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Archer's Profile: Your Friendly Neighbourhood Bowyer
By Nils Visser
Sunrise, sunset et al. Once again, we’re at the end of a season filled with spectacular shots, memorable misfires, carefree fireside chatter, tempting targets and wearisome weather. Time perhaps to sort out your gear, wax your bow, wipe the last mud splatters off your boots and make notes of repairs required and replacements due.
Diehards will continue to make the trek to their favourite field, brave the cold and bear the elements for invigorating sessions which will leave them wet, muddy, tired, content and dying for a cup of steaming hot chocolate or a dram of the Scottish stuff. The more sensible and/or climatically sensitive among us might switch their attention to indoor shooting ranges, trying not to feel confined and cooped up. What both have in common is that sessions will be shorter, and no longer fill whole weekends.
So how to fill the empty spaces? For those with spouses and bairns, or sweethearts, the answer may seem obvious, remind these lovely creatures that they are at least as interesting and dear to our hearts as the crooked stick is. Tip: Begin by asking what they were called again, establishing a first name basis is often a great step towards (re)establishing a personal relationship. When your nearest and dearest have recovered from the shock caused by your attempts to cozy up to them, they’ll usually let you know this by pointedly inquiring when you were thinking of buggering off to a weekend event again, or a very very remote shooting location. If you’re unlucky, this question will first be dropped in October, those of us with more stable relational footing will have till roughly mid-November. Then what? Hibernation? 5,000 piece puzzles of sea-shells or sand dunes?
There are two personal recommendations I’d like to give. The first is to get in touch with a couple of archery mates who live a fair way away, whom you therefore usually only meet up with during summer events. Fix a couple of dates, then go visit them. It’s always nice to meet up with someone you get along with in a different setting. Time to explore if you have other things to talk about besides the most recent full length feather quadruple fletching tool, or the pros and cons of swan fletching versus peacock fletching (though this is by no means an absolutely necessary requirement of course). Naturally a visit to your pal’s favourite target range will also be on the itinerary, if only because your host’s partner and offspring will probably beg you to take your fascinating archery anecdotes over the hills and far away. Personally, I’ve really enjoyed these outings. Being able to place someone in their personal setting, having met their better half and kids and now knowing where they are going to be when they depart from a social network in order to get off a few shots really does add to the friendship.
The second place to re-affirm old friendships, make new ones and immerse yourself into archery is a workshop. Shop around for a bit, scour Google, drop a few names on a forum for feedback and you’re likely to locate a bowyer or fletcher whose workshops are worth your while and offer value for your money.
My own bowyer, Magén Klomp, is a suitable case study. Like most bowyers I know, he doesn’t head a vast and complex commercial company with a host of employees shielding him from his customers. Individual care and attention is the key here, and that starts with the selection of the bow you want to make. If you haven’t made a bow before, it’s best to let your bowyer advise you. You may really like the look of an asymmetrical composite bow modeled on a fusion between an upper-Himalayan hunting bow from Sikkim and a Zanzibari coral fishing steel bow. Who wouldn’t? But if you’ve never made your own bow before, the Sikkim-Zanzibar model may just be a tad too ambitious for you. Again, trust your bowyer’s instinct. In Magén’s case, he makes quite clear that he has a personal need for you to succeed in your goal. Nay, you cynics whom I hear snorting in the background, this is not just because of the positive mouth-to-mouth promotion that this will result in, and which is so necessary for the small businessman. Magén will happily pronounce that he has the overriding commercial instincts of a corporate tiger shark, but there is, of course, a reason that men like him prefer to exist in a niche of their own, rather than run with the herd, and that doesn’t sit well with the improbable image of Magén in a sleek shiny pinstripe suit. His need for your success is mainly personal, a matter of professional pride in his product, whether he made it himself, or you produced it under his tutelage.
In short, trust your bowyer, he will select a model that is on a par with your interest, experience and wood working skills. That means a beginner will work on a bi or tri laminated longbow, while the more advanced wannabe bowyer gets to beaver away on a hunky Osage selfbow, or curvaceous Viking. The personal touch provided for by Magén includes a fairly realistic time estimate, and if he feels that your Sikkim-Zanzibar dream may take just a little bit longer than the weekend to make, he’ll offer a bit of time on the side, either by an earlier start or an extension.
