By Joyce Kryzak
Photographs by Michael D. Wilson
Mud season has turned Stim Wilcox’s road into a slippery slope, so the 79-year-old master bowyer offers me a hand as we hike a rooty woodland path to his home on Machiasport’s Little Kennebec Bay. Once there, we settle into his workshop. Wooden bows rest in the rafters. Bow staves — rough-cut lengths of wood to be carved into slender rods, called bow blanks, then into bows — cure nearby in stacks. Drawknives, rasps, heaters, jigs, vices, scales, and other tools occupy walls and tables.
Wilcox speaks reverently as he describes the grace and beauty of a selfbow, a traditional bow fashioned entirely of wood. “They’re all unique,” says the man who literally wrote the book on the topic, The Art of Making Selfbows. “And some of the curves are quite lovely.”
ABOVE Wilcox bows have a reputation among archers for beauty and function. He builds each one to suit its owner taking into account the user’s height and strength. Prices range from $600 to $1,000 ($30 to $150 for a child’s bow).
Sliding two fingers along a finely carved bow blank, he checks for imperfections that the eye would miss. He then checks the bow’s balance and bend, called the tiller, and makes any needed adjustments. Tapering an elegant bow from a raw piece of wood like this is almost magical, he says.
There’s a heck of a lot of science and math involved too. Whether making a bow for a recreational archer, a competitive one, or a hunter, Stim Wilcox must calculate his buyer’s height and strength, as well as the bow’s draw weight, draw length, hand shock, accuracy, and speed — all while taking into account the type of wood, age, grain, knots, rings, and relative moisture.
The former experimental biologist and retired professor says it’s taken him a lifetime — and thousands of bows — to perfect the techniques he shares in his book and his three-day bow-making workshops (for which his wife, Betty Jean, a master potter, makes excellent lunches). Then, lowering his voice to a whisper, Wilcox confides, “But it’s actually quite simple. You take it, you make it bend, put a string on it — and it shoots!”
ABOVE Stim Wilcox makes wooden bows, from harvesting branches and saplings to shaping and balancing the piece for each customer.
Tell Us More Stim Wilcox
Who taught you to make bows?
I did! I was about 4, growing up in Oklahoma. My friend Jim and I shot bows every day. Interest in archery is fading away, though — that really worries me. So I enjoy going to primitive-skills gatherings, like Puckerbrush in Columbia in July, where we teach kids how to make bows using a hatchet. We can make one in about 35 minutes. I have to keep it quick because they get bored — or their parents do.
Are selfbows, like longbows, about as tall as the user?
Not always. Selfbows can be long or short. The difference is selfbows are made from a single piece of wood or two billets [short pieces] spliced together. Many longbows today are made from laminated glass.
Why are some bows straight and others curved?
You should listen to what the natural curve of the wood is telling you to do with it. But you can bend staves with heat or clamps to make them curvy. Some people really enjoy that. They’re sexier but don’t shoot any better. Professional archers use bows that are dead straight because they’re more accurate.
What kind of wood is best?
I like Osage orange for its stability, but you can use almost anything — yew, juniper. Shadbush is excellent too, and it’s plentiful around here. Finding a really good piece of wood is a joy if you know what you’re looking for.