March 07, 2021

Handmade bows connect local hunter to nature

Making his own bows helps keep Andrew Anderson more connected to the outdoors and the hunting experience, he said.

“Everyone takes the meat off of animals they harvest if they are ethical,” he said. “But I get to use the tendons and the bones and the hooves and the hides all for making archery equipment. It kind of brings it full circle.”

Anderson has been making bows and arrows since he was in high school, making around 30 so far. He recently moved to Afton where he picked the hobby up again. He said he has more free time with his job here and Iowa has better bow hunting seasons.

He prefers to use all natural materials for his bows and arrows, and as much as possible he uses materials he has harvested himself.

“Using all natural materials seems to fit well when you are going into nature,” Anderson said.

The bow can be made of just about any hardwood. Anderson has used elm, hickory, hedge, black locust, black walnut, wild cherry and hackberry. It was an elm tree that inspired his first bow.

After reading a library book about making bows, Anderson used part of an elm tree that a winter ice storm took down to make that first one when he was in high school.

After harvesting a straight piece of wood 5 1/2 to 6 feet long, Anderson splits it into quarters or up to six pieces which then must be cured for as much as a year for each inch of wood. Once the wood is dry, he prefers to use hand tools while he is working on the bows.

The hardest thing about making a bow is getting it to bend right, Anderson said. “Tillering” a bow is the process of making sure it bends evenly along its length.

“All of the parts of the bow (need) to be doing an equal amount of work,” he said. “That will give you your best performance and ensure the bow doesn’t break.”

Anderson said it is important to follow the grain of the wood as he removes the excess and shapes the bow.

“You can’t have a set idea of what kind of bow you’re going to make,” he said. “You kind of have to deal with what the tree gave you even if there’s knots in there or it’s twisted. You just have to work around them. It makes some pretty interesting looking bows, but they’re definitely not cookie cutter bows.”

“You kind of have to deal with what the tree gave you.”

—  Andrew Anderson

He finishes the bow with eight to 10 coats of linseed oil and adds another coat every year or so to preserve them.

Anderson has made his bow strings out of harvested rawhide but he is currently using linen to create them. He has also used rawhide to back bows to make them more resistant to breaking. The striker plate and arrow rest he makes out of the hooves or bones of animals he has harvested himself.

He makes his arrows out of wood and likes to use wild turkey feathers to fletch them. He ties the feathers with harvested deer sinew.

“It’s a good way to utilize the animals that we harvest,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he has made arrowheads from flint, but he has found more success lately using old saw blades to make them.

The quiver he uses to hold his arrows is made from the hide of the first deer he ever killed.


Anderson said he appreciates the long history of bows and arrows. Wood bows are slower than a compound or fiberglass bow made in a factory and their performance may not be as “impressive by modern standards,” he said. They also take a little longer to learn to shoot.

“They are really capable hunting weapons,” he said. “There’s never been a culture that’s fed itself with compound bows or fiberglass recurve bows, but there’s been hundreds of cultures in America and prehistoric Europe and Asia and Africa and everywhere that fed themselves with wood bows. They’re really very effective weapons and they’re fun to shoot.”

“There’s been hundreds of cultures in America and prehistoric Europe and Asia and Africa and everywhere that fed themselves with wood bows.”

—  Andrew Anderson

He researched bows and arrows of ancient cultures, finding that several of them used very similar bows. Anderson patterns most of his bows after the Meareheath bow found in a peat bog in England, Holmegaard bows from Denmark and the Sudbury bow — one of the earliest Native American bows that has been found.

These bows have a thicker, stiff handle section and are deeper and narrower than the Cherokee-style bow that he also makes.

Using the bows

Anderson said his bows hold up well. The bow he hunted with this year was one he made in 2006.

“You don’t have to baby them,” he said. “Just put some new finish on them and replace the bow string once in a while. They’re pretty maintenance free.”

As well as making bows and arrows in the off season, Anderson practices and said he hunts small game such as rabbits and squirrels.

It takes more practice to use a wooden bow than a fiberglass one, Anderson said. Unlike a store-bought bow where hunters can pick it up and shoot fairly well after a break, handmade bows require him to be familiar with the specific bow in order to know “where the arrow will go.”

He makes his bows primarily for his own use and for friends and family, but he has sold a few and given one to a National Wild Turkey Federation raffle. Anderson said he doesn’t think he could ever make a living selling them — nor would he want to, but he doesn’t mind selling some once in a while.


Reporter, columnist, teacher, children's book author, book store owner - Regina Smith has a wide range of experience in writing and education. She combines those interests and experiences to cover city and county government and human interest stories as well as writing a biweekly column in her home town of Creston, Iowa.