applied. By off-setting all of the fibers, you make sure that you will have no more than one splice occurring at any point on the cord.
4. Now pick up all of the yucca fibers and fold them into a
"U" shape with the points of the "U" facing to your right and the rounded part of the "U" pinched between your left thumb and index finger. (Note: these instructions are for a right handed person)
5. Keeping a tight grip with your left thumb and index finger, grasp the upper bundleof fibers with your right fingers and twist them up and away from you several times so that they form a tight strand.
6. Now pull this upper strand of fibers toward you and down so that it crosses over the lower bundle of fibers. Shift your grip with your left thumb and index finger so that you are now pinching the two different strands where they cross.
7. Use your right fingers to grasp the bundle of fibers that is on top now (the ones that you haven't twisted yet). Twist them up and away from you several times until they form a tight strand.
8. Now take this newly twisted strand and pull it toward you and down so that it crosses over the lower strand of fibers.
9. Shift the grip with your left thumb and index finger so that you are pinching the two strands where they cross.
10. Repeat steps 5 through 9. That's all there is to it.

After you've made a few strings with solid material you may want to try putting one together using yucca fibers or real sinew. This requires a lot of splicing to make a proper string, and if you're going to try this let me recommend that you read Jim Hamm's chapter on the subject in his very excellent book, Bows and Arrows of the Native Americans. Pictured below: (1) Rawhide bowstring (2) Linen bowstring and artificial sinew bowstring.

Now you have a good bow. In the future I will post about three articles on how to make primitive arrows, but for now I will return to posting on sensible modern survival topics.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Primitive Bow Making - Part 4

You should now have a good shootable bow, so let's just add a couple of little touches to finish it out, and then we'll make a string.

To put an extra fine finish on your bow, use steel wool (Native Americans used fine sand sprinkled on a piece of damp leather) and rub both limbs down thoroughly. Try to remove every little scratch. A scratch may not look like much of a threat; but when a bow is at full draw, even the smallest imperfection may allow the wood fibers to begin separating. When wood fibers start to pull apart it is only a matter of time before the bow breaks.

When you have the bow as smooth as you can get it, rub more oil into the wood. You cannot overdo this. I have a small supply of bear grease that I use to oil my bows, but before I obtained it I used vegetable oil. The vegetable oil worked fine.

Although most Native-American self bows do not have grips on them, many modern shooters feel more comfortable if they do have a grip. A nice piece of brain tanned leather can be glued and stitched around the handle of your bow to form an attractive primitive looking grip.

And now to the question of bowstrings. Most surviving Native-American bows have strings made of sinew. Twisted rawhide was also used. The Cherokee, I am told, used twisted squirrel rawhide. Some Southwestern tribes used yucca fibers to make strings for their lighter weight bows (40 lbs. draw weight or less). All of these natural materials make good strings, but there is one problem with making strings of sinew or yucca. The fibers of both animal sinew and yucca fiber are shorter than a finished bowstring, so to make a string from these materials you will have to create a number of splices. The splices have to be off-set from each other to avoid weak spots, and the fibers must be spliced in only a few at a time in order to avoid thick spots in the string. All in all, it is a pretty complicated process to go through the first time you make a bowstring. For this reason I am suggesting that you use rawhide if you want to make a natural string or artificial sinew if you prefer a more modern material. Waxed linen can also be used to make a good string and was, in fact, the material of choice in Medieval England. Be aware, however, that many primitive competitions will not allow the use of artificial sinew or linen strings.

To prepare rawhide for string making you will need a dried deer hide with the hair and inner membrane removed. Lace the hide in a rack or nail it to the side of your house to dry so that it stretches tight and flat. Be sure to use a deer hide and not an elk hide. Elk rawhide is much weaker than deer raw hide.

It does not take much rawhide to make a string. A round piece about the size of a dinner plate will be large enough. Start at the outside of the piece of rawhide and cut a strip about 1/4" wide completely around the edge. As you approach the point where you started your cut, angle in a little and keep right on going. Spiral round and round until you have reached the center of the hide. You should now have a very long, curving strip of rawhide. Soak this strip in water over night to soften it. A little stretching will straighten out the curves, and you will have a long piece of wet rawhide that you can start twisting into cordage.

If you are going to make your string from artificial sinew, all you have to do is cut four pieces of sinew that are three times the length of your unstrung bow.

Next time we'll talk about how to actually twist up the string using a technique called the reverse wrap.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Primitive Bow Making - Part 3

Now it is time for the most important part of building a bow; the part where more bows bite the dust than at any other phase of construction. It is known as "tillering". Tillering is the cutting and scraping of the bow limbs to their final thickness and the balancing of the limbs so that they bend evenly when the bow is drawn. It's tricky, but if you follow a few basic rules and don't get in a hurry, you will end up with a good bow. Pictured below: Front profile of bow cut out.

