Australian bow woods.

How to make a Bow, a String or a Set of Arrows. Making equipment & tools for use in Traditional Archery and Bowhunting.

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Nicholas George
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Australian bow woods.

#1 Post by Nicholas George » Thu Apr 27, 2023 9:28 pm

Hi all,

I original posted this in "Traditional Tackle" but just decided it might be better here. I’ve been making bows as a hobby for fifteen years or so. Originally from Western Australia, I spent years working in the U.S. and was involved in the San Francisco Bay Area Bowyers, an amateur bowyers’ group. In this group, I learned bow-making with North American woods like Maclura pomifera (Osage), Taxus brevifolia (Pacific Yew), Carya sp. (Hickory and Pecan), and Juniperus occidentalis (Western Juniper), and had the privilege of engaging with some of the original authors of the Bowyers Bible, including Tim Baker.

Being Australian, I was fascinated by the potential of Australian woods for self-bows, and some of my idle speculation on this topic has been circulating on the web for years: https://www.tapatalk.com/groups/paleopl ... 47632.html. Now back in Western Australia, I’ve been experimenting with local species, notably Eucalyptus marginata (Jarrah) and Casuarina obesa (Swamp Sheoak), and various mallee from the western Wheatbelt. Compared with North American timbers, I’ve found these hard to work and disappointingly brittle.

I recognise that commonly reported mechanical properties (i.e. MOE, MOR, SG) aren’t the final word on bow-woods. Still, identifying potential bow woods without actually going and making bows from every species on the continent is desirable. With the help of another WA-based bowyer, I compiled a dataset of published mechanical properties for Australian and global wood species and started running multivariate analyses. The aim was to explore how Australian woods compared to woods from other regions, notably those considered to be highly suitable for self-bows.

Preliminary findings show that most common Australian timbers tend to be dense and weak in tension relative to woods from other continents. Density is correlated with strength, suggesting self-bows can be made from Australian species, but they must be relatively wide to compensate for their relative weakness in tension. Mass must be placed close to the handle so that performance is not compromised by the high density, suggesting pyramid designs and/or very narrow outer limbs are needed. The high density also suggests that most Australian woods will be relatively hard to work with hand tools. The results are interesting, and we are even considering publishing them.

I wanted feedback from other bowyers on their experiences with Australian woods and got ethics approval from my university to conduct a survey on the topic. This was a dismal failure. Despite posting on every bowyer forum I could think of the response rate was very poor. I’ve been poking around OzBow for nearly a decade, but Greybeard suggested I go back over old posts on Australian woods. On his advice, I spent a couple of weeks sifting through several thousand posts from 2005 to 2023. From this, I learned there are many more people actively making bows from Australian woods than I realised.

The following is my summary of the posts and would like people's feedback on it. Does it more-or-less capture your experiences with Australian woods for self-bows? Are there any other thoughts on this topic I have missed?

Australian wood species that are suitable for selfbows

The species most commonly mentioned on OzBow as being suitable for self-bows are the following (in alphabetical order):
  • Acacia harpophylla (brigalow)
  • Acacia shirleyi and/or Acacia doratoxilyn (Lance wood)
  • Alphitonia excelsa (Red Ash or Soap tree)
  • Corymbia maculata (Spotted gum), is it widely used because it is commonly available?
  • Eucalyptus paniculata (Grey Ironbark)
  • Eucalyptus sideroxylon and/or Eucalyptus tricarpa (Red Ironbark)
  • Gossia bidwillii syn Austromyrtus bidwillii (Python Tree)
Other species with a handful of mentions:
  • Eucalyptus macrorhyncha (Red Stringybark)
  • Eucalyptus laevopinea (Silvertop Stringybark)
Some people have reported success with the following species, but there are generally only one or two posts:
  • Acacia aneura (Mulga)
  • Acacia falciformis (hickory wattle)
  • Acacia cambagei (gidgee)
  • Corymbia tessellaris (Moreton Bay ash)
  • Chionanthus ramiflora (Northern Olive)
  • Eucalyptus camaldulensis (River gum)
  • Eucalyptus flocktoniae (merrit)
  • Eucalyptus grandis (Southern blue gum)
  • Eucalyptus saligna (Sydney blue gum)
  • Eucalyptus salubris (Fluted gimlet)
  • Eucalyptus tereticornis (Forrest red gum)
  • Eucryphia lucida (Leatherwood)
  • Flindersia australis (Crow's ash)
Bow design

The self-bow design favoured by most Australian bowers is the Andaman – Holmegaard. This agrees with the findings of my analyses. Wide limbs are needed to distribute strain in these relatively tension-weak woods. Thin outer limbs reduce near-tip limb mass and position wood near the grip. This is an efficient design for these very dense timbers.

Other comments

People also note that Australian native woods can make functional self-bows, but are either rare, grow in obscure places, or don’t usually grow to the size and quality needed for bows. This is also my experience with collecting wood in Western Australia. There is also a lot of intra-specific variation in wood quality reported, so a species suitable for self-bows in one region is not suitable in other areas.