A similar approach is applicable to Magén’s arrow making workshop. On offer is a standard set of three different types of arrows, but he will gleefully tweak this set to cater for your personal needs, if only to demonstrate the extent of his knowledge of you as an archer. This latter is quite an accomplishment, and here I speak as a teacher who knows how important it is to learn to know your student’s specific personal interests and situation. I distinctly recall a conversation I had with Magén in which he suddenly started very clearly explaining my strengths and weaknesses as an elementary fletcher, based on a picture he saw on a social media outlet, one that was only online for about an hour or so before I opted to remove it. In that short time, he had observed the fletching work, tied them to my name and at a much later time managed to recall them in detail. Anyhow, if he knows you’re after flight arrows, he’ll make sure the ratio in your set leans heavily toward flight arrows, or if you’re specifically interested in the historical arrows as prescribed by the English War Bow Society, he’ll ensure that this is what you get. Once again, you’re free to suggest your oddest fancies, should you be after Forbidden City Imperial Guardian four foot Battle Arrows with ostrich fletching and gold paint on thrice barbed points, that’s what you’ll be making. Mind you, it might just cost an extra penny or two, and it would be advisable to talk to your fletcher in advance, as he might not have all the bits and bobs that you require lying about.
Speaking of Sikkim-Zanzibar bows and Forbidden City Imperial Guardian Battle Arrows (good luck googling these items, by the way): This is another joy of a good workshop. Your friendly neighbourhood bowyer ought to be a veritable fount of knowledge, I know mine is. I’ve heard of workshops where the bowyer or fletcher issues instructions to the participants or his apprentice after which he buggers off to read his paper, eat a bacon butty or a burrow into his left nostril. Not Magén. This bowyer is the first to arrive in the workshop, and the last to leave. After giving brief and concise classical instructions, preferably with a chunk of chalk in his hand and his drawing board behind him, he sticks around and keeps a sharp eye on all the participants, or more specifically what they happen to be doing with all the sharp implements lying about. In the meantime he keeps up a verbal barrage, alternating between bits of personal advice (“Nils, try not to saw into your index finger, the blade’s meant for the wood.” or “Ruben, was there a devastating earthquake at this work station, or have you been making arrows again?”), hilarious archery anecdotes (usually involving klutzes causing disasters, though there is an element of warning in there, I tend to provoke anecdotes involving missing fingers and limbs for some reason), and last-but-not-least, demonstrations of his almost encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to archery. On the occasion, he might not know some minute detail or other, but then you can be sure you’ll be told within a matter of hours, because Magén has an insatiable appetite for more knowledge and will not be able to relax until he has found an answer. Mind you, here’s one of the drawbacks of the man, I’ve been around this bowyer a couple of times when he was unable to relax, the result being a cross between the Incredible Hulk in size and elegance, Speedy Gonzales in patience and the ability to stay put, and “Mad” Jack Churchill in his combativeness and possession of a great big mighty Yew war bow. In that case, best not to get in the back of a small car with him and go for a three-hour drive. Believe me, I’ve tried.
One of the reasons that I like my friendly neighbourhood bowyer to have extensive knowledge about archery is because quite a lot of the archers I know, and yes, that’s you lot, tend to talk an unbelievable amount of rubbish. Once upon a time I sat in a pub in Kilkenny, Ireland, feeding an Irishman pints of Guinness, as he told me, very convincingly, that an airplane required a certain ratio of optimistic passengers. The reason for this was that planes were, in actual fact, far too heavy and cumbersome to achieve and maintain flight by reasons of physics alone. He had worked for Air Lingus, so he was in the know. What was required was the collective mind power of the passengers, who were optimistic enough to believe the bloody thing could take off and stay in the air. The required ratio was 4:1, four optimists for every pessimist. Airplane crashes occurred when there were too many pessimists exuding dark thoughts about the ability of a plane to stay airborne. Writing this in bright daylight, the whole tale is clearly a farce, quite ridiculous in fact. Sat in a pub in Ireland, having offed a few pints and being captivated by an Irishman’s ability to weave word spells, it seemed quite believable. The point of this diversion is that all archers, especially when gathered in larger numbers, are in actual fact Irishmen. This means that they are capable of sounding most convincing as they tell tall tales about being able to shoot 15 arrows a second; World War Two soldiers armed with war bows at Dunkirk; quarterpounder arrows piercing armour with ease; flight arrows achieving distances of 250 yards; bows that can still be tillered after spending hundreds of years submerged in the silt of the sea bottom; archers shooting the fletching off rivals’ arrows; archers wielding bows with a draw-weight of 170, 180, even 190 pounds. You know the sort of stuff they make up. In these cases it’s dead handy to have your friendly neighbourhood bowyer at hand to refute or confirm the more dubious items of information. Though, to be quite truthful, we sometimes think up of utter rubbish purely to hear that awesome snort of skepticism that greets farfetched claims.
