Article: Making Bows, Caveman-Style

Posted: July 27, 2011 in Archery, Articles, Videos

Of late, I’ve been sharing some videos of my archery pursuits. I “discovered” archery last summer when I was given a bow as a gift. I loved it. I became more and more into it as the days went by. I branched out from my first bow, a compound, into traditional bows. I ended up purchasing a cheap little plastic recurve and having more fun that you should be allowed to have under the law. I got a wooden recurve. I got a longbow. I bought tons of arrows. I used many of them until they broke (it was never my fault…).

I looked at videos and articles online about building your own bows. There are many designs, and with tools, patience, and time, one can make a beautiful bow out of a stick of wood. I was into it…except for the tools, patience and time part. I shied away from the time commitment to make a real wooden bow. That, and the possibility (as with anything made with natural materials) that it would just break on me right away. That’d be a bummer. I’m not in it for the bummers.

I want to have fun.

Overall, I want to make it and shoot it.


I was lurching across the ‘Net the other day, and found that there was a magical material that would fit my needs. Enter the PVC bow. (more below the fold)

PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride. It’s a type of plastic. Specifically, the type of material that can be used to make a bow is schedule 40 PVC plumbing pipe. It’s the stuff that you see inside the wall, the white piping that hangs around beneath your sink or at the junction for your sprinklers. It’s around two dollars for ten feet. It can be cut with a hacksaw, or other similar cutting tool. There are special pipe cutters, if you want to get fancy. No, scratch that, no getting fancy allowed. This is the Caveman Gym. Unless you’re a plumber, don’t buy special pipe cutters.

All right, back to business. How would one make a bow out of plumbing pipe?

Why, by just…doing it.

At the simplest level, a bow is simply a bent stick and a string. Anything that bends without breaking, then quickly springs back when tension is released, will do. As it turns out, the plastic that these pipes are made of is designed to withstand hundreds of pounds per square inch of water pressure. That means it’s sturdy, and can handle a lot of stress cycles without fatiguing. It’s also flexible, to a point.

I’ve examined a lot of different designs that all work pretty well, but the simplest one is perhaps the best. Simply cut a 60 inch (5 foot) segment of 3/4 inch pipe, create notches in the material where the string can sit by hacking away a little pie-wedge about an inch inboard of the ends with a hack saw, make a string with loops at the end that will give the bow a brace height (distance between the pipe and string when the bow is strung) of between 6 1/2 and 8 inches, and you’re ready to go.

Is there a little more to it than that? Yes. But not much. Here’s the rest:

How to make a bow string? There are a few ways. My favorite is to make a bowline knot (look it up, kid!) on both sides of the string, making the loop-to-loop distance end up about three or four inches less than the total length of the bow. That should provide adequate brace height. The string should be tough, non-stretchy material. I like 1/8 flat-wound nylon (tight, not bumpy stuff). It’s about $4 or $5 at the hardware store.

You’ll want to measure to the exact middle of the pipe (should be 30″) when the bow is at rest. Draw a circle around the pipe at this point with a sharpie or something similar. That band is where you’ll want the arrow to pass. When you grip the bow, your knuckle should be just slightly below that band, and the arrow will ride on your knuckle.

Once you have the arrow pass marked, go ahead and string the bow. You’ll need an arrow. Put the arrow on the string and lay the bow across something (a table, your lap, a dog that’ll stand still, whatever). With the arrow sitting across the bow at the point where you’ve drawn a band, hike it up about a finger’s width higher on the string. Maybe a bit more, even. Now take your sharpie or other marker-like device and mark the string at that point. Just above that, wrap a piece of duct tape around the string (tightly!) to create a nocking point. This means you’ll put your arrow on the string in such a way as to have it snug against the lower edge of the duct taped area. This’ll help your accuracy a lot, as the arrow will be at the same place every time.

From there, you’re basically ready to shoot. String up the bow, nock an arrow, and try a shot. My suggestion is to start about five paces from a large, fairly soft target, like a bale of hay or a cardboard box filled with stuff. Once you get the feel of it, start dropping back a yard with each shot, stopping if the arrows start spraying everywhere. You should get to the point where you are hitting where you want to at up to fifteen yards after a few weeks. Eventually, twenty or more yards will be within your range.

You can dress the bow up a little by painting it with spray paint, creating a handle, and more. This is all cosmetic, though. The bow will shoot just fine in its standard condition.

A few things to remember:

  • The bow is not a toy. It can hurt someone. The arrows will travel at nearly 70 miles an hour. Yeah. Ouch.
  • Always unstring the bow when you’re not using it. This will keep the material from degrading and “taking a set” which means having a permanent bend. There’ll be a slight bend at the center after it’s shot for a while, but that shouldn’t hurt performance any.
  • Don’t leave the bow in the sun. PVC, like most plastic, is degraded by UV light.
  • There’s probably a logical service life for these bows. Depending on how far you draw them back, the PVC will eventually fatigue at its stress points. I’ve shot a few of them hundreds of times, and they’re still fine, but I know that they won’t last forever.
  • You might want to wear a glove on your bow hand, as the feathers on the arrows could cut you up if you’re not careful. A forearm guard or heavy jacket sleeve could also be handy, as the string slaps your hand/arm sometimes. If you’re getting a lot of slapping, shorten the string a little and that should help.
  • If the string starts to fray, replace it right away. You don’t want to get whipped by a broken string. If the PVC is starting to show obvious signs of wear, it’s time to make a new bow. This material usually breaks without that much drama, in my experience, but there’s no sense in tempting fate, when the pipe element is only about a buck.

What you’ll need:

  1. 10′ section of 3/4 inch PVC Schedule 40 plumbing pipe
  2. 1/8 inch Nylon string
  3. 1 Marker
  4. Duct tape
  5. Hack saw
  6. Knife

Here is the first of the video series that I made to illustrate how these bows are made. Look for the other two in the Archery segment of my videos.

Hope you enjoy it!

  1. Chris says:

    Love it!

  2. Wait ’till you see yours, Chris. It’s pretty bitchin’.

  3. […] handy, you can also build your own bow out of PVC pipe. I have an article about that, as well. CLICK HERE to check it […]

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