Success at last. As far as I am concerned, my sixth attempt at making a bow has resulted in as close to the. “ultimate bow” as I will ever come. So sure am I of this that I have gotten rid of all of my fiberglass laminated bows except one. What I made is a 53 inch Osage bow in the reflex-deflex design with recurved tips and backed with sinew. Although i really never thought it was possible, this bow shoots as fast and flat as a fiberglass laminated recurve and also looks fantastic. the best compliment I have had on it came in the form of the spontaneous statement of my shooting and hunting companion, Forest Flowers, as he watched me shoot it for the first time. “It shoots just like a real one,” he exclaimed (meaning a fiberglass laminated recurve). It is not that Forest has anything against primitive bows, but he has not yet been able to successfully make one.
Such a bow deserved the best finish I could give it; and the one I finally decided on was the true hand-rubbed linseed oil finish that graced the wood on the high-grade guns of many years ago. The linseed oil used here is not to be confused with the linseed oil that can be bought in hardware and paint stores, which takes long periods (sometimes years) to dry and is unsatisfactory for finishing purposes. The linseed oil of which I speak has been boiled down to a very pure and quick-drying state. I know fo only two sources. The first is Tru-Oil made by Birchwood Casey, which is readily available I most gun stores and other places that sell guns and related equipment The second is Linspeed Oil, but I have not seen it in years and do not know if it is still available. Either of them will produce the desired results and one bottle will do many bows.
I learned how to apply this finish from an article in a gun magazine over twenty years ago and have done so successfully on gun stocks many times. It is penetrating finish which is contained within the wood itself, rather than on top. The end result is a soft, deep lustrous appearance that is not only beautiful but also protects the wood well and is very easy to maintain and repair.
Before beginning, all tool marks should be removed from the wood and it should be thoroughly degreased and sanded smooth with #220-grit sandpaper. Since the first part of the process is “feathering” the wood (raising the grain and opening the wood’s pores to accept the oil), I recommend that any “boning” of the wood wait until the entire finishing process is complete.
Feathering the wood ensures that the pores are fully open and the grain has risen all it is going to. This operation is quite simple. The wood is thoroughly wetted with water and while wet is put over. heat sources such as a stove burner. All you want to do is get the wood hot enough so that the water evaporates. As the wood dries, steam forms in the pores, the foreign material (sanding dust, etc.) is forced out, and the grain is raised somewhat, giving the wood a “fuzzy” feel. The wood, which is now dry, is then sanded smooth again with successively finer grades of sandpaper (220,320,400, and 600) after each wetting and heating stage until it is finally smooth. That is your signal that the pores are fully open and clean and ready for the application of the oil.
How many times this wetting and drying must be performed depends on how porous the wood is. Osage is very dense and is quickly done. I suspect that whitewood will take longer. I know from experience that walnut is very porous and takes many cycles of wetting and drying. After each cycle, sand the bow thoroughly with #600-grit sandpaper.
Several words of caution are in order here. If you have previously bent the limbs of your bow into shape with heat, make sure that you don’t get the wood so hot that the ends come out. On a bow that has been previously sinewed, be extra careful not to let water get on the sinew. Inf fact, on a sinewed bow, you might want to skip this step altogether. I did. I have never stained wood finished in this manner, but suspect that any staining should be done after the raising of the grain.
It is now time to fill the pores and grain. Mix one part oil with two parts naptha or benzine. Do not make a lot of the moisture because you may need only a surprisingly small amount. The exposed wood portions of my bow, which included the handle and bellies of the limbs, required less than a bottle cap of the mixture.
Working in a well-ventilated area, brush the mixture on the wood following the grain. It will seep into the pores and the naptha or benzine will evaporate, leaving only the oil. After the mixture has dried, about one hour depending on the humidity, areas where the oil has completely soaked into the wood will appear. Some pores will be deeper than others and these must be gradually filled.
Now take #0000 steel wool and rub across the grain until all the finish is taken off. Don’t worry; #0000 steel wool will not scratch the wood. Make sure you rub across the grain so the oil that has penetrated will not be taken out of the pores. Now repeat this operation until the pores are filled and a thin coat of finish is on the wood.
Sorry, but it is now time to once again use the steel wool to take off all the finish, of course rubbing across the grain. Don’t despair. You are nearly finished. It does not take anywhere near as much time from here on but will require some muscle power.
Now, the oil is used full-strength, although in a very minute amount. This is where the hand-rubbed finish comes in, and friction is what is needed. Place a drop or two of oil on one side of the limb, just enough oil so that your palm will slide, and rub the oil into the wood with the palm of your hand until it becomes too hot to rub further. Be careful not to burn your hand as I did. Do the entire bow in this fashion and allow it to dry; then use the steel wool to take the finish off again. If you have used a small amount of oil, very little rubbing with the steel wool will be necessary. Repeat this step two more times, but on the last time, do not remove the finish.
It is now decision time. There will be only a minute amount of oil on top of the wood at this point, and it will have a beautiful glossy appearance. If you wish the high, glass-like look, stop here. However, if you want a soft, deep lustrous finish, you can have it with another ten minutes’ work. Once again take the finish off with the steel wool. Now rub it vigorously with a piece of burlap. With friction, the burlap fibers burnish the finish and give it that deep, lustrous appearance.
Your bow should now be fully protected from the elements. Although the application of this finish may have been somewhat difficult and time-consuming, it is virtually indestructible, quite simple to maintain, and easy to repair if necessary. Maintenance involves only the yearly application of a few drops of full-strength oil which is hand rubbed. Minor scratches are handled in the same manner. Deep scratches and dents, if not too deep, require a different treatment and are usually repaired quite easily. In such cases, a dam is made around the damaged area with modeling clay and filled with water. After twenty-four hours, the grain of the wood inside the dam should have risen to the level of the surrounding area. Simply sand the damaged area with #600-grit sandpaper until it is smooth and rub in some more oil. Also, don’t worry about oil from your hand harming the finish. It will only make it look better.
If you try this finish, I wish you good luck. It has served me well over the years.
Volume 2 Issue 2 – 1994