You already have the back of your bow laid out and trimmed to shape. Now it is time to turn the bow on its side and draw in the side profile. For the plains style bows that I prefer to make, I do not draw in a distinct handle. I prefer to just make the handle area the thickest part of the bow (about 3/4" thick) and then taper down gradually into the limbs. You may wish to make a thicker and narrower handle. This is perfectly fine. It's just a matter of what suits you. It is usually best to use a ruler and measure the thickness of the handle first, then move to each end and make a mark to indicate the thickness of the tips (about 3/16" to 1/4" thick). Now you can go back and lay a straight edge from the mark at the end of the handle to the marks at the tip and draw in a straight line the tapers evenly from handle to tip. Please note that this will only work if your bow stave is perfectly straight, and they never are. You will probably have to draw in a very light straight line and then go back and make free hand corrections where the stave has slight bends in it. The idea is to keep the taper uniform. Any thin spots will bend too much and weaken the bow. I generally lay out my side profile on both sides of the bow due to the irregularities of any natural wood stave. Pictured below: Side profile laid out.

Now that you have the sides laid out, it is time to start removing wood. If you have a lot of wood to remove you can start with a hatchet, but be careful!! Keep turning the bow constantly and looking at both sides to make sure that you don't take off too much. When you start getting close to your lines, it's time to get out the ol' wood rasp. Work the limbs down carefully until you reach your lines. Pictured below: Side profile cut out.

At this point you will want to cut your nocks so that a string can be attached. I usually use a small rat-tail file for this and cut a nock on each side of each end. Some plains style bows have two nocks at the end where the string is permanently attached and only one nock at the end of the bow where the string slips on and off. Do it however you like. Pictured below: One style of nock.

If we lived in a perfect world you could now slip a string onto your bow and with the exception of a little sanding, it would be ready to shoot. But alas, the world ain't perfect, so rub a good coat of vegetable oil into your bow and let it soak in overnight before you string the bow for the first time.

When you do string the bow for the first time you want to be very gentle. Make sure that the bow is warm. Don't hold it over a fire or anything, just make sure that it isn't cold. Rub it briskly with your hand and flex it gently over your knee to loosen up the wood fibers a little. You will need to string the bow very carefully with a heavy string to prepare it for the final tillering, or balancing of the limbs. Don't pull the bow yet. Just string it so that there is about 5" distance between the handle and the string and then take a good long look at it.

Unless you are very lucky, one limb of the bow will probably be bending more than the other limb. In some cases it may be bending a lot more. The straighter of the two limbs is not bending as much because it is thicker than the limb that is more flexed. Obviously you can't add wood to the more bent of the limbs, so the only alternative is to remove wood from the limb that is thicker. Study the curve of the two limbs. Look at the straighter limb. Where does it need to bend a little more in order to look like the more flexed limb? Mark that spot with a pencil. I usually shade the whole width of the belly at the point that needs to have wood removed. Remember that the belly is the part that is facing you when you shoot the bow, and that this is the only side of the bow that we ever remove wood from. Picture below: Untillered bow. This one came out pretty close on the first stringing, but you can still see that the upper limb is not bending quiet as much as the lower limb.

Now take a sharp knife and, holding the blade perpendicular to the surface of the wood, begin scraping on your pencil mark. Scrape a fairly wide area. Don't dig a hole. When the pencil mark is gone, the limb will not have moved at all, but you must resist the urge to remove more wood. The actual results of your scraping will not become apparent until the bow has been drawn several times. Absolutely do not pull the bow back to full draw. Just flex it gently pulling the string back six or eight inches. Flex the bow at least ten times then stop and take a look at it. The straight limb should now be bent a little more, maybe not as much as it needs to be, but it is better. Now repeat the whole process; looking, marking, scraping, and flexing. Don't get in a hurry or you may wind up in the yo-yo syndrome. This is where you remove too much wood and now the limb
that was too straight is bent more than the limb that was too curved. So you have to work on the other limb and thin it down. If you're not careful you can end up with a bow that has a 10 lb. Draw weight. Pictured below: Laying the bow on a tile floor makes it easier to see where it is out of tiller.

Just take your time and do a lot of looking and a lot of flexing. As the bow approaches balance you can begin flexing it a little more with each pull, but you may want to stop and rub in a little more oil before pulling it too far. When you have the bow well tillered it is time to finish it out, which we will talk about in the next post. Pictured below: The bow is now tillered and ready to finish out.