Following The Grain of an Ancient Craft

August 1, 2012 | By More

“You see this one? I left this piece of wood outside and the bugs got to it,” beams David Chronister, ”Most folks would use this for firewood, but me, I like the challenge of trying to get a bow out of it.”

It takes a special kind of eye to see a bow when looking at a dry stave of wood. It takes a special kind of talent to bring that bow to life. David Chronister of Dardanelle possesses both of these attributes.

David makes bows. Bows carved from wood by hand.

“I really try to use hand tools. Sometimes I use modern tools, to split the log into staves, but I’d rather do it all by hand,” said David.

Staves are large rough pieces of wood. Think of splitting a log into four relatively equal quarters, those pieces are called staves.

“I probably use a draw knife to do most of the rough shaping after the log is split. Then I use a gooseneck knife for the more detailed work. The gooseneck scraper only takes a few slivers at a time.”

Turning a piece of lumber into a sleek shooting instrument is not an endeavor for the impatient. The bow takes shape one wood shaving at a time. It is tedious labor and requires attention to detail along with an almost mystical feel for the wood. The shape of the bow and the pace of the work are dictated by the wood. Mastery of the craft is reached only when the bowyer learns to work with it as opposed to forcing his will on it.

David’s interest in bows stems from his hunting and craftsman past.

“I’ve been bowhunting for several years and I’ve just always liked to build stuff,“ said David. “After all those years of bowhunting, I started wanting to make my own bows. I found an ad in a magazine from a traditional bow maker in Arkansas. This guy sold supplies to make bows too, so I called him and asked if I could pay him a visit and ask some questions. He sold me some wood, gave me some pointers and I just started making bows. That was seven or eight years ago.”

Not just any wood will work for bow building. Specific trees make the best bows. A bowyer is looking for wood that has resiliency and density. This combination of springiness and strength is the key. Among trees species native to Arkansas, the Osage is top choice just as it was for the Native Americans that called Arkansas home centuries ago.

“Osage is by far the best,” said David, “and it’s mainly because of its density.”
Named for the Osage tribe of Native Americans, Osage trees are endemic to Arkansas. The Osage tree is also known as “bodark”, a slurring of the French “bois d’arc” which means “wood of the bow.”

In keeping with the primal theme of this story, few modern animals eat the fruit of the Osage tree. Squirrels will chew through the fruit to get to the seeds, but many scientists believe the fruit was a mainstay in the diet of the prehistoric giant ground sloth. It’s likely that ancestors of the trees used by David today once fed and were used to hunt the giant sloths and mastodons that called Arkansas home way back in the Pleistocene era.

Techniques used to make wooden bows eons ago are still used by David today.

After splitting the log into staves, the wood needs to dry. It takes a while, a year to 18 months is best. There is a point where the wood can become too dry and not very pliable. In that case the wood is heated to increase its flexibility.

David starts with a seasoned stave and lets the wood dictate the measurements, weight, and shape of the bow.

“I usually measure the wood just to see how long it’s going to be,” said David, “but I don’t say that it’s got to be this long or that long. I may start with a 68-inch piece of wood and end up with a 58- inch bow.”

As the cicadas drone their lazy summer song high in the sweet gum trees, David makes a few passes on a seasoned length of wood with the drawknife. The amber-colored shavings curl up as if the very spirit of the tree was summoned forth. The wood is at the command of a master craftsman, but as mentioned before, it’s a mastery that hinges on cooperation as opposed to domination.

David’s inventory of finished bows is a selection of art that would make any collector    proud. They are easy to spot in a lineup. David never bought into the idea that all wooden bows must look the same.

His bows have character. They have bends and twists, some sport knotholes and insect burrows in the wood, but these pieces of art are not made for market. David doesn’t make bows to sell. David makes bows because he wants to.

“I don’t want to turn it into a job. It’s fun and it’s a way for me to escape, I can get totally lost in the wood when I’m out here in my shop. Making arrows is the same way. I’ve got to be careful because I can easily spend days out here working on arrows. I get so engrossed in what I’m doing that I just lose track of time.”

Making the bow is David’s creative outlet, but shooting the bow is what he does for fun. Hunting season is only a few months long, but archery season never ends for David.

“My idea of fun is a handful of arrows and some targets out in a field. Or even better, make those arrows flu-flus (arrows with larger feathers for fletching in order to shorten their shooting range) and I can spend hours just shooting pinecones out of a tree.”

Besides making bows, David is also involved in promoting the outdoors and especially sharing his outdoor passion with kids.

Conservation organization, “Friends of Holla Bend,” sponsors an annual event called “Bow Jam.” Designed to kindle outdoor interest for local kids, “Bow Jam,” as the name implies, revolves around archery. When asked to help with the cause, David responded with 150 handmade bows along with arrows. That’s right, 150 bows and 150 arrows all made by David with some help from friend, Bobby Boswell.

The bows were a hit and the backbone of the entire event. No one would have raised an eyebrow if David had rested after this effort, but he didn’t. He was there at “Bow Jam” before the first child arrived. Every kid received a bit of personal coaching as David matched each prospective archer to the bow best suited for his or her stature.

According to eyewitness accounts, all of this was done with a smile on his face as well.

“I think every kid should have a bow,” grinned David, “along with an endless supply of arrows.”

As the curled shavings of Osage collect on the ground amid the spikey fruit of the sweet gums, that notion of a primal spirit coming to life seems more plausible. The bow takes form with each stroke of the drawknife and the glint in David’s eye is one that was no doubt seen in the eyes of bowyers past.

And maybe, just maybe that spirit will be passed on to a youngster as he hefts a wooden bow made from an ancient race of tress and given to him by a humble craftsman.

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