Bow-making with Pacific Yew
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Wed Dec 12 15:29:55 EST 2001
>From The Oregonian, Dec. 11, 2001, p B1
Bowing to tradition
Oregon artisan creates historically accurate longbows worthy of Robin
By RICHARD COCKLE, Correspondent, The Oregonian
IMNAHA _ Burt Taylor stands under the towering rimrocks of the Imnaha
Canyon, drawing back n a 6-foot yew longbow.
It is a dark, brooding afternoon, and his grain-sack target is in the
shadows. Nevertheless, Taylor's arrow finds its mark, and moments
later a second shaft whispers after it, burying itself beside the
"I kind of grew up with a bow in my hand," says Taylor, 52, a former
logger who now makes his living building traditional English longbows
in this lonesome northeastern Oregon canyon.
Taylor calls himself a bowyer, and his shop is patronized by archers
from around the nation. They pay up to $500 for his handmade
creations, bows nearly identical to the medieval longbows that Robin
Hood's Merry Men used almost 1,000 years ago to make life unpleasant
for the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Taylor and his wife, Kathy, a painter and writer, live in a
board-and-batten cabin that also houses his tiny Ye Old Bow SHoppe.
Newspapers insulating the walls date to 1923, and elk, deer and bear
prowl the nearby ridges. THe Taylors kept a pet goat until recently,
when it was killed by a cougar.
The Imnaha Canyon is remote, even by Eastern oregon standards, and
the Taylor home is more than 100 miles from the nearest traffic light.
Still, this is just the spot for a longbow-maker with a romantic
streak, Taylor says. Up the road is a ranch once owned by
gravel-voiced film star Eugene Pallette, probably best known for his
grumpy portrayal of Friar Tuck opposite a swashbuckling Errol Flynn in
the Oscar-winning 1938 film "The Adventures of Robin Hood."
Taylor draws back his bowstring and another arrow flashes across the
yard and into the grain sack.
"This is one of man's earliest weapons," says Taylor, who apprenticed
at age 13 under bowyer L.L. "Flight" Daily of Eugene. Daily competed
in long-range archery contests and built more than 7,000 bows in his
slifetime, Taylor says.
By the time Taylor was 21 years old, working under daily's expert
eye, he had built 200 bows, he says. From 1967 until 1991, he earned
his living as a timber faller in the Cascade Range. But in his heart,
he was still a longbow-maker, always keeping an eye out for yew trees
as he worked.
The northern spotted owl and the decline of the timber industry ended
Taylor's logging days. He and his wife moved here in 1994.
Building a longbow required 16 to 20 hours of labor and - becuase of
necessary interruptcions while glue dries - a minimum 10 dyas, he
says. Taylor makes his bows from fine-grained Cascade yew that grows
above 4,000 feet. Each yew stave has its own personality, he says.
"One piece of wood will want to be a bow, and another will fight
you," Taylor says.
Taylor charges $350 to $550 for his longbows. He built and sold about
25 last year. He is thinking about introducing an entry-level bow of
lemonwood or perhaps hickory for about $200.
Archers who come here often are traditionalists, he says. They prefer
the simplicity of a yew longbow to fiberglass, metal and carbon
laminate "compound" bows, with their steel cables and mechanical cams
and idlers that most archers seem to prefer nowadays.
"Those aren't bows and arrows, those are contraptions," says Ross
Seyfried, a La Grande area hunting guide and longbow shooter.
Taylor's longbows are "very, very good," says Sayfried, 50, a former
hunting guide in Africa, a one-time writer-editor for Guns and Ammo
Magazine and a champion pistol competitor in the 1980s. "They are very
realistically priced and very historically correct. He learned from
one of the great, old masters."
Another of Taylor's customers, David g. Nielsen, 58, of Wooster,
Ohio, agrees with Seyfried.
"I've never liked to shoot a compound bow, and I've been shooting
them since 1978 or 1979," says the Ohio State professor emeritus of
entomology. An archer since 1957, Nielsen recently had Taylor build a
customized longbow to fit his 6-foot-7 frame.
"As we get older, we feel this yen to get back to the basics,"
Nielsen explains. Shooting a yew longbow is a more "personal,
touchy-feely experience" than using an admittedly more powerful,
flatter-shooting compound bow, he says. "I think you lose some
intimacy when yoiu go from the longbow to the mechanical bow."
Taylor's one departure from tradition is that many of his longbows,
including those built for Nielsen and Seyfried, are "take-downs." They
artfully come apart at the handles for easy storage and transport, a
feature probably never seen in ancient times, he says.
The longbow's origin is still argued among historians. Saxton Pop's
classic 1923 volume, "Hunting With the Longbow," suggests the longbow
came to Britain with Norman invaders. Historian John MacDonald things
the longbow was a Welsh invention.
Improbable as it might seem in an age of stealth fighters and smart
bombs, longbows changed the course of Western history, Taylor says.
English peasants armed with longbows killed 10,000 French soldiers,
including 1,500 horseback knights and squires and the unfortunate King
of Bohemia, at the fateful Battle of Crecy in 1346. English losses
numbered perhaps 100, says MacDonald in his book, "Great Battlefields
of the World."
Medieval warfare was never the same. The English victory proved armor
and crossbows wereno match for longbows and arrows fletched with gray
goose feathres, Taylor says. Smiling, he recites a bit of ancient
"England had been but a fleeting thing were it not for the best stick
and the gray goose wing."
Comment by poster: Taxus brevifolia (Pacific yew) has been used for
bow-making for literally centuries. American Indians preferred the
slow-growing tree, and often planted small trees wherever they had a
village or campsite, so that future generations would have access to
Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler
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