I have found a good source of rawhide for backing bows in the local pet shop. They sell
rawhide doggy chews that are about 18 inches long, composed of a tube with a knot in
each end, looking rather like a shabby femur bone. Other pet shops I have asked knew
about these large chews and were prepared to order them for me. The first task is to
choose good material. These chews are a sort of dirty buff color. Reject those with
obvious flaws, such as splits, and try and get hold of those with an even coloration. They
are translucent, so surface blemishes show through, but I haven't experienced problems,
even with quite thin areas in the material. In order to un-knot them, you have to soak the
whole chew in cold water for about 2 days. The knots in the ends then come undone
quite easily. My chews consisted of one single piece of rawhide about 36 inches long, 6
inches wide, rolled into a tube and packed with other bits of rawhide about 6 by 11
Once the pieces of hide have been separated and while they are still soaking wet (they are now white and sort of blubbery), you can smooth the surface. The hair side is usually OK, but the inner surface can be a bit rough. I clamp a steel straight edge in a vise and just draw the surface over the steel edge a few times. This scrapes off a lot of loose-hanging bits. Next put the rawhide you will be using into a bath containing cold water with about 2 ounces (a scant handful) of washing soda per gallon dissolved in it. Leave for 24 hours to degrease the hide. Take the hide out of the bath, rinse it quite well under running water and then roll it up in damp sacking for 24 hours. This renders it damp enough to work with, but not wringing wet. I have backed both board bows and stave bows with rawhide. Stave bows are easier due to their lightly rounded back, so I shall deal with them first.
The best glue to use is hide glue. It works like a charm. Put a handful of hide glue granules in an old tin can and allow it to soak overnight in just enough cold water to cover it. If you don't have a glue pot, cover the bottom of a saucepan with marbles or pebbles so as to support the tin can free of the bottom during heating. Fill the space between tin can and saucepan with water and heat the whole contraption until the glue is fluid. Thin with water to get a syrupy consistency. Stir well. Take the stirring stick out of the glue and watch the glue dribbling off it. If it drips in splashes, the glue's too thin. If it doesn't flow easily - too thick. A thin, consistent stream is about right.
Take your bow and clean up the back with fine sandpaper to give a clean, grease free surface. I usually wipe it over a couple of times with a cloth soaked in acetone to ensure really grease-free conditions. It helps if the bow is mildly reflexed before backing. Tie a stout cord to the nock ends, take a loop over a screwdriver or other lever in the middle of the cord, and twist the lever to cinch up the bow into about 2 inches of reflex. Tie off the lever to the cord. Mount the bow in a bench vise with the reflexed back uppermost. As soon as the bow is clean and grease free, paint a thin layer of hot glue over the back surface to seal and prime it. Allow the rpiming coat to cool and set (overnight). Meanwhile, you can cut the rawhide to shape using a hobby knife. Do this on a clean surface because you don't want dust and grit on your wet rawhide. Allow plenty of overlap over the sides of the bow as the hide shrinks as it dries. The hide will have to be jointed, preferably under the hand grip. I use a skiving joint. where the overlap is about 0.3 to 0.4 inch. I've done it in two ways: the proper way, where you bevel the mating edges of the damp hide using a sharp hobby knife before you apply the backing. And the lazy way: Back half the bow. After about a day, bevel the glued down backing at the joint and back the other half of the bow, using a generous (1 inch) overlap. When the backing is dry, you can grind / sand / rasp off the excess, leaving a neat surface.
Backing the bow is a simple operation. Get everything ready before you start. Make sure the glue's nice and warm and running like table syrup. Paint a thin layer on the back of the bow, running down over the sides. Place the backing strips in place on the bow, starting at the center and smoothing towards the limb tips. Glue the joint. Don't worry that the glue gels almost immediately: the dampness in the hide causes the glue to swell and form a bond. Now take a bandage, minimum 2 inches wide (as used for first aid) and, starting at the handle, bandage the bow and backing tightly. Overlap the turns of the bandage by about an inch. Fasten off the limb tips tightly with a string whipping. Just to make sure, I now usually use a second layer of bandage over the first. Restrain your impatience. Remove the bandage layers after 48 hours. Re-whip the joints and the nock ends with string.
Allow the bow to dry out for at least a week. A month might be better. Then remove the whippings and the cord used to strain the bow into reflex. The rawhide is now as hard as finger nail. Carefully trim off the excess using a hook knife (as used by carpet / lino fitters). Rough edges can be trimmed with a Surform, and final trimming is done with a spokeshave, set for a fine cut. Allow the bow to cure for about another month before finishing it. I sand off the rawhide surface with fine-grit paper, giving a very smooth surface, before decorating and varnishing the bow. I use yacht varnish. Several coats, sanding between coats. Pay particular attention to the sides and the joints, where rain can seep in.
You can also use the same technique with other parts of the bow. Since my last bow was only 3 millimeters wide at the nock ends, I fashioned nocks from a thin strip of wet rawhide, folded over a thin piece of wooden dowel, then glued and whipped on. Nock-shoes and arrow plates can also be made. Backing a flat-backed (de-crowned or board) bow is similar, but I have found it useful to use a pressure distributor in the form of a strip of aluminum with a T-shaped cross section. I place this with the wide flat area in contact with the bandaged back, then tie up the whole works tightly with cord. Be aware that, when varnished, the rawhide backing goes almost transparent. So you can see the wood grain through the backing. You can also see any air bubbles and imperfections in your gluing technique! I have found a rawhide backing to be immensely strong. It also recovers fast: when just unstrung, you can see the bow visibly creeping back to its normal conformation. If it has a drawback, it's that it is relatively heavy and doesn't add to the bow's cast. Set against that, it's like armor plate, and protects the bow against dings and scrapes, as well as other archers who may want to have a go with one's pride and joy.
Offered by Brian.