Oct 26, 2010

Alaskan Willow Bow

Image 1. Tanaina  bows
I first got curious of the Alaskan Athabaskan bows in the collections of the Finnish National Museum. There are two bows made out of birch with guard. These bows are both ascribed belonging to the Tanaina. These bows are interesting as the influence of Pacific Eskimo culture is strongly evident in th use of sinew string lashing wrapped all around the bow-limbs, a very unique trait among American Indian bows. The VK201 (to the left) is 151 cm long and the VK 202 is 142 cm long. These bows where donated by Etholén in 1846. 

According to Otis Tufton Mason (North American Bows Arrows and Quivers, 1893) these bows are typical of the upper inlet Tanaina. He also describes bows made out of willow equipped with the typical wooden string guard, attached with lashings below the handle section of the bow.

I was curious as to how efficient a bow made of willow might be, I also found it interesting that Northern Athabaskans did not use sinew backing on their bows, with the exception of the Tanaina bows with sinew lashings. I soon found myself looking through bushes around our house for a suitable candidate of a willow bow. I soon found a suitable stave of what I guess is the species Salix pentandra. The stave was 6 cm wide.

The stave had a natural recurve to it so I adjusted the lenght of the bow (150cm) so the handle section was placed in the middle of the bend. It's easy to find long, almost knot free staves of willow and working the soft bow material down to a ruff tiller shape is fast. I guess the bow attained its rough shape in just 1 hr after i cut the tree down. The only tools used was the knife, the axe and a small hand plane.

I can see that there are some benefits to making bows that are as simple to make as this model. Bows in the Arctic and Subarctic are often very work-intensive such as the Eskimo cable backed bows or the Eurasian composite bows. This bow represents a totally different approach to the bowyers problems; making a serviceable bow out of a single stave of poor quality wood by hardening the wood through simple heat tempering and compression of the wood fibres.

Image 3. Heat tempering the belly.
Image 2. The recurved stave
According to Mason the Copper River Indians work the wood by heating or toasting, boiling, greasing and rubbing down they convert these poor materials in to excellent arms. I put the fresh stave in the Sauna and removed it after few hours and let it dry for a day. After checking the stave the following day I realised that is was a bit crooked. I managed to get a tillering-string on the bow to roughly tiller the ends to bend fairly even. I then tied it down on a board, using clamps to straighten the bow. I heat-tempered the bow with a warm-air pistol, careful not so scorch the belly surface too much. I left the bow to straighten out for the night and the following morning the bow was as straight as it needed to be.
Image 4. The string guard at the handle

I rubbed the whole bow with a piece of bone along it's whole length as I figured the rubbing would compress wood fibers and make a more durable bow out of  the soft material. I checked the tiller and had to scrape of a bit of wood of the belly, after which I repeated the heat-treatment on the belly sections I had scraped. Later that evening I also added the guard, which I made of the same material as the bow and attached with a moose-skin thong.      

The bow was ready for use and I tested it with some light arrows. The bow felt very light in my hand, and as I drew it I felt that it was not very heavy bow. So my expectations were not too high as I released the first arrow and.....ZING!!
?It was fast?!
Well it was not as fast as some of my longbows, but still the arrows flew straight and fast in to the target 20 meters away. The guard worked well, despite the low string angle of the bow my arm was untouched by the string. 

Image 5. The unfinished bow and the source.
The bow drew 30 pounds at 23 inches. Not very impressive, but there are some leveling factors, such as the set back handle design and the low mass of the bow limbs seemed to add speed and performance. I believe that it is possible to make a heavier bow out of willow. The material should be able to withstand the tensions of a 45 pound draw weigh . A bow of the same type with heavier draw weight would probably work well enough to bring down large game such as moose. The bow I made can only be used for deer, provided the shot distance is short. Mason notes that the bows of the Hong Kutchin"will not send an arrow with sufficient force to kill a deer more than from 50-60 yards". I believe that the bow I made is considerably weaker than the bows described my Mason. I will attempt to make another one to see if the poundage can be increased. Another factor that has to be considered is that the species of willow I used to make the bow might not fully correspond to the one used in Alaska. But the difference should not be that considerable.
Image 6, bows on plate LXIV.

The bows to the right are illustrated in Masons book. The one to the left is of willow, has a double curve (same as the replica) and a string guard fastened on the inside of the bow. The string is made of raw-hide. Lenght 4 feet, 5 inches. Kutchin, inland Alaska.

The second bow is evidently unfinished, a weak weapon with a bowstring of cotton thread. Length 4 feet 1 inch. Kutchin, inland Alaska.

Image 7. The finished bow.
I tried to copy the burnt decorations to the bow I made, but I was sceptical to if this type of decoration could severely damage the bow so I did not proceed with decorating the whole limbs.

I feel that I also need to make a bow out of birch to see how it performs and see if there is a difference. 

Image 8. The bow at 20 inch draw,
  Photo Credits

Image 1: The Etholén collection, Pirjo Varjola, National Board of Antiquities, Helsinki 1990
Image 2-5, 7,8: Marcus Lepola
Image 6: North American Bows Arrows and Quivers, Otis Tufton Mason, Smithsonian 1893.

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