How To…. Build a Bhutanese Bow

Back in August of 2012 at the BCUK Bushmoot I learnt how to make a Bhutanese Bow with Wayne Jones of Forest Knights. As far as I know Wayne is the only instructor in the UK running classes in making this type of bow. I hope he runs another one at this year’s Moot.

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The Bamboo Bhutanese Bow

This is a quick bow to make when you have an instructor like Wayne to guide you. The bow is made up of two pieces of tapered bamboo joined together in the middle by some sort of cordage or tape around the handle area. I tried to take pictures of all the steps but must admit to missing a few as I got so wrapped up in the whole process. To make up for this I rehandled the bow at home and took some pictures of the missing steps.

I have done a bit of research about this type of bow. It seems that archery is a national sport in Bhutan with many villages in the country running archery competitions. Kids as young as three are taught how to use the bow. Due to the nature of bamboo the outer layer of the bamboo becomes the belly of the bow and the inner part becomes the back: as the outer layer is very hard it will not take the expansion forces exerted as you draw the bow (it will crack), but as it is a grass the inner area (which is fibrous) is more flexible.

Below on the left is a picture of the finished (reworked) bow and on the right Spikey is holding the tube of bamboo we used to make it.

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The finished article and how we started

Wayne Jones researched the bow for me as well and found this in the Bowyers Bible: ‘Unless the bamboo wall is unusually thick it’s best to overlap two billets at the grip secured by a couple of rivets made of nails or dowels, the grip is then wrapped with rawhide, sinew or even tape. Overlapping stiffens the midbow and increases poundage per bow length. Such bows can be made in minutes. Even though “quickie” bows, they are excellent in every regard.

This design is a good choice for kids’ bows: quick and easy to make, and fairly indestructible.’

Wayne brought a supply of large bamboo to the Moot for us to use. With this type of bow you need to use very large bamboo so that when you split it into quarters you get fairly flat limbs. I do not know the type of bamboo that was used or where Wayne sourced it but I am sure if you were to ask him he would help you.

In the first picture below Wayne is showing us two limbs made from one piece of bamboo he had carved earlier. As bamboo gets thinner as it grows higher you need to make both limbs from the same piece of the column to ensure both limbs are of the same width and thickness.

I cut out a section of tube that was 103 cms long to begin with so that when the two limbs were joined together the bow would be my height. NB I am not 2m 6cms tall, but as the limbs overlap at the handle these measurements produced a bow of my height. You will need to experiment for yourself.

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Finished limbs and start of the bow

I used an axe to batton out the bamboo into quarters and selected the best two pieces to work with. I made sure when I was battoning that I kept the blade of the axe at 90 degrees to my body. This would ensure that if the axe slipped out of the split it would swing away from me.

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Battoning out the limbs

Here you can see many of the battoned-out pieces of bamboo ready to be shaped into limbs. You can clearly see the node plates on the inside of each limb, which keep the structure rigid. These need to be knocked off and eventually filed flat.

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In this picture you can see Mark using the back of his axe to knock off each piece of the node plates.

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Breaking the node plates

To make full use of each limb it is best to use string to mark out its shape. Allow an extra half centimetre or so so you can finely trim the limb after you have axed the shape out. I made the handle area (thicker end) about 5 cms wide and the tip of the limb (thinner end) about 3 cms wide. Once you have blanked out the first limb you can use this one to mark out the second limb so it is the same shape.

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Using string to draw the limb shape

Keeping the limb to one side of my body, I experimented first with using an axe to cut the excess off but soon swapped it for a large chopping knife loaned to me by my friend Sargey (Andy Sergeant). This was so sharp with such a good weight behind it that I soon had the first limb blanked out. I then used a smaller knife to trim the limb down to the line I had marked with the string. I used this finished limb to mark out my second limb and repeated the whole process until I had two roughed-out limbs.

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Shaping the limbs

I used various tools such as my Japanese rasp, a cabinet scraper, a small knife and wood files to smooth out what was left of the node plates and to curve all the edges of the limbs. If you do not smooth off all the edges, you don’t just risk a splinter, there’s a good chance your finished bow will develop a split when you draw it.

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Smoothing the plates

Take your time smoothing the plates and edges down.

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Smoothed plates and sides

The outer layer of the bamboo is left untouched and this will become the belly of the bow. The smoothed inner side will become its back.

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The belly (left) is left untouched – The back (right) is smoothed

I used a rounded file to produce the nocks to hold the bow string. Make sure you get them the right way round.

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Nocks produced with a round file

Make sure the edges of the nocks are sanded down so there are no sharp edges. A sharp edge will potentially cut your bow string and could cause a split to occur.

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Lined up neatly and the edges rounded off

When I first built this bow I left the handle area as you see it in the picture below. After shooting the bow I found the handle area just too wide for a comfortable grip.