People also observe that most native woods are incredibly hard to work, even with steel tools, and it would be incredibly hard to make a functional self-bow with stone tools, even with green wood (except possibly with Red or Pink Ash). This has implications for the lack of the bow-and-arrow in Australia before European colonisation.

Please let me know what you all think.

Cheers!

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Re: Australian bow woods.

#2 Post by Stickbow Hunter » Sat Apr 29, 2023 10:20 am

G'day Nicholas,

I refrained from replying as I am a novice self bow maker having only made a couple of Osage self bows which shoot just fine. One of my best mates was the late Dennis La Varenne, who IMO, was one of the very best self bow makers in the country. He used Alphitonia excelsa (Red Ash or Soap tree) to successfully make numerous self bows with great success. He made English Longbows with D cross section without any issues. My son has one of these that Dennis made him.

I have seen a number of Red Ironbark flat bows made by a chap in Victoria and they all seemed to collapse under compression.

Sorry I can't assist any further.

Regards

Jeff

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Re: Australian bow woods.

#3 Post by Nicholas George » Sun Apr 30, 2023 9:55 am

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your response! I've used information from Dennis La Varenne myself on-and-off for 15 years or more. Reading through his thoughtful and insightful OzBow posts and knowing he had passed away was sad.

Alphitonia excelsa certainly certainly gets mentioned a lot on OzBow. Being in WA, I have never heard of this species. What you say about Eucalyptus sideroxylon and/or Eucalyptus tricarpa (Red Ironbark) is interesting. Others speak about it favorably. Given how dense it is, I would have thought breaking in tension rather than compression would be the main issue.

Cheers

Nic

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Re: Australian bow woods.

#4 Post by flyonline » Sun Apr 30, 2023 12:09 pm

Nic

I believe that A. Falciformis is Mountain Hickory Wattle whereas A. Implexa is the normally known as Hickory Wattle, though there also appears to at least one other that goes by the same name (namely A. Mangium).

Like Jeff I'm relatively inexperienced, so didn't figure my observations are worth much, but for what it's worth, here they are for A. Implexa.

I've made a few bows out of this, including a small kids bow that I got to pull 40lbs when testing but I re-shaped it to maybe half that now. It's taken some set, but I suspect that is more due to that I did pull it to double it's intended draw weight and has been left strung for long periods of time and probably gotten wet at some stage (it's unprotected). It's shot hundreds and hundreds of arrows and I'd be happy to shoot small game with proper arrows/broadheads with it.

I've also made 2 pseudo andaman/holmegaard types as well. The first was a spliced billet with full handle that was in the low 50#'s. It shot beautifully when I was testing/working it up to full draw but exploded due to operator error shortly after I finished it (long story, still don't want to admit my stupidity years late :Tent ). The second was a lightweight (~18-20lb) selfbow that I still have and occasionally shoot. Due to the stave I was forced to get it bending a little too much close to the handle but it still hasn't taken much/any set.

The wood I've found to produce the most irritating dust of anything I've ever worked with. I have to wear full face mask, full length sleeves and pants as any that gets onto my skin and rubbed around with a bit of sweat gives me hives almost immediately and any splinters are seriously painful and swell up badly if left. It works not unlike a softer osage and with a salmon red heartwood and white sapwood it's stunning to look at when polished and finished up or burnished with a fabulous luster and 3d shimmer. It seems to glue ok, I did end up having to glue the spliced billets a few times but I suspect that was my inexperience as much as anything, though it didn't take to TB3 and it only held with EA40. I've tried a few times to heat it, but it cracked/split badly each time, though I've yet to seriously try steam/boiling it.

Given it's availability down the east coast and that it can grow from anything to a small sampling to a large tree with relatively straight sections that split nicely I'm surprised that it hasn't come up much before. I've heard rumours of others using it but nothing definite. While it certainly needs more testing to prove, I suspect that this is certainly a usable bow-wood, possibly even great.

Steve

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Re: Australian bow woods.

#5 Post by Nicholas George » Sun Apr 30, 2023 9:53 pm

Hi Steve,

Thanks for clarifying the identity of the species. Most people only refer to the common name, so it is sometimes challenging to confirm the species. Particularly given in am from the west coast and unfamiliar with many of the species people refer to.

To confirm, the irritating dust you refer to is from the Acacia?

Cheers

Nic

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Re: Australian bow woods.

#6 Post by flyonline » Mon May 01, 2023 5:24 pm

Nicholas George wrote: Sun Apr 30, 2023 9:53 pm Hi Steve,

Thanks for clarifying the identity of the species. Most people only refer to the common name, so it is sometimes challenging to confirm the species. Particularly given in am from the west coast and unfamiliar with many of the species people refer to.

To confirm, the irritating dust you refer to is from the Acacia?

Cheers

Nic
Yep, common naming can be confusing!

