Straight Shooting: Montana bowyers
Posted on 09 March 2005
Neil Jacobson at work on one of his handmade recurve bows. Dave Reese photo
Ric Anderson with some of the mounts he's taken with his bows. Dave Reese photo
Pam and Dave Windauer with one of their handmade bows. Dave Reese photo
By David Reese, Montana Living
The legacy of legendary Paul Schafer is alive and well in the Flathead Valley.
Schafer was a world-renowned bowhunter and bow maker who died in a skiing accident on Big Mountain in 1995. But before he died, he shared some of the secrets of building handcrafted bows with three men who now make bow building their livelihoods and their passion.
At their home-based shops in Kalispell, Evergreen and Whitefish, Ric Anderson, Neil Jacobson and Dave Windauer each create their own style of bows, each with its own unique feel and level of performance. While they have adapted their own styles in the colors of wood and their bows' cosmetics, bows made at the hands of these men are all descendants of the Paul Schafer style.
They build bows — recurves and long bows — that hunters and archers around the world buy.
While there are variations among their bow styles, each of these Flathead Valley bowyers is dedicated to the sport of traditional archery and creating some of the world's best bows. Each bow is custom fitted to each person, from their draw length to the handle size, making them the ultimate extension of eye/hand coordination. You can buy cheaper production bows off the rack, but these custom bows offer the highest in performance and looks. Prices for one of the custom bows run from $400 on up, depending on the wood.
Windauer is perhaps the closest link to the legacy of Schafer. He worked alongside Schafer while he was a sophomore in high school at Columbia Falls, then after Schafer died, he bought his business from Schafer's family and carries it on now as Schafer Silvertip Bows. Like something out of "Tool Time," Windauer's shop is a wood worker's dream. Elaborate venting systems take the dust outside, and table saws, sanders and myriad finishing equipment are stationed throughout the shop.
"I learned most of it from Paul," Windauer said, "but there were a few things I had to figure out when I took over the business."
Windauer and his wife, Beth, run the business out of a shop in Evergreen. "She's 90 percent of it," he said. "She keeps me going." They make an average of two bows a week, and he has orders stretching more than a year out.
While each bow is different, some of Windauer's fine touches include scrimshawed ivory inlays, and handles made of striped ebony touched off by pieces of cape buffalo horn. On his take-down recurves, the knobs are made of carved white-tailed deer antlers.
Building a bow is an exercise in physics. Every bowyer has his own philosophy or priority of what his performance is. It can be arrow speed, feel, looks or stability. You can build a super-fast bow, but it will suffer in accuracy. Getting the right combination is an exacting science. The amount of spacing between the fiberglass layers of the risers determines the poundage of the bow, and just 1/1000 of an inch will vary the draw weight by one pound.
Ric Anderson of Marriah Bows was born and raised in Whitefish and learned the craft of building long bows from Hal Phillips.
He learned how to build recurves from Schafer, and he worked for Schafer making bow strings.
It's hard to make tremendous strides in bow making, other than incremental refinements in style, or availability of new materials. Anderson focuses on building one bow at a time that is perfectly matched to his customer. "It's pretty hard to reinvent the wheel," he said. One thing that Anderson focuses on is the arrow riser; that part of the bow where the arrow lies on the handle. By tilting the fur-covered riser in toward the bow, it creates a V-shaped notch. This reduces the amount of friction on the arrow, making it fly truer and faster. He also keeps the arrow riser very close to the to the bow handle, which helps you point the bow where your hand is aiming.
"The one thing I like about my bows is they're easy to shoot," Anderson says. "You still have to practice, but they're easy to shoot."
The Flathead Valley's traditional bow makers focus on performance, and keeping things simple. You might say the opposite for some of the developments in compound-bows. Each year it seems a new device comes out — whether it's a laser sight or mechanical release — that makes things more complicated, thus harder to learn, says Anderson.
That's one reason why he says more people are getting back to the basics of traditional archery. "Higher tech is easier to shoot, but it's a lot more trouble," he said. "People are seeking simplicity." Jacobson concurs. He calls compound bows "arrow launchers."
"We've learned over the years how to make them perform better," Jacobson said. The bows have no sights and no mechanical contraptions to help the shooter put an arrow on its intended target. "That hair-covered computer can figure it out, if you just give it a chance," he says.
It's obvious that recurves and long bows work. At Anderson's home near Whitefish, taxidermy mounts adorn the wall of his den, most of them taken with bows. There is a blue wildebeast, a central barren ground caribou, a spring buck and water buck from Africa, and a wart hog, as well as the expected mule deer and elk.
For Anderson, the ultimate reward is taking a raw piece of wood for the handle, adding layers of fiberglass and thin strips of wood for risers, and creating a work of art. Each bow is different, and as he sands and polishes, the individual characteristics of the woods begin to shine through. "I enjoy shooting the finished product. I don't do this because I like working with a spray gun."
Handcrafted bows are more expensive than production bows you can buy off the shelf. So for someone who's looking to get into shooting a recurve or a long bow, Anderson suggests they try out a production bow before making the financial commitment to having a custom bow built. For people who shoot custom bows, the cost is worth it. "A custom bow should last a lifetime," Anderson said. "You should be able to pass it down to your kids."
Jacobson creates finely tuned bows made out of woods from around the world. Inlays of antler festoon the richly carved shapes, adding accent to the various hues and rich colors of the wooden bows.
Jacobson began building bows in 1993 under Schafer. Jacobson spent five years perfecting his own designs before he felt comfortable enough to begin selling them to the public. He then opened his business, Bear's Paw Bows. He makes one-piece longbows and recurves, as well as take-down recurves and long bows.
Jacobson uses woods from around the world, some exotic, some common to Montana. He tries to use woods that are plantation-grown, so that he's not using woods that come from rain forests. Some of the Montana woods that he uses are yew, juniper and Rocky Mountain maple.
Jacobson also shoots what he builds. He's shot Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, caribou, deer and elk with his bows. He has arms like Popeye and a handshake like a bench vise. His hunting philosophy is consistent with his practice of traditional archery — a sport that removes much of the technical devices and emphasizes hunter skill.
Jacobson likes to quote José Ortega y Gasset, who said, "I don't hunt to kill. I kill to have hunted."
Outside his shop in Evergreen recently, Windauer looked out over a nearby field and wondered aloud if he'd be able to get his elk with only a week left in the season. He's too busy building bows, and family beckons. Still, Windauer is proud to carry on the tradition of fine bows started by his old friend Paul Schafer.
"His business was something that I couldn't just let die," he said. "It needed to go on."