Here we interview lead instructor and Forest Knights founder Wayne Jones about the three-day longbow making course provided by Forest Knights in Sussex, UK. We ask about the course participants, what it’s like on the bow making course, where the course takes place, whether you can get there easily from London, and why exactly it takes three full days to make a longbow! By Richard Bradford
So, what kind of people do bow making courses?
Everybody really. Anyone that’s interested in outdoor crafts and in trying something different. We have archers who come along, equally people who are interested in history.
We get a lot of our clients who made a bow and arrow as a child, bending a stick to the string and then want to go somewhere and learn how to make a more traditional and effective bow. A lot of people aren’t necessarily archers that want to make bows, they just want to have an experience of learning a new skill and learning how to use the tools effectively.
It’s also great to hang out in the woods for a few days, by an open fire, listening to the wildlife. It can be quite meditative too.
And what is it like on a bow making course?
Well we generally have no more than four people, so it’s a relaxed, three days learning how to use the hand tools safely and effectively. And then, over those three days, we craft the longbow. So it’s reasonably physical but you’re connecting with the skills of our ancestors, people from the Neolithic period onwards will have used very similar techniques. To someone from the Mary Rose, for example, preparing a longbow would have used the same tools and the same techniques, to fashion a working bow.
And there’s nothing like that first experience of drawing the bow for the first time shooting an arrow you’ve made using the string you’ve made. And then watching the arrow fly relatively straight, depending on how well you’ve done everything.
But generally, it should be a fun, relaxed experience. We are there to make sure that you have the best time possible. And I have a high number of staff on the course, so that if you are needing to take a break, we can accelerate you, take over for a little bit and help you out and offer as much guidance as possible. That’s pretty much the philosophy of Forest Knights, to be as client-centric as possible.
Do you need a lot of physical strength to use the tools?
No, not really. All our tools are very sharp which makes everything much easier.
Whilst it’s a busy three days – you’re turning a log into a shooting bow – each bow is made for the archer. So if you’re a big strapping six foot four giant then you’re going to start with a slightly larger piece of wood. And the bow will be a bit longer suit your draw length, but if you aiming for something that’s a bit lighter, then we will start you off with something that is more suitable to you. And then, as I said, you know, we’re there to help. If you are finding using hand tools a bit more challenging, because you have a different life experience, then we are there to take over and give you help without making the bow for you.
It’s quite important that you enjoy the experience of making that bow and we’re there to guide you and to assist you where possible, rather than elbow you out and just take over. We’ve got to make sure that you’re happy and come away with the skills that you intended and that we exceed your expectations we feed you very well too.
Yes, tell us about the food, apparently is legendary.
We give you three meals a day, a full cooked breakfast over the fire, a buffet lunch, snacks throughout the day and an evening meal. It’s important that you stay completely hydrated throughout the day too.
Our philosophy is that there is no point going on a course in the outdoors only to be hungry, cold and miserable. There’s always a fire going, and we make sure that you eat well, and we do that with locally sourced foods.
We cater for all dietary requirements if we’ve been told in advance: from gluten free, lactose free, vegan, vegetarian, we can cope with all of those needs and we enjoy the challenge of finding ways to make tasty meals in the outdoors.
Fantastic. And you say the outdoors, where do the bow making courses take place?
Predominantly in our woodland. We have 250 acres of woodland in the South Downs National Park, which is an ancient woodland. We’ve been spending a lot of time during lockdown improving the facilities in the woods. We’ve got composting toilets, a permanent fire pit and shelter. We have eight individual work stations where people can make their bows and spoons and items like that. And some courses we run at Amberley Museum as well.
And what is access like from the rest of the UK to do the bow making course? How can people get to you?
We’re a couple of miles from the direct train line from London, on the London to Portsmouth line. We are happy to facilitate picking you up from the station to transport you to the woods. If we can’t collect you personally some reason, there are some excellent local taxi firms who know exactly where we are. And then it’s a short walk from the car parking into the woodland – approximately five minutes’ walk – so that you’re properly in the outdoors, and in the heart of the woodland. And there’s lots of wildlife to enjoy as well.