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Ready to work the handle area

I marked out one handle so I would lose 1 cm on each side, making the actual handle 3 cms wide. Then with a sharp knife I carved out the excess.

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Mark your handle area on one limb, trim off the excess and then use the first limb to mark out the second limb

I then used the first carved handle to mark out the second handle and carved that one as well.

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Trim off the excess from the second limb and you are ready to join them together

To take this picture I got my son Finlay to hold the tape taut and my wife Alison rolled the bow to tape the limbs together.

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I used help to bind the handle. Keep the tape taut and roll the limbs

This method ensures the limbs stay in the correct position and the tape is put on as firmly as possible. Once I had the limbs secured I taped up the middle of the handle by myself.

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Secure both ends

I find that the tape does not offer a good grip so I put on a leather handle using a common whipping technique.

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Finish taping the handle and add any leather for a comfortable handle

Tillering is the process of testing the bow to see if it forms a balanced curve on each limb. Initially we had just a piece of paracord attached to the bow to do this. The tillering stick in the picture allows you to see if the limbs are balanced. If they are not balanced you need to remove a small amount of the inner side of the bamboo using a light rasp or cabinet scraper wherever the limb looks stiffest. This is one part of the process that is very hard to show without taking a whole string of pictures and probably where going on a course and getting one-to-one tuition on it pays dividends. Dick Baugh wrote a good article on tillering on the Primitive Ways website that is worth a read.

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Tillering

Wayne supplied some Dacron for our bow strings. I twisted one end as you would do to make cordage and used that to make a timber hitch for one end of the bow.

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Timber hitch

For the other end I created a loop using the Flemish twist method. Sam Harper in his blog Poor Folk Bows has an excellent article including a video on making the Flemish twist and the timber hitch.

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Flemish twist

The finished bow. This was taken after I had reshaped the handle. I plan to wrap the exposed tape in strips of rawhide to cover them up.

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Ready to shoot

I like this bow much better now that I have rehandled it as it is far more comfortable to hold. I think some more of the cadets will also want to use it now because of the reduced handle size.

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Shoots well

A nice shot of the bow in action with an arrow in flight.

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In action with the cadets – Spot the arrow.

If I could ever source some of this bamboo I would definitely make one or two more. In comparison to my Ash Flatbow and Holmegaard this bow shoots just as well but took only a fraction of the time to make.

If you have further information or links on this type of bow I would love to hear from you.

Cheers

George

20 Replies to “How To…. Build a Bhutanese Bow”

  1. Great Article. I now add a couple of wooden pegs to join the two pieces of bamboo. This stops any compressive forces sliding one limb against the other shortening the bow. Our friends in Bhutan tend to use a rusty nail cinched over. A carved wooden peg is a little more pleasing to the eye.

      1. Hi Joshua – I would send an e-mail to Wayne Jones of Forest Knights Bushcraft if I were you. He will happily send you details of the bamboo used.
        All I can tell you was that he used very large diameter pieces so that when cut out the bows were pretty flat.

      1. Hi Joshua. The draw weight of this bow is fairly light – about 30-35lbs (I have never accurately measured it). As to taking down game I cannot comment as that is illegal here in the UK and I have never hunted game with a bow before.

        In a discussion on this though I would say that this is a bow that relied on the hunters tracking and stalking skill to get up close to their target before using it.

  2. Hello there.
    Congratulations on the bow, it looks great.

    Did you measure the draw weigth? Or the fps?
    How many lbs do you think one can get from such a bow?

    Best regards,

    João Pedro

    1. Hi there

      Glad you liked it. The bow is about 35lbs in draw weight but as far as fps I do not know.

      If you contact Wayne Jones of Forest Knights he might give you some indication of its speed.

      Cheers

      George

  3. I must make one of these! What was the type of bamboo used? I can get hold of Moso bamboo(Phyllostachys edulis)in thick sections; but would this work? Many thanks.

    1. Hi Jason

      Looking at the pictures of Phyllostachys edulis on Google images it looks wide enough to do the job. Have a word with Wayne Jones from Forest Knights as he taught me and he still regularly makes them.

      Good luck.

      George

  4. Nice article . I am from the UK and i am in the Philippines at the moment , been building blowguns and fishing rods from the bamboo which is plentiful around me. Decided yesterday to look at google images for bamboo bows as i have a fiberglass bow and crossbow back home and came across your project, going to make a few of them and then a few of the local boys and i are going to head up into the mountains to try hunting with them (no laws regarding the use of bows for hunting here, wish it was like that back home). Congratulations and thanks for a short and very informative piece i shall be putting the information to good use.

    1. As discussed in the post Gus archery is a national sport in Bhutan and bamboo bows are used.

      It is the name these types of bows have become known as across the world.

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