“Magén, is it true that a banana tree is good material for arrow shafts?”
Wait for it, a low guttural grumble starts in his belly and works its way upwards, it’s like listening to the ancient plumbing of a Victorian house, chugging and clanking away. Then the exhalation, partially through the nose, partially through the mouth, loud enough to shame a walrus with hiccups, his eyes roll in his skull, and then there’s the exclamation:
Yup, that’s my friendly neighbourhood bowyer for you. We’ve had our laugh, now it’s back to work. We saw, we cut, we scrape, we file, we sand. We sweat, we bleed and on occasion, when we think we’re done at last and we hear the merciless voice proclaim: “Lose more wood”, we blink back a tear. We tiller and tiller and tiller.
“Sing Row Your Boat,” Magén suggests. We ask him if it makes the work any easier.
“No, just sing it.” He answers gruffly. We ask him if it makes the work go any faster.
“No, but it amuses me.”
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.” The chorus competes with the sounds of scraping and sanding.
We’re at the phase where beginners feel that the process is never going to end, muscles ache, blisters burn, eyes, ears and nose seem filled with sawdust, the clock is ticking. The first time round, I didn’t understand why Magén was more gruff, more remote at this stage, I felt that the support would have been welcome. Now that I’ve observed this spiel more than a few times, I am beginning to latch on. It reminds me of that gambling song Kenny Rogers hit the charts with back in the seventies.
You got to know when to hold ‘em,
know when to fold ‘em,
know when to walk away,
know when to run.
The Germans call it “fingerspitzengefühl”, and Magén has got it. He knows that you’re going to hit that low, and he knows you’ll have to pull yourself through it and clamber out. Any kind words now, and you’ll stay stuck. He gives you just as much help as you need at this stage, and that means a different dose for everyone, because once again he’s tuned in to the individual.
He waits till you’re all out, energy reserves depleted, motivation deflated, and then produces some of the Scottish stuff for a toast, before calling it quits for the day. The amber delight is accompanied by more tales, we’re an exclusive club now, covered in sawdust and wood shavings we might be, but we feel like mighty fine dandies. If there were a saloon nearby we’d go there for another drink and pick a fistfight, tonight we’re invincible. We worked hard, real hard. For those amongst us who are white-collar workers, there is exquisite delight in producing something with our own hands (and pride that all the major bits of those hands are still attached to our bodies).
The next day the work continues, the aching arms protest heartily, the tillering taking place more frequently, and the shaving and sanding is cut shorter and shorter. Tension begins to rise, this is fine tuning now, there’s very little room for mistakes, and even less for correction. It’s wood we’re working with, wood that we have learned to communicate with, listen to, instruct, respect. As a natural material, it can be unpredictable and do things on its own accord, and just about now is one of the most….
The loud sound of splintering wood has the same effect a gunshot might have, everybody freezes, looks around, whose bow just perished? Magén is the tensest of all. Then his apprentice laughs. The bugger took an old arrow shaft and snapped it under his heel. The tension is broken, we laugh, mostly with relief, as Magén chases the apprentice out of the workshop.
By the end of the day we’re all as proud as a pup which just learned how to fetch a stick. Mind you, the mutt’s stick is easily outclassed by our brand new bows, bows we made with our own hands, a uniquely handcrafted product which we created under the guiding hand of our friendly neighbourhood bowyer.
It’s getting kind of icky, isn’t it? All this hero-worship? Well, rest assured, the man has his faults, as we all do. For example, he doesn’t suffer a fool gladly, and once he’s decided someone is a fool he can be notably impatient. Also, there’s a fine line between admirable determination, and being so stubborn no cliché could come close to providing a suitable description, much as mules spring to mind. Magén doesn’t always recognize that fine line, is quite happy to sit astride it, or move from one side to the other without a proper visa application. On top of that, he doesn’t have a clue as to what the word diplomacy entails, if he has an opinion, and he’s full of them, he sees it as his duty to share that opinion, preferably in your face, because he’s not too keen on doing stuff behind people’s backs.
However, these qualities are also part of the characteristics that set him apart from the mass of men, and although no angel, the man knows certainly knows how to run a workshop. You want archery this winter? Better sign up soon.
May your arrows fly straight and true.