COUNTRY PURSUITS

Steve Ralphs, Bowyer, Norfolk

For me the best part of the working week is when I walk into my garden and fire an arrow from one of my longbows that is nearing completion. A really good specimen will land an arrow in the clump of trees 45 yards away.

If the bow is made from yew this will be a rather fraught experience. We bowyers refer to failures - we never have breaks. It is often said that yew will fail at the first firing or last a lifetime.

From a dull piece of wood a good bowyer can produce a relatively good bow. But it is possible to produce a bad bow from an excellent piece of wood. The skill of the bowyer is to find the best timber and then produce the best possible bow from it. If it was a case of finding yew all the time I think I'd be a nervous wreck by now. A good English yew bow will take me over a week to make, and the timber it is made from will have had to be seasoned for at least five years. Even then there is more chance that it will fail at the first attempt than with a cheaper, laminated bow.

I prefer to use wood from the bole - the trunk - because that is the best way of producing staves of the right length and with the correct sap/heartwood proportions to ensure the bow is both strong and springy. If the bole is not clean of branches the timber is likely to contain pin holes, knots, sap rot, heart shake, cracks and splits. A piece of English yew that looks promising on the outside ends up as a pile of rubbish once I have cut into it and cleft some of the timber.

When I hear that a local yew tree is to be felled I rush out to see it. My mouth waters if it is dead straight like a telegraph pole, but I know from bitter experience that basically all English yew is a lottery. The best yew comes from the USA and Canada, where it grows at a higher altitude, which seems to make all the difference to quality.

I prefer to use a laminated bow, as they are more reliable. My laminated bows are made from a mixture of South American boxwood and hickory, for large archery specialists in this country, Germany, Holland and Sweden, as well as for the film industry.

Most days I can be found in my workshop at home. I try to vary the day as I find it hard to perform one function all day. However on Fridays I like to saw the basic staves of the next week's batch and to do most of the gluing of the two parts that make up the basic bow.

The least pleasant task is making the horn nocks - the traditional hook arrangement at the ends of the bow to which the string is attached. Grinding up animal horn, which I buy in from abattoirs, is a nasty, smelly business.

Finishing is also rather laborious - I use a great deal of steel wool and fine abrasive paper before either French polishing or varnishing. The result is hopefully a commendable piece of craftsmanship.

If I were to go for the highest performance bow I could find I would choose an Olympic standard carbon fibre model designed by computer and made in the USA or Japan. But using a bow like that is shooting, not archery.

Steve Ralphs was talking to Clive Fewins

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