Yes, the Hickory Wattle dust is terrible, worst I've ever come across and that includes sanding fibreglass and carbon fibre. It's forced me to be a lot more pro-active when with dealing with wood dust now.

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Re: Australian bow woods.

#7 Post by greybeard » Sat May 06, 2023 4:45 pm

Hi Nicholas,

When going through old posts did you happen to find the following post?

viewtopic.php?f=34&t=15617#p163717

If not items #36 and #40 may have some useful information although you may already found this in other sources.

Daryl.
"And you must not stick for a groat or twelvepence more than another man would give, if it be a good bow.
For a good bow twice paid for, is better than an ill bow once broken.
[Ascham]

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” [Einstein]

I am old enough to make my own decisions....Just not young enough to remember what I decided!....

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Re: Australian bow woods.

#8 Post by Nicholas George » Wed May 24, 2023 9:39 pm

Hi Daryl,

Thanks for the response. Sorry for the slow reply! I had a good look at those resources you link to. Do you have comments on the species and other information I summarize in my post? I'm keen to hear your thoughts?

Cheers

Nic

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Re: Australian bow woods.

#9 Post by greybeard » Sun May 28, 2023 1:20 pm

Hi Nicholas,
I can't think of much more to add to your research.
Nicholas George wrote: Thu Apr 27, 2023 9:28 pm People also observe that most native woods are incredibly hard to work, even with steel tools, and it would be incredibly hard to make a functional self-bow with stone tools, even with green wood (except possibly with Red or Pink Ash). This has implications for the lack of the bow-and-arrow in Australia before European colonisation.
From the internet.

A boomerang made from mulga wood. Mulga wood (acacia aneura) is native to arid regions of Australia and has traditionally been used by indigenous groups as a hardwood for making implements including digging tools, woomeras (spear-throwers) and boomerangs.

Common Name(s): Mulga, Scientific Name: Acacia aneura, Distribution: Australia

Comments: A very heavy hardwood growing in dry regions of Australia. A small tree or shrub, the wood is usually used for turned objects or small decorative items. The wood is believed to have poisonous properties, and for this reason aboriginals used the wood for spear heads. At the very least, the wood has been shown to cause skin irritation, and splinters of the wood can cause lesions.

Timber: The heartwood of mulga is dark brown with contrasting markings of golden yellow; the sapwood is white. The wood is very hard, heavy (850-1100 kg/cu/m) and durable in the ground; it turns well and takes a high polish. The aborigine people of Australia use the wood to make weapons and small ornaments.

Primitive hunters of Australia

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

The first link did not work hopefully this one will.

https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/fi ... 043159.pdf

An extract from page 34.

ORNAMENTS, WEAPONS AND IMPLEMENTS.

“In viewing the exhibits we are at once impressed with the uniformity of Australian culture, but it is apparent that spears, spear-throwers, boomerangs, shields, and clubs have specific local forms, and the same may be said of personal ornaments. Each tribe and smaller group has its own territory, and wanderings and encroachments are discouraged.
Therefore, the natural tendency is toward the preservation of local types of weapons and other objects which are characteristic of definite areas, though in some instances objects are traded far from their places of origin (W. D. Hambly, 1931). Some influence of Malay traders and contacts with New Guinea must be recognized so far as the north coast of Australia is concerned (W. L. Warner, 1932).
Drums, shell trumpets, and bows and arrows are likely to have originated in New Guinea. The Malays gave the idea of a dugout canoe and an outrigger (Plate III), also the use of a mast and a sail made of Pandanus fiber. The Malays introduced a form of tobacco-pipe.
Yet, generally speaking, Australia has an indigenous culture with local developments, and foreign elements are not numerous.
Three main areas may be distinguished: (1) the south, west, and center of the continent; (2) the northwest and the north; and (3) the east and southeast. So far as possible the objects have been arranged in this cultural grouping, but it has been necessary to make some modifications.”


Perhaps the aboriginals found their existing hunting tools were adequate for their needs and did not want to pursue the complexities of making a bow, strings and arrows.

Or maybe they tried and found the available timber was not suitable.

Daryl.
"And you must not stick for a groat or twelvepence more than another man would give, if it be a good bow.
For a good bow twice paid for, is better than an ill bow once broken.
[Ascham]

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” [Einstein]

I am old enough to make my own decisions....Just not young enough to remember what I decided!....

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Re: Australian bow woods.

#10 Post by Mick » Sun Sep 24, 2023 4:05 pm

Hey Nicholas,

Thanks for the great info. I’m just getting into making bows after shooting fibre glass longbows for many years.

I’m from central western NSW (now in Canberra). I have made passable bows from hickory wattle and lancewood ( which is known as Currawang where I’m from). Hickory wattle seems really good, but it has a tendency to corkscrew and only seems to produce fairly low diameter trees.

I’ve just started experimenting with boards from Bunnings. Have got a few staves from Karri boards. First one fretted badly just as it looked like I was going to get a good bow out of it.

Mick

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