And you mention the three-day bow making course…. is that the most popular bow making course that you run?
The three-day longbow making course is probably the most popular course in our entire course portfolio. We run at least one three-day bow making course each month from March through to November.
We regularly put on extra courses because we limit the numbers to maximum 4-5 people. We much prefer this to having large groups because it’s the best way to get that experience of one-to-one support. It will generally be me or my senior instructor David leading the course, and one or two of our staff helping as well.
If you’re coming down for the three day course, obviously you need accommodation. I understand you’ve got different recommendations of local accommodation is that right?
Yes, and we never forget that this is your course, if you are living locally, you may want to go home each night. You’ve got lives and family so at the end of the day you can enjoy your evening meal with us and then pop home for a hot bath, or if you want to stay in local accommodation, we’re fortunate in Sussex that there are large number of quite nice, reasonably priced bed and breakfast options, or budget hotels nearby. That’s not a problem.
Or if you want to camp in the woodlands with us with an instructor nearby and then enjoy that experience as well, you can. We generally don’t provide sleeping equipment for hygiene purposes, but if you want to bring a duvet and an airbed, we can loan you a tent and find you somewhere to sleep that’s warm and dry. You don’t have to spend a fortune on equipment that you may not use again in the future.
So if somebody has come down from London or the north of England on the train for a three-day bow making course and stay in local accommodation, how would they get to and from their B&B or hotel from the woods?
If you need to get back to a B&B, and if it’s a relatively local then one of the instructors on the team will be more than happy to give you a lift. That’s all part of the service really, and we want our clients to be as comfortable and happy as possible. As I mentioned, we also know reliable taxi firms who know how to find us, and they can help if you’re staying further away. Either way, it’s not a problem.
So back to the bow making course. Can you tell us a little bit about the wood that you use? And do you actually start with the whole log on day one?
Yes, you do! We generally make a long bow out of locally sourced ash. Ash is very good for a beginners’ bow. It’s resilient in tension and compression. It’s relatively kind to the bowmaker. When you hit it with an axe, it’s predictable which part of the wood’s going to fall off, whereas elm, for instance, which is a very traditional wood, is a much more challenging wood to work, and it can cause issues, just by the nature of the material. You can get brittle sections in elm, and big chunks can fall off unexpectedly through no fault of your own, and that can be a little disappointing. So we stick to ash on the course. It’s predictable and relatively easy to work.
Generally we use wood which has been felled locally the winter before the course, so that it has had a little bit of time to season, but it’s still very flexible with quite a high moisture content so easy to work.
And can you explain why it takes three days to make a bow on your bow making courses?
Generally, the longer it takes, the better. The more time you take making a bow, the more chance you’ve got of success. There are a lot of stresses in the wood. And if you’re making the bow too quickly, there’s a chance that the stresses in the wood don’t have time to adapt. It the bow becomes unpredictable. And one of the limbs can twist and propeller, and change shape in a way that you’re not looking to achieve. And those changes are very difficult to work around, if one of the limbs rotates 90 degrees to the axis, it’s generally time to start again. If you take your time, you can allow the wood to move naturally and adjust to the situation. It’s an organic material!
By taking three days on the bow making course, it gives the wood a chance over each evening to adjust, and then you can work with those changes the next day and adjust your bow profile. If I’m rushing a bow I can axe one out in four or five hours from start to finish, but there’s a high chance the next day that the bow will have moved, each limb relative to one another. And then it could be an unusable. But generally two days is a hard two days making a bow, and it’s not something I generally recommend. With three days, everything becomes much more enjoyable and we have time. Also, three days in the woodland is a perfect break from the world. It’s extremely relaxing, even though you’re busy physically.
Find out more about the different bow making courses available with Forest Knights.
There are three different bow making courses to choose from.
The course we referenced in this interview is the three-day bow making course. You can also attend a one-day bow making course, where you craft your own Bhutanese bow from bamboo. Younger guests can also attend a one-day children’s mini bow making course
If you have any questions or you are looking for something a little different, either for you, or a group of friends or work colleagues, you can contact Forest Knights